When people look at cinema as a whole they often forget how young an artform is still is. Cinema is a screaming baby in a pram in comparison to seasoned old veterans like novels and paintings, and so we shouldn’t be getting nostalgic about it. However, what this does mean is that the whole gamut of cinema is not only easily accessible, but also massively relatable. Sure, things like black and white colour and silent movies may be alien to a contemporary audience, but a lot of the stories still ring true. Take these five, for a start:
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Rightly regarded as one of the best films ever made, Citizen Kane helped pioneer some of the cinematic techniques that are now common place, including an inventive use of deep focus and a highly stylized set design. Moreover, it’s a terrific story of megalomania and corruption in part based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, an American newspaper magnate. In the wake of the Leveson inquiry the story of a power-hungry media magnate, Charles Foster Kane, couldn’t be more prescient, while the flashback structure of the film offers a greater opportunity to really flesh out and dig deep into Kane’s history. In essence, this is a film about journalism, about how to make it to the top and what you have to do to stay there, especially when you’re such a glaring target.
Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
Sidney Lumet has the exceptional ability of creating intense drama and powerful action in extremely closed off spaces. He did it with 12 Angry Men, he did it with Dog Day Afternoon, and he does it impeccably with Network, the story of a newscaster driven psychotic by the world outside. Listen to the famous “mad as hell” scene, widely available online, and what you’ll hear sounds frighteningly familiar, and the newscaster rises up from his chair and implores his jaded and numbed audiences to take a look at what’s happening outside, rather than just sit in their living rooms and stew. A truly iconic moment and one that hasn’t lost any of its punch.
The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)
Charlie Chaplin’s lampooning of Hitler at a time when the Nazi party were growing in numbers, territory and influence worldwide is one of the most powerful pieces of political protest of the 20th century, one that goes far beyond the re-appropriation of a moustache. Ironically given Chaplin’s proclivity for silence, it’s the speech he gives at the films climax that is so arresting. In it, we almost see the fourth wall crumbling as Chaplin stares directly into the camera, the passion rising within him, speaking in very socialistic terms about the power of man to fight the ugliness of greed and war, particularly noting the importance of the radio and the aeroplane in “bringing people together across the world”. In a day and age when technology has been used to start revolutions and stage protests, more people could do with watching this great speech.
Dr Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Another great piece of satire this time from the meticulous and irrepressible Stanley Kubrick. Dr Strangelove manages to send up the ridiculousness of those in power, while at the same time touching a nerve in all of us that his representation probably isn’t too far from the truth. At the time it played with the ongoing cold war between America and the Russians, but it seems nearly fifty years on those in power are still pre-occupied with who has the more warheads and which country to invade next, meaning this film has an unfortunate amount of longevity.
The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
One of Lynch’s less mental films in terms of narrative, and yet one that sits comfortably alongside the rest of his body of work. The Elephant Man is a beautiful and poignant film about how we treat those different to us, a moral that could be applied to any sort of outsider figure. Joseph Merrick is obviously a massively extreme example, a man whose debilitating physical deformities led him to be dubbed “The Elephant Man” and showcased as a Victorian oddity, but the scene in which he screams “I am not a monster!” still cuts very close to the bone.