Our favourite films (Part One)

I’ve tried this sort of post before, in which I write about my favourite films and why they are my favourite films. Its a subject that really does interest me. There are good films, great films, average films, terrible films, we can judge films and drop them into one of those categories but whether we fall in love with them or not… something happens. Some connection. Its easy to explain why I might love a really good film, quite another to explain why I love a film that I know intellectually is pretty bad.

It is also true, I think, that our favourite films say everything about us. I’ve often thought that you can tell a lot about someone by looking at the books on their bookcase -presuming of course they even have a bookcase, or read books, which nowadays isn’t necessarily so- and that logic works just as well for someone with a film collection on DVD or Blu-ray that might reside on a shelf. Although, God knows, it would have to be a hell of a big shelf to house all my films on disc… okay then, imagine you have a shelf for your ten or twenty favourite films. What would they be?

This part is kind of fun, if sometimes frustrating. Ten or twenty favourite films. Its not really as  easy as you might think. Well, naturally, one film on that shelf of mine would be Blade Runner, my very favourite film that I have carried around with me since 1982, such a long time it seems it’s existed forever. Its not the best film ever made but it is my favourite….

Yeah, let’s be clear here: these are favourite films, not what you should  consider to be the best films ever made. That’s two seperate lists, really. I sound like some kind of film geek here, but it’s an important point. I know most of my favourite films are not perfect, and are nowhere near as important in the grand scheme of things as many other films. Now, some of my favourite films are indeed great films (that’s ‘Great’ with a capital ‘G’) which is a happy coincidence but that’s really all it is, coincidence.

We love the films we love for all sorts of different things. It might be the time in which we saw them, what they meant to us at the time, it might be how they made us feel, what emotional connection they made with us, it might be the connection they give us with the past and when we first saw them, the people we saw them with, the people and the places they remind us of.

So in my case, what would that shelf over there look like if I just put my very favourite films on it? Blade Runner, The Thin Red Line, Vertigo, The Apartment, Citizen Kane, The Assassination of the Outlaw Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Taxi Driver, Its A Wonderful Life, Once Upon a Time in America, How to Murder Your Wife, Glengarry Glen Ross, Alien, Jaws… it’s pretty easy at the start, but once you start limiting oneself to ten or even twenty, it gets pretty hard when you start to realise which films you might be omitting.

Hmm. This really needs more thought.

I think back to a list I made back in the early 1980s, I think I even have it somewhere in the back of a notebook up in the loft. It had a lot of films from that period of time. Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, The Empire Strikes Back, Citizen Kane, 2001… with time, all these lists can be embarrassing. What, I loved that film? I haven’t seen it in years! You know how that goes. I don’t expect we should love, say, the same ten movies for all our lives. There’s plenty of new ones to usurp old ones, afterall, or at least, you’d like to think there might be. Wouldn’t it be boring if there was nothing new to fall in love with and undo the sanctity of the list?

The list says everything about who we are NOW, and old lists, if we kept them, say everything about who we were THEN.

Films can be incredibly tangible, powerful connections with the past. Take Ridley Scott’s rather low-key film White Squall. Certainly, it’s not one of my favourites, I recall only mildly enjoying it when I first saw it. But, and here’s the but- I remember seeing it with my fiance the afternoon before we were to be married. More clearly than the actual movie, perhaps, I remember walking out of the multiplex cinema into a big car park and it was raining, a real storm in fact and remember thinking about what was happening the next day (the big day turned out fine, by the way). I have not seen the film since, not since that day so many years ago. Why I’ve never watched it again I’m not sure, but I am absolutely certain that if/when I do ever watch that film again, it will throw me right back to that afternoon and walking out into that storm.

I think my favourite films are like that. Films I have made an intense emotional bond with, and with which I connect in all sorts of ways and engender all sorts of memories and nostalgic connections with. The best films, our favourite films, they are a part of us, which is why it’s more an emotional connection than an intellectual one. I am pretty sure music buffs will say its just the same with their favourite albums and songs.

Whenever I think of Blade Runner, I’m not really thinking of the 2007 Final Cut, although that is clearly the definitive version. I’m really thinking of that original voiceover version, staying in the old ABC cinema to watch it twice that first Saturday afternoon, watching it in a double-bill with Outland early in 1983 (and being shocked at someone walking out midway through Blade Runner), and having it on a VHS (ahoy, pirate!) copy for Christmas 1983, and darn near wearing that damn thing out. I remember staying up late on Boxing Day, the rest of the family asleep upstairs, and me watching Harrison Ford entering the Bradbury building, the eerie music, the moody lighting, just wallowing in it, thinking it was the best Christmas present ever.

So anyway, I think this all deserves more thought and I’ll return to this a little later, perhaps with a selection of my favourite films and what makes them favourites.

Anybody out there got ten, or even five favourites that they can easily share?

From the Archives: OUTLANDish Good Fun (January 2007)

OUTLAND-ish good fun January 7, 2007

It was, I think, early 1983, and I was looking through my local paper’s cinema listings to see if anything was on. To my great surprise I noticed that there was a matinee double-bill at the ABC cinema in town, of OUTLAND followed by BLADE RUNNER. Well, the chance to see my favorite film again was just too much to pass up. You must remember, this was back when video was just starting out, and the amazing days of actually owning your own copy of a movie was (besides being undreamed of) still many years away. Back then a very few films had appeared on video and they cost a small fortune (of course the video market would be responsible for resurrecting the fortunes of BLADE RUNNER, but that was still a few years off). So anyway, BLADE RUNNER being back on at my local cinema was a big deal, and offered a chance to see OUTLAND for the first time as a bonus.

