A bit of self-indulgent nostalgia about films

As yet another year starts winding down to an end, I, at my age, can’t help feeling nostalgic. Indeed, at my age, I can’t help feeling nostalgic at any time of the year: everything nowadays reminds me of something from the past. Except for modern films. They don’t remind me of the past at all – but they do remind me how good films used to be.

And I don’t mean arthouse movies, or films you really have to go out of your way to see: I’m sure there are a few nuggets to be found if one looks hard enough.  I mean mainstream films that are likely to come to my local cinema.

Last night, I watched on DVD a film from the mid-70s – One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest. I can’t remember the last time I saw this film, but I can certainly remember the first. I had just turned 16, and was in my final year at school, just outside Glasgow. My father had obtained a new post in Lancashire, and my parents had decided to go down there for a week in search of a place to live. However, with my final year examinations coming up, it was out of the question for me to miss school: so I was left home alone. I have no idea how legal that was either then or now, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. A week on my own, doing as I pleased, seemed like heaven to me.

So that Saturday afternoon, I wandered around a wet Glasgow city centre, looking for a film to see. It had to be an X-rated film, because, after all, I was an adult now … at least, I could easily pass for 18. Not that I wanted to watch a porn film, as such: I knew which cinemas specialised in porn films, and, adult or not, would have been far too embarrassed to be seen queuing at those places – although what those cinemas in those days were allowed to show was no doubt very mild and innocent compared to what now seems acceptable even in mainstream cinema. That is not to say, of course, that I would have objected to a quick artistic flash, perhaps; but what I really wanted to see was a grown-up  film – a drama aimed at a grown-up audience: I disdained the very idea of watching some kiddies’ movie..

And I remember still that after walking round the city centre cinemas, my short-list consisted of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (with Al Pacino), and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to go round the cinemas now and be presented with a choice of such quality? But let us not digress. On the toss of a coin, I went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was an adult film – in the sense that it was a drama that was aimed at grown-ups, and demanded much of its audience.

A few months afterwards, my parents had moved down to Lancashire, and I was living in a students’ hall of residence on Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the big films of the year, and all my fellow students with whom I associated – most about a couple of years older than me – had seen it. And the discussions we used to have about it in each others’ rooms, or around a few beers in the pub! (Yes – I can admit now I was an under-aged drinker…) Never mind Hamlet – was Randall Patrick McMurphy really mad, or was he merely pretending to be? Did he really care for the other inmates, or was he just out for himself? Did he have a therapeutic effect on the others? Did Nurse Ratched actually understand Billy better than McMurphy did? Why did McMurphy not escape when he had the opportunity? And so on. I won’t pretend these discussions were particularly profound or in-depth, but the very fact that  we could come out of a film and have so many issues to discuss does bespeak a certain degree of complexity in the film. I wonder what kids have to discuss nowadays affter a showing of the latest biggest and baddest action-adventure-sciencefiction-fantasy-specialeffects-extravaganza. The sort of thing, in other words, which, even had they existed in my time, we would have disdained as being “kiddies’ movies”.

Watching this film again inevitably brought back a great many memories, but, beyond the nostalgia, I was reminded once again how good it is as a film. Of course, it would have no chance of being made these days. Several individual scenes last ten or more minutes at a time – with no fancy camerawork or anything like that, but focussing merely on people as they talk, and as they react to each other: for that, after all, is the substance of drama. Right at the very start of the film there is a scene lasting nearly ten minutes of two people – McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the head of the psychiatric hospital – just speaking to each other. Nowadays, even a scene lasting a mere two minutes would be considered overlong, and likely to tax the attention span of its no doubt sophisticated audience.

The film itself is set almost entirely within a psychiatric ward, and most of the principal characters are inmates. The drama as it unfolds involves electric shock treatment, a particularly nasty suicide, frontal lobotomy, and euthanasia – not exactly feelgood stuff. And the laughter that is encouraged at the behaviour of some of the inmates would certainly be considered non-PC these days, especially by those who appear not to realise that laughter does not necessarily imply denigration: I cannot think of any other film in which psychiatric patients are presented as humans, as individuals; and where, even as we laugh, we feel for them both sympathy and empathy. We come, indeed, to like them as people.

