Monday, February 10, 2014

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


 Scene: The imaginary consulting rooms of an imaginary psychotherapist, as he deals with one of his more obtuse clients. The door opens and the client enters hesitantly. The psychotherapist, looks up, sighs, and motions the client towards his couch, where the client lies, deeply troubled.

SHRINK: Oh, so it’s you again.
ME: I’m very, very sorry to trouble you. It’s the old problem.
SHRINK: [sighs once again] Don’t worry. I’m here to help. Perhaps this time we might deal with it. You have been watching too many old films on Youtube once again, haven’t you?
ME: Yes. I’m sorry. I really am sorry.
SHRINK: No, no, don’t be sorry. In these cases, guilt is not a very helpful impulse.
ME: But I am sorry. I’m sorry I’m wasting so much time when I should be doing something more productive. And I’m sorry that I’m sitting in front of my computer screen watching these ancient images when I can hear wife and younger children moving about in the rest of the house and I should be joining them and…well… taking part in life. And I’m sorry that…[voice trails off]
SHRINK: You’re sorry that you keep boring the readers of your blog by writing long and redundant accounts of the films you’ve watched, in those “Something Thoughtful” sections. That’s a major part of the problem, now, isn’t it?
ME: [voice rising hysterically] Yes. Yes.
SHRINK: And you fear that nobody actually reads your long analyses of things like [he consults Reid’s Reader on the computer screen he has opened] Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby and Fritz Lang’s FuryI see your blog index tells me you dealt with them under the headings ‘Time Stumps the Best Intentions’ and ‘Two Courses of Fury’. And above all you fear that you will end up looking rather stupid and making a public fool of yourself?
ME: [breaking down into sobs and moans] Oh yes. Oh God, yes.
SHRINK: [producing box of tissues] Wipe your eyes, now. I’m sure we can deal with this. Your condition isn’t unique, you know. I don’t think psychiatry has yet invented a name for the addiction to really old movies, but that is the condition you are suffering and I have dealt with other cases. I must admit, though, you do seem to have a rather extreme form of the ailment.
ME: [sniffling and gurgling inarticulately]
SHRINK: Perhaps it would help if I reviewed your case with you. I have your file here. I see you were a film reviewer for thirty years, from 1974, when you were still a university student, until you moved for a year out of Auckland in 2004. The biographical details you put on all your books say that you wrote “the first detailed analysis of the revived New Zealand film industry”.
ME: [residual pride momentarily overcoming hysteria] Yes. A Decade of New Zealand Film, John McIndoe publishers, Dunedin 1985.
SHRINK: Quite. Surely, then, your addiction to old movies on Youtube is easily explained. You haven’t been a film reviewer for the last ten years, so you are simply getting the equivalent of all those viewings to which you were accustomed for thirty years.
ME: [now controlling the odd sniffle] No. I’m sorry. That doesn’t cover it. You see, since I stopped film reviewing I haven’t missed it, and I only rarely go out to see a new film. I know finance has something to do with it. In all those film-reviewing years, seeing previews of two or three new movies a week, I floated on a sea of complimentary tickets and press screenings. I rarely paid a cent. When film festival time came around, I would get free passes for about thirty movies in the festival fortnight and go punch-drunk watching them all. So money is one reason I now pay to see only four or five new movies a year. But you must understand, since I ceased film reviewing, I don’t hunger to see all the latest releases. This… affliction concerns old films. And I mean it concerns really old films. Most of them made before I was born, and I am in my early sixties now.
SHRINK: I must stop you there. You seem to be obsessed with something from before your birth. Could it be…
ME: Oh please, please, don’t impose something Freudian on me.
SHRINK: Very well, then, please explain what you think the genesis of your condition is.
ME: I have thought about it. Of course I have. I think it started with the type of books that were lying around the house when I was a kid.
SHRINK: Books? Wouldn’t that fact make you an addict of books?
