I was in New York recently, where my time was mostly spent seeing films in the Allan Dwan retrospective series at MoMA. During my month long visit, I was most excited about seeing Escape To Burma (1955), starring my favourite Old Hollywood actress Barbara Stanwyck. So, it was inevitable that Murphy’s Law kicked in: a string of subway muck-ups made me late, and the aforementioned star draw of Stanwyck was the only reason I persisted in getting there. Arriving ten minutes into the film, I caught up on the plot easily enough, and afterwards, watching the film’s introductory scene on YouTube, I realised that I had walked into the cinema at the exact moment that her character walked onto the screen. I’d missed none of her.
I’ve never been keen on seeing a film if I’ve missed the beginning, or on watching a television show if I haven’t seen what comes before. This seems petty or even extreme to some of my peers, but then, I wonder whether those people would be as happy to read a book starting from the middle? Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of narratives that forego the typical beginning/middle/end structure. Or, maybe, it’s because I just really like the beginning of things: the broad shots, basic introductions, the explanatory set-ups. That said, I’m not as anxious as Woody Allen is in Annie Hall when, having missed the first two minutes, he refuses to walk into Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity even though he’s already seen it. But I do try my best to avoid such situations, at all times.
Back in the earlier decades of film exhibition, walking into a picture screening late was hardly a concern. Moviegoing traditions differed; members of the public would often buy a ticket to a session, walk in at any time, then walk out at the corresponding moment in the next looped screening. ‘This is where we came in’ became a common line said in cinemas-within-films, such as Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952) and the self-referential ending of Easy Living (1937). But habits changed, and attending the cinema became more of an event, rather than simply an activity to pass the time. The movies changed too, developing more demanding narratives, and in 1955 the closing credits of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s suspense film Les Diaboliques pleaded audiences to refrain from “evil” and not spoil the ending for others. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock upped the ante by prohibiting anyone from entering the cinema once his film Psycho had begun.
I wonder what Woody Allen thinks of the rise of a new type of film viewing that is a by-product of remix culture, that welcomes and sanctifies the early montage and later cut-up techniques in creating a new fragmented whole. It’s telling that his The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), set in New Jersey during the Depression, has Mia Farrow repeatedly enter a picture theatre in the middle of the movie, only to become fantastically immersed in the long run. Many of these cut-up films reflect an overwhelming appreciation of the cinematic art (some, like this edited montage of films-within-films, are quite uplifting), but with such a high volume online, only a small portion are of good, entertaining quality. Others can be poorly thought out and composed, cluttering up virtual space and diluting the excellence of artistic practice.
Even so, has this surge of a relatively new cinematic (or screen) artform seen a return to moviegoing practices of old, when all that mattered was watching something? I’m still not comfortable to see a film if I haven’t seen the beginning, but I’m happy to see random clips used in other works (especially if they are edited together as rhythmically as this). In many respects, creating and viewing supercuts like these is a recovery of some of the deviant viewing practices encouraged and enacted by the Surrealists. While a film can be a self-contained narrative – a record of a particular time and story – it is also a form in flux, always becoming something new with every subjective viewing experience.
Through remixing, recycling and rewatching moments of screen history, our culture is enacting a continuous celebration of cinema’s aura that defies the limitations predicted by German philosopher Walter Benjamin. Because elements of film culture are being reimagined and reproduced to create something new, there is a beautiful connection between past, present, and future screen art.
I can’t endorse everything about the spread of this aura, nor all of the cut-ups or videos, but the good stuff is giving me a new perspective on film history and helping me to value cinematic moments that I might have otherwise missed.
Eloise Ross is a Killings columnist and PhD candidate at La Trobe University. Her research interests include cinematic affect, phenomenologies of sound, and the senses. She infrequently writes at cinemelo.wordpress.com, and tweets more often at @EloiseLoRoss.