It’s important to be a student of the past. Christians, after all, are pupils of a religion that spans centuries. Our discipleship is a constant reshifting of perspective to help us better embrace and embody the one, true narrative which threads all of space and time. This conviction must run through all our lives, not only in the specifics of our faith but in the entirety of our cultural consumption.
It makes sense that a Christian who loves movies might also be a cinephile - a movie-watcher who is interested not just in the latest blockbuster release but also in the obscure corners and remote past of cinema. We are students of what came before; and we know wisdom lends itself to the careful watcher. Therefore, part of our call to be disciples is to remain the student: ever-learning and growing in knowledge. That mission is not done in a vacuum. The elusive yet idolatrized “now” cannot be inhabited well without an understanding of history’s knot and how its threads run through to today.
Admittedly, this is a roundabout way to begin an article on film retrospectives, but it’s important. People embedded in history must appreciate the full scope. This is why film festivals hold retrospective screenings: to highlight from whence modern cinema emerges. Every beginning has its primordial ooze, and the call of the good viewer is to know the way a thing evolves in order to have a better understanding of the whole. We practice this in our faith; we should practice in our faith-lives as well.
Both 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop and 2002’s Far From Heaven screened at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival. Each tackles the tide of cultural sway in ways that speak loudly into our present day. The films share an anniversary this year – one forty-five years old and the other fourteen. And though the pairing seems arbitrary (it is), the more I’ve thought about the two as companions, the more I see them reflect and refract off of one another. They are equally case studies of American history and culture, and both call us to appreciate the history of the medium as students and not mere spectators.
If the two have a common subject its that of surfaces, notably the visage of American life. Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) was born of the “New Hollywood” movement and through stoic, quiet characters and a similar visual approach, this seminal film documents the pervading sense of youthful melancholy of that time. It’s a text of youth lost on the American highway; the road which observes the traveler. The aesthetic is staunchly expressive yet charted out via non-expression. It’s pregnant with the idea of thrill-seeking yet unrelentingly never gives into its urges.
Hellman maintains distance throughout, paying attention to the inhabitants of the land. What is this America? The surface reverberates this question back at the viewer by studying the malaise and solitude of the late-60s and early-70s, which is odd for a film focused on drag-racing the backroads of middle America and that has a semi-antagonist that plays as a forlorn, BSing peacock of a man in a GTO. Two-Lane Blacktop never screams. It’s a contemplative, at times unmoved search for America’s wayward spirit. There’s the cars, the lover, and the road, yet no where to go.
Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2001) is an homage to Douglas Sirk’s 50s Technicolor melodramas. These were films about the staunch societal norms of mid-century America. Haynes and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Ed Lachman, borrow Sirk to address with more honesty (thanks to the freedom of independent studio money) the social ills of racism and homophobia that color our world still today. Like Two-Lane Blacktop, the American visage is explored through style and character. Imitation runs through the film. Much like the adopted aesthetic, these characters hide from the realities of life. They are fearful of society proper and its judgments. Their masks of happiness and pleasantry hide the truth.
As the film unfurls like its characters, the fatalism of the time is obstinate. There is no social freedom, not even for the middle-class. How much more unavailable is it then for the minority: the African-American gardener, the oppressed housewife? The aesthetic surface screams what the characters long for inside, yet the architecture never cracks. As film remains, so society’s oppressive structures will stand firm.
The films both speak to their own time, yet ripple out into cinema today. (Far From Heaven is trickier since it’s a film made in 2001 but set in the 50s and which borrows a 50s visual style; it speaks to today by colliding the past and the present.) Each is a study of American life at a certain time. And many of the people from the respective generations on display are still alive today. These times were real, and they shaped (for better or for worse) our existence today. What is America – on the surface, underneath? These two films search for a heart. In their very different approaches and settings, the same thing is on their mind. Where is the American spirit we were promised? Modern cinema still has those concerns on its mind. Have we progressed? Is the surface cycled out every other decade? That’s for the observant student to point out.
Retrospectives help us to look past the surface. Much like these two films, the student is called to press into the vision to thread history. By this, the good observer can learn to navigate stories. She can learn to retell them by revisiting them. And by retelling them, she can learn to craft them in renewed visions, ones that speak to people now, that demand others to open their eyes. We are called to be patient observers of the world. History is the best lens for that discipline.
This call is inherent to our make-up. We are ourselves living documents of other times. Our lifespans, God-willing, run decades. Our bodies and minds move through time and space as witnesses, markers, artifacts of culture and environment. We live and we grow wiser. It’s the past which teaches us how to navigate the present. If we are historied things, then it’s makes sense that we learn and grow as we interact with other historied things. Films from other times bring life from a different world. They invite us to embed ourselves in another context. It’s unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable. But we learn, and we grow.