There is still a place for the old tools and the old technologies. Despite the coming of Kindle, even Google's Eric Schmidt knows no better way to learn than to read a print book. Audiophiles know vinyl still sounds better than CD's, which in turn still sound better than MP3. The new technologies have their place. Their introduction stimulates the economy; they work better in certain contexts; they inspire new interest in the material they bear. Even a new pen might inspire one to write; a new computer, to do more research or writing. We don't have dip pens much any more, but they do still exist and have their use. Many still use so-called "outmoded" but artistically valid technologies. We still have fountain pens. We still need pencils.
And so it is, very often, with styles: when new ones come along, they don't necessarily render earlier ones useless. Photography has not wiped out painting. Non-objective painting has not wiped out magic realism. Rap hasn't eliminated pretty tunes. The same is true for movies. Old-fashioned ones still have their place.But with the arts, if you're going to be retro, you have to prove you had a good reason for it. Andrzej Wajda's 'Katyn' (2007) and Jan Troell's 'Everlasting Moments'(2008) are test cases on this issue.
Both are new movies that are traditional in their look, outlook, pace, and subject matter. 'Katyn' proves its worth more quickly, because it concerns an historical event, one that was hidden from view. The massacre of Polish officers by Russians in WWII and the attempt to blame it all on the Germans is history that needed to be told; it's the history of Wajda's own father, one of the slaughtered officers. Troell's film, concerning a working class Swedish family early in the last century, isn't quite as essential. Its Hallmark-sounding title is a hint that it's more nostalgia than history, and the story it tells, of a boorish husband and a wife struggling for independence, is in some ways only marginally memorable.
'Katyn' is a film of slow cumulative power. It presents the atrocity before, during, and after through families and individuals. It depicts how people risked torture or extermination to resist the cover-up, and it ends with devastating simplicity by re-staging how the killing was done, very specifically what it looked and sounded like. Not much in 'Katyn' either in content or style seems distinctly 21st-century. Except for one thing: this story hasn't been told before. Now it has been, and beautifully. And since it concerns events of sixty years ago, an old-fashioned style is appropriate to it, as well as being a style of which Wajda is a master. The film may seem retro and boring to young viewers. Their cry, and others', sometimes is that WWII, especially the Holocaust (which perhaps by association links in with other massacres of the War), has been "done to death." (This is mainly just because there have been four or five well-promoted films on the subject in recent months.) But that is really nonsense. Some subjects are never sufficiently examined and can never be overdone, as long as an artist with a fresh angle "does" it.
It's valid however, to say that Jan Troell's earlier period family sagas were richer and more involving than his new 'Everlasting Moments.' The whole thing is that this film is about a pretty ordinary Swedish family. But the interest of the film isn't so much in the small-town working-class family, the seven kids, the big womanizing drunkard father. It's in the interface between the wife, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen) and the film's style. And this is where the film gradually but amply justifies itself. Heiskanen's face, often and lovingly filmed in closeup, is more memorable than any of the faces in 'Katyn.' The visuals consciously (and often remarkably) echo the subtle, even, naturally lighted tonalities of old glass plate negatives. (Early photographic equipment isn't as handy as today's, but that doesn't mean the photographs were inferior aesthetically.)
Maria, wife of the cheery, powerful, but dangerous Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt), marries him owning a valuable camera she's won in a lottery. When things get tough, she decides to sell it. This leads her to go to Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christensen), a photographer with a shop, who refuses to let her sell it and instead takes her under his wing and falls quietly in love with her. Throughout the film and Sigge's skullduggeries and the family's economic travails, Maria uses the camera with increasing artistry. Along with this, the sweet platonic love affair with Sebastian continues, and he woos her with equipment, paper, plates, and lessons in developing photographs. The film is a celebration of the addictiveness of photography and the magic that happens in the darkroom. (Alas for digital camera users, to have lost that alchemical mystery!)
The relationship between Maria and Sebastian would be worth a subtler, richer film by itself. But Troell likes family sagas. And history and sociology call upon him to focus on Sigge and the seven children. Unfortunately, though the film is narrated by eldest daughter Maja (Callin Ohrvall) and that adds logic to the focus on the mother, few of the other children are well individualized. The film is somewhat at cross purposes this way, with its unique story about a woman artist who's also a passionately dedicated mother constantly interrupted by its lumbering family history. (But that was also Maria's life.) Unlike other Troell films, this feels sometimes too long, sometimes too short. But despite the conventional, old fashioned film-making or perhaps because of it, the photographic story and the counterpoint in the film's own on screen images, 'Everlasting Moments' more than justifies its existence. Perhaps not as historically essential as Wajda's 'Karyn,' for many of us, and particularly for a lover of still photography (and darkroom magic) like myself, Troell's film, whether "essential" or not, winds up being more emotionally involving.