A few years ago, I received a copy of Sight and Sound magazine’s “Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time” from each decade since the 1950s, from a family member who knew that I enjoyed movies, art, etc. Honestly, I didn’t think much of it at the time, because everyone has heard of Citizen Kane, but most of the entries on the list were old, fairly obscure, and foreign. No Star Wars? No Lord of the Rings? Psshaw, come’on people. Who pays attention to these lists anyway? Nobody under age 60.
One day, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided I would try some of these movies and see how they’ve withstood the test of time. Hopefully, not too terribly. The first I selected was a Soviet film called Solaris directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. I had been watching Star Trek lately, and wanted to keep with the futuristic sci-fi space theme, I suppose. Let’s just say this began a journey of movie exploration, which has been unexpected and wonderful. I never really appreciated movies as art. Entertainment? Sure. Sometimes, very well-done entertainment. I’ve seen most of the top blockbusters over my lifetime, but never had I delved into the absolute treasure trove that is art house, independent, and foreign films.
Tarkovsky was a genius. His films are beautiful, mesmerizing… strange… and difficult. Solaris isn’t a sci-fi movie, not much of one, anyway. It’s more about human psychology, and distinguishing reality from fantasy, which is rapidly developing into one of my absolute favorite themes in art. Anyhow, this man and his movies changed me. I don’t think I can ever “appreciate” the modern movie experience as much ever again, now that I have seen actual greatness of this art form. Though most Americans probably don’t know his name, he is highly respected and legendary among directors and cineasts alike — and with good reason.
See, I have a thing for epics. Epic poetry, epic music, epic books, and epic movies. The longer the better. Tarkovsky also had a thing for making epic films. His three best-known films: Solaris, Stalker and Andrei Rubylev are all pushing three hours. We’re a natural match. Most people won’t have the patience for such movies, especially Tarkovsky, whose works involve plenty of introspective silence — and water, lots of water.
Stalker is another brilliant movie, also unsettling, also slow to develop, but so beautiful. The opening scene gives an idea, it’s positively fascinating. We slowly, cautiously approach a strange bedroom door (whose?) and before we know it, we are dragged head-first into this ugly, dystopian world. It’s very difficult to compare such movies with anything else, because Tarkovsky’s style is very distinctive, and Soviet Russia was probably the only time and place that could have produced them.
At this point, there was no turning back, I was hooked on Tarkovsky, Soviet cinema, foreign films in general, and who knows, maybe old movies aren’t so bad after all? Searching for Andrei Rubylev led me to FilmStruck (R.I.P), the now-deceased online streaming service for people just like me. People who want to see things beyond the ordinary, the full artistic possibilities which this medium has to offer, wherever they may be found. The home of the Criterion Collection and TCM classics (I used to laugh at my dad when he praised TCM so highly, now I know better), where hundreds of movies were available on a rotating basis, unlimited viewing for a low monthly fee… [Update: Criterion Channel is rolling out a new streaming service in April 2019!]
Well, I set Tarkovsky aside for a moment, and decided to pick another title off the list. This time it was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I’m not exaggerating when I say this turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. When something can reach deep down, and move you to tears, or laughter, when you actually care what happens to the characters, in spite of a language barrier, in spite of being an old black-and-white movie, then you know it’s something special. Another epic film, and actually, the inspiration behind the American western The Magnificent Seven. This was my first take on the golden era of Japanese film, and my goodness, what an introduction.
I don’t know if it’s possible to rank Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky, they are like 1A and 1B of the greatest directors of all time, who truly could do nothing but churn out timeless classics. I have now seen something like ten of Kurosawa’s films and five of Tarkovsky’s, and each one brings something new to appreciate, so that I feel privileged to experience them.
Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rubylev, The Mirror and Ivan’s Childhood; Kurosawa’s Ikiru; Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible; Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace; Ingmar Bergman’s Persona; Victor Sjöström’s A Man There Was and The Phantom Carriage; Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy… I could go on and on, these are masterpieces, you want to tell people how they’re missing out on something in their life, if they haven’t seen them. How they moved you and enriched your life.
Anyway, FilmStruck and the Criterion Channel turned me into a cineast in a year’s time. I went from basically complete ignorance of the history of film as an art form, to having a whole world opened up in front of my eyes, and I am surely not the only one. The only problem is finding the time to watch my ever-growing list of must-sees! With something like 120 years to wade through, I certainly have my work cut out for me 🙂