Issue 14 | Winter/Spring 2016 (Cambridge, MA)

Atlanta's Fox Theatre (opened 1929)
Atlanta’s Fox Theatre (opened 1929)

Movies at Home

Although I conceived this blog as a chronicle of my itinerant movie-going, having devoted the previous issue to bemoaning the festival fatigue incurred during my seven weeks on the road last summer, lately my thoughts have wandered (as I have) to watching movies closer to home. Because my route through academe has been circuitous, I’ve called a number of places home (especially in the last few years), and having to acclimate to new cities has made me ever more grateful for the familiarity and emotional comfort that quality theaters provide a wandering cinephile like myself.

Growing up, there was one, and only one, theater that loomed large – and I’m glad to say it’s still looming, literally and figuratively, in my hometown and memory, despite its primary use as a performance venue these days. Atlanta’s Fox Theatre is one of those impeccably restored movie palaces truly grand to behold. As overture to every screening, the domed ceiling, lit with a LED rendering of the day and night skies, would brighten and dim to the organ’s playing of “Sunrise, Sunset” – a ritual that somehow managed (at least for this starry-eyed young cinephile) to transcend hokiness. It retains the record for most beautiful movie theater I’ve visited, and I’m fairly sure that’s not a rose-tinted remembrance (alas I wasn’t able to confirm this on my most recent trip back for last month’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference). Though for distressing reasons, The Fox legacy was just made richer still by the noted passing of its legendary Phantom as well as for having served as venue for Prince’s final two performances. (The Fox is commemorating the latter by opening its Summer 2016 season with Purple Rain, which promises to be on par with the singalong screening I attended last summer at the Midnight Sun Film Festival.)

Alas, given the Fox’s spotty programming and distance from my family’s neighborhood, it wasn’t an everyday – or even every month – outing, and most of my youthful movie-going was confined to characterless suburban multiplexes. None of those is worth mentioning, though I would be remiss in reminiscing about cinema culture in Atlanta without remarking on the Ted Turner-era CNN Center’s “quaint” custom of screening Gone with the Wind in its in-house theater…every day…all day. Only the memorial carvings to Confederate figures on Stone Mountain (and the nightly laser light show celebrating them) leaves my Yankee friends more aghast at Atlanta tradition.

Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall (1977)

I’ll forever feel guilty that I didn’t take greater advantage of New York’s cinemas during the two years I lived there, but I’ve attempted to make up for it since with each return trip. In my defense, I was already seeing a lot of films in class, as part of my master’s program in Cinema Studies, and as a graduate student my funding was limited. That led to my fulfilling the cinephile task/dare I set myself to watch a film per day largely from the perch of my apartment’s sofa, with programming provided by the New York Public Library’s DVD (and often VHS) collection. But certainly I also became a devotee of the cinematic offerings at Anthology Film Archives, Film Forum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (where I recently attended a memorable tribute to the tragically departed Chantal Akerman) and MoMA – also all still around, and complemented by a number of newcomers (IFC Center, Nighthawk Cinema, the newly-opened Metrograph) that testify to how NYC is doubling down on movies as a social experience. And while I’ll always lament arriving in New York too late to be a habitué of the cinemas that Woody Allen characters are forever going to (the Beekman, the Bleecker Street, the New Yorker, the Thalia), if those can’t be revived except through old movies I’m glad to learn of these restoration efforts to former movie palaces throughout the five boroughs.

My combined seven years in Los Angeles were probably my most immersive cinematically, both because it was my job (first as an industry underling, then as a Ph.D. candidate in film studies) and because the TV renaissance was not yet upon me/us. My favorite, by far, was and is the New Beverly Cinema, recently rescued from probable demise by Quentin Tarantino, though the appearance of Cinefamily towards the end of my West Coast tenure became and remains cause to rejoice. Both east and west side outposts – Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater and Santa Monica’s Aero Theater, respectively – of the American Cinematheque were also host to some memorable events, from William Friedkin regaling the audience with stories about the set of Sorcerer, to Grace Slick and Eric Burdon reminiscing post-Monterey Pop screening.

Even more prominent a feature of my L.A. existence than cinemas were video stores, on account of a couple years spent working at (now defunct) Rocket Video in Hollywood (regulars included Leonard Cohen and Faye Dunaway), then once a west sider several more years spent loyally patronizing Vidiots in Santa Monica. I’m dating myself in so admitting, but it wasn’t yet apparent how much of a last gasp those venues were (and of course few still survive). All told, the L.A. cinematic space I came to know most intimately was UCLA’s Bridges Theater, for it was where the majority of my course screenings were held and in fact served as the classroom where I led my first lecture course, on Hollywood Romantic Comedy – an intimidating room to command as a novice teacher, but beyond exciting for the opportunity it provided to project 35mm prints.

I did strangely little movie-going during my undergraduate study abroad year in London, and even less during my mid-twenties teaching abroad year in Thailand – less strangely, as I was hard-pressed to find non-dubbing cinemas there. The one professionally and emotionally trying year I spent in Bloomington, Indiana was made infinitely more bearable because of the Indiana University Cinema, where I was treated to my first encounter with Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive under optimal auditory conditions (those who know the film’s soundtrack will understand the importance of this), among many other noteworthy viewings.

I spent considerable space railing about the Philadelphia Film Festival’s shortcomings in the last issue, so I’ll keep my comments on the city’s cinemas short and (relatively) sweet. The general rule of thumb appears to be that you can have either a great venue or great programming , but not both – witness the Prince Theater’s resplendent interior but dearth (thus far) of film events, versus International House’s eclectic, excellent line-up regrettably confined to a drafty space with undersized screen and uncomfortable seats on risers. The city’s three Landmark cinemas are nothing to write home about and are curiously clustered within mere blocks of one another, but fortunately for me only a pleasant walk through charming Society Hill away.

