Friday, September 30, 2011

"32 Days of Movies" begins tomorrow



"32 Days of Movies" is a chronological journey through 350 films.
Every morning, starting tomorrow, a 4-8 minute chapter, with 30-45 second clips, will be unveiled.

In the early hours of October, I will launch the most ambitious, and probably the most ambiguous, enterprise this blog has so far seen. Ambitious because it took me far longer to assemble than anything else I’ve ever done – longer than the Astaire-Rogers dance compilation, or the 525-picture tribute to Allan Fish, or the Brian de Palma video tribute (still my favorite piece, to sound like a broken record), or the long essays I toiled over or wrote all at once during a mad flash of motivation.

Ambiguous because, well, I’m not sure what people will make of it. It is, I guess you could say, a clip show – a series of clips from DVDs I own, a kind of audiovisual sample survey of cinematic moments. This approach is essential for me: if viewing a whole film is an act of consummation, then the foreplay is also part of the pleasure – in this sense, reading about a movie is first base, viewing stills or screen-caps is a double, and when watching a clip, you've made it all the way to third.

Yet I realize that for others a clip is a clip, somewhat less than a part of its sum – a meager breadcrumb when one is hoping for a full meal (in this sense, reading about the film is more like reading a menu, an exciting buildup superior to a teasing snack). For these folks the question will be, "Where's the beef?" To this I can only respond like Louis Armstrong: if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.

Even for those cottoning to such an approach, however, a number of excuses, explanations, and disclaimers remain in order. First, a few things this series is not.



It is not canonical, nor does it attempt to be. Too many great films are missing (often because I have never replaced my VHS copies – hence Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and Casablanca will not appear, among the more notable absences; It's a Wonderful Life I had on disc, but the copy would not burn). What’s more, while a majority of the films included here happen to be worthy, many are not great and a few may not even be very good.

It is not a favorites list. True, this is a bit closer to the mark, as it is my DVD collection after all, but one needs to bear a few things in mind. The best way to demonstrate this is by a simple statistic. Recently I made a "top 320" list, favorite and greatest films I would discuss if I was doing a canonical series. Just over one-third of these films are nowhere to be found in the forthcoming 350 (26 I own on VHS, the rest not at all). That's over 110 favorite films which are absent. And that's after a summer shopping spree that added 70 favorites to my collection.

Then there are the movies I do own... First: some of these were gifts, not movies I would have necessarily gone out and bought myself. Furthermore, others I bought only because they were $1 used at the record store, or 2-for-$5 at Wal-Mart. I included those along with the Criterion box sets I purchased with savings - no distinction was made on grounds of pedigree. Finally, I’ve been collecting DVDs for a decade; obviously in that time my taste has undergone changes. Some of these titles I'm not particularly fond of anymore. The best I can say is that, if anything in my series came on TV when I was channel-surfing and I had nothing else to do (an entirely hypothetical situation, but humor me) I'd probably stick around and watch them all the way through.

So why go this route? Why not be canonical? Why not choose favorites? Why simply replicate my collection? There are practical reasons for the limitations (time, for one thing; I also was not comfortable putting up clips of American DVDs I did not own) but as for the expansiveness, that’s a little harder to explain. Why not leave some films out, especially when one gets to the 90s and runs into entertaining (or to some eyes, perhaps not so entertaining) but lightweight movies after a mostly solid run of classics? (I may be exaggerating here, leading people to expect Ace Ventura or Armageddon, neither of which will be found here, but better safe than sorry.) Why include entries that don't fit with what came before?

Well, one answer is that in fact they do fit. And they must fit – because in the end, everything is cinema: the good, the bad, the ugly, the stuff we liked as restless teenagers, or little kids, or more mature adults. It’s not that I don’t make critical distinctions; I certainly do, but this was not the time nor place to do so. I didn’t want to start drawing lines in the sand, and then readjusting them, fretting over a movie's placement, going back and forth on whether a certain film should be included. Ultimately, I just decided to let them all in (more or less).

