Tuesday, March 14, 2017

CMBA Blog Profile: Century Film Project





The CMBA profiles two classic movie blogs per month. Today we're featuring Michael from Century Film Project.

Century Film Project is a terrific example of how a classic (or historical) film blog can be a valuable resource.

Michael's well-organized site celebrates films that are at least 100 years old. In so doing, he's creating an educational and entertaining library for film historians – both amateur and professional.

Century Film Project covers all genres, from comedy to drama, and shows us the unusual or groundbreaking aspects of these films. During his research, Michael has also discovered some forgotten gems, such as Cecil B. DeMille's Joan the Woman (1916). 

"It’s a movie that I bet a lot of people don’t know about," he says. "When we think of Joan of Arc we think of Dreyer in 1928, not Cecil B, DeMille in 1916 – and that deserves more attention."

You can read Michael's review of Joan the Woman HERE.


CMBA: What sparked your interest in classic film?
Century Film Project: My interest began with monster movies. When I was a child, I loved all kinds of monsters. But, by the seventies and eighties, horror movies were starting to focus on stalking and gore more than on monsters. It’s funny, because many horror fans today see the 1980s as some kind of renaissance, but the consensus then was that it had gone to the dogs. Anyway, the kind of movies that were released as horror throughout my childhood were generally R-rated, so I never got to see them. Jaws counts as a monster movie, to me, but I didn’t see it until college. So, there I was, watching old movies on Sunday mornings or weekday afternoons on TV, and once in a while there’d be something that wasn’t – quite – a monster movie, but I’d stick around anyway. For example, Abbott & Costello “met” various monsters and that’s how I got to appreciate their comedy, which is pretty child-friendly anyway. And my father was a Marx Brothers fan, so there was that. I recall watching The Maltese Falcon with him when I was very young – the only thing I remember really is that the closing line sent me off on a fantasy where the Falcon really allowed its possessor to control people’s dreams. He wasn’t what we would really call a “classic movie” fan today – he disliked the studio period in Hollywood and generally stuck to foreign films and independents. But, he did introduce me to older movies, and the idea that you could only watch new releases was never a concept in my house. 

That’s all long in the past. I took film courses in college and tried to learn the production end of things, and even worked in independent film in New York for a few years (you can find me on imdb, although most of the movies I worked in never made it past the festival circuit and don’t have entries there). But, I found that working on “new” movies just made me wish I could work on something more from the era I enjoyed. While I was living in New York, my father and I went to every screening during a Harold Lloyd festival at the Film Forum (I think I’ve seen almost all of his surviving films from 1921 on), and that was really my first big introduction to silent movies. I’d seen a few before, especially the horror titles (Der Golem, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu), but I hadn’t really made a point of watching them. I got increasingly interested in early film and the early filmmaking process. In 2012, I made a New Year’s resolution on Facebook to watch as many hundred-year-old movies as I could in a year, and I posted reviews on my feed. I remember telling someone, “We now live in an age in which it’s possible to watch only 100 year old movies for the rest of your life!” Then, I graduated from library school and my life got turned around and I sort of lost track of that after April or so. In 2014, I decided to start up again. I had a job at a library at that point, and one of my co-workers encouraged me to start collecting the reviews on a blog, and the Century Film Project was born!

It’s worth noting that I didn’t start this project because I already considered myself an expert in the field, but because I wanted to learn more. In 2012, I was far more comfortable talking about 1950s sci fi movies or 1930s horror films than about anything from the 1890s-1910s. I’ve learned a lot, and come to appreciate new genres (even Westerns! And that’s saying something), and that’s what makes this whole project fascinating for me. When I started, my reviews ranged from 100-250 words (remember, they were Facebook comments, so that’s actually quite long for that format), but now I routinely write over a thousand for a feature film, and at least 600 for a short. That’s partly because I have so much more context to bring in, and I’m not just giving first impressions of something foreign. 

