Writing reviews is hard work, and writing reviews with the added burden of the alleged significance of the work in question is even harder. How can I understand or appreciate the historical, cultural, and aesthetic milestones retrospectively without the requisite knowledge to do so? Even being cognisant of my own ignorance, the task was too monumental.
The film that tripped me up what Chaplin's alleged masterpiece City Lights. I say alleged because while I enjoyed the film, I really cannot place it in a historical context. The shift from black & white to colour makes for more visually spectacular films, but going from silent to spoken films is a major change in how films are presented. 2 weeks of failing to get my thoughts together led me to abandon writing reviews.
But I haven't given up watching the classics, only trying to assemble my thoughts about them into some coherent structure. There's a difference between the challenge of interpreting a symbolic film like The Seventh Seal, and the challenge of contextualising a film made for a different time. The Battleship Potemkin may be a historic achievement in filmmaking, but I'm at a loss to comprehend it.
The retrospective glance at the history of cinema isn't helped by the derivation of what came after it. Breathless was meant to be a big leap forward in the feel of cinema, but what it (allegedly) contributed is now overdone that it's barely noticable looking back retrospectively. If I didn't have Roger Ebert's review, I'd be utterly lost. Watching Persona, I was immediately struck by how Lynchian it felt - of course, I have that backwards...
On The Waterfront felt a little too one-dimensional for me, while The Godfather shone as much as its reputation would suggest. The Godfather Part II didn't quite have the punch the original had. Solaris made for patient viewing, yet gave more than enough to contemplate. Stalker felt confused and then deeply unsettling. Django didn't sell me on westerns, even of the spaghetti variety.
The Bicycle Thief was downright depressing (and touching in moments), while The Rules Of The Game was very clever (though I wonder what was lost in translation) - though I felt I was missing most of the context. Ikiru was frustrating to watch in parts, but affected me more than any film I can remember. Grave Of The Fireflies was sad beyond words, made even worse by the fact the original story was partly autobiographical. Seven Samurai was epic storytelling done expertly.
The whole problem with these films is by virtue of them being labelled classics, it sets a lofty expectation. Many of the films have been enjoyable, yet very few have blown me away. City Lights had some of the funniest moments on film I've seen (the boxing scene), yet other parts felt forced (the attempted suicide). I'm not able to grasp whether particular aspects of the film (like the speed of the sequences) were due to technical limitations or Chaplin's vision. Viewing it 82 years after it was released makes for a very anachronistic experience.
One lesson I've learnt from this so far is that films and technology have gone hand in hand, and this notion that special effects has somehow cheapened cinema is nonsense. Directors have always used tools they have to the best effect in order to tell the best story.