ME: Yes, it has done that too. But you see, among his many other activities my father was one of the committee directing the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies and he was also a film reviewer on a daily paper for some years, although not for as long as I eventually was. So a minority of the books on his shelves were illustrated books of film criticism – not to mention the copies of Films and Filming and Sight and Sound and Films in Review and even the Sovexport Illustrated Film Newsletter that came regularly into the house. And even before I could read very well, I would spend hours looking through the illustrations and stills in things like the Penguin Film Reviews from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now and Ernest Lindgren’s The Art of the Film and Roger Manvell’s Film and Film and the Public. I got to know those images so well that they still stay in my mind long after the texts of those books have been forgotten. I’m sorry to descend to clichés, I really am, but some of those images have become iconic to me. For example Jean Gabin walking the foggy street in Quai des brumes and Victor McLaglen clutching his shot gut in The Informer and that tilted camera-shot of the morning after in Un Carnet de Bal and….
SHRINK: Um, I think I get your point. I am sure you would be able to list a lot of “iconic” images for me. But remember our time is limited, and this doesn’t quite explain your addiction. All young children look at the pictures before they can read the text, but this doesn’t make them obsessive about something.
ME: [sighs] Yes, I agree, but perhaps I should elaborate on the context a little. Remember, this was pre-video, pre-DVD, pre-internet. To see a film, one was at the mercy of local film exhibitors and (once I moved into adolescence) whatever was scheduled on few-channel black-and-white television. I very quickly understood that I would never see many of those iconic ancient images in their moving form. They were, in a sense, unattainable. I gradually formed the impression that it was both a very great privilege and a rare treat to actually see those movies that were illustrated in the books and publications lying around the family home. Looking back on my adolescence and young manhood, I see I adopted some rather strange habits because of this.
SHRINK: Such as?
ME: Well there was a lavishly illustrated book – a pretentious and badly-written compilation I now think – called Classics of the Foreign Film, put together by the American critic Parker Tyler. At least in the 1962 edition that I still have, it’s a book that lists and gives very brief analyses of 70 non-American films the compiler considered “classics”, starting with Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in 1919 and ending with Antonioni’s La Notte in 1961. I used to diligently tick off, on the table of contents, each film when I had got to see it, congratulating myself on having conquered each. But I was always dissatisfied. I always hungered for the films listed in the book that I hadn’t seen. By my late teens, I would make long journeys to out-of-the-way cinemas to catch up with them on the extremely rare occasions they were screened. And it upsets me that after all this time, I have still seen only 53 of the 70 movies Tyler listed.
SHRINK: You are being melodramatic. That doesn’t sound like an obsession to me. It sounds like a harmless hobby.
ME: Tell me then - do you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat or screaming, because you never have managed to catch up with Poil de Carotte from 1933 or The Dybbuk from 1938?
SHRINK: No, that sort of reaction does sound a little abnormal.
ME: You understand the depths of my problem and my obsession, then. So when, by some miracle Youtube comes along, it fulfils my childhood fantasies of a machine upon which I could watch, privately or with one or two chosen companions, any film whenever I wanted to.
SHRINK: I understand. But aren’t there moves afoot to make it less easy to do that? Isn’t copyright nibbling away at your freedom of access to old films?
ME: [visibly jumping at the use of the word “copyright” and now breaking into a cold sweat] I know. I know. This is part of my problem. I’m desperate to see as much as I can before the curtain comes down. Why, in the last year alone I have caught up with films I last saw as a teenager when television still played old movies. I mean the likes of the Ealing comedies A Run for Your Money and The Maggie and Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle and the 1951 original version of The Browning Version.
SHRINK: Childhood nostalgia. Perfectly harmless
ME: And in the last year I’ve also seen John Farrow’s Alias Nick Beale and Carol Reed’s woefully unfunny Night Train to Munich and his pretty good Outcast of the Islands and Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair and William Wellman’s Yellow Sky and Rouben Mamolian’s Golden Boy and James Whale’s wonderful The Old Dark House and his abysmal The Road Back
