I am not of the Pauline Kael School of film criticism that argues that your initial impression of a film is the only one that matters, and to revisit and reevaluate a film is a fool’s errand fraught with the potential for emotional and intellectual dishonesty. Indeed, I can think of plenty of legitimate reasons to take stock of a film anew. What if there were mitigating environmental factors—such as problems with the projector or the sound, or even with the audience itself—that hampered your ability to enjoy the film? What of format issues? I mean, what if, like me, your first experience with Lawrence of Arabia was on television, in full screen format and interrupted by commercials? Or what if you were in the wrong head space after a fight with your partner or a bad day at work and weren’t able to give the film the attention and scrutiny it deserved?
More importantly, and more to the point of this piece, what if you just aren’t ready for the film? What if you are too raw, too young, simply too damned inexperienced to appreciate the qualities of the film in question? Would you not have an obligation to assess these films again, once you had put the necessary miles on your odometer? Such has been the case many times over the course of my lifetime as a film viewer and reviewer, and it has occasionally led me to startling revelations. As I am limited to discussing five films on which my opinion has done a complete 180 degree turn, I have arbitrarily chosen to look at films I first saw I when was not yet ready to fully appreciate their wonders.
1. Too Cinematically Inexperienced: Citizen Kane. It’s a cliché to be among the hordes who confess to being confounded by all the praise heaped on this movie. It seemed to me merely a mildly engaging character study of an overly ambitious man. I’m just glad I stuck with it, watched a truckload of good movies from the era, and did my homework by reading my fair share of film analysis, then gave the film another chance when I could better appreciate why it is not simply a cinematic milestone, but also a reel blast. Kane is, as Roger Ebert ably notes, “a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound,” but if anything, he soft sells Welles’ accomplishments. Remember, Kane’s debued when films were still in their infancy—barely half a century old—and just as Cervantes brought together many of the elements of the novel and through some sort of artistic alchemical experimentation managed to create Don Quixote, so too did Welles draw on all his knowledge and that of brilliant collaborators like Gregg Toland, to craft a film of rare influence and importance. As such, it is understandable how today an inexperienced viewer might miss out on things like Welles’ theatrical use of set designs and lighting and his innovative use of deep focus photography to suggest the inner workings of his main character (check out the expressionistic horror of Xanadu once Kane has lost all that is dear to him, or the insightful manipulation of same to convey the implosion of Kane’s world). Further, it was only after I’d spent time with James Joyce that I could appreciate what Welles was up to with the stream-of-consciousness-inspired, a-chronological narrative dance that marks the structure of this film. And while Kane represents the pinnacle of cinematic achievement for its day, an accumulation of all that film could do up until that point, it is equally clear that the film’s legacy—the ever-lengthening shadow it cast over moviegoers and moviemakers—continues to grow. However, if I’d been content with my first impression, I would never have had the chance to find myself resting in its shade.
2. Too Emotionally Inexperienced: Ikiru. Here is where you will begin to see some overlap in the explanations accompanying these choices. When I first saw Ikiru, I was also too cinematically inexperienced, with few foreign films under my belt. Furthermore, I was also in the wrong headspace because at that point, my experience of director Akira Kurosawa consisted solely of Seven Samurai, and I was childishly hoping for more of the same (see Dr. Strangelove for more of the same phenomenon at work.) But getting to the nut of it, I just wasn’t ready to be confronted by a story about a mousy old man whose life is filled with regret and fear. However, after years of struggling with the social forces of conformity, as well as awakening to the dawning realization that our bureaucratic world is filled with a seemingly incessant demand to compromise our personal dreams—and not to mention my time spent with the existentialists (see The Conversation below for more on same)—I was finally able to appreciate what Kurosawa had accomplished. And the iconic scene of Watanabe (the peerless Takashi Shimura) singing and swinging in the playground during a snowstorm certainly resonates more with those who know personally the terrible suffering associated with such loss.