Milos Forman’s  expert and unobtrusive direction strikes a path through very difficult territory without putting a foot wrong, and, while Jack Nicholson is obviously the star of the film – this was back in the days before he would turn up on set merely to roll his eyes, do his Jack-the-Lad routine, and collect the cheque … mind you, when you are playing merely in big-budget kiddies’ movies like the Batman films, what else can you do? – this is by no means a star vehicle. It’s an ensemble piece and the performances of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, of Brad  Dourif, Danny de Vito, Cristopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, etc. as the immates, are all outstanding. Add to that an intelligent and perceptive script (adapted from what I am led to believe is a pretty mediocre novel – though I could be wrong on that), and the cinematic experience on offer makes, even on repeated viewing, a huge emotional impact. It made me feel very nostalgic indeed for the days when one could just wander into town and have a choice between films of such quality as this and Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t realise then that that era in the mid- to late- 70s, when I first became a student, was the fag-end of what, in retrospect, we may think of as a sort of golden era for mainstream Hollywood films. For soon, along came the Star Wars films and Spielberg, and cinema became not just juvenilised, but infantilised. Oh well – I still have my memories!

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Richard Halfhide on December 1, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    You’re right, infantilised is probably closer to the mark. Sad to recall that when I was sixteen the must-see film was ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’. For the me the formative texts were older films I saw on video or tv such as ‘If….’ or ‘Paris, Texas’.

    I’m not the biggest fan of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ although in fairness it’s probably long overdue another look. A notable aspect of the Czechoslovak New Wave movement, from which Forman had emerged, was many of the films were adaptations from novels (something that tended to be sneered at by their French counterparts) and, combined with the sensitivities of the communist regime they were working under, seems to have fostered greater sensitivity to capturing nuance. That’s something we don’t see an awful lot of in the current age of hyperbole.

    Reply

  2. There’s never anything playing at my local (12 screen) cinema that I’m remotely interested in seeing. But, I was recently talked into watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and I was impressed.

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  3. There are still good films to be seen (from the USA and around the world), but mainstream Hollywood cinema has abnegated the production of intelligent and challenging films for the multiplexes. The likes of Certified Copy, Beyond the Hills, Kid with a Bike, Still Walking, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Moonrise Kingdom, Melancholia and many others from recent years give the lie to the idea that the best days of cinema are over; you just have to look a little harder, and not in the usual places.

    The other party culpable in the decline in the appreciation of film as an art form is terrestrial TV; back in the 1970s BBC and even ITV schedules were packed with great cinema from silents all the way up to contemporary times. I remember seeing Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” on my local ITV station one Friday night, a classic Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin or Keaton on Saturday morning, followed by an example of classic 30/40s Hollywood for the BBC2 Midnight Movie and international fare like “The Spiders Strategem” earlier on the same channel for the Film International season, something edgier late on BBC 2 Sunday night such as ” A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” and a choice piece of contemporary US/UK cinema such as Nic Roeg’s “Walkabout” or Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” for the Monday film on BBC1. Such riches seem a very, very long way away now, but they were my film education when I was growing up.

    And sadly, the concept of repetory cinema has now more or less disappeared; sure, you can catch almost anything on DVD these days, but the communal experience of stumbling over a late night double-bill of, say, Satyajit Ray’s “Days & Nights in the Forest” coupled with Polanski’s “Cul de Sac” (with very little idea of what pleasures lay in store) is irreplacable.

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    • Hello Alan, a lot of points there.

      first, a bit of tedious autobiography again. Back in my student days, I used to review films for my student paper. Between my first year and my last year, there was a change so palpable that even then I couldn’t help noticing. When, in my final year, I, as student reviewer, sat in the cinema for the Glasgow press screening of, say, Superman or Flash Gordon, I would think to myself: “What the hell am I doing here? This is not why I took an interest in cinema only a few years ago!” When I was 14, all my mates at school would boast of having got into the cinema to see The Godfather part 2. Now, they were lining up to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. and what passed for serious drama – Kramer vs Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment and the like – was merely slick and shallow. Something had changed, and it didn’t seem to me, even at the time, to be a change for the better.

