A couple of weeks ago, on a very sunny weekend, I sat in a darkened room in London with around 50 other strangers and watched clips from films, most of them, unjustly, long forgotten. I was attending the Guardian Masterclass in Film Appreciation hosted by my favourite film critic, Danny Leigh (co-host of Film 2013), with other sessions presented by Xan Brookes and Peter Bradshaw the Guardian Film Critics (I must start listening to their podcasts) and Catherine Bray also from Film 2013 and editor of Film4.com.
We looked at the lives and works of 10 (and a half) giants of the screen*, and it was everything I could have hoped for and so so so so more. I learnt so much. About film-makers I didn’t know about, such as the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, and cinematographer James Wong Howe. I learnt more about directors I was already familiar with; Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Michael Haneke and Nora Ephron. I learnt there are some films that you know already, that have been part of your own family film history but you never knew the director’s name, such as Douglas Sirk, and Imitation of Life. A film viewed by my mother’s side as I began to fall in love with watching stories unfold on the screen. Imitation of Life is about class and race and most importantly about the unfathomable depths of unconditional love a mother has for her child. It was certainly a story that resonated with my own mother because she had recanted the plot to me hundreds times before. Danny talked on a number of occasions about the emotional impact of films, how the editing can make your heart thump, or how a scene can remind you of falling in love. How certain stories chime with you because of experiences in your life. This for me watching Intimation of Life with my mum (and other such wonderful melodramas as Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pearce,Little Women) is cinema as an heirloom, as memories and emotions to be handed down from generation to generation as importantly as furniture or valuables. This weekend I took my own son to the cinema as a treat for him finishing his SATs. We went to the Everyman Cinema, newly opened in Leeds, and relished Star Trek Into Darkness (Benedict Cumberbatch was truly magnificent as always) on those delightfully comfy sofas. Harry whispered to me during the opening credits that this was the best 3D experience he had ever had, and I thought on the way home, perhaps this would be a treasured memory for Harry too. I guess that is up to time and Harry though. It was certainly a wonderful experience for me.
Also on the weekend I learnt about the magical art of the editor and we were shown clips from Scorsese classics Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, as he had a very close and creative partnership with Thelma Schoonmaker. It was so good to see these again. The chosen scene from Goodfellas’ was the one which so evocatively uses the ending of Layla, the wailing guitar accompanied by the melancholic piano whilst we are shown the gruesome results of double-crossing the mafia. That music has stayed in my head all week, providing me with my own soundtrack, albeit to gentle rhythms of domesticity, making packed lunches and despatching the children to school, yet these images seemed incongruously inappropriate compared to those of wiseguys deep frozen in refrigerated lorries. Martin Scorsese was one the first to use this juxtaposition of image and music, the gentle music seems to make the violence more intense, more graphic, more brutal. He came up the idea simply because of all the music he heard playing in the street from surrounding apartments and restaurants when he was growing up. Why do I spent any time watching films not up to this standard, maybe it was better to re watch masterpieces over and over than to watch junk just because it was unseen. I guess there is a close analogy with food, the gourmet meal and Mcdonalds, I guess sometimes you just feel like a Big Mac (or should I say royale with cheese!). This was brought home hard last night when I was made to watch Salt with Angelina Jolie, a nonsense espionage action piece. Eating the cardboard box the big mac comes in would have been more satisfying.
If you can’t remember just how sublime that scene is, here it is again, try to watch for the magical editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, but she is so good, it is nigh on impossible, it as her work transports you through the narrative.
It really does seem that way to me, it is done so well it appears invisible and yet it is in the editors’ suite that the film is made. Danny Leigh said he saw the editor rather like the drummer in the band, there to give the foundations, the rhythm and pace of the film. As with so much of the art of film-making my head finds it impossible to comprehend these concepts, where does the director end and the editor begin, how does the writing on the script become a real world? I can only marvel at the creativity and imagination of these people and be so grateful they produce these works that I can relish and enjoy so entirely. It is said Cinema is the newest art form. For me it is the closest thing to magic being real.
All the speakers were so generous with their time and knowledge and very open (and kind) to our comments and views. But the most fulsome praise must go to Danny Leigh. Just as he is on Film 2013, he is warm, likeable and so incredibly knowledgable, encyclopedically so. His recall of movie scenes was at lightning speed. A statement from the floor about any film would lead to a momentary hand to the head and then he would produce a description or analysis of that scene, always with extreme pertinence. He is so eloquence too, his own use of language, extensive, funny and so descriptive, verged on the lyrical, just hear his description of Marilyn Monroe as “Cinema in a Woman”. That tells you everything doesn’t it? Of all the millions and millions of words used to describe Marilyn, has she ever been summarised so beautifully or succinctly.
If you are ever stuck for a weekend’s entertainment I can’t recommend this weekend highly enough. Danny took opinions from everyone about people working in film that could be used on the next masterclass. Suggestions included Pedro Almodovar to Billy Wilder, from Jane Campion to John Huston, and lots of world Cinema. Every one sounds so tantalising, two more suggestions and Danny was creating the idea of a session comparing the films and professional rivalry of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. Yes I want to rebook, before this course I thought I knew something about film and film-making, I realise I know so little, but I want to know so, so, so much more. Right if you will excuse me I have some film watching to do, off to rearrange my Lovefilm list right now.
* The full list of the 10 (and half) Screen Giants we looked at were :- Henri-Georges Clouzot, Terrence Malick, Douglas Sirk, Buster Keaton, David Lynch, James Howe Wong, Nora Ephron Thelma Schoomaker, Charlie Chaplin, Michael Haneke, Elizabeth Taylor and I have new respect and admiration for all of them.