A more substantial post is forthcoming (yes, it’ll be the next “Facts of Death” installment), but I wanted to share some miscellaneous thoughts I’ve had this week (you can always keep up with my more spontaneous ramblings over on Twitter).
A Countess from Hong Kong (1967, Charles Chaplin)
It may be the case that late-period Chaplin is, in fact, the best Chaplin.
I watched the stunning region-free Italian Blu-ray release of Chaplin’s final film, A Countess from Hong Kong. Peculiar, but profoundly great, A Countess from Hong Kong feels utterly unburdened by any sense of obligation. Indeed, Chaplin, at the end of his career, had nothing left to prove, and A Countess from Hong Kong mingles the sheer pleasure of cinematic invention with an old man’s sense of regret and longing. There’s something of Tati in its comic antics (in fact, Tati’s Playtime arrived the same year), but the emotional momentum behind this tale of desperate people finding solace in one another remains uniquely Chaplin.
The Theatrical Experience
The arrival of Dunkirk and its limited 70mm IMAX film presentation has ignited a new heated chapter in the unending debate over the future of theatrical exhibition.
Watching Eyes Wide Shut and A.I.: Artifical Intelligence in theaters earlier this year served as a keen reminder of how much more vibrant a film can be when viewed on the big screen, when the image fills up your entire field of vision and the sound penetrates to the core of your being. But those films were by Kubrick and Spielberg, masters of their craft.
Few contemporary films benefit from theatrical exhibition in the same way because few mainstream filmmakers seem to care about building films for the big screen. Even films that are ostensibly spectacle-driven feel increasingly designed for the television.
Of course, the difference between a movie theater and a home theater is no longer quite so stark. In even just the past ten years, home theaters have substantially improved in picture and sound quality. By the same token, movie theater quality has diminished, with rampant indifference to picture and sound quality throughout the industry. Theater ticket prices have also risen relative to personal income, while the cost of owning films has generally dropped; films are often cheaper to own than they are to see in a theater. When it comes to contemporary theatrical exhibition, we often end up paying more for less.
If theatrical exhibition will survive as a popular, widespread mode of engaging with cinema, it will be because theaters offer films people want to see in a way they want to see them at prices they find reasonable.
Cinema and Sound
Circling back to Dunkirk, the topic of the week, everyone is once again discussing and debating the merits of Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker.
I find Nolan to be as fascinating and inventive as he is frustrating and clumsy; he chases intriguing thematic and structural preoccupations while remaining utterly indifferent to aspects of filmmaking about which I care a great deal.
Richard Brody (our wonderfully-mad prophet-critic) tweeted:
If Nolan really believed in images—in his images—he wouldn’t use such overwhelming music or seat-rumbling bass like a high-budget Wm Castle.
This accurately captures something of Nolan’s priorities, but I’m reluctant to embrace the implicit “image > sound” valuation here. Cinema’s aural qualities are woefully under-appreciated by the critical community in general. We lack a robust language for describing and evaluating how sound and music informs the cinematic experience.
At any rate, any time when Nolan’s merits are a topic of conversation is a great time to consider this David Bordwell piece.