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To be alive in 2019 is to be bombarded daily by the new. By that I mean the news, to be sure—the planet is roasting, the president is ranting, the very notion of a shared factual reality appears to be disintegrating, and oh, P.S., Pete Davidson and Kate Beckinsale are splits. But also the new, in the singular. There are countless just-debuted streaming series to binge every day. Your operating system needs another update, though that may not matter given that the device it governs is probably becoming obsolete. The movie that broke global box office records last weekend is already being talked about mainly in terms of the multimovie franchise that will soon unseat it.
For a movie critic in this age of assaultive newness, the past becomes a luxury, a place to be visited furtively in between barrages of fresh content. In the midst of 2018’s year-end onslaught of Oscars hype, Top 10 lists, and awards voting—the time of year when the imperative of novelty makes itself most keenly felt in culture circles—Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins tweeted about looking forward to the holiday break, when he planned to hole up on his grandmother’s couch with the just-released Criterion box set of Marlene Dietrich’s legendary Hollywood collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg. (Something new in the world of the old.)
As someone attempting to keep up, more or less, with the calendar of new releases while also writing a book about the silent-era star Buster Keaton, I identified strongly with Kam’s sense of critical bifurcation, as well as his longing for the spaciousness afforded by visiting the cinematic past. (And this isn’t at all the same thing as avoiding the conflicts of the present by “escaping” into a nostalgic or regressive past. The old movies most worth revisiting are the ones that raise, sometimes without even intending to, the same questions and problems we grapple with today.)
In conversations online and off, and in the 2018 Slate Movie Club, Kam and I kept returning to the subject of the tension among exploring film’s future, experiencing its present, and understanding its past. Why should the history of the medium we write about every day be relegated to the status of an indulgent holiday binge? If older movies are worth designing your leisure time around and writing whole books about, why aren’t they worth watching together and talking about in our day-to-day lives?
Thus, the idea for our podcast Flashback was born. Every other Sunday, Kam and I will take one older movie and talk about what it meant in its time and what it might mean today. Older in this context might mean anything made between 1895 (the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat? Two thumbs up!) and, say, the last year of the 20th century (does David Cronenberg’s Existenz hold up as a vision of the future of virtual reality?). The idea is not to plod chronologically through film history but to treat it as a mysterious storage chest with endless drawers to open, so we’ll skip from era to era and genre to genre, following our instincts and curiosity as well as whatever parallels we find in the movies and headlines of the present day.
With the launch of the new Criterion streaming channel and the reassuring continued existence of other classic film sources like TCM, MUBI, and Fandor, it’s evident that new movies are not the only ones of interest to viewers. The internet has made even the most obscure gems of the past something cinephiles can read and learn about (if not always easily find to stream, rent, or buy). With you, our listener and fellow viewer, in mind, Kam and I will try to choose titles that are available on as many digital platforms as possible, and we’ll also announce the next movie at the end of each episode so if you want to watch ahead with us, you can. (He and I will trade off picks each episode, to keep the other guessing.)
For the first episode of Flashback, embedded above, I picked the 1944 George Cukor classic Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman as a Victorian-era wife and Charles Boyer as her suavely controlling husband. It’s a movie whose title has become one of the most frequently yelled verbs of our time without much attention being paid to the great work of art that helped popularize the term. Gaslight has long been one of my favorite movies from the “golden age” of the studio system. It’s a masterfully directed melodrama, visually opulent and emotionally raw, and it features one of Bergman’s greatest performances, for which she won her first Oscar. It’s also an astute observation of an interpersonal dynamic—the deliberate manipulation of one party’s perception of reality by another, more powerful party—that’s as ubiquitous and as troubling today as it was 75 years ago, if not more so.
One more thing to note about Flashback: After this first episode, it will be available only to subscribers of Slate Plus, the magazine’s membership program. If that makes you want to click away grumbling about a bait-and-switch, think about whether it might be worth $35—less than a dime a day—to get a full year of not just this show but access to extra segments and ad-free content for the whole roster of Slate podcasts, plus a host of other benefits. Sign up for Slate Plus now to continue listening to the podcast, or if you’re already a member (thank you!), subscribe to Flashback here.
Flashback has been a joy to develop and start recording. I’m excited for Kam and me to build our own cinematic time machine, and I hope you’ll tune in to hear about the treasures we bring back.