I'd like to take a moment, if I may, to talk about revivals. It's a dirty word to most critics, and an even greater number of editors. "Why should we bother reviewing an old movie?" they ask. You'd think it would be a prerequisite for the job, but the sad truth is that most critics have very little notion of film history; they're out there flying blind.
For example, a knowledge of early cinema, and especially the heavily-textured work of F.W. Murnau or Max Ophuls, may have helped most mainstream critics appreciate the beautiful work Terrence Malick turned in on The New World, while at the same time realizing that Memoirs of a Geisha and Brokeback Mountain were really only so much postcard posturing.
There are four older movies currently on the charts: Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol (1948) is on 2 screens with a $104,000 gross after 20 weeks. Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969) is on 6 screens with a gross of $330,000 after 9 weeks. Claude Sautet's Classe tous risques (1960) is hanging on after 30 weeks with $91,000, and G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1928) just opened on 1 screen.
These grosses do not take into consideration the monies earned during the films' original releases. But at the same time, they also do not take into consideration the new expenses racked up by the skilled technicians who spent hours and hours restoring these films to pristine perfection.
One company has done remarkably well in sustaining itself in business while releasing mainly revival films. Rialto Pictures was founded in 1997 and has distributed, among others: Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963), Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966). They scored their biggest hit in 2004 with Ishiro Honda's original, uncut Godzilla (1954).
Additionally, they spearheaded an all-important restoration of five classics by the great Luis Bunuel: Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), The Milky Way (1969), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Phantom of Liberty (1974) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
Any critic who bothered to review the Rialto films over the past ten years would have received an automatic, mini film school. But when I attended the press screenings, I was usually accompanied by only one or two other reporters (as opposed to the 50 or 60 who show up for swill like The Da Vinci Code). The irony of the situation is that, when these older movies do get reviewed, the copy usually alludes to the fact that they are unquestionably the best things playing in the multiplexes at that particular moment.
Right now, I can't think of a better current release than Melville's Army of Shadows (except maybe Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times). It's an exciting, if grim and unflagging portrait of war and the ultimate fruitlessness of it all. Its more brave and clever than nearly any war movie made since. Similarly, Pandora's Box is one of the most vivid, luminous pictures from the silent era, thanks mostly to the presence of Ms. Louise Brooks. Each time I see the film, I find it difficult to suppress a gasp when she appears on screen. She's still more striking than many of today's stars.
In 2005, I had the pleasure of reviewing Sam Peckinpah's restored Major Dundee (1965), a Harold Lloyd retrospective, and Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975). In the years between 1997 and 2004, I saw new prints and director's cuts of everything from Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) to Vigo's L'Atalante (1934), Lang's Metropolis (1927) to Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), and Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953) to Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (1983). The list reaches over a hundred, but I'll spare any more details (or boasting). Nevertheless, just looking it over again makes my heart feel good. I got to see them all on the big screen, and I consider those experiences among the high points of my job.
There's the question, of course, of those who live in smaller towns with no revival houses. The good news is that these re-releases usually call for new DVDs as well, which can be ordered or rented from anywhere.
We live in a culture where new, young and fresh is valued above all else, but there is endless, untapped value in exploring the old. Learning your history, even if it's only the meager 100+ years of film history, can shed all kinds of new light on recent releases and patterns of behavior. Do yourself a favor and support these brave, small companies who risk everything for such minimal rewards.