Also, one thing is worth stating if it isn't obvious already - I have a very small collection, by most cinephile standards. Though in some ways I'm a stereotypical collector (obsessive organization, for one), in terms of actually buying things I haven't been since adolescence, if ever. I'm more the explorer type, focusing on watching movies I haven't seen than purchasing ones I have (or for that matter, haven't) - at least until the aforementioned summer binge. Anyhow, the humble size of my collection is what makes this enterprise possible in the first place; otherwise it would be too intimidating a task to undertake.

So that is what the series will not be, and those are the reasons behind its parameters. As for its ultimate value? I think the series has several justifications.

Practical - This is the easiest to defend and was my initial ground for compiling the series in the first place. We’ve all got those guides with little capsules– a quick plot recap and the critic’s overall judgement. How much better is a glimpse at the movie itself? What’s more, this need not apply only to films we haven’t seen yet; watching a clip can be a great reminder of something we haven’t watched for years, or even a prompt towards reconsideration of a movie that didn’t catch us the first time around.

I developed the project initially with this purpose in mind, specifically for my cousin’s birthday. My cousin, a fellow movie buff (whose older brother inspired me to collect videos in the first place), had always enjoyed exchanging videos from our collections. This compilation seemed a perfect primer for future exchanges, or for guiding him in rentals or downloads. The same goes for strangers or online friends and acquaintances, all over the world. Any of you can jump to and fro within these clips, or watch them straight through, and probably find at least a handful of titles you want to check out.

Historical - This is a harder sell, because how can 350 films properly represent the grand sweep of over a century’s worth of cinema? Of course they can’t. Yet I think my own tastes are expansive enough to at least suggest such sweep, to give one a glimmer of the vast panorama that exists out there. Here you’ll find westerns, musicals, noirs, comedies, horrors; mainstream blockbusters and obscure experiments and short cartoons and documentary miniseries; films from Japan, and Czechoslovakia, and India, and France, and, yes, Hollywood. You’ll glimpse flickering footage from the dawn of the medium as well as sequences lensed with the brand new digital RED camera.

Most importantly, the clips run chronologically by year. Thus you can actually witness genres develop, national movements emerge, and technological breakthroughs occur. And of course the movies offer glimpses at popular culture or social life as well, telling us (perhaps inadvertently) about the times in which they were made.

I don’t want to overstate my case here – the emphasis is very, very much on Western cinema (too much so to my eyes) with Asia only pulling its weight in recent years and Africa completely absent. Meanwhile, different decades in the series have a way of over-emphasizing one aspect or another (there are barely any non-American films featured in the 30s segment, while virtually nothing from Hollywood factors into most of the 60s; since I grew up in the 90s, popular entertainment is everywhere, while in the mid to late 00s, a season of disillusionment for me, there’s hardly a mainstream release).

Nonetheless, taken together, the series hopefully offers - if not a view of the whole elephant - at least a touch of the elephant’s tail, a glimpse of the leg, a stumble across the trunk. It’s a start.

Aesthetic - This is probably the toughest case to make. I’ve made it even harder by trying to pull this all together in a month or two; had I more time, I could have finessed transitions, juggled juxtapositions, found better clips from this or that film. The clips are all less than a minute; no doubt for many viewers, particularly those of an older generation (I’m 27, and diagnosed with ADD at 9) this length will be way too short. For others, perhaps forty seconds will be just long enough to get a taste, far more satisfying than the usual snippets we see in TV shows or Oscar broadcasts but short enough to leave them wanting more. That’s my hope anyway.

A few other disclaimers: streaming clip quality is, naturally, not great, especially in some cases (though if you’d seen some of my early attempts, you’d find these pristine); the titles, which always appear five seconds in, can be distracting obstructions on occasion; aspect ratios, while preserved, are shown within a square frame, meaning that an old Academy ratio picture actually looks “bigger” than something in widescreen.

