We’ve been talking a lot about favourite films recently. Were I to make a list, John Sayles’ 1994 movie The Secret of Roan Inish would rank fairly high. But if you want to discuss and analyse that movie, you would find me useless. I’ve seen it once, and though “never” is a long time away, I strongly suspect I will never watch it again.
I saw Roan Inish at a particularly difficult time in my life and I found its themes of redemption and timelessness extremely comforting. It is possible that the movie does not even contain those themes. I was not in a position to analyse it when I watched. But that is how I remember it. If you want to be a student of film, I don’t suppose you can afford to have very many Roan Inishes in your memory bank. You have to be willing to look back and reconsider everything. But I am claiming this as a one-time exception.
One of the great things about a movie (or a painting, or a poem) is its immutability. It is a record of a specific moment in time and it does not change. But our impression of it may change drastically and often. Sometimes, historical event and perspective change how we view the film. It’s hard not to think about the KKK when watching Birth of a Nation (1915), just as it’s hard not to think of John Hinckley, Jr. when watching Taxi Driver (1976). But far more often, our changing opinion has nothing to do with history. It has to do with us. In his first movie, Permanent Vacation (1980), Jim Jarmusch has actor Frankie Faison tell a story built around the Doppler Effect, the way in which we perceive sound to have changed based on our relative position when experiencing it. You can consider movies subject to the same Doppler Effect phenomenon. I choose to consider them ideal Rorschach Tests.
In my youth, I watched a lot of bad television with an uncritical eye. My favourite show for a time was the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry spoof Get Smart (1965-1970). To my eight year old eyes, nothing could be better. But when I watched it again as an adult, I was disappointed by how thin the actual satire seemed. It will always be funny, but I now see little else of interest. On the other hand, when I re-watched Green Acres (1965-1971), a sitcom which I never held in high esteem as a child, I was amazed by the level of absurdity and plethora of extraordinary supporting characters. Paul Henning, its creator, does not merit a place alongside Mel Brooks, but on this one program, I find him significantly more interesting. Is this because Green Acres is intrinsically better than Get Smart, or is it because at one point in my life I was more drawn to stories of individual heroes (Maxwell Smart) and at a later point, I valued the community (Hooterville) more highly?
When I was younger, I would have argued ‘til blue that Oliver Stone was a superior filmmaker to Frank Borzage. Today, I would do the exact opposite, though, at this stage, my doctor has cautioned me about doing anything ‘til blue. At one point in my life, Borzage seemed very boring. He was romantic and I was cynical. I felt much more at home with Stone’s high-gloss conspiracies. Today, I find myself much more in tune with the questions of faith raised by Borzage than by the questions of politics raised by Stone. Neither The Mortal Storm (1940) nor JFK (1991) has changed. I have changed.
I came to the films of Michaelangelo Antonioni as a teenager and found them virtually unbearable. Ten years later, L’Avventura (1960) was one of my favourite films. Another ten years pass, and though I still hold it in high regard, L’Avventura begins to strike me as pretentious. Meanwhile, The Passenger (1975), one of the movies that so befuddled my teenage eyes, grows larger and larger in my thoughts. Both films address the unknowable. In L’Avventura, the mystery grows up around the impossibility of genuine human relationships. The Passenger examines man’s identity, and his capacity to truly know, and consequently, reinvent, himself. Antonioni relegated what was essentially the main plot question of the earlier film – the search for a missing romantic partner – to the subplot of the later film. Was it because as he aged, the issue of identity intrigued him more than the issue of romantic relationship? I can never know that, but I can identify a similar impulse in myself.
I do not mean to suggest that there are no standards by which we can judge movies over a long period of time. Of course there are. I only wish to point out that in any relationship between a viewer and an object being viewed, there are two parties present. In the world of film (restoration, colorisation, director’s cuts notwithstanding) only one of those elements is subject to radical change, and those who would seek to analyse should bear that in mind.
One final example: There are times in all of our lives when our primary concern is to understand how we fit into a romantic relationship. There are other times when we focus on how we fit into a community. There are times when we ponder how we function professionally. I can chart my own biorhythms based on which of these Woody Allen movies I rank higher: Annie Hall (1977), Radio Days (1987), or Deconstructing Harry (1997). FYI, right now, I would state categorically that Radio Days is the best movie Woody Allen has ever made. In fact, I think I will watch it again tonight. But I will not seek out Roan Inish. I will leave that particular Rorschach locked away on an Irish Isle somewhere deep in memory.