Tony Earnshaw: Why when it comes to films, the old ones are sometimes the best

Martin Scorsese was once asked to name his list of top ten movies; he came up with a list of 119 titles.
Martin Scorsese was once asked to name his list of top ten movies; he came up with a list of 119 titles.
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It was the screenwriter William Goldman who famously said – when referencing the film industry – that “nobody knows anything”.

The inference, of course, was that if producers and studios knew what made money – and won Oscars – they’d bottle it and produce it on an industrial scale. And, of course, he’s right. We may know what we like (and, conversely, what we don’t) and can articulate such feelings appropriately. It manifests itself in how we spend our pennies at ye olde cinema turnstile.

For pleasure I find myself going back to old favourites. Martin Scorsese was once asked to name his top 10 movies; he came up with a list of 119 titles. But chances are they were all of merit and represented directors, writers, actors and other key creatives that he couldn’t do without.

My list is shorter but I would hope, packed with similarly important works, at least to me. And I’ve found myself delving into that very personal back catalogue recently whilst teaching. This week it was a focus on the British art film. Where to start? It would be easy to grab for the recently emerged talents of Joanna Hogg, Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen. But what of those titans, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose every unique release in the 1940s appeared to offer a glimpse into the fantastical? Introducing eager young audiences to classics via the majesty of something like A Matter of Life and Death or The Red Shoes has a touch of the magician about it – pulling a fluffy bunny out of a top hat and waiting for the chorus of wows. Or playing a clip from Three Cases of Murder, a 50s anthology film and a little gem that includes an unsettling tale entitled In the Picture, from a short story by Roderick Wilkinson. Never seen Three Cases of Murder? It’s understandable. Until recently re-discovered on DVD its only availability was on those Monday matinees of ancient vintage. And none of the traditional TV channels do those anymore. Thus some judicious use of clips of works by people like Peter Greenaway, Jonathan Glazer and Wendy Toye, who directed In the Picture, presented a classful of youngsters with an entrée into realms of cinema they previously never imagined. And the cross-section was thrilling, even if I say so myself. There, in the semi-darkness, were 20 pairs of eyes all watching aspects of cinema for the very first time.

Call it an awakening. Call it an epiphany. Call it, at its most rudimentary, an introduction to people that might well become companions. For our friends in the movies never age and never leave us. And so we cloak ourselves in art.