Earth has fallen


A year or so ago I spent (some might say wasted) an inordinate amount of time compiling a list of films that I regarded as key to the understanding of the creative processes that go to make great cinema. I published them on IMDb as 40 films to help you understand the cinema.
Such lists are, evidently, subjective but I believe a subjective list from someone who has given a lifetime to extolling the virtues of the cinema as an art has more validity than one from a casual cinema goer. I will take a couple of entire posts to explain the origin and methodology of the list creation process, but I want, here, to show how hazardous such an endeavour can become.
Even while I was working full-time in the cinema, it was never possible to continually refresh one’s mind of the entire canon of classic films. You are left with your memory of a film and a general sense of its ‘importance’. This can vary from wild enthusiasm to subdued reverence.
One of the undoubted highlights of the Centenary of Cinema season which I presented at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast throughout 1996 was a screening of Alexandr Dovzhenko’s Earth. Even though the print (copy) of the film was poor, the improvised piano accompaniment by a music student whose name now escapes me, was magnificent and the film duly earned a great ovation. Even before that screening, on the basis of a single film society screening in my student days, I had regarded the film as an apogee of poetic silent cinema (and that was its reputation).
There was, hence, no doubt in my mind that it belonged on my list of 40 Films… In my commentary on the list, I happily extolled its virtues, safe in the knowledge that my judgement was sound:

 In a way, silent film aesthetics are a ‘disjoint subset’ of modern film aesthetics. That is to say that there are not only some things that sound film can do that silent film cannot, but some things that silent film can do that sound film ‘cannot’. Obviously, one can make a film and simply leave off the soundtrack, but that actually creates a different aesthetic, as it is necessary to express visually not only the words that people say (which can be done with inter-titles), but also the intonation, and the sense of noise or silence in the film world.
Of all silent films, I believe that Alexandr Dovzhenko’s Earth does it best.
An only mildly propagandist story of simple Ukrainian farmers is turned into exquisite visual poetry by the director, whose other work is barely ever shown. 

Nothing too controversial there, then. Except that I was idly flicking through YouTube, a subset of which is available on my smart DVD player, when I encountered a ” full movie” version of the film.
I know I will now be hoisted on my own petard. Yes, internet films are a shadow of their ‘full’ selves, but I wanted to check out my memory of the film from 20 years ago.
Oh dear, the first 10 minutes are static and turgid. Well after twenty minutes the visual methodology starts to emerge and by the halfway mark, one can start to appreciate Dovzhenko’s command of the cinematic form. But should it really be in my 40 films? I think not.

So the questions I want to ask are:
a) Since the film hasn’t changed over the past 20 years since I saw it last, is it my aesthetics that have changed, or was the circumstance of the screening resonating with the sense of grandeur that the Centenary of Cinema season sought to encompass?
b) Are all classics subject to such deformation of valuation in time?

I will return to this in the near future.

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Retired cultural cinema director and film magazine editor living in deepest rural France.

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