Sony Pictures Classics Has Spent the Last 30 Years Archiving Cultural History

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Sony Pictures Classics Has Spent the Last 30 Years Archiving Cultural History

The two closures of the Sony Pictures Classics box set topple like the Berlin Wall as I cleave it open. Inside this gem are 11 crystalline examples of post-Cold War cinema, breathtakingly rendered in 4K.

By the beginning of the 1990s, as new markets were forced open and the West had seemingly “won” the Cold War, there was a need to once again recodify the standards of art and taste. At the forefront of this project was Sony Pictures Classics (SPC). Born from the stars of Orion Pictures in 1992, shortly after the final supernova of the Soviet Union in December 1991, SPC is celebrating 30 years as the premiere financiers of contemporary highbrow/“art house” cinema. When looking at this set or the company’s extensive backlog of titles, “don’t look for a pattern or a model to be repeated,” as critic David Thomson writes in his included essay, “but recognize the range of options on what a movie can be.” If we watch through the set from end to end, each film defines and standardizes “what a movie can be” for Western audiences in a rapidly globalizing neoliberal world.

It’s fitting that Sally Potter’s 1993 time-traveling film Orlando should open this survey of film history. From the English Renaissance of the 1600s to the feminist film renaissance of the 1990s, Orlando is a film that elegantly pushes the intersections of gender and the cinematic. Potter’s film is a rich visual realization of Virginia Woolf’s original dream of a gendered and creative witness to national history. Orlando addresses the audience directly and takes us on a literal journey through genders, visual art and proud England. Orlando (the ambiguously gendered but unambiguously talented Tilda Swinton) begins as a handsome lord and poet in the court of Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp, a personal idol). His words create colorful scenes out of the air. We catch glimpses of the tableaux vivant, the earliest of moving pictures. He has his portrait painted. Then she’ll stumble into the 20th century, pregnant with English modernity, inspired by photography and motion pictures. Until, at last, she comes to rest in the shade of the 1990s with a new generation of women taking the camera. For Orlando, Sally Potter and SPC, film is a grand creative archiving project. It is the mirror of a “New World Order.” The film works as a sort of thesis piece for this set. SPC firmly states that the future it has always envisioned for Western cinema holds the camera and certain kinds of diversity with equal reverence. Like the title character, women and the camera in Orlando are not “trapped by destiny,” and they have freed themselves from the past.

While the majority of America failed to embrace the spirit of glasnost as successfully as their Eastern counterparts, some were able to open up the film archives and help usher those once trapped by predestined closets into the greater American public sphere. Perhaps there is no better example than Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. Another visual adaptation of a classic text, Epstein and Friedman’s film puts film clips and interviews to the theories in Vito Russo’s 1981 survey of gayness in American film. Facing a fading population amid the ongoing AIDS crisis, The Celluloid Closet is a bold proclamation that gay people have and will continue to exist. While still humorous and insightful, if a bit quaint, it is the most historical piece in the set. It is the most fixed in time. We don’t conceive of queerness or social repression the same as we did in the mid-1990s. Yet, as the set will go on to show, we still use the white (gay) body as a screen onto which we can project our fantasies of a freer society.

The same year The Celluloid Closet was opening up the past from its repression, films like Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s visionary The City of Lost Children warded off the totalitarianism of the future. Set against a richly visual and eccentric dystopia, this captivating fairy tale fever dream about a sideshow strongman (Ron Perlman) and his band of rebel children remains a delight. Their quest to free other children from the mad grips of a scientist stealing their dreams allows Jeunet and Caro to explore fantasies within fantasies and reaffirm cinema’s function as a dream factory. The phantasmagoric world of clones, nightmares and mind control within the film is shattered by entering a dream world. In much the same way, SPC’s statement with The City of Lost Children is that the auteur, the creative and distinct free-thinking individual, who can make new worlds, is the counter to an Orwellian mass society. The visionary director becomes the one who can break us out of the infinite loops of thought that have bound society and show us new dreams that challenge the status quo.

