Sometimes, It Takes Years

In the fifth episode of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, airing Monday night, Stanley Donen talks about how much he hated all that impersonal, geometric choreography of Busby Berkeley.   He disliked it so much that when he put together Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly, they even inserted a whole montage mocking it.  And no, they weren’t paying homage to it.  Donan himself makes clear, they were mocking it.  But the thing is, years later, Donan came to appreciate what Berkeley did and now he loves it.  I’ve had the same experience countless times with film where hate turns to love.  Sometimes, how you finally feel about a movie is a lifelong journey.


It’s almost embarrassing to admit how many movies I’ve turned around on, or how many actors.  It’s such an immense list that I like to keep most of it to myself for fear that people will think I’m too fickle or not discerning enough to figure out what’s good and bad upon first seeing something.  But that’s the important point:  There is no good or bad in the evolution of an education on film, because art tends to change from our perspective as we change.  The film stays the same the whole time.   As a result, I’ve found that most of my views on film in my teens and twenties are miles away from how I feel today.  In my youth, I was especially hard on films that weren’t told in obvious, straightforward ways.   I thought anything not out of the Classic Hollywood Storytelling Playbook was pretentious or trying too hard.  Many foreign films I felt this way about I viewed again, later in life (most in the last five years), on the big screen at the AFI and thought, “Wow, did I miss the point of this movie!”

Other movies occupied the canon and I took great pleasure in showing how much more clever I was than the critical establishment.  “What’s that?  This is one of the greatest movies ever made?  Hardly.  Let me explain to you why.”  Ugh.  Thank God the internet wasn’t around then.  Seriously, thank the heavens!  I don’t have any hard evidence on how stupid I was sitting out there in cyberspace.

But it was the movies that weren’t in the canon that I was particularly hard on and that bugs me the most.    Kind of like how Donan feels now.  I look at movies I was derisive of and realize how much greatness they contained, if only I’d looked past my own smug self-satisfaction.  When I saw a movie like Ben-Hur, I’d deride how dull it was or how leaden or how wooden Charlton Heston was.  And you know what, I was wrong on a lot of that.   It doesn’t mean the movie itself is great but that it has many great elements to it that I can appreciate now that I couldn’t then.  For one thing, it moves along at a much faster clip than I gave it credit for and I didn’t give it credit for that because it worked against my self-serving narrative.  For another, the sea battle and chariot race sequences are still two of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen in any movie.  And finally (and I don’t wanna hear no guff), Heston isn’t wooden.  In fact, Heston was pretty damn good.  There’s a difference between wooden and stoic and Heston fell towards the latter.  I’m sorry but, as much as I made fun of Heston’s acting in my youth, as if everyone is supposed to be Jimmy Cagney or Bette Davis, I’ve never been disappointed by the man.  From the truly dull Greatest Show on Earth to the always fun The Omega Man, Heston always delivered and whatever I said about him when I was younger, I officially take back  here and now.

Then there’s musicals.  Oh sure, it was always cool to like Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire stuff.  But the big musicals, with the big stage productions and even bigger film adaptations, like West Side Story, Oklahoma or The Sound of Music?  That was never as cool and for years I didn’t give them the proper credit they deserved.  I’m still not as big a fan of them cinematically, where I prefer smaller, cleaner, faster but musically I love them.  I even have the entire orchestral suite of West Side Story, conducted by Leonard Bernstein himself, on CD and Surrey with the Fringe on Top from Oklahoma?  What a great song!  Oh yes, and my last example, The Sound of Music?  Well, I’d mentioned it here before in the last couple of years and even had some readers take me to task for dismissing it.  I watched it again and, yes, it did seem a lot better than I’d remembered it.  And here’s why: When I was younger, I had a tendency to dismiss movies with happy endings, thinking hard, gritty realism was always the preferred method.  But not every movie can be that way and I wouldn’t want them to be.  I’m not as a big a fan of The Sound of Music‘s score as I am of West Side Story or Oklahoma (by the same songwriting team as The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein) but the film itself is gorgeously shot and beautifully acted.  No, really, it is.  And I’m fine with that now.

west side story

And the movies.  Oh, how many movies I’ve turned around on.  And again, I’m talking about so-called non-cool movies.  Movies with Doris Day, movies with silly romantic plots, movies with songs performed with Arthur Godfrey and scenes of Paul Lynde in drag.   In other words, The Glass-Bottom Boat.  How can that be a cool movie to like?  But guess what?  I like it.  And I always liked it, I just couldn’t admit it to myself until I was a little older and had somehow proven my street cred as a critic, or some such nonsense.

