After I posted my piece on the movie theater etiquette debate, such as it is, my friend The Self Styled Siren e-mailed me, informing me that in searching for a Steven Spielberg quote about movie houses as churches, she did not come up with the goods, but did find a not-dissimilar sentiment articulated by Bernardo Bertolucci, made on the occasion of Bertolucci accepting a DGA award from, as it happened, Spielberg. In that speech, Bertolucci praised cinema as "the most international and the most classless of expressions," worried that "cinema is living in shyness—I might even say fear—of televison," and concluded this train of thought with "Maybe I'm an idealist, but I still think of the movie theater as a cathedral where we all go together to dream the dream together."
I feel like in my dire-seeming conclusions about shifts in how movies function in the lives of the mass of theater-goers, my realism might have obscured not just my own idealism but another facet of reality, the one that Bertolucci speaks of. To extend the metaphor, perhaps we could even say that where ever two or more are gathered in cinema's name, that's a church, or cathedral. Amazing celebrations/appreciations of cinema still happen in an en masse context, that is to say, in theaters. I've had at least a half a dozen of them in the past twelve months, which doesn't sound like many, but I want to be clear about the "amazing" part. Because "amazing" is almost by definition rare. All of these screening were unmarred by smartphone-checkers, texters, talkers, or any such thing. Except...well, read on.
1) Eloge D'Amour (In Praise of Love), The Museum Of The Moving Image, Queens, N.Y., September 15, 2012. A part of the program Film After Film, curated by the great critic J. Hoberman in conjunction with the publication of his book of the same name. Hoberman introduced the screening to a packed house, providing his customarily cogent, witty, and acute perceptions and discussing in particular the use, in this remarkably dense and provocative 2001 Jean-Luc Godard film, of film stock and digital video for its two complementary narrative sections. The projection was flawless, and the concentration of the crowd was exemplary. "Think this through with me," Jerry Garcia sings on the Grateful Dead tune "Uncle John's Band;" the feeling in the theater that evening was of a large scale effort at thinking the movie through with Godard. And the movie has lots to think about, and seeing it in this context, with this crowd, was literally revelatory for me, compelling me to understand how much about my thinking on the film had been wrong, wrong, willfully wrong. I wrote about the corrective feeling I came out with here.
2) The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, The Lafayette Theater, Suffern, N.Y., October 6, 2012. For a long time the Lafayette, a gorgeously restored single-screen movie palace erected in 1924 and kitted out with a full Wurlitzer organ, was run by my old friend Nelson Page, as a first-run theater, with a seasonal repertory program called Big Screen Classics booked and projected by another pal, Peter Appruzzese. The theater is kitted for both digital and 35mm projection, but Peter liked to run 35 as much as he could; he's no luddite on principle, and understands and appreciates the new technology thoroughly, but like a lot of us he still really likes celluloid and over the past few years has had a harder and harder time getting his hands on it to show. Now while Nelson and Pete would very kindly wave in me and my Jersey cinephile pal Joseph Failla, also a longtime associate of the team, when I'd make the trek from Brooklyn to Suffern for one of the Saturday morning screenings in the spring and fall-held series, I was appreciative that the programming for this cinephilic indulgence had to attract some kind of crowd. The economics of running a movie theater are so parlous that we should praise the lord that any businessperson still deigns to do so, and Nelson can wax eloquent on the topic at length on request. At the Lafayette, you open the padlock on the doors and you've spent half a grand already. Because of the theater's beloved landmark status in the town, and the intervention of Suffern resident Robert Benmosche in the restoration of the theater at the beginning of this century, and a town subsidy, the Big Screen Classics series became a fixture at the place, but booking Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell's 1944 The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp was a kind of calculated risk anyway. The movie's "rediscovered classic" status is not as strong as that of The Red Shoes, the subject matter and its treatment is very British, and the picture is very nearly three hours long. But I don't think Peter could have resisted: the new, painstaking restoration was available in a 35 print from Park Circus, so as he did with The Red Shoes a couple of years earlier, he booked it.
The screening attracted a good, not great, crowd, a mix of suburban cinephiles and folks from a nearby senior citizen's center. There were a lot of people who had never even heard of the movie before, and for whom the main draw, or curiosity, was Deborah Kerr's presence in the cast. At the time the movie was made, it was both a semi-nostalgic look at a British ideal and an anti-nostalgic entreaty for Britain to shake itself out of a complacency of values that was threatening to allow it to be defeated in the Second World War. Almost 60 years after it was made the movie has in itself a considerable nostalgia value, and this multi-dimensionality, while intriguing to contemplate in the aftermath, hardly registered at all after the movie's raucous "War begins at midnight!" opening.
Now, nothing against Film Forum, where the latest restored versions of classic films generally make their first New York stops, but not one of that venue's three screens has a patch on the one at the Lafayette, which is 32 feet wide and 16 feet high. This, combined with the beauty of the movie itself, had the effect of drawing its audience in with a particular acuity. The movie's directness, its innovation, its refined distilling of emotion and intellect, created, yes, a spell, and the three hours passed like fifteen minutes. The exhilaration of it carried into the lobby afterwards; octagenarians with their walkers and impossible-to-miss gleams in their eyes, speaking to each other animatedly; they had just seen something.
