Artistic Darwinism

“Movies today stink! Few of the so-called films of 2005 can hold a candle to the great masterpieces of the last century!”

If you hang around people who love old movies, you hear arguments like that all the time. It never occurs to these people that when you compare any three months’ worth of movies (good and bad) to the best work of 100 years, the century will win.

I call this phenomenon Artistic Darwinism–survival of the best quality. The better a work of art, the more likely it is to outlast the time it was made, resulting in an unrealistically positive view of the past. The next time you hear someone complain that they don’t make movies like they used to, just explain this theory to them. (Or simply say “You’re right. Now they have sound.”)

Quality is relatively constant, but styles change. And if the new styles aren’t to your liking, you’ve got another reasons to believe that everything is deteriorating. But that doesn’t make it actually so. I love the big, 70mm roadshow pictures of the 1950’s and ’60’s. there was something special about the reserved seats, the giant screens, and the intermissions. But I know full well that for every Lawrence of Arabia there were three Cleopatras. And The Greatest Story Ever Told is quite probably the worst movie ever made.

Okay, so much for my rant. My wife and I caught the opening night of the Pacific Film Archive’s Edgar G. Ulmer series, with The Black Cat and Strange Illusion. Both wonderful, low-budget Hollywood gems, both good enough to make me hope I can catch more of this series. But the Archive made one major scheduling error that I just noticed: They’re showing Green Fields, Ulmer’s Yiddish film about Jewish identity, on Purim–a Jewish holiday. Oh, well.

And now, this week’s recommendations and noteworthy engagements:

  • Recommendation: Detour, Pacific Film Archive, Friday night. One of the first, and best, film noirs, and directed by the above-mentioned Ulmer. The film’s star, Ann Savage, will be in attendance with her own, private print.

  • Recommendation: Down By Law, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. This strange and funny Jim Jarmusch film (is that a redundancy) follows the adventures of three unlikely convicts, including a hilarious Italian played by the then-unknown (at least in America) Roberto Benigni.

  • Noteworthy: Rebirth of a Nation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Friday and Saturday. Rapper DJ Spooky has put together a multimedia musical show that uses clips from D.W. Griffith’s controversial masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation to explore race relations. The ticket prices are high by movie standards (the cheapest seats are $32), but it might be a fascinating experience.

  • Recommendation: The Usual Suspects, The Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. You probably already know this wonderful, twisted crime thriller. If you don’t, you should.

  • Recommendation: Hail the Conquering Hero, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The closing double-bill of the Stanford’s Preston Sturges/Marx Brothers series (and the last film at the Stanford until they release a new program) includes one of Sturges’ best. Dorky Eddie Bracken plays a 4F civilian forced to impersonate a war hero. To parody war hoopla in 1944 took guts, and Sturges does it masterfully. Unfortunately, it’s double-billed with one of the Marx Brothers’ weakest efforts, A Night in Casablanca.

  • Recommendation: Hotel Rwanda, Parkway, opening Friday. I can’t recommend this picture enough–certainly one of the best of 2004. It’s the Rwandan Schindler’s List, but more like a suspense thriller and than a historical epic. You pretty much spend the whole time on the edge of your seat.

  • Recommendation: Tokyo Story, Pacific Film Archive, Monday afternoon. Quiet, simple, and masterful. Almost nothing seems to happen in Ozu’s study of family life until quite late in the picture. But you’re riveted to the screen by the seemingly innocuous characters and everyday events. And when something serious happens, it’s devastating–even if it’s something we all must experience.

  • Recommendation: Rashomon, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday afternoon. Kurosawa’s first masterpiece is, quite simply, one of the greatest films ever made. But some people don’t remember it that way.