So there’s all of that. And yet… when I finished the DVD for my cousin and sat down to watch it all the way through, to check for any flaws or glitches before I sent it off, well, it was an immersive experience, almost like I’d caught cinema in a bottle. Others wandered into the room and found it difficult to leave, so intrigued were they by the selections and the continual turnover. There’s a great deal of material here, but hopefully I’ve managed the shifts smoothly enough or, when smoothness wasn’t possible or desirable, arrestingly enough for it all to hold together and, more important, to hold its grip on you, even on a computer rather than TV screen.

There are also a few moments where I “meddled” with the movies, if only in terms of audio. I know, I know, but bear with me. Depending on your sensibilities, these are either the most inventive moments in what is (in a sense) a slow-motion montage, or they are my most egregious offenses against artistic purity.  During the silent era, since so many DVDs use unoriginal or repetitive music, I simply cut out all the soundtracks and imposed several classical pieces over the whole era. So oftentimes the same music will continue from clip to clip. It’s a good way to begin the series, going an extra step to unite these disparate stories and styles, reminding us that they are all, however different, appendages of that one mysterious beast known as Cinema.

Once the talkies kick off, I stepped back; aside from the occasional extended audio cross-dissolve and the title, nothing is imposed on the clips. And then, in the final episode, at the very conclusion, I used one musical soundtrack to cover two films released in 2009. The track comes from the second clip, and remains perfectly in sync with it, but I stretched it over the first clip as well, a scene that contains no dialogue in the first place and is thus well-suited for this approach. The music also fit the footage perfectly and, by reminding us of the beginning of the series, it hopefully ties everything together on an effective note.

In conclusion - Every single day, from October 1 to November 1, I will unveil a new chapter in the ongoing saga. The chapters range from four to eight minutes, usually containing between seven and fifteen clips. I will accompany each chapter with a brief written intro, attempting to set the mood for what you are about to see. I have tried to make each chapter (in what was initially a nonstop voyage through 100 years) somewhat self-contained, beginning and ending with proper punctuation.

In the end, I have no idea how many people will watch all of this, or any of this. I hope this will be fun for some of you, and am crossing my fingers lest it turn out I’m the only crazy loon who likes this sort of thing. They say that pictures speak the loudest, so in a moment I will shut up and cede ground to those memorable images, but first a few final words...

My greatest hope is that the films benefit from my use of them (yes, even the ones that I'm not so sure about). May they be grabbed off the shelf and revisited if already owned; rented, borrowed, or bought if unseen; looked up online or at a library if unfamiliar.

If I introduce just one person to just one film that they enjoy, well then, my job here is done and I can ride off into the sunset.

See you tomorrow.


*Notes on inclusion and presentation: When dealing with short films, I took two approaches - depending on the situation I either spliced together short clips from a few different films in a collection and presented the collection as a single entry, or I highlighted specific films as their own entry and ignored the rest. I also did leave out a few feature films if they were bought as part of a larger collection, focusing on the ones I bought it for. There were a few other exceptions but otherwise, for the most part, it's all here.

However, if the piece above didn't already make it clear enough, I don't view my collection as the focus of this series, rather as a control group used out of convenience in order to suggest a larger phenomenon.

Each post will have a link leading to the video itself. The videos will appear on their own page, a private "screening room" which will have an entirely black background the better to draw attention to what's onscreen. At the end of each video will be a short title montage with music (always a song from the era in question), giving brief vital information on each entry. Comments will be disabled on the "screening room" page but available on the main Dancing Image posts. 

When the series is over, I will do a collective post with screen-caps from every film and links to each chapter. Many years from now, I may spring off of this idea to do a multifaceted canonical series which takes a year rather than a month, and incorporates video, images, and prose. But that's another story altogether.

2 comments:

Shubhajit said...

This is an absolutely amazing endeavour, and as you've so rightly put it, exceedingly ambitious too. Looking forward to this marathon film appreciation session.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Shubhajit, I hope it works - in all senses.