There is no better film about the infinite loops we found ourselves in at the so-called “end of history” than Tom Tykwer’s 1999 Run Lola Run. Lola (the fortified Franka Potente) is constantly pursuing money to save herself and her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) from greedy thugs. Yet time keeps restarting. Here, at the end of the millennium, we, like Lola, must learn from our repetitions to break into something new. Tykwer’s imaginative tale confronts loops of history with loops of cinematic form. The closed set of circumstances allows Tykwer to explore a staggering array of cinematic modes, techniques and allusions. Lola wakes having “seen” her last loop and adapts to create new, slightly different vents. Film helps us imagine alternatives. And this message must come from German cinema. It signals a country reflecting and moving forward. Less than a decade after reunification, Run Lola Run’s distribution by SPC points to New Germany’s acceptance in Western artistic markets as a cinematic voice of the future.

While Germany was confronting the dawn of the new millennium with an aggressive and calculated optimism, in America, the optimism was much crueler and jaded. Fascinated by its nostalgia, films like James Merendino’s SLC Punk seem to sense the “beginning of the fall,” as his punk-poets say. For some, the end of history—in which capitalism proclaimed itself the final victor, able to cure all ills—elicited a sense of boredom and frustration. Punk’s response to the conformity and uniformity of consumer culture was attempting to break the system from the outside. Yet as Stevo (played pitch-perfectly by Matthew Lillard) and his buddy Heroin Bob (Michael Goorjian) soon realize, the incoming boom of the 1990s requires new bodies to work. For some, this message is fatal because they do not fit the demands of the New World Order, nor is there a safety net to protect them. For others, the concluding reformist message is a gloating embrace of shattered innocence, individuality over authenticity, and reformist ideology. But, as we’ll see, just on the other side of the new millennium lies an economic and national depression that Merendino and his punks couldn’t anticipate, making this film particularly ghostly to watch today, like an abandoned watch post overtaken by the forest.

Cutting through the treetops and trembling American hegemony came Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Signaling the entrance of the recently opened China to the global cultural marketplace, this dazzling feat of cinema is as vital for what it represents about the worldwide film industry as it is for the art of cinema. One of the keys to SPC’s success and longevity, according to Tompson’s essay, is the ability to “make driven outsiders seem like our kind of people.” And indeed, the special features on the disc crowns Crouching Tiger as the first significant fulfillment of this globalized neoliberal desire. As expertly drawn out by critic Tasha R. Robinson in her retrospective conversations with director Ang Lee, editor Tim Squyres and screenwriter/producer James Schamus, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was designed from its inception to be a crossover sensation. For both Lee and Schamus, the film was to be something both Western and Eastern audiences could take something from. The movie, as Lee alludes, is like China itself in the year 2000, molded and pinched to fit a Western open market. As Schamus mentions in his interview, this was to reinject some “innocence” into arthouse audiences. Like the last punks of Salt Lake City, through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the folks at SPC set out not to break with tradition but reform it by setting aside historical hostilities and, in a spirit of pluralism, use a pastiche of global cultures to create something fresh and innovative.

But in the horror genre the following year, Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) appeared with a warning. As if sensing the global disillusionment that was to explode in the wake of the War on Terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, del Toro’s elegant sophomore film warns us about the suspended ghosts from the past that are still with us. Though the film is set during the Spanish Civil War, this eerie fable about ghosts and an unexploded bomb in an orphanage is a beautiful allegory for the years immediately surrounding its release. As the U.S. and Europe spread their forces out in the Middle East, marching past rusted arms they had initially given Afghans and Iranians in the war against communism; they had to confront and deny their past dealings in the area. It’s a visual allegory for the old Cold War fear that the bomb was about to be reignited. Today, The Devil’s Backbone is a chilling and melancholy reminder that we have not learned our lesson. Ghosts haunt the present in search of resolution, and unexploded bombs from the past are lodged in its surface.