3. & 4. (tie) Too Intellectually Inexperienced (aka “Dumb & Dumber”): Dr. Strangelove and The Conversation. Again, you will note some category overlap. With both films I had only seen one film by each director at that point. With Kubrick, it was 2001, which I saw in the theatres at the tender age of 10. I was gobsmacked: I was equal parts fascinated and flabbergasted by Kubrick’s vision, and I went to see Dr. Strangelove hoping for more of the same. Unfamiliar with the entire canon of Kubrick, who never repeated himself, I was decidedly unimpressed by the results. With Strangelove, at least 75% of the jokes were lost on me (what can I say? I was a teenage rube from the sticks) and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that Peter Sellers (a) played 3 (and was penciled in for 4, until he broke his ankle) roles (b) was a comic genius. With The Conversation, all I knew of Coppola was The Godfather, which, as an early teen, I had to fight my parents to see, and which threw me for a loop. Literary and cinematic inexperience played a large part in my inability to appreciate Coppola’s vision—I knew nothing of existentialism or the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, nor would I for at least another decade. However, once I found them, and to some degree myself, I was able to give The Conversation the benefit of my more experienced participation, meeting the film part way, and wrapping my head and heart round the uncertain life of one of cinema’s great everymen, Harry Caul.
5. Victim of (anti-) hype and the Terrible Weight of Expectations: Heaven’s Gate. Who hadn’t heard all the tales of Michael Cimino’s cinematic Waterloo months before the film’s release? As one who had been devastated by his previous film, The Deer Hunter, I was anxiously and excitedly awaiting the release of Heaven’s Gate. That is, until the stories started to circulate about how the film was months over-schedule and tens of millions over budget. And while Cimino was spending money recklessly, he apparently did not have a coherent narrative to show for it. I admit to being swayed by these reports, and my hopes for the film dropped precipitously. And it probably didn’t help that when I did get to see the film, it was not Cimino’s cut, but the studio-orchestrated version; United Artists excised nearly half of the film’s original running time (in the interest of narrative coherence, if studio hacks are to be believed). This shortened version was a crushing disappointment, leaden-paced and consistently confusing. It was going to be years before I saw Cimino’s original version (which I will not call the director’s cut, because even this version was not Cimino’s final cut, but rather a rush job forced on him by a studio that wanted to meet the release date at year’s end). The difference between the two cuts is startling, but I shamefully admit to having been unable to see just how great the longer version of the film was until I revisited it a second time only a few years ago. I clearly needed all that time away from the “scandal” associated with the making of the film to fully appreciate the work of art before me. I’m now convinced that, despite its flaws, Heaven’s Gate is a messy, bloody and profound masterpiece, an anti-epic exposing the callousness and cruelty of what passes for Truth, Justice and The American Way. Like Welles, that other great American iconoclast who spent almost the entirety of his career outside the studio system, Cimino found the followup to his greatest triumph ripped from his hands and hacked to pieces for theatrical release. In many ways, Heaven’s Gate is Cimino’s The Magnificent Ambersons, only with Cimino we’re lucky enough to have something approximating a director’s cut to look at.
So, what are the lessons we can take away from the errors of my misspent youth? Most obviously, one would be well-served by ignoring the propaganda of studio publicity machines. And one would do well to keep inexperienced teenagers away from movies of substance. Nothing will ruin a great movie quicker than being exposed to it at a too-tender age. Of course, that leads inevitably to a Catch-22. How does one get experience, unless someone gives it to ’em, so to speak? I really don’t know. However, being able to recognize when you are ready for a film is among a cinephile’s greatest responsibilities and most important skills. To meet an artist halfway and participate as fully as possible in the artistic experience requires time, patience, experience, education and a whole lotta living. So, excuse me while I go work on all of these just a little more. I’ve got some Ozu to watch later, and I wanna be ready for it.
Dan Jardine is a contributor to The House Next Door, the publisher of Cinemania, and a contributor to Cinemarati.