3) and 4) 2001: A Space Odyssey, December 24, 2012; and Cheyenne Autumn, December 30, 2012; Walter Reade Theater, Manhattan, N.Y. The Film Society of Lincoln Center's "See It In 70MM" series of last winter was one of the indisputable highlights of New York moviegoing, and the screenings of these two pictures provided me with very different and very beautiful and irreplaceable experiences. I went to the screening of 2001 solo, not quite knowing what to expect; what shape the print would be in, that sort of thing. The screening was in fact sold out and I only got in through the good graces of a FSLC pal who had an extra ticket, God bless him. The packed house was largely male, middle-aged, and poorly dressed, and of course I myself was/am not exempt from any of those qualities. And by the glowing-eyes-of-the-leopard shot in the "Dawn of Man" sequence we were all slack-jawed-with-wonder twelve-year-olds again. Yes, the print was magnificent, the sound superb, the whole thing as transportive and chilling and engrossing as it ever could have been. During the intermission we were all just standing up and stretching and murmuring, "Wow, whoa, whu..."
Cheyenne Autumn had a wonkier print, from a Scandanavian film archive, subtitled in Swedish at that. But again the house was packed, with a slightly younger, slightly more diverse crowd; I had persuaded My Lovely Wife to come along too. We went in "knowing" the film from television and DVD, and understanding it as a "problem picture" for Ford, a racial apologia compromised by Hollywood casting (Ricardo Montalban and Sal Mineo as Native Americans, etc.) and tonal incoherence (the comic-relief Dodge City sequence with James Stewart as a Wyatt Earp devoted to his leisure time has earned a particular notoriety). But the visual majesty of the thing, and its sheer commitment, ameliorated so much potential awkwardness that the whole movie, including the Earp scenes, played like a dream, and the folks around me, including quite a few professional colleagues, ended up not only entertained but kind of schooled. Ford is not to be underestimated, even in less than optimum circumstances...and his command of the large frame was unquestionable. Damn.
5) The Vikings, The Lafayette, May 11, 2013. The 1958 Kirk Douglas-starrer, also featuring Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis, all of them playing, yep, Vikings, has a "4;30 Movie" rep as a cheeseball classic. But expertly directed by Richard Fleischer in glorious widescreen, and action-packed, with said action enacted with gusto by the cast, it really is rip-roaring fun, a Captain Blood for Eisenhower-era proles and beyond. Although we were starting at 11:30 in the morning, this really was unimpeachable Saturday afternoon at the movies fare, and the sizable crowd, most of them this time coming in with pretty fond memories of the movie, ate it up.
The bad news is that the Big Screen Classics series at the Lafayette had its last season this spring. Nelson passed the torch to new owners, who are going to continue to run the place as a first-run theater, and work with the town of Suffern on a new Saturday screening program, but likely an all-digital one. Peter is in the process of transforming the Big Screen Classics website into a movie blog...which I can't wait for. I am really gonna miss the shows though.
I've not included special screenings because I wanted to concentrate on cinema experiences that any person with a couple of bucks in his or her pocket, and some geographic proximity to the venue, could have just walked right in to. My "plus one" for this post, though, is the special 70MM screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master that I saw at the Museum of the Moving Image on August 18 of last year. I got an e-mail earlier that week from an address I had a vague recollection of. The text was from Paul Thomas Anderson, asking me to attend. I hadn't really spoken to Paul since the New York premiere of Boogie Nights, which I had interviewed him about for a Premiere feature several months prior to its opening. To say I was surprised was an understatement. Now over the past few years I've gotten to know the comedian and actor Bill Hader. He's a huge cinephile, and we've had a bunch of wonderful chats about movies and music over coffee and various meals; we were introduced by the director Greg Mottola, who I'm also friendly with. Bill knows Paul well (Paul's wife Maya Rudolph is a former Saturday Night Live cast mate of Bill's), and he had seen a cut of The Master earlier in the year, and he made me jealous talking about it. "I'll be interested in what you think of it," he said. "It's brilliant. It's also...difficult." Okay, I thought. So after I got this e-mail I contacted Bill and asked him if he'd had anything to do with this invite coming my way. He said no. What was weird too was that, besides having been anticipating the movie, I'd been writing a memoir in which a professionally crucial and personally disastrous foray to the 1998 Adult Video News Awards is chronicled, an event at which almost everyone had Boogie Nights in the back of his or her mind. So I'd been thinking about Paul. That Saturday evening My Lovely Wife and Bill and I took a cab to Astoria, killed some time talking movies at a Starbucks, and in the lobby of MoMI, before the screening, Paul showed up with his editorial person, whose name I've regretably forgotten, and with whom he'd been hand-carting select reels of 70MM film to screen at select venues across the country. Also with him was Jim Downey, the legendary comic writer and brother of Robert Downey, Sr., a great friend of Paul's. Anyway, Paul and I bro-ed it out for a bit (not so much that I felt I had to recuse myself from reviewing the movie that next month), and when we went into the theater, which was of course packed (there were many other critics in attendance, including J. Hoberman and Richard Brody) there was a feeling of such intense anticipation that it was almost as if everybody was holding their breath as the lights went down. And God damn if we didn't wait to exhale for the next two hours and twenty three minutes. Well, except for one teensy thing. During the scene in which Freddie and Lancaster are jailed, there was something about the framing of one of the wide shots that just killed me, and made me think of the visuals in Kubrick's The Shining. And I was thinking that this was a picture that had that thing, that thing that we want from film and which makes us believe in it all over again, as strongly as we ever did, whenever we are able to find it. And I knew that Bill, who was sitting next to me, was on that wavelength too; and I briefly glanced at him and he glanced at me and he whispered, "I can't believe I get to hang out with this guy," and I whispered "I know," so, yeah; we talked during the movie.