Tag Archives: classic movies

500 Movies # 7: Do You Believe in Magic?

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

Buster Keaton’s 1924 film, Sherlock, Jr., is one of the most classic of classics. It treated audiences to some of the first special effects in cinema, creating a film full of fantasy but also full of Keaton’s trademark witty and physical humor. The silent film is a film on film, and also a film within a film, a look at how we as an audience view cinema and what that cinema really means.

The plot centers on Keaton’s amateur detective/film projector operator protagonist. Everything is going okay for our hero, until his love’s father loses his watch. It turns out it was stolen by a villain, but Keaton is framed. Kicked out of her house he heads back to work, where, uncannily, the movie he is projecting carries the exact same plot, only with slightly more glitz and glamour. When he falls asleep in the projection room, he dreams he and his acquaintances are apart of the movie he is watching, and that is where the magic and fantasy begins to happen.

The film has the ability to evoke wonder and amazement in even a modern audience because it relies not on the special effects it pioneered but on the idea that all movies are inherently magical. And in a way, every movie is magical, no matter how real its subject matter. The larger-than-life images that cover the screen, the stories that speak to the audience, the images that fly across our line of sight, it’s all magic, even if there are no wizards or wands involved. Keaton understands this and when his character becomes a part of a movie, the magic of the movies becomes the key to the story.

In this dream film, the fourth wall is literally absent from buildings, so the audience can see what’s going on inside and outside at the same time. One moment, a man is standing in a doorway, and another moment, Keaton jumps right through him. A game of pool is played and the 13-ball is never, ever hit. Doors are mirrors and mirrors are doors. Yes, Keaton’s ghost emerges from his body and picks up a ghost hat, an impressive feat for 1924, but that is simply a part of the greater fantasy. Keaton almost doesn’t need the special effects; the magic of the film is carried on the backs of slide of hand and old-fashioned stunts.

In the end, the frame story that makes up most of Sherlock, Jr. isn’t that important. The title is deceiving; the movie isn’t about a mystery, but about movies themselves. When Keaton finally wakes up he looks not to himself for what to do, but to the movie that is still magically flickering across the giant screen. He wants to preserve that magic, to keep it going in his real world. But in the real world, you can’t just kiss and then cut to a scene years later. And he finally learns that life isn’t really like the movies. It’s just not quite as magical.

500 Movies #1: The Pulpiest of Fiction

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

1. Pulp Fiction (1994) Quentin Tarantino 

Pulp Fiction. Even its name connotes some type of importance, classicism. Everyone I talk to about film tells me that I have to have to see Pulp Fiction. It’s groundbreaking. It’s life-changing. It’s the best movie of the past 25 years. It’s just plain awesome.

Before I sat down to watch the movie, I had no idea what Pulp Fiction was about. I knew that Samuel L. Jackson was in it, that it was a Tarantino film, that it involved guns and drugs and a pop tart, but I didn’t know what the story was. So when I sat down to watch it with my roommate, herself a cinema studies major, I asked her, quite plainly, “so, what’s it about?” “A lot of things,” she replied, deepening my confusion. I sighed and decided to just get on with it and watch the movie.

I don’t know if “watched” is the right word to describe my experience with the movie. “Absorb” might be better. I didn’t watch it. I sat back and let the sounds and images flood over me. In essence, Pulp Fiction is about four intertwining stories and how and why they intertwine. I’d watched it, so I knew what it was about, but did I really know what it was about? Probably not.

Quickly I learned that the root of Pulp Fiction is not necessarily in the “fiction” itself, but in the overall feeling the film gives you. The story can be a little hard to follow when you don’t know how all the puzzle pieces fit together. But the story didn’t matter all that much. The overall pastiche of images and clips and sounds and characters and blood was the important part of the movie. I don’t particularly know if the idea of Uma Thurman and John Travolta doing the twist is particularly profound but the image of the two of them is resonating. They’re drunk. They’re high. They’re in a nostalgia 50s restaurant. They’re attracted to each other and they shouldn’t be. And they’re doing the twist, of all things. Two people who never looked so out of place and yet fit in so well. It might have been my favorite part of the movie.

To me, what makes a movie great is its ability to continue to amaze on multiple viewings. Without even doing so, I knew that Pulp Fiction was going to be one of those movies.One of my favorite things to do is to re-watch a movie or tv show. It’s probably the English major in me but I feel like there is so much to be gleaned from any one piece of art (and yes, I think both movies and tv are art, get over it) than you can get in an initial exposure to it. Whenever I write a paper about a book I read the book at least twice. There’s always something new to find. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least three or four times, but each time I go through the series again I find something new. And so as I sat in my living room and watched a couple argue the virtues of robbing restaurants, I knew there was something I was missing. And I was dying to find out what it was.

Is it the best movie of the last 25 years? I don’t know, I haven’t seen enough movies to judge that yet. But it was good. Damn it was good. I don’t usually like this kind of film. I abhor graphic violence, not out of any moral qualms but simply because I’m incredibly squeamish. I also usually like character driven movies with a protagonist I care about, rather than a smattering of smaller characters with questionable ethics. But there’s something about the pastiche that works so well here. When you see that Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are in the diner being robbed, there’s something almost poetic about it. The audience gets to smile at a private joke while Tim Roth has a gun pointed at his head. And so I really can’t wait to watch it again. I want to see what I missed.

Pulp Fiction is now 107/708 movies on my Flick Chart