Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The sun rises on 4,000 movies

"Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen, for Vancetastic's 4,000th movie of all time! An extravaganza so big, it had to be stretched out over two nights!"

That's right, I fell asleep while watching my latest big milestone movie, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It seems like only yesterday that I was watching the 3,000th movie I'd ever seen, but in fact, it was May 12, 2010. That was when I lined up the Bernie Mac baseball vehicle Mr. 3000 on a Wednesday night to mark the occasion. Even then it seemed like only yesterday that I'd just been planning #2,000, which was Casablanca on September 16th of 2005. And though I don't have an exact date for #1,000, I made note at the time that it was the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback, which I watched in time to rank with my 1999 year-end films, meaning the viewing on video was sometime in late 1999 or early 2000. Clearly, that was not one I scheduled intentionally.

So what to do for #4,000? There was no obvious blind spot (Casablanca) or thematically appropriate choice (Mr. 3000), and I didn't want to just leave it up to the whims of my schedule (Payback).

What actually happened was that I put this question to the members of the Flickcharter discussion group on Facebook, and after sifting through some funny joke responses ("You could watch The 400 Blows ten times!"), some titles that fell into the "list of shame" category emerged. A few days later, one of the members who lives in Australia was sending me the five Bergman films I am now making my way through -- and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

Sunrise -- or Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans -- struck me right away as the appropriate choice. It's something I have been meaning to see for some time, and in fact I included it in a September 2012 blog post intended to determine what was my new biggest blind spot after I had crossed Sunset Boulevard off my list. I had also included on that list Bergman's Persona, another of the movies I got from my Flickchart friend, but Sunrise jumped to the top for another reason: It was the first winner of the best picture Oscar.

Well, sort of. Those of you who have a casual familiarity with the history of best picture titles won't recognize Sunrise as one of them. You will correctly note that William Wellman's Wings won the first statue in 1927.

But at the time that first Oscar was given out, it was one of two awarded on the evening. Wings won the Oscar for Outstanding Picture, while Murnau's film was credited with the award for Unique and Artistic Production. That second category lasted only one year, and it was retroactively determined that Wings had indeed achieved the highest honor for a picture in 1927. So that's what the history books say.

Still, that makes it a pretty good, and "unique" (in more than once sense of that word), choice to mark a milestone like 4,000 movies. For good measure, it was also one of two movies in the most recent Sight & Sound poll top 10 that I had yet to see.

Since this post is more about the experience of reaching 4,000 movies than the movie itself, I'll contain my thoughts on the movie to just two paragraphs.

If Sunrise seems unusual to us today, I can only imagine how unusual it must have seemed at the time. The story essentially involves an unnamed man living in an island vacation spot with his wife and young child, who is having an affair with a "girl from the city." The city girl convinces him to try to remove his wife from the picture by taking a boat trip with her and pushing her overboard, then claiming it was an accidental drowning. The man is out at sea in the rowboat, determined to go through with it, to the point that he has actually started lumbering menacingly toward her and leaving no doubt about his intentions. When he sees the fear and revulsion on her face, he has a change of heart and rows them to shore, where she runs from him. He catches up and apologizes so profusely that it appears to rekindle some deeply buried sense of affection between them. So completely does he recommit himself to his wife that he not only earns her forgiveness, but actually launches into a day and night on the town that recalls the carefree romanticism of their old days together. As it is customary for me not to spoil the ending of a movie, even one that is 87 years old, I will leave off my plot synopsis at this point.

What I find so strange about the movie is its fantastical belief in the power of love and the idea of redemption -- oh, and the fact that there's a part in the middle where a pig gets drunk on a bottle of spilled wine. We're talking about a wife who learns that her husband actually intends to kill her, to drown her, and yet she believes so fully in his sincere repentance that they become like youthful lovebirds again in a matter of hours. Who does that? It almost seems like something I should be seeing in one of my Bergman movies, some kind of meditation on God's unconditional love and how an earnest confession of sins can earn a person absolution. Aside from these wilder moments of the narrative, though, Sunrise is pretty amazing with respect to how it was actually appreciated by the Academy at the time: its technical achievements. The film is notable for its use of superimposed images, as Murnau layers images of his lover's face over the man as he contemplates the potential murder, and images of the city over their foggy coastal setting as she tries to sell him on a different life. The film also has a very sophisticated scene involving the storm that overtakes them at sea, with storm effects that must have challenged every existing method for creating such a scene. And the filming of those foggy nighttime scenes in the opening 20 minutes is simply magical. Overall, it's an impressive accomplishment, if also a supremely odd one.

And yes, I did fall asleep while watching it. On Sunday night, I brazenly thought, "Sure, no problem, I'll take down this 90-minute silent movie starting at 9:30 after having two glasses of wine with dinner." When that was not entirely possible, and two naps did nothing but push things well past midnight, I gave up and finished the last half-hour on Monday night. Maybe not the best call on a milestone movie night, but it's fairly representative of how I have to watch movies these days, so in that sense it's fitting.

So back to reaching 4,000. As I am also 40 years old, this achievement seems to hold for me a certain symmetry, beyond its status as simply another milestone. It brings my lifetime average cleanly to around 100 movies a year. And given how few movies I was watching, relatively speaking, for the first half of my life to date, that tells you how busy I've been in the second half.

This is also my fastest thousand movies. It took me until I was 26 years old to hit 1,000, and then nearly another six years to hit 2,000. Since I have been a father for almost all of my last thousand movies, I would have suspected that I got from 2,000 to 3,000 more quickly than I got from 3,000 to 4,000. But that's not the case. My previous thousand films took me 4 years, 7 months and 26 days, while these last thousand took 4 years, 3 months and 6 days. I initially couldn't account for it, but then I remembered that I watched only a couple movies a month in the months leading up to my wedding back in 2008. That alone could account for the difference.

The question I think I should be asking myself is what I think of getting to this milestone. Milestones are wont to make us contemplate the bigger questions, like How We Are Spending Our Time, and What We Are Doing With Our Lives. What might I have accomplished by now if I had had a more modest movie intake, and was hitting 2,000 movies at age 40 rather than 4,000?

Instead of fretting too much about that, I think I'll continue onward and upward and just get out to see #4,001 -- Guardians of the Galaxy -- tonight.


Jandy Hardesty said...

Sunrise has the auspicious distinction of being the first film I saw at Cinefamily after I moved to LA (beginning a several-year association with the theatre during which I was a regular volunteer and there at least once or twice a week until I got pregnant). So it's memorable to me because of that, but I also did fall completely in love with it. I think I didn't have an issue with the swift changes in character and relationship because the whole thing is so clearly poetic and expressionist that the raw emotion itself is the important thing, not the believability of that emotion. The very fact that nobody has names puts it on a mythical plane.

It also was the first film I saw that really proved to me the artistic heights of silent film.

Vancetastic said...


Those are good defenses of it. I agree, it's got a ton of artistry going for it. I was particularly taken with the split screens in the opening act. I guess my slight disappointment with it is that it reaches its height in that first act, then becomes a bit more middling as it goes along. It does get the groove back in the final act (especially love that storm and its aftermath), but the middle portion loses me a little bit.

Thanks for the comment!