Welcome to Reel Culture, a blog that tries to place movies in a larger context than what’s number one at the box office. At the risk of dating myself, my earliest movie memories include trips with my parents to watch what were often baffling blockbusters like Ben-Hur and Spartacus, as well as family-approved hits like The Music Man. It wasn’t until years later that I realized other forms of film were making greater impressions on me. Bugs Bunny and Popeye, for example, or The Three Stooges. Even animations in commercials for products like Hertz and Anacin showed me the magic and power of cinema. Fear, too: it took several years before I could watch The Wizard of Oz beyond the tornado scene.
It was film, not television, that drew me, whether it was a Warner Bros. gangster melodrama or a badly duped 16mm print of Renoir’s La règle du jeu. Silents, serials, Westerns, musicals—I tried to understand how they worked, why some succeeded and others failed, why a low-budget film could be hypnotic and a supposed classic boring. A film appreciation course at a community college introduced me to Norman McLaren and Len Lye, journalism school to Frederick Wiseman and D A Pennebaker, midnight screenings to Freaks and Monterey Pop. In recent years I’ve been entranced by home movies, by industrial films, by all-digital works from Pixar. “Orphan films” opened up even more schools and styles to appreciate.
So nothing’s off limits here, and nothing’s sacred either. Today’s classic may have been yesterday’s bomb. The dreadful comedies Buster Keaton starred in at MGM earned more money than the exquisite films from his own studio. Who’s to say that Michael Bay won’t be tomorrow’s Raoul Walsh?
Consciously or not, all filmmakers pull from what came before, and part of my job here will be to show how the past affects the present. But mostly I want to point out films you might not otherwise see, and try to explain why they are important.