Seeing old movies in a better light

July 4, 2008–Revisiting movies

Teaching developmental psychology to freshmen and sophomores as a young professor gave me a great opportunity to test a theory I had about how students read.

I asked my classes to read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Of course, they all complained they’d had to read that book in high school English. Those that didn’t complain smugly thought they faced a cake-walk assignment. They could skim enough to pass any quizzes I might give.

But interesting things happened as we read (i.e., re-read) and discussed that book.

Almost every student in the class confessed that the book seemed different to them as they read it this time. The language didn’t shock them the way it had when they were first exposed to it; they viewed Holden Caulfield in a completely different light, they mostly said. Best of all from my perspective, they read with an analytic mind toward adolescence instead of with the defense of a life-style most of them had experienced as teens themselves.

What had changed? Not Salinger’s writing; it was the same text they’d read four or five years earlier.

Of course, they had changed; they had grown older; their perspective had matured; their readiness to deal with adolescent development had awakened, and I was rewarded because almost to a person the students thanked me for having them re-read the novel.

Recently, I’ve been having a similar experience with films. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix, I’ve been re-watching some older movies and have developed a completely different attitude and appreciation of them. This experience has reinforced my challenge to our culture’s tyranny of the new.

I offer three examples of films that have moved near to the top of my favorites list because I revisited them. Prior to my reviewing them, they had been enigmatic to me; they were films I should have liked better than I did. All three had won great accolades when they were new, but they didn’t impress me when I viewed them.

Now, more than a decade later in some instances, my reviewing of them has allowed me to see their greatness, and at least two of them have moved into that constantly flowing category of “all-time favorites.”

The first is The Mission, a British film produced in 1986 starring Robert DiNiro and Jeremy Irons. It is a historic depiction of Jesuit missionaries working in South America and their conflict with commercial interests that sought to enslave the natives to whom the Jesuits were ministering.

When I first viewed this film, I saw it as a swashbuckling adventure story that focused on the repentance and conversion of a hardened mercenary. The film ends in tragedy and disappointment as the mission outpost is overrun and the heroes are slain. I concluded The Mission was a downer of a film.

This month, in re-watching the film, I see it as a sad but powerful telling of the power of faith even in failure. The film has become for me more of a challenge to my own comfort zone regarding faith than a historical rendering of a sad period in church history.

I noted in my newfound appreciation that Church Times magazine, the Anglican journal of news, opinion and culture, listed the 50 best religious movies of all time and placed The Mission at the top of its list.

Any argument I had with that placement would be nitpicking; this is a great movie and has become one of my favorites.

To understand my new appreciation for a second movie, one has to know that my ethnic background is that of Newfoundland. My parents emigrated from that British dominion (it has since become part of the Canadian Confederation) in the North Atlantic early in the 20th century and raised a family in Brooklyn, New York, that was more rooted in Newfoundland than in America.

Thus, it was with great anticipation in 2001 that I welcomed the film, The Shipping News, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and starring Kevin Spacey and Judy Dench. The film tells the story of Quoyle, a journeyman pressman who marries a slut, has a daughter, and watches his life spin away from him.

An aunt shows up at his door looking for the ashes of her brother, Quoyle’s father. She convinces Quoyle to relocate to their family’s old home in Newfoundland, where Quoyle stumbles into a job reporting on the coming and goings of ships in the local harbor.

The movie, to me as a 2001 viewer, was dark and convoluted and struck me as filled with juveniles who refused to grow. Its depiction of Newfoundland was stark and almost without hints of any joy that I’d known was a part of life in the outports of my parents’ homeland.

Seeing the film a second time turned me about 180 degrees. I realized that Newfoundland is a character in the film and that through it Quoyle finds strength, happiness, and new life. I heard the accents of the natives (especially in the lines of Wavey Prowse, played by Julianne Moore) and was struck by their subtle authenticity that I knew from being surrounded as a boy by Newfoundland dialect. The film remains dark and quirky—but, hey, that’s Newfoundland.

The Shipping News, like The Mission, has moved into the top echelons of my all-time favorite movies.

Most recently, another film I’d pretty much written off when I first saw it came back to life for me, the 1997 thriller, Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

As Newfoundland was a character in The Shipping News, so Greenland is a character in Smilla.

The movie begins with an apocalyptic episode of a Greenland seal hunter at the turn of the 20th century who is overwhelmed in the aftershock of an asteroid that crashes into the barren tundra where he is hunting. Fast-forward to Denmark in the 1990s.

A Greenlander, Smilla Jasperson (played by Julia Ormond), who lost her mother and conflicts with the partner of her rich father, is now living in Copenhagen. Smilla cannot accept the hasty conclusion that a young boy—a neighbor and fellow Greenlander–died when he fell from the roof of their apartment building. Her investigation, including her “reading” of the child’s footprints in the snow on the roof, suggests he was frightened into running and falling off the roof.

Thus begins her convoluted, thrilling and enthralling quest for the truth behind the child’s death. As one might guess, the death and the asteroid are linked by greedy scientists and entrepreneurs.

When I first viewed this movie, I must have been mistakenly lured into thinking I’d be viewing a disaster movie; strangely, I found it difficult to recall all but the opening scenes of the movie. This time around I found myself intrigued by Smilla’s persistent amateurish detective work as well as with her persistent and strong feminist attitudes.

To be sure, the movie is flawed, including the convenience of her wealthy father who funds her romps in search of evidence; her unnecessarily harsh clashing with the young woman who has replaced her mother at her father’s side; the fanatic caricature of the secretary who gives her key direction to clues, and the shoot-‘em-up final episodes that diminish the power of the on-location filming in Greenland. The stuttering romance with her neighbor mechanic who assists her in her pursuit of truth and justice—often without her cooperation—also proves a bit clumsy.

Nevertheless, Smilla won me over on a second viewing and gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of Greenland. Smilla’s Sense of Snow didn’t jump to the top of my favorites list, but it moved up significantly.

All of this is to say that re-viewing movies can be a rewarding and enriching experience, and I recommend it heartily, especially now that Netflix makes older films so accessible.

I’m afraid, however, you’ll still have to go to the bookstore if you’re looking to review Catcher in the Rye. To date, no one has gotten Salinger’s permission to write a screenplay or to adapt the story for the big screen.

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