The 20th Century is the century of cinema.
The moving image is one of the most incredible creations of man. And I know that may sound hyperbolic for those who aren’t cinephiles, but I’m hard-pressed to think of something over the last 100 years that completely changed our culture and society in the way cinema did.
The relationship between film and life became reciprocal, each influencing one another. Yes, our world, events, and challenges inspired the films we created, but, in turn, the cinema changed our perspective in how we observe. How many times have you heard the expression, “It was just like out of a movie?” And it’s not just film. Because the moving image found a way to invade our homes as well with the advent of televisions in the mid-20th century.
We became a culture fully immersed in this new manner of visual storytelling and it truly did help form and fashion our collective narrative.
Enter “The Movie Brats.”
When we look at the filmmakers to emerge from America during the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s, we find a generation of storytellers whose lives and stories were shaped by the century of cinema.
This was the first class to attend film schools. Who grew up with televisions in their homes. Who treated the cinema with an almost religious fervor. For them, there wasn’t a time before the cinema, before the moving image.
These were filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich, and Michael Cimino. They developed as filmmakers by studying the works of the Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, Japanese Cinema, and the Golden Age of Hollywood (amongst countless others) and they observed the world through a cinematic lens.
Fortunately for all of us, they also came along at a time when Hollywood was prepared to take risks and grant creative freedom to daring and audacious storytellers. Many argue this time in American cinema, roughly from 1968-1981, contains the greatest work the country ever produced. I wouldn’t disagree.
We are living in a post-cinema/post-moving image world and I don’t find it to be a coincidence that the movie brats came of age as we entered into the latter half of our century of cinema.
Blow Out (1981) dir. Brian De Palma
De Palma certainly has his critics. His films have been labeled misogynistic. His style has been derided as too self-aware, too knowing, too technical. He’s been called a hack who only knows how to blatantly rip off Hitchcock. Well, to hell with that criticism, I say. I love De Palma. I love the audacity and fearlessness of his cinema. I love his choices, even the most absurd. In this film, one of my favorite techniques he implements is a split diopter to create the illusion of deep focus. Look at the image above, featuring both Travolta’s Jack Terry and an owl. This was achieved by literally splitting the lens, capturing both the foreground and the background in focus. In this scene Travolta is capturing sound for a film he’s working on (De Palma, in many of his films, seems to want the audience to be hyper-aware they’re watching a movie), and when he he hears a particular sound (an owl hooting for example), De Palma opts for the split-diopter. This technique is used other times throughout the film, creating an immersive and slightly disorienting effect. It’s just ever so off. This film is also a helluva thriller, features Travolta’s greatest performance, and has an ending that’s both a real scream and a clever, cruel joke all at the same time. It may be De Palma’s crowning achievement.
Raging Bull (1980) dir. Martin Scorsese
As a young child, Scorsese suffered from asthma. He couldn’t play sports, nor engage in physical activity. But he had the cinema. And from an impressionable age, the idea of visual literacy would have a resounding effect on young Marty. In an interview on the subject he shares, “I was beginning to understand that there are certain tools you use and those tools become a part of a vocabulary that’s just a valid as the vocabulary used in literature. You need to know how ideas and emotions are expressed through a visual form.” Perhaps this is why Scorsese’s films have always had a striking verisimilitude to them. He’s not just telling a story, he’s invoking the essence of life through his moving image and this was never more apparent than in “Raging Bull.” I think of a few moments. The first comes early in the film after LaMotta suffers a controversial loss. The crowd erupts in anger and a small riot develops. At one point a chair is tossed from the crowd and into the ring. Scorsese captures this at a low angle, tracking the chair as it leaves the audience, and stays suspended in the air for just a moment… before violently landing in the ring. It’s beautiful. As impactful are his use of slow-motion shots throughout the film, which act as a visual externalization of the inner-psyche of LaMotta. Scorsese wants us to dwell on these moments as if they were our own. As he’s said elsewhere, cinema is akin to “life unfolding before your eyes.”
The Godfather: Part II (1974) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Has there ever been a pair of movies as revered as the first two “Godfather” films? Their craft and storytelling are impeccable. Absolute perfection. The second film pays off the tragedy hinted at by the end of the first. Michael. Poor Michael. Fredo. Poor Fredo. It shouldn’t end up like this. They’re brothers. But when Fredo speaks his Hail Mary on that fishing boat, there’s a somber inevitability to it. This was their fate. This is the ultimate resolution of the Corleone family, one brother taking out another. And all of it is made all the more tragic with the flashbacks to a young Vito Corleone, chronicling his rise to power. He comes to America and starts a family. He hopes and wishes only the best for them (as he says in the first film, he had dreams that Michael would become a Senator and that “this” was never a life he wanted for him). But it’s the Corleone nature, our nature as humans– or at the very least, as Americans– perhaps. The movie finishes with one final flashback on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor– also the day of Don Coreleone’s birthday. The family is all gathered together and Michael announces he’s joining the army. The family is incredulous to say the least. And who’s the only one who supports him? Fredo. Poor Fredo. This movie breaks my heart. It’s a masterpiece.