      In my postgraduate years in the early 80s, I made a deliberate decision to cut myself off from everything and focus on my work. By the time I started watching films again (mid- to late 80s) cinema had changed beyond recognition. Kiddies’ films had taken over; what passed for drama was generally, in my opinion, weak; and there seemed a belief that merely addressing a serious and worthy theme automatically guaranteed serious and worthy drama (Gandhi, Schindler’s List, etc). Let’s not get involved in our critical judgements on individual films: there was absolutely nothing in the cinemas – the mainstream, at any rate – that made intellectual demands of the audience in the way that films such as, say, Five Easy Pieces or The Conversation had done in the previous decade. And we weren’t just living in some hick town: we used to go to cinema in Manchester. It was after sitting through The Colour Purple that my wife and I (we were newly married then) decided that we weren’t going to waste any more evenings sitting through any arse-numbing crap like this.

      Now, no doubt there is and has been good stuff available . I don’t doubt it. But, as you say, you need to know where to look for them, and due to personal circumstances that we need not go into here, I was not in a position to seek them out. I was restricted to what was generally available, and with a small handful of exceptions, these were not in any way inspiring. Sometimes, I’d be told that I really must go and see YYYY or ZZZZ,; so I go to see them; and it’s just the same old crap. After a while, I end up thinking I have better things to do with my time.

      Yes, I am sure there is still talent around. A few years ago, I was much taken by About Schmidt – so much so, indeed, that I remember saying “This is the kind of film they used to make in the 70s!” That’s the highest compliment I could think of. (Predictably, About Schmidt did not make it to my local cinemas.) But the sad truth is – and I can vouch for this, having spoken to many of my teenage daughter’s friends – that generations have grown up without ever having come into contact with drama that has in any way challenged them. Their expectations are different: at 16, I went to the cinema expecting drama; now, kids go to the cinema expecting a fairground ride. Yes, if they knew where to look, as you say, they’d no doubt find some good stuff. But not only do they not know where to look, they don’t even now what to look for. Or, indeed, that there’s anything even worth looking for.

      Yes, quality films are sometimes available on specialist film channels (hidden away, naturally, in the early hours of the morning); and they are available on DVD. But these are only for those viewers who already know about these films. All those films you and I grew up with on television, and which we remember so fondly, have not been available, as you say, to subsequent generations. They don’t even know about them.

      I now that in all this I am exaggerating to make my point forcibly, but the point remains, I think, a valid one, and it is this: not so long ago, films that constituted challenging drama were available readily in the mainstream; and many people who weren’t necessarily specialist cineastes would go to the cinema in expectation of challenging drama. Neither of these is true nowadays,

      Reply

  4. Wasn’t every screen the big screen then? Excellent picture and quite up to the excellent book which I see can be downloaded in pdf form readily. Much more of the Chief, it’s told from his viewpoint:

    She looks around her with a swivel of her huge head. Nobody up to see, just old Broom Bromden the half-breed Indian back there hiding behind his mop and can’t talk to call for help. So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load. I hold my breath and figure, My God this time they’re gonna do it! This time they let the hate build up too high and overloaded and they’re gonna tear one another to pieces before they realize what they’re doing!

    Reply

    • I haven’t, I admit, had too many good reports on the novel, and the little I browsed did strike me as a bit over-written. But that, I realise, is a poor critical term (beyond what point does it become over-written? When exactly does it become under-written? At what stage is it correctly written?) I ought to give it a go, I suppose. But whatever the quality of the novel, the quality of the film is, I think, in no doubt.

      Reply

  5. If I remember aright, the first “adult” movie I saw (in the sense of being X-rated, which, in those days, meant “over 16”) was “Barbarella”, with Jane Fonda. I was actually only 15 when I went to see it, I went with my mother and I can even remember what I was wearing. Even then – and certainly now – I couldn’t for the life of me understand what was in it to merit the “X” rating.

    Reply

    • Those were very innocent days. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was X-certificate because it contained lots of swearing! As for Barbarella … Well, I suppose Barbarella puts paid to my contention that there were more serious films in the past! 🙂

      Seriously though, there were escapist films then as well, and there was dross then. But I do think there were more peaks, and higher peaks; and that many of these peaks were in the mainstream.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Maggie on December 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I agree that most mainstream films are not to my taste but recently saw Blue Jasmine which had me gripped throughout. I only realised in the last scene that it was a contemporary take on A Streetcar Named Desire. Perhaps a new direction for Woody Allen – I wonder what he would make of those Steamy Tennesee Williams films like Suddenly Last Summer. By the way were you a child prodigy – university at 16?