So me and my mate Andy caught a bus into town and walked into our ABC cinema. The double-bill was showing on one of the smaller screens, a dark, dingy, auditorium with old, tattered and worn, red-cloth seats that creaked and groaned with old age, and seemed haunted by the ghosts of decades of old films and the smells they had left behind. I’m sure the whole cinema was haunted, it was a wonderful old place and of course it closed years ago, put out of business by a soul-less multiplex built out of town in 1989, but that’s another story.

I hadn’t seen OUTLAND before, so it was new to me. Now I realise it wasn’t a sequel to ALIEN but by God it should have been, it was closer to Ridley Scott’s film than any of it’s actual sequels, all it lacked was an actual alien. In just the same way that SUPERMAN RETURNS displays a love and affection for Donner’s 1978 movie, so OUTLAND displays an absolute conviction that blatantly ripping-off ALIEN was the only way to do ‘proper’ science fiction. Well it made a change from ripping-off STAR WARS I suppose. Yes the days of STAR WARS clones like THE BLACK HOLE, STARCRASH, FLASH GORDON, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS etc were numbered, at least until Lucas would decide to do it himself and make the prequels decades later… 

But back to OUTLAND. Boy, what a movie. The titles have an air of deja-vu that warns you of what is coming. As the cast credits appear on-screen over a starry background (just like ALIEN), the ‘OUTLAND’ logo slowly begins to form behind them (just like ALIEN), while a moody ambient score by Jerry Goldsmith drones on like an out-take of his own ALIEN score. I don’t know why, but nowadays I find it hard to believe that Pete Hyams could get away with it. After the title coalesces into view and disappears in a blaze of light, we are shown fx-shots of Jupiter and the Con-Am Mining station, while an on-screen text tells us where we are, what we are seeing, much the same way as the text-card in ALIEN described the Nostromo and it’s mission. Funnily enough the models were built by Martin Bower, who I believe also made the miniatures for ALIEN. The costumes were designed by John Mollo, who had designed the costumes for ALIEN… the production design wasn’t by anyone related to ALIEN but might as well have been. I always watch OUTLAND and think that it’s actually a prequel to ALIEN, at least set in the same universe, half-expecting the Nostromo to turn up in one of the exterior space shots or John Hurt to make a cameo in one of the bar-room scenes.

I probably seem very scathing about OUTLAND being some bastard love-child of ALIEN, but I don’t really intend to. I really quite like OUTLAND, it’s dirty, lived-in future with normal joes working in space is great, and there’s a real charm to it’s nods to ALIEN. It reminds me now of a kind of science-fiction cinema resigned to history (although it was temporarily resurrected in EVENT HORIZON, ‘homage’-fans). What doesn’t help OUTLAND is that while it was remaking much of ALIEN visuals-wise, it was of course remaking a western, HIGH NOON, at the same time. It’s as if Hyams had read reviews of STAR WARS describing it as a western in space and decided that if he remade HIGH NOON and it looked like ALIEN then he couldn’t lose. Hyams was no hack, and OUTLAND is probably his best film, it’s just unfortunate that he seemed to follow trends rather than set them himself. His later 2010, while naturally borrowing from 2001, also shared design credentials with BLADE RUNNER (‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead). I suppose you could argue that Hyams remaking HIGH NOON in space was indeed trendsetting, as it pre-figured by some twenty years the methods of modern Hollywood.

The cast works very well, Sean Connery is reliable as ever, back when he was still trying to shake off the ghost of Bond. The late, great Peter Boyle is excellent, and James B. Sikking and Frances Sternhagen are good support. This was back in the days when a cast could be over the age of 30, still headline a film and not all look stunningly beautiful thanks to surgery. The score is vintage Jerry Goldsmith (he had a fantastic habit of elevating average films with his scores) and the photography (by Hyams himself) is suitably atmospheric, showing off the sets very well. The fx are very good, pre-cgi. 

Watching it as a warm-up film before BLADE RUNNER, I really enjoyed it, pleasantly surprised by the quality of its production design and it’s refreshingly ‘adult’ themes about narcotics and crime and it’s lived-in future. The film has actually aged quite well over the years, probably much better than other minor sci-fi films of the period, and I often wonder wistfully at what a ‘proper’ sequel to ALIEN directed by Hyams might have been like, the guy certainly had the eye for it.

So anyhow, the auditorium was pretty much deserted, just a handful of shadowy figures in there with me and Andy watching these science-fiction films on a wintry afternoon. OUTLAND ended and after a short break BLADE RUNNER started and I was in heaven. And then about thirty minutes into BLADE RUNNER one of those shadowy figures a few rows infront stood up and shuffled out and never came back. He had watched OUTLAND and then walked out during the greatest science-fiction film yet made. Gob-smacked, I couldn’t believe it, distracted for the rest of the film wondering why the guy left, and never came back.  It’s funny as you get older, the things you just don’t forget, and that guy, whoever he was, I’ve never forgotten. Maybe he got mugged walking back from the gents. I mean, he had to have a good excuse, yes? I’ve seen some bloody bad films at the cinema but I never walked out of a movie, I always stayed until the bitter end. Hell, I saw SLIPSTREAM right up to those bloody balloons at the end. I wear that fact like a badge of courage.

So anyway, I bought OUTLAND on DVD in a sale the other day. Might watch it tonight, can’t wait.