On modern movies and nostalgia

I could not be happier. My three favourite films of last year (really, I could not choose between them) are nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards: The Artist, Hugo and Midnight in Paris.

This is a turn up for the books. Like most cinephiles, I consider myself to be possessing of finer taste than the entire Academy put together. Of course, they may well turn around and give the Oscar to – oh, I dunno – War Horse, but I remain hopeful. Also, I realise that this is a history-and-archiving blog expressly about old moving images… However, talk of the modern is justified when one considers that these three are united in taking the past as their inspiration and motivation.

Since seeing The Artist, one thing has constantly been bugging me: whether adoring or critical, reviews seem united in highlighting its light, airy qualities, characterising it as a refuge from all that alarming colour and noise of the real world. For me, though, any film featuring that delicately mingled cocktail of obsession and devotion displayed by Peppy Miller is grappling with something deeper. For those seeking solace in an art form that is dying, The Artist offers joy and sparkle, but not without a knowing, wistful sigh.


Midnight in Paris is more overt in the way it uses the past to highlight that feeling of isolation in the present. Its success lies in the viewer’s ability to empathise with Gil Pender (not a difficult task for this lifelong Jazz Age fetishist). It is also commendable in the way that it doesn’t deny the allure of a fantastical past only half-grounded in reality – in fact, though Gil ultimately rejects the Lost Generation of his dreams, he still finds companionship and comfort in the rainy boulevards of Paris and the music of Cole Porter.

While the writing in Hugo is a little overwrought at times , it serves as a reminder that before all the sentimental reminiscence, every film fan has a moment of innocent curiosity and discovery. In the screening I saw of Hugo, a girl no older than six watched George Melies revisit his film Le Voyage dans la Lune and audibly exclaimed ‘can we watch it again?’ – magic!

And to those who argue that the Academy should be looking to the future instead of dwelling on the past… If you think moving image history reveals nothing about the modern film viewer, I doubt anything I can say would change your mind. However, the inimitable Siren just wrote a call-to-arms so moving it made me want to stand on the table chanting ‘Oh Captain, my Captain’:

Of course, the Siren hopes Scorsese wins [best director]. And if he does, she wants him to talk about the tragedy of decaying film stock. She wants him to point at the executives in the audience like Burr McIntosh ordering Lillian Gish into the snowstorm and demand to know what the hell they think they are doing, trashing 35 millimeter. She wants him to mention projection speeds, she wants an explanation of three-strip Technicolor and dye-transfer, she wants black-and-white deep-focus and a history of lenses from the Lumiere brothers on, she wants him to tell the suits to let poor Frank Borzage out of the vaults. She wants Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest film-preservation champions this country has ever produced, to get up there and talk longer than Greer Garson, talk until the violinists dangle their bows and wonder if they should grab a cup of coffee, talk until one single human being out there who has never seen a silent film sits up and says, “Gee, I should check one of these things out.”

As film continues into its twilight years, let us take comfort in knowing that we’re not alone in mourning it.