Our film heritage is always in danger, pressured by new marketing and powerful, expensive hype. Not just Hollywood or Netflix hype but also hype from the festival circuit (now COVID-closed) and, even more damaging, the rampant political correctness of inadequate film criticism.
As 2011 chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, I made an effort to challenge this danger by collaborating with the Brooklyn Academy of Music on a retrospective festival of films from 1962, the only year in the Circle’s history when it did not give out awards (owing to a newspaper strike). The impact of that fabled series is reflected in the new book Cinema ’62: The Greatest Year at the Movies, by Stephen Farber and Michael McClellan. And their book reflects the subtle, Soviet-style rewriting of history that has crept into academic literature and that even dominates cultural discourse.
Now that progressives attempt to recast history — whether the New York Times’ specious 1619 Project or the superficial, anachronistic misappropriation of James Baldwin — it is helpful to recover 1962, which Farber and McClellan call a “turning point” for its importance as a moment when filmmakers and filmgoers were more adventurous.
It is a fact that film culture tends to lean left — because of the inclination of artists to find a way to make their eccentricities pay off in fame, fortune, and cultural influence. Today we suffer the abuse of celebrity artists’ forcing their politics upon us, whereas in 1962 even politically aware artists respected the intelligence of audiences by producing works of persuasion and humanity, not political dogma.
Received opinion — the killer of independent thinking — commonly promotes 1939 as the peak year for mainstream moviemaking, but that conditions people to think only about movies in Hollywood terms. 1962 was special because it was an extraordinary year for international films as well as then-independent movies and Hollywood product. The varied offerings went from Jules and Jim, Viridiana, Lola, Devi, and Lawrence of Arabia to Ely Landau’s independently produced Sidney Lumet film of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, and included such popular fare as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Manchurian Candidate, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Miracle Worker, and Hatari.
It was a much different era than now. (“Of the 707 films released in the United States in 1962, 280 were foreign films.”) Its variety and richness is significant beyond lame notions of diversity, although Farber and McClellan emphasize that latter point, capitulating to modern, facile political preferences, dependent on clichés about the Sixties revolution and progressivism.
Farber had made his name back in the antiquated period of film journalism when the Sunday New York Times would feature alternative essays that opposed the official opinions of the paper’s reviewers. That’s where I first noted Farber’s perspective, in his 1971 piece, about cuts to the reissue of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Obviously a personal favorite, this movie anchors the new book as the detailed subject of its ultimate chapter, “Crowning Achievement.” Yet Farber and McClellan hamper their respect for the creative fertility of 1962 releases by submitting them to dubious, politically correct standards.
This rewriting of film history overlooks what contemporary society has lost: sophistication. While admirably beginning their book with discussions on the high-art achievements of Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte and L’Éclisse, Farber and McClellan demean the educated worldliness of those filmmakers in favor of piddling social- justice concerns about sex and race.
They cite “a bizarre episode verging on racism” in L’Éclisse, “in which Vittoria puts on a blackface performance,” and La Notte’s “strange sequence in which [Marcello] Mastroianni and [Jeanne] Moreau visit a nightclub where a black female contortionist performs,” indicating “surprising racial insensitivity on the part of an upper-class white filmmaker of the era.” But the fact that Antonioni was already cognizant and supremely insightful about sex and race and Western culture is what makes those films still amazing — and instructive — beyond most movies made this century.
The politicization of contemporary filmmaking and film scholarship also infects the authors’ film-buff enthusiasm in ways that might elude casual readers:
The Manchurian Candidate dealt with the terrifying subject of political assassination and it was also the first film to satirize the McCarthy era excesses that had paralyzed the country and divided the Hollywood community just a few years earlier. In addition, the film’s fictional plot of foreign intervention in American politics now seems eerily prophetic.
This hogwash not only misses the film’s strongest point about destruction from within America, but it caters to the most questionable, modish politics. It ignores Hollywood’s many, skeptical anti-Communist films made in that phase of social turmoil that Farber and McClellan mislabel “the quiescent Eisenhower era of the 1950s,” a popular misperception that belies the period’s most fascinating films — and the artistic and social daring that led to 1962’s most remarkable achievements.
The best films of 1962 have passed the test of time. Recent decades of Oscar and critics award-winners have not, even though Farber and McClellan praise some for following 1962’s example. In an unctuous epilogue, the authors depart from artistic concern and pander to “a passionate belief in the possibility of social justice and the value of community involvement.” I can imagine David Lean crying “Rubbish!” Right now is always the right time to introduce people to great movies — and to beware disingenuous revisions of movie history.