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Eight Isn't Enough 

Michael Sragow finds eight good films, and countless condescending duds, in a year at the movies

Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
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I'd say the most hopeful signs for the millennium come from the movie past. Too many movie columnists deride the revival fever set off by Star Wars as greedy or stupid. Actually, the impulse to showcase old blockbusters from The Wizard of Oz to (God help us) The Big Chill in mainstream (not rep) theaters marks the return of a fabulous pre-home-video tradition. When Warner Bros. reissued the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood 10 years after its 1938 premiere, the studio presented it (as one historian testified) in "new Technicolor prints, treating it in the manner of one of their big, fresh attractions." Latter-day rereleases like these are the only way to see many movies as they have to be seen -- not just on a big screen, but with a big, involved audience.

Unlike music critics, who seize on the continuing waves of CD reissues to wax eloquent on their favorite forms of art and entertainment, too few movie critics have taken advantage of these rereleases. They provide an opportunity journalists would otherwise lack to write at length on lasting movies, to keep some valid perspective on the contemporary scene, and to help their readers do the same. Will John Dahl (The Last Seduction, this year's Rounders) still be treated as a King of the B's after viewers have tasted what Orson Welles did on a B budget with the masterfully re-edited Touch of Evil? How could anyone who experienced the restored print of Hitchcock's Vertigo two years ago, with its exquisite use of shading and color, take seriously Gus Van Sant's amateurish color replica of Hitchcock's black-and-white Psycho -- an experiment that would fail even as a senior project in an art school? The only joke that paid off in this frame-by-frame reconstruction (give or take a couple of near-subliminal flash cuts) was that Van Sant, like Norman Bates, seemed to be in love with taxidermy. A contributor to the current issue of Civilization, Andrew Hearst, complains of "a pastiche culture awash in images of people acting stiff and foolish in black and white, a culture flooded with historical footage used without context in Nike commercials, rock videos, and Oliver Stone movies." Revivals and restorations, as opposed to pallid remakes such as You've Got Mail (1940's The Shop Around the Corner) and Meet Joe Black (1934's Death Takes a Holiday), help us keep our cultural equilibrium.

The AFI list of 100 "great American movies" and Peter Biskind's history of '70s filmmaking, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, may have been the year's most overhyped and dubious events. But they catalyzed discussion of great movies. If the discussion becomes ongoing, there's always hope it will raise expectations for new films and inspire young artists -- the way the European New Waves of the '50s and '60s and the rediscovery of classic Hollywood catalyzed Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Philip Kaufman, and so many others. Even the botched rerelease of Gone With the Wind, with its fluctuating color and wobbly image, amazed first-time viewers with the modern love-hate of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.

In Manny Farber's just-reissued (and expanded) 1971 collection Negative Space, the most important film publishing milestone of 1998, this scarily lucid critic describes an American world "where whole eras and cultures in different stages of development exist side by side, where history along one route seems to skip over decades only to fly backward over another route and begin over again in still a different period." In 1998 old movies such as The Wizard of Oz and Touch of Evil and new ones like the following eight (listed in alphabetical order) delighted and enthralled me with their graceful light stepping through that volatile terrain.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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