Ghosts and gender return to the SPC box set with Pedro Almodovar’s sincere and comedic 2006 film Volver. Almodovar’s tenderhearted surrealism hides spirits among the living, allowing genuine moments of surprise and humanity. His camera, which sees all, rightfully mocks us at times. Yet it always welcomes us into a queer world that runs counter to “normal” society. The brilliant cast of women—featuring frequent muse Penelope Cruz, Yohana Cobo, Lola Duenas and longtime collaborator Carmen Maura—are three generations of women, each haunted by generational trauma but not without hope and love for her community. Instead of breaking from, transforming, reforming or releasing the ridiculousness of our modern age, Almodovar encourages us to embrace it and each other. Cycles, loops and rotations will all happen despite our best efforts. As he’s always shown, most poignantly in Volver, our folly for tilting at windmills past and present is what makes up the human condition.

There is perhaps no better embodiment of the sad sack male creative at the end of the 2000s than the pairing of writer/director Charlie Kaufman and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York. By 2008, when the film was released, the folly of human risk-taking had burst, setting markets, cultures and people adrift in uncertainty. The future is now both interminable and unpredictable. And, just as SLC Punk pointed out almost a decade earlier, in this total loss of regulations in life and markets, American masculinity is in absolute crisis. Capitalism tells men their purpose is fulfilled, yet many are terrified to admit the pain their system causes. In keeping with SPC’s repeated themes in this box set, creativity orders chaos. This elegiac film is about one theater director’s attempt to regain control of the world, but instead creating an uncanny double that is indeed “the start of something awful.” Kaufman’s intricately split world reflects our own, a “half-world. Stasis and antistasis.”

We take the most significant jump from 2008 to Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s 2017 film Still Alice. In that time, the gulf between the different parts of America had only widened. On the eve of the Obama administration and the misplaced hope of a liberal turnover, the country seemed increasingly at odds and beginning to lose its identity altogether. If Swinton’s Orlando is England, then Julianne Moore’s Alice is America. Her deteriorating sense of self and memory mirrors our own. As a linguistics professor specializing in early development, she is the liberal plea for a return to an imaginary time of harmony. “Who can take us seriously when we are so far from who we once were?” she asks, giving a speech about her experience with Alzheimer’s. Yet, at the time, when it seemed possible that a violently conservative tear would rip the county’s social memory in literal half, this speech could be an address to America. Still Alice concludes with a neoliberal platitude that describes America’s parochial ideology and, indeed, the drive behind such anniversary collections of art: “In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. A longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.”

The set thus concludes with a film caught between its contemporary progressive politics and a nostalgia for a more ordered world. Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name is the only movie from the Trump era to be included in this set, but it nevertheless encompasses the liberal hope of the age. Despite whispers of fascism that still stalk about, the film believes in a truce between the modern and the classical. By luxuriating in the horniness of bourgeois intellectualism, Call Me By Your Name reasserts a return to classical forms of masculinity and cinema, in which both were free to express their real desires. But, because Call Me By Your Name is set in the 1980s, the characters aren’t yet able. They speak in code eroticized by repression. They are just now discovering that they are not quite liberated. Freedom is the white gay man’s ability to live openly and create art in his image.

It would only be a few more years before little Elio (Timothee Chalamet) could cry in front of an SPC film, or even make one of his own. As the first significant arthouse distributor of the post-Cold War era, SPC archived the changes in our contemporary world and our fantasies for the future. As this collection demonstrates, the camera is a great witness to the passage of time and the changes in culture. Looking back on this set, we see a new world grow out of the past—fresh, at first. Then, as promises went unfulfilled, tastes turned stale, before becoming jaded, lost and ultimately splintered. And now, to cure these ills, we see a return to nostalgia.

Box sets like this are history. They are bound volumes that chart changes over time. And like history, they are compiled and edited into a statement about what is and isn’t worth preserving. And while we can do more to critique some of the standards of high art they uphold as limiting and exclusive, the films Sony Pictures Classics have lovingly included here have one consistent assertion between them: They show us that movies, above all, are the stuff of life.


B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.