    Reply

    • Goodness – it’s been years since I last saw a Woody Allen film! he has done some very good stuff – I particularly liked Crimes and Misdemeanours – but he has made a lot of clunkers as well.

      I did indeed go to university at 16, but I certainly did not think of myself as a prodigy. Any prodigy-like qualities I may or may not have had very quickly faded into the light of common day – as Willie Wordsworth might have put it! 🙂

      Reply

      • I’ve also lost touch with the latest films, latest stars, etc., but Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a small delight, and well worth seeing. From the few others I’ve seen, I’d recommend two European films: The Lives of Others, and Sophie Scholl: The Last Days.

      • But of course your main point holds: these are all independent films, including the Woody Allen.

        I like Hazlitt’s comment that the greatest works in any art form tend to come in its first flowering. If we apply that to film, then maybe we’ve already had our greatest films, and everything now is just a falling away…

      • Hello Chris,
        Hazlitt’s view is a tempting one. I remember reading in one of his essays once that the greatest English poets are teh earliest – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. But tempting though it is, it doesn’t really hold, I think: leaving aside Shakespeare (who always needs to be left aside when making comparisons!) itisn’t obvious to me that Milton, say, is a greater poet than, say, Wordsworth or Hopkins or Eliot. But literature is not, of course, an area like science where whatcomes after supersedes what has gone before. the earlist works of Western literature I know of are The Iliad and The Book of Job (the latter originated from the Middle East, of course, but I count it as Western as it has had a greater impact on the West than it has on the East), and, without going into such pointless questions as “Is King Lear greater than The Iliad?”, it may safely be said, I think, that these works have not been surpassed in terms of literary quality.

        In cinema, it may well be argued that the likes of, say, Ozu or Bergman or Tarkovsky were all at least as great as, if not greater than, the great directors of the silent era. But of course, I can’t help feeling, as you do, that there has been a falling way. At least, as far as the mainstream is concerned. I reallyshould make more of an effort to investigate areas away from teh mainstream to see if I really am missing works of genuine qauality.

  7. As a young person, who wasn’t even born when One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest film was released, I still have to agree with most of what you said. There are still good films being made though (somebody here mentioned Moonrise Kingdom, and I’d add anything else by Wes Anderson). What has changed is the focus. The films that are advertised on every corner are, what you call, “kiddies’ movies”, that’s why it feels that there’s nothing else besides.
    There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism, it becomes a problem, when it’s your only film diet. I don’t know if you’ve heard about Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Snyder was an American scriptwriter, who came up with a guide list of plot points. It’s so detailed it tells you when your story should be set up, when to introduce story B, when to have an “Everything is lost” moment, etc. by the minute. A lot of script writers nowadays follow it literally, so no wonder all films feel the same.

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome.

      I haven’t, I’m afraid, heard of Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. But what few modern films I catch on television these days seem so formulaic, that it really doesn’t surprise that film-makers are working to a formula.

      I am sure there are good films being made: there’s still talent around, I’m sure! The problem, it seems to me, is that you don’t see these films in the local multiplex. You have to know where to search them out, as Alan Boshier says above. And you can’t really search out things you don’t know about. I speak to my teenage daughter and her friends, and they have never come into contact with any drama – in cinema, on television, wherever – that has challenged them, or has demanded from them anything resembling an intellectual response. In the words of the much maligned late Leslie Halliwell, cinema does not provide drama any more – it specialises in providing fairground rides.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  8. Posted by alan on December 4, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Given cinema prices it isn’t surprising that people want a spectacle, as for other things, most people wait for TV or the DVD.
    These might be worth a look, given your tastes, and you’ll probably find them for under a £1 if you visit second hand video/game stores or boot sales regularly:

    “Goodbye Lenin” – Wolfgang Becker
    “The Lives of Others” – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
    “The Sun” – Alexander Sokurov
    “Waltz with Bashir” – Ari Folman
    “Persepolis” – Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi

    I expect that you’ll find a lot to criticise but at least there is something there to criticise.

    Reply

  9. As someone who read Ken Kesey’s original novel at University, I wouldn’t say it’s mediocre, but it’s an early counter-culture novel and feels very much of its time, for good or bad.

    As for modern movies that feel bounded to the 70’s tradition of storytelling, there are still films like that out there though I admit, so few that when they’ve finished you have to remind yourself that they are modern – I’d cite Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) and Ben Affleck’s ARGO (2012) as two recent examples.

    Reply

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