CMBA: What makes a film a "classic" in your opinion?
Century Film Project: I should start by pointing out that I regard mine as a “historical” film blog, not a “classic” film blog. The difference is one of quantity versus quality. “Historical” is a measurement of age: a film becomes “historical” as soon as it is no longer part of the current pop cultural landscape. An older movie is more “historical” than a newer one. “Classic” is a measurement of quality. A film can be “classic” the day it is released, although that’s very hard to ascertain. Generally, if a movie is still being talked about by ordinary folks, say 30 to 50 years after release, it can be judged as “classic;” if the only people who know about it are "old movie weirdos" like me, then it’s just “historical.” The Wizard of Oz is a “classic” film, while Tower of London is a “historical” film from the same year.

CMBA: What classic film(s) do you recommend to people who say they hate old moves?
Century Film Project: I suspect that most of the movies on my blog are not ideal for this purpose – usually things like The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind are more immediately accessible. That said, I do find that people, even children, who aren’t used to watching old moves will respond well to Charlie Chaplin. I took my nephew to a series of Essanay Chaplins that were running at the Castro in San Francisco last year, and he bounced up and down through the whole screening! Most people can sit through a few shorts, and I think the fantasies of Méliès are fun enough for a good intro to the period. Of course, it also depends what you are interested in.  For my fellow horror fans, proto-Expressionist movies like Homunculus or The Student of Prague are probably of interest. Since the Surrealists and Edward Gorey both praised Feuillade, the “Fantômas” serial is a good starting point for artists.

CMBA: Why should people care about classic films?
Century Film Project: Well, this takes us back to my definition of “classic.” People who care about any art form should be interested in identifying and appreciating the very best or most appreciated examples of that art form. People who want to paint, or who like modern painting, can learn by going back and look at Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Picasso. They don’t have to like all the masters of the past, but it’s good to know why they became the representatives of their respective eras, and what they did that worked that we can learn from now. Only a true art historian needs to zoom in on an era and look at everything from that period, but anyone with an interest in art should be familiar with the classics. 

CMBA: What is the most rewarding thing about blogging?
Century Film Project: I’ve written reviews for years, mostly for the purpose of jogging my own memory, but it’s great to get the feedback and social interaction that comes from blogging. When I first started this project, I would look around the Internet and find “important” people commenting on the same films I did. That’s exciting and rewarding. I even like it when people disagree (respectfully) in comments, because it’s a chance for me to learn something new.

CMBA: What challenges do you face with your blog and how do you overcome them?
Century Film Project: I’ve looked at the responses everyone else has been writing to this question, and it always seems to come down to finding time to do unpaid labor. I don’t want to get political here, but I do think that this is a function of an economic shift that has come in recent years. I was just reading about the history of French film criticism, and the reason it got so good so fast was because in the early 1920s, every single newspaper in France (and there were a lot of them!) had its own paid professional writing movie reviews. It was the exchange between all of these people who had nothing else to do besides watch movies and read, write, talk, and think about movies that made them such a force.  Today, most of us who are passionate enough about movies to write about them have to do it as amateurs, and there’s very little realistic opportunity for monetizing that. We need to find a new model for paying intellectuals to do intellectual work in the 21st century.


CMBA: What advice would you give a new blogger?
Century Film Project: You know, I once thought that there was a “right” way to blog and had lots of advice for new people, but now I’m more skeptical of my own advice, because I’ve seen a lot of different things that work for different people. Mainly, I would say make sure you’re having fun, whatever you’re doing, and when it stops being fun, just stop it. Don’t feel that you “owe” the world or your readers or yourself another blog entry when you don’t feel like it. You’re actually more likely to come back to it and pick up again if you’re not beating yourself up because you missed a scheduled post. A lot of blogs come and go within 3-5 years, and, this being a hobby, bloggers shouldn’t feel like they’ve “failed” when that happens. If you’re in it for the long haul, be sure you’re committed to keeping the time open, but if not, be forgiving with yourself when you need your time back. 

Thank you for joining us, Michael! You can visit Century Film Project HERE.