The Cinema Age
Whenever my eye falls upon yet another 'Greatest Films of All Time' list, I think about the filmmakers — undoubtedly fine and significant filmmakers — who, on most occasions, do not come within a million miles of being deified by such exercises in canon-making. They get chopped off the list very early in the cull. Brian De Palma, Mario Bava, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, William Friedkin, even Sergio Leone: just a few of the directors (all of us can name many more) who have given us works that we enjoy, teach, analyse, write about and cherish.
But the lists, for the most part, always honour the same Greats. Ambitious epic-vision filmmakers like Welles, Coppola, Fellini and Kubrick. The Deep Humanists, including Ozu, Renoir, Mizoguchi and Ophüls. Hitchcock, whose Vertigo (1958) some mainstream critics took only four or five decades to decide was a masterpiece (ditto for John Ford's The Searchers, 1955). Some pieces from the 'Film as Art' wing of ancient art museums: Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927), Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929). From post-1970s cinema, perhaps Kieslowski or Haneke scrape in. But only perhaps: 1970 seems to be the unconsciously assumed cut-off point for many of these polls.
Usually there's a lot less Comedy than Drama on these lists, beyond a token Chaplin or (less frequently) Keaton — although, if it's a hardcore cinephile list, Lubitsch, McCarey, Tashlin and Jerry Lewis might sneak in up there alongside the less-deserving Billy Wilder for Some Like It Hot (1959).
Some directors are just too prolific for their own good. Godard, Fassbinder, Ruiz: no two critics can agree on their one Masterpiece, so the whole oeuvre is simply labelled Godardian, Fassbinderian and Ruizian, case closed. Short films rarely make the grade, unless (very occasionally) there are fans of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) or Humphrey Jennings' Listen to Britain (1942) in the vicinity. Experimental cinema, animation, documentary, TV... we all have our hobby-horses as to the great swathes of global cinema routinely left out of this kind of figuring.
But let me return to those names that first popped into my head: De Palma, especially. When it comes to the significance of a director like him in world cinema, there is another way of looking at the question. In short, some filmmakers are important not so much for the richness of their art (as judged by conventional terms), but the role they play, the significance they have, in a film spectator's life.
What really matters is your encounter, at some key moment of your developmental biography, with the work of a particular director. So there is a De Palma Age (for example) in the autobiographies of many of us — just as there is, for instance, a David Bowie Age or a Sylvia Plath Age or a Philip K. Dick Age.
Several generations of cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers have received a thrilling, formative sense of what cinema can be from the bracing experience of seeing, for the first time, Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Carlito's Way (1993) and Femme Fatale (2002). It does not matter whether you were 15 years old in 1976 or 20 years old today, whether it's a Cinémathèque screen or a laptop: that formative thrill is the same.
Discovering a De Palma movie for the first time, soaking up its elaborate formal conceits, is to have one's eyes opened by boundlessly inventive tricks with time, space, narrative and perspective. Cinema is more than De Palma, but anyone can start to discover cinema through De Palma, as many of us have. And that is no bad thing.
It also does not matter if, later in life, we convince ourselves that we may have grown beyond what could be described, in retrospect, as an adolescent passion: it has lodged in there, inside of us, helped to form our sensibilities. And De Palma is one of the great sensibility-shapers of modern cinema.