SHRINK: I understand, I understand you have…
ME:….and G.W.Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (my God! It really is better than All Quiet on the
Western Front) and Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room and the primitive early talkie The Canary Murder Case with Louise Brooks’ voice obscenely dubbed by somebody else; and the surprisingly good 1935 Mystery of Edwin Drood with Claude Rains, and Paul Leni’s silent The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt and Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady and his The Suspect and his Christmas Holiday; and Anatole Litvak’s Decision Before Dawn
SHRINK: Please, you’ve made your point! You’ve made your point!
ME:…and Launder and Gilliat’s 1946 Waterloo Road and their 1946 Green for Danger and their 1948 London Belongs to Me, and Julien Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy, and Anthony Asquith’s silent Cottage on Dartmoor and Fritz Lang’s absolutely piffling Man Hunt and all
(yes all!) of Feuillade’s 1913 serial Fantomas and Franju’s clunky 1963 hommage to Feuillade, Judex and Edward G. Robinson in both The Red House and Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Germaine Deluc’s two silent pieces of surrealism La Riante Mme. Beant and La Coquille et le Clergyman and all those silent Hitchcock films I’ve never seen before such as The Pleasure Garden and Downhill and Champagne.
SHRINK: You’ve made your point. SHUT UP!!
ME: But don’t you understand? I’ve now seen every film Hitchcock directed!! Every one!!! (Well, apart from his Waltzes for Vienna, and at least I’ve caught clips of that on Youtube). And I’ve seen Jean Renoir’s Boudu Sauve des Eaux and that underrated Italian movie The Girl With a Suitcase and Michael Winner’s surprisingly good The System from 1963 and Joseph Losey’s The Damned from 1961…
SHRINK: STOP IT!!! Stop it or I will have you restrained!!!
ME: But please. [rising from the couch and now shouting] You don’t understand. I’ve seen all of these on Youtube in the last year. I’m obsessed. I cannot get over the magic and the miracle of seeing people walking and moving and sometimes talking in films that were made when our grandparents or even great-grandparents were young. And on such good, clean prints, too. Not like the chain-lined ones at which we used to peer at film society screenings where the projector would break down.
SHRINK: [gently guiding patient back to couch] Please. Calm down. Calm down. Tell me something that soothes you. Think pleasant thoughts.
ME: [sitting once again] Well, I did watch recently on Youtube two silent gems I thought I’d never see. There was Jacques Feyder’s 1920 Sahara desert epic L’Atlantide. What an
absurd story! How did anyone ever take its Queen-of-Atlantis idea seriously, especially when her kingdom looked like a rather conservative hotel? But such clear images, with the desert sweeping and mysterious and yet so less dishonestly glamourised than it was in such films as Lawrence of Arabia. And then – even more amazingly - Victor Sjostrom’s The Phantom Coach from 1920, the one that used to be called in English Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness. Brilliant. The coach of death taking away the drunkard. The sordor of the slum. The earnestness of the Salvation Army girl. Quite wonderful. Did you know Ingmar Bergman said he watched it over 100 times in his lifetime? And there I saw it on Youtube.
SHRINK: Perhaps we could break this addiction if you had something to look forward to?
ME: But I do! I do1 I’ve just discovered on Youtube a full and restored version of Maurice Stiller’s 1919 Sir Arne’s Treasure. I’ve always wanted to see that one…
SHRINK: I’m sorry. Time’s up. Do you feel you’re any nearer a cure?
ME: Not really.
SHRINK: Do you want to be cured? Really?
ME: Um, I’m not sure.
SHRINK: Do you want to see me again next month?
ME: I suppose so.
SHRINK: What will we talk about?
ME: What I’ve been watching, I suppose.

They shake hands. Client exits, relatively happy. Psychotherapist sighs loudly. Moves to bookshelf, takes down a volume on voyeurism. Reads for a short time then shakes his head emphatically. Again, sighs loudly and returns book to shelf. Psychotherapist moves backs to his desk, reactivates his computer, spends some time watching a documentary on the mating habits of ants. Finally he puts a call though to his secretary. “That last one,” he says, “Bill him double.”


  1. That's a lot of movies.

    1. Yes, I'm Afraid it is. The temptation of having such easy access to them. And there are lots I neglected to mention.