Then there are other movies I’ve talked about here and elsewhere, movies that got mediocre to bad reviews that I parroted for years until looking at them again and thinking, “This isn’t bad at all.”  One that I’ve mentioned many times online is Tora! Tora! Tora!  If you asked me thirty years ago, I’d parrot the bad reviews it got and tell you how dull and stiff it was.  Then I rewatched it a few years back and thought, “Hey, this is pretty good.  What the…?”  And Tora! Tora! Tora! is exactly the type of stolid war movie I also dismissed for years.   If it wasn’t harrowing, it wasn’t good.  But then I really started to appreciate all the great war movies from the forties and fifties and sixties.  Propaganda?  Sure, a lot of them.  Still damn good though.  Adventure movies using war as a cartoon backdrop?  Yep, and now I can see the good in them even if they aren’t All Quiet on the Western Front.   And who the hell wants every war movie they see to be All Quiet on the Western Front anyway?

Someone once wrote (just last year, I think, but I can’t remember the writer) that when he read Ulysses as a teen, he hated it.  When he read it again in middle age, he loved it.  The book was the same, he just needed 10,000 or so days in between readings to appreciate it.  That’s how I feel from the other way around.  It wasn’t the great stuff I wasn’t appreciating, it was the good stuff I was missing because I was too busy acting like the great stuff was all I was interested in.   So I was glad to see Stanley Donan come around to Busby Berkeley.  There’s a lot out there to appreciate in the cinema, from all different levels of quality.  They’re always there for us to see, when we’re ready to see them.  Sometimes we see them right away but sometimes, it takes years.  And when we finally see them, see them for what they really are, we realize, as we always do, it was worth the wait.


15 Responses Sometimes, It Takes Years
Posted By Brent : September 29, 2013 1:34 pm

Always loathed The Sound of Music from repeated forced screenings as a kid. Then I saw the sing-along version where you’re ENCOURAGED to make wisecracks. Ya know what… watching it with a crowd determined to peel away the schmaltz revealed that there’s a pretty good movie underneath.

Posted By LD : September 29, 2013 2:27 pm

In my early teens the films, later to be classified s film noir, were the bulk of what I watched on afternoon and late night television. They were considered to be old, B, black and white movies. I thought the films were depressing. Decades later while channel surfing and feeling nostalgic about films of the past, I landed on THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, coincidentally shown earlier today on TCM. I was hooked. Noir is now my favorite genre.

Then there is Bogart, also on TCM earlier in DEAD RECKONING. For as long as I can remember he has been an icon. I just didn’t get it. Now after seeing so much of his work I understand how terrific he was. What was I thinking?

Guess I just had to grow up and live life to appreciate both the genre and the actor.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 29, 2013 5:11 pm

Glad your post is up — and it is a good one. I have changed my mind with many films over the years, partly because we mature and change as we get older and partly because commercial Hollywood films have deteriorated since the studios now cater to such a specific age group. I appreciate the star quality and professionalism of someone like Doris Day, when contemporary actresses are little more than skinny, bland look-alikes (Megan Fox vs. Olivia Wilde vs. ?). When writing about THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, I discovered that the three-part narrative structure made for a tightly crafted screenplay, and the ensemble cast of stars were game and charismatic. I can’t say the same for blockbusters today.

Posted By Gene : September 29, 2013 6:09 pm

Very interesting post. When I was younger I had a hard time not holding every movie up to the measurement of a Kurosawa or Fellini or Welles. I grew up loving “schmaltzy” Hollywood films but went through a period where film for pure entertainment sake was somehow not good enough. It took quite some time for me to appreciate that Spielberg was a talent even though to this day I do prefer his dramas over most of his “popular” fare. When you mention Ben Hur, I never had a problem with that film because to me it was a cut above most Hollywood bibical era epics. It may not be considered a masterpiece but it really is a movie with great production values and some solid performances. The Sound of Music may not be Citizen Kane – The Musical, but Robert Wise was an excellent director and there is a reason it was the biggest box office hit for 10 years until the summer that Spielberg unleashed Jaws to the world. Regardless of how unrealistic it may be – it’s a movie. Not all films have to deal with reality in a clinical fashion. The Glass Bottom Boat was silly, in a stupendously grand way. And, it was well done. Out of boredom I went to this summer’s latest Jennifer Aniston comedy. The latter half had some funny moments but the pacing, and delivery were wooden too much of the time. The actors came across as actors receiving a big paycheck rather than as characters caught up in an absurd situation. That’s as much the director’s fault as anything and it also comes from not knowing the difference between a SNL gag and a feature length film. All that did, or may still seem absurd, from Hollywood past is usually far greater than the juvenile drivel put out today.

