By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
Now available on Hollywood Suite Network’s On Demand (please check provider) & beginning Aug 10.
The six-part CNN Original docu-series The Movies explores the movies that specifically came out of Hollywood. Although this focus drifts in later parts, each 90 minute segment (sans commercials) explores the influential films from each decade and there’s a lot! This work was released in 2019 to select markets and is making its Canadian debut on the Hollywood Suite Network next week.
Starting with the 70s (Instead of the Golden Age) as its first episode, we learn why going to the movies is important. The world has been enjoying cinema since the late 1890s with the silent film era–a time I thought was strangely not explored. Some info is offered when the film medium took off circa 1913. However, by the start of the talkies, those previous works aren’t always remembered. To explore the films from 1914 to 1969 is a vast range, and this series doesn’t explain why it’s all lumped together. The half-hour introduction explains why the people of the Depression era flocked to theatres. They wanted their daily news and escapism. Not immediately revealed was how World War II would influence the shorts offered; a lot of that material was propaganda.
With no surprise The Jazz Singer is the first movie many acknowledge as Hollywood. Not to be outshone is Universal Studios contribution with their “Monster” films which became instant hits.
This series works well enough to function as that Introduction to Movies 100 and 101 to satisfy a general curiosity. Although discussions of race and gentrification are lightly explored, we have nothing concerning specific film’s lasting influence. This series rarely delves deep into the context on why it speaks about the era when it was made, and that’s okay since the presentation is more about enlightening with anecdotes than educating.
The unevenness is in how the interviews aren’t regularly interpreted through an anthropological lens. More often instead of not, they are simply relating how they felt after seeing that movie for the first time. It’s not always self-aware about socio-political contexts, but when that’s being discussed, I pay attention. To go into deeper contexts would mean taking those third and fourth year level university courses.
Jumping to the 50s, which should’ve been a 90 minute documentary by itself, a lot of genres engrained itself to the American mainstream market. From Noir to Westerns to Sci-Fi and even B-movies, the explanations offered are brief and to the point. Creature features, the highlight of many drive-in theatres, have the best line of them all. Steven Spielberg revealed he loves the original Japanese product over the Americanized take starring Raymond Burr.
In the 60s, the counterculture started and Alfred Hitchcock transitioned to being that full-time director.
One puzzling aspect is the influence of Blake Edwards. He is known for The Pink Panther films, and both barely get proper a mention–and neither does European star Peter Sellers, the Charlie Chaplin of the 70s. I adored their work and even when I was binge watching this series, I did not hear any mention of either.
By the time we reach the 80s, the beats this series makes don’t waver. We have a lot of voices, ranging from well respected actors, critics, directors, and historians offering their take on how they understand a particular work. Kenneth Turan (pictured left) who writes for the LA Times is frequently tapped to explain a few contexts that go beyond why the film is loved. There’s even more names from TheWrap, Hollywood Reporter, Rotten Tomatoes and RogerEbert.com to offer additional thoughts. There’s some consensus, but ultimately no round table discussion is offered.
People like Tom Hanks, Neal Gabler, Robert Redford, Ron Howard, Tim Burton, Bill Hader, Leonard Maltin, Stephen Spielberg, Rob Zombie add to why they loved a specific work, and not all of them regularly appear in each episode.
The fact that the studios, directors and performers rarely herald how to depict sensitive topics depends on the times. The themes explored from the 90s to present include all the blockbuster favourites and also a works not as widely recognized. When considering the blockbusters of these decades have made more than their mark, I’m glad this film also chooses to look at the underdogs. We’re not solely focussed on those blockbuster films and Marvel Cinematic Universe products.
Nerds can love Black Panther for its comic book perfection. However, African-Americans are saying it’s the best film out which they can call their own. When this series bounces around in not always exploring whether a film’s cultural appropriation or political commentary is correct or not, all it can do is look back at which films were successful. Charlie Chaplin‘s The Great Dictator nearly got him into trouble! Later works rarely looked at Communism in America until Black Widow came along to give viewers a look of just how bad that time was. Today’s cinema can owe a debt to Marvel Entertainment hiring talents willing to challenge the norm. Those producers prior to this “New Wave” may have feared undermining the American way of life. This particular theme could have been explored even further in the series, but I understand why it only scratches the surface. This problem also affected the television industry too; media observers have to remember the scrutiny the beloved Lucille Ball faced at the height of her career.
This series is more of a celebration of more than a hundred years of cinema at its best instead of a thorough examination of cinema looking at society and vice versa. Whether those bits of self-examination is correct is not what this work is trying to answer. We go to the movies to escape the problems of the real world. Sometimes it’s important for cinema to acknowledge our reality from time to time, but if it gets one detail wrong, people will jump on it. With this doc, it’s more so to see where we are with cinema. Is it an entertainment medium or a look at our world through a camera lens? Although we don’t get an answer, at least the trip through memory lane is worthwhile.
3½ Stars out of 5