What's Old is New

Film Diary #4

It’s been a weird summer. I’ve been prepping for a new gig teaching History of Film Classics (Silent era-1960) at SDSU while also watching a ton of throwaway Hollywood junk food. Some of my recent (and unfathomable) double features have included George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902)/Lisa Joy’s Reminiscence (2021), Alice Guy Blaché’s The Results of Feminism (1906)/Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife (2021), and D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)/David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021). Just typing that out was exhausting.

Still, this diet of super old and ultra new content has enabled me to endure a time of great stress and pandemic-induced anxiety by marveling at the organic pleasures of cinematic language in their various stages of development. Silent cinema reminds us that anything is possible, even now. And the films of Alice Guy are proof positive that what’s old is always new when viewed through a fresh lens. Long buried under the whiteness and maleness of film history, her place as a pantheon innovator of early motion pictures has begun to be solidified in recent years. My students will certainly know her name.

On the research front, I’d seen A Trip to the Moon many times before, but never seated next to an enthralled 3-year-old who up to this point had only been this smitten with Mickey Mouse and Little Einsteins. We watched it four times in one day. Together.

Most of Hollywood’s output these days feels like bloated retreads of 90s-era throwbacks only lacking in sleaze or gore. This next one fits the bill. I can’t imagine watching a worse movie this year than Sweet Girl, a dire revenge movie written by the guy who brought us The Book of Henry. Yes, there’s an idiotic twist that is totally telegraphed in the first 30 minutes, but what makes this film really bad is it’s lack of spirit or joy.

There’s plenty of both to go around in The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife, especially when the indelible Salma Hayek is onscreen doing a great riff on the fearless “killer as performer” perfected by her co-star Antonio Banderas so long ago in Desperado (1995). The first hour of Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise (2021) inspired a similar vibe. Watching Emily Blunt delightfully careen through museum archives and river towns with fierceness and momentum reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But like so many Disney products, it’s a lumbering blockbuster that stumbles in the later stages when green-screen spectacle kneecaps Serra’s natural impulses as a genre filmmaker.

Both Reminiscence and The Green Knight suffer from the same overbearing need to explain and show story in the broadest of cinematic strokes. At least the former isn’t trying to be important and often enjoys drenching Hugh Jackman in the mucky sewer waters of post-climate change Miami. Lowery’s “look mom I’m making a movie” formalism is the epitome of insufferable, sucking out all the nuance and possibility from nearly every stone grey frame while it tries to reinvent Arthurian imagery. The result isn’t even close to the likes of Bresson or Boorman. Where is the humanity and spirit that made his Pete’s Dragon (2016) such a lovely fable? Beheaded by the filmmaker’s incessant need to produce an A24 epic to fit the deadening present moment.

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) followed Lowery’s horrendous thud in my viewing schedule and therefore felt even more alive with necessary rage. This sequel (kinda) to Bernard Rose’s 1992 horror film tries admirably to confront the horrors of racial violence and Hollywood’s inability to capture the essence of this cyclical trauma. Working from an admittedly overcomplicated script that keeps distracting from the visceral thrills of her direction, DaCosta’s probing vision of gentrification and disenfranchisement specifically targets the tentacles of white supremacy that have rooted themselves in nearly every fabric of modern society. It’s a messy, violent and oftentimes frustrating film, but it’s at least one that pushes forward with the same thematic urgency and aesthetic curiosity found in Alice Guy’s best comedies and Edwin S. Porter’s brutal The Great Train Robbery (1903).

So yeah, in a weird way, I’m thankful that during this time of collective uncertainty and personal doubt I’ve chosen to indulge in this strange cocktail of films both old and new. It’s somehow released me from the pressure of keeping up with the film critic Jones’. Having an opinion on everything is stupid. I’ve just been watching what feels right, even when what’s right proves to be so wrong.

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