The thing about leaving a college is that when you leave there are still three years worth of students who know who you are and want you to stay. We are a small school, which makes it even worse. Those having the toughest time seem to be the juniors, particularly the ones that were my advisees. Two in particular, Courtney and Tashia, are talented filmmakers and want to keep taking classes. Courtney constantly asks me for a list of films for her to watch so that she can continue her studies. So here is a better solution (I hope) than just a list.
Every Monday I will discuss a film that I am currently watching, is a favorite of mine, or one that I believe is a need to watch. At times I may discuss a director instead of a film or maybe even a year (1939 was a particularly good one). There are so many films out there that are worthwhile both historically, artistically, and as legends. I have not even seen everything that I "should" see and, trust me, I've seen a lot of films.
After over a decade of a study in the field I have come to realize that there are two films that if you have not seen them and were to delve into a conversation with a serious cinephile you would be at a lost. Now these two films need to be watched alongside plenty of other films that cover all the decades; keeping in mind that the first film screened in 1895, not 1985. The films from the 1890s are very important and luckily they are short and sweet! But, on to the films for today, this first one should be obvious...
Citizen Kane (Welles 1941)
Surprise! Yes, you need to watch Citizen Kane. In a way it is like telling an art student they should really see the Sistine Chapel. You don't need to be told. Regardless, I'm starting at the beginning here. This is also an unranked look at two films. I am in no way saying I think Citizen Kane is the best film ever (for the record I don't believe that), I'm just saying you need to watch it to understand the scope of cinema. Kane is important for any number of reasons the big one that you will hear over and over again is: deep focus. Welles and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, were very innovative in using the whole frame to visually tell the story even the background. Watch for the scene when a young Charles plays outside in the snow while his mother makes a deal regarding his life inside their house.
When first watching films it can be hard to understand how a story is told visually and when a story is not being told visually because film is a visual medium. This film should help you to see what can be done visually and why your favorite film last year may not have been nominated for an Oscar. Welles uses every shot in the film to say something about a character or to move the story.
On the Waterfront (Kazan 1954)
I watched On the Waterfront in more classes in college than Citizen Kane and I have undoubtedly shown it more often in classes that I have taught. It couldn't be more different, at least when looking at Hollywood movies, than Citizen Kane. While Kane is an epic visual powerhouse Waterfront is more personal with extensive location shooting. The acting plays the pivotal role in this film and the camera work often plays second fiddle. For instance in the famous white glove sequence where Marlon Brando improvised his actions after Eva Marie Saint dropped her glove. Kazan allowed the camera to continue to roll as Brando began to fiddle with the glove and put it on his hand. The symbolism is strong due to her innocent white glove and the action of him putting it on his hand. His guilt in the involvement of her brother's murder is in question and by taking her glove it can be seen to foreshadow his later actions.
Even though Kazan allowed his actors the freedom to improvise his film still has plenty of visual interest for instance when we see Charlie is revealed in the alley. Another interesting aspect of this film is that it can be read as Elia Kazan's explanation for his testimony at the HUAC trials where he named names. He had held out naming names for awhile and he never gave a clear explanation as to why he suddenly changed his mind and named names. All of the characters in the film can be substituted for various players in the HUAC trials notably with the Brando character representing Kazan.
Notice that both films are in black and white. It's important to not be scared of black and white; it's beautiful. Particularly in films before 1970 when the cinematographers really knew what they were doing when creating images with light and shadows. During my Introduction to Film class at the University of Colorado I overheard two girls planning on skipping out on the film because they couldn't handle all the black and white films they were being forced to watch. They did not understand why they couldn't watch recent movies. Of course, me being the film student snob I was, rolled my eyes and thought to myself, "Why are you even taking this class?" Counting films out just because they are not in color is a huge mistake some of the most amazing films were filmed in black and white. In fact if I were to add a third film to this list it would also be in black and white: Casablanca. Ironically, I believe the film they skipped out on was Last Year at Marienbad, which I just received from Netflix last week.