Posted By Doug : September 29, 2013 6:40 pm

Thank you for this, Greg, and I feel the same way; I am not who I was 30 years ago. As I’ve said here before, we have an embarrassment of riches today, having access to so many more films at the touch of a button. We can revisit “The Glass Bottom Boat” as I did last week and see it through older, hopefully wiser eyes.
Last night I watched Doris Day/Rock Hudson in “Lover Come Back” which I had never seen but had assumed would be lesser than the great “Pillow Talk”.
Well, it knocked the stuffins out Pillow Talk, and was the better picture by far.
Like Greg, I’m glad that the internets weren’t around to keep track of my youthful opinions regarding movies and everything else. I’ve changed, but the movies, aside from Star Wars, stay the same.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : September 29, 2013 10:20 pm

i can distinctly remember being disappointed by Val Lewton’s films when they were shown on my local “chiller theater” when i was a young horror film fan,there weren’t any monsters,and everyone talked a lot!…much later on as my “tastes” developed a bit more,i can remember taking a day off from work specifically to watch a rare screening of The Seventh Victim on the old AMC,the only thing i can equate it with is being a fan of certain music and dismissing everything else that doesn’t sound like it,until much later you hear it again with a different perspective

Posted By Andrew : September 30, 2013 1:00 pm

Sometimes I wonder if these changes in attitude aren’t also about our expectations. If I go to the trouble and expense and hassle of actually going to a movie theater I want Citizen Kane combined with Raiders of the Lost Ark and I am almost always disappointed. However if I stumble across the same movie on cable one night, I am more open to the movie and willing to accept it for what it actually is.

If I go to a well reviewed, expensive, five star restaurant and a side dish is off, I feel like the whole meal is diminished because I am expecting culinary perfection. I wander into some hole the wall diner and one part of the meal is great, I feel like I hit the jackpot because I am simply hoping to dispel my hunger without food poisoning.

Posted By robbushblog : September 30, 2013 6:24 pm

I can’t think of a movie that I’ve done a total 180 on. It did take 3 viewings to go from “not crazy about” to “like” concerning Blade Runner, but neither view is extreme.

I can think of one particular actor though, who I used to dismiss regularly as just another sissy, pretty-boy, girl trying to act like a boy or man. That actor is Leonardo DiCaprio. I stopped watching Growing Pains because of his character. The love-starved teenage girl fans of Titanic, Romeo and Juliet, The Beach and The Man in the Iron Mask couldn’t convince me he was anything other than a pretty-boy. Ultimately it took Martin Scorsese, with an assist from Christopher Nolan, to learn to appreciate that Leo is a really good actor. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape wasn’t much of a convincer to me back when. “What teenage boy hasn’t acted like that on occasion?”, I thought. His Scorsese films, with the exception of Gangs of New York (He was not convincing at all to me), have really showcased his skills and I have apologized to him via brain patterns. I was wrong.

Posted By george : September 30, 2013 7:44 pm

I thought John Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN was boring, until I got old enough to appreciate it. I now regard it as a Ford classic. Same thing happened with Hitchcock’s MARNIE and more than one Jerry Lewis movie (CINDERFELLA and THE PATSY come to mind).

Posted By Emgee : September 30, 2013 7:47 pm

I’ve revised my opinion of both Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark. I made the childish assumption that because they played loathsome characters they must be pretty afwful themselves.
Now i’ve seen and read much more about them i’m an ardent admirer.

Ben-Hur is a good film but just waaaay too long.

PS Spotted several Donans throughout your blog; sorry to pick nits.

Posted By gregferrara : September 30, 2013 10:29 pm

Thanks for all the follow up. A lot of us (Andrew points to it and LD and Devlin) feel the same way about diminished expectations. It’s a dangerous thing to see a universally praised movie that’s been written up for years sometimes. Many classics I only saw after I’d read about them a million times and heard time and time again how great they were. They were great but often, I wasn’t open to it because of all the hype.

Posted By gregferrara : September 30, 2013 10:30 pm

Suzi, I now (for the first time in years) feel like watching The Greatest Show on Earth again just because of your comment. I’m intrigued to see a tighter, better film than I thought I saw years ago.

Posted By gregferrara : September 30, 2013 10:32 pm

When I was younger I had a hard time not holding every movie up to the measurement of a Kurosawa or Fellini or Welles. I grew up loving “schmaltzy” Hollywood films but went through a period where film for pure entertainment sake was somehow not good enough.

That’s so familiar to many cinephiles. Boy was I a snob about movies in my teens and early twenties. After a while, you realize that takes all the fun out of it. And exploration. And discovery.

Posted By Patricia : October 2, 2013 12:25 am

First time I saw Wicker Park, I thought WTH. 10 yrs later, I loved it. The French original on which it is based is even better: L’Appartement.

Posted By swac44 : October 2, 2013 12:23 pm

Like LD with film noir, I never had any time for westerns AT ALL as a young movie watcher, but was turned around by Clint Eastwood when I was dating a woman who was a fan of his and we decided to watch as many of his films as we could (this is around the late ’80s and early ’90s). High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales turned out to hold enormous appeal for me, and once I saw the “Dollars” trilogy, I knew I had a lot of backtracking to do. For some reason I was a bit late coming around to John Ford though, preferring guys like Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, but that’s changed too over the years.

Like a certain actor once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” but it never hurts to find a way around them either.

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