To conclude with the city that, as anyone who knows me well can verify, feels most like home: Boston. Getting to spend the first half of 2016 here full-time, on a self-imposed albeit unpaid sabbatical, has been a godsend on many fronts (especially given the mild winter we’ve had). High on the list is getting to renew my status as a regular in Cambridge’s film haunts, and with my favorite film-going partner to boot. The Harvard Film Archive has provided me with countless inspiring cinematic events – highlights include Elaine May’s Q&A following Ishtar and Claire Denis presenting her early film U.S. Go Home – and is housed in the highly theatrical surrounds of the Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center. It’s a close call whether I’ve seen more films at the local Landmark chain theater, the Kendall Square, but without a doubt my most treasured Boston-area venue is Harvard Square’s historic Brattle Theatre. It’s a cozy, altogether unpretentious oasis for film-going, where just this winter I’ve had such disparate but equally wondrous experiences as a transcendent re-viewing of recently restored The American Friend alongside Magic Mike XXL playing to a full house almost entirely comprised of whooping and swooning women.

The auditorium space that passes as the Museum of Fine Arts’ cinema leaves something to be desired, and the Barry Lyndon screening I attended recently was marred by some annoying projection issues. Yet I’m grateful to their Film Program for hosting the annual French Film Festival as well as the LGBT film festival, newly rebranded as Wicked Queer. The highlight of the latter’s lineup last month was mesmerizing actress Izïa Higelin, lead in Catherine Corsini’s otherwise disappointing lesbian romance Summertime, but overall I was frustrated by the absence of filmmaker Q&A’s or even introductory comments at screenings – something Wicked Queer isn’t alone in letting slip, but that seems to me essential to drawing audiences in our couch-bound, festival-saturated era. Let’s hope the upcoming queer film-oriented (by not –exclusive) Provincetown International Film Festival does more in this regard.

Though it’s perhaps the best known and most painstakingly restored of the city’s revival houses, Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre is at enough of a remove from my base in Cambridge that I don’t get there very often – though I owe to it one of my all-time favorite screenings, last summer’s sold-out 40th anniversary showing of a restored print of local favorite Jaws. The arrival each spring of the Independent Film Festival Boston provides welcome motivation to get to both the Coolidge and the Somerville Theatre, comparable to the Coolidge in both charm and devotion to keeping 35mm film projection alive.

Alex Karpovsky at Independent Film Festival Boston
Alex Karpovsky at Independent Film Festival Boston

IFFBoston having just concluded, I can attest to its devoted attempts to bring filmmakers for post-screening discussions, even if via Skype (as was used for Q&A’s with Mike Birbiglia and Sophia Takal; I admit I’m a bit dubious of this method, but both seem to have gone over well). Takal’s work, as represented by her Jury Prize-winning Always Shine, was my big discovery of the festival, though it was edged out slightly by my overall favorite-of-fest, Ira Sachs’ Little Men. Both films introduced me to spellbinding new performers: Mackenzie Davis in Always Shine and Michael Barbieri, the teenage second coming of John Travolta, in Little Men (a breakthrough role already noted by the New York Times). In addition to Ira Sachs’ illuminating post-screening discussion, I enjoyed hearing from two other lovable artists, Alex Karpovsky and Clea DuVall, about their likeable films, Folk Hero & Funny Guy and The Intervention; the latter, co-starring Melanie Lynsky and Natasha Lyonne, was most fun for being an unofficial But I’m a Cheerleader reunion.

Clea DuVall presenting The Intervention at the Coolidge Corner Theatre
Clea DuVall presenting The Intervention at the Coolidge Corner Theatre

In a Winter/Spring issue devoted to movies at home, I would be remiss in not mentioning the Oscars…and yet I’m reluctant to rehash all that – so let’s just say that it was nice to be in Boston for Spotlight’s surprise end-of-night win, which countered the disappointment of my year’s favorite, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, being sabotaged by Charlotte Rampling’s ill-advised comments. Let’s hope the dialogue and (however underwhelming) action mobilized by #OscarsSoWhite continues to gain traction in years to come.

In closing, one final turn on the movies at home theme announced itself with the recent news of Screening Room, which aims, in a steroid-sized version of the day-and-date distribution model, to stream first-run studio films into homes simultaneously with their theatrical releases. Though it appears the Screening Room venture has already been met with sizable resistance, online streaming services Netflix and Amazon steamrolled their way through Sundance in January, picking up films and jacking up prices. The result, as Nick James discusses in his editorial in the March issue of Sight & Sound, is that “a different industry pattern is now taking shape that assumes the natural place to first experience ‘originals’ is at home – even though filmmakers will continue to insist on theatrical release.” Yet it’s only those already established filmmakers who can hold out for distribution deals guaranteeing theatrical exhibition. And as we’ve seen with recent gambits (gimmicks?) to get audiences to theatres with Tarantino’s 70mm roadshow of The Hateful Eight and neo-noir Too Late’s exclusive 35mm release, such attempts don’t always pay off financially. As New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott’s conversation on the topic explores, while there are pros and cons to both home and theatrical exhibition, something important is irretrievably lost with the absence of communal viewing. To end on an opposite note than I began but one more simpatico with my “itinerant” mission, I hereby pledge to commemorate those joys of communal viewing with a soon-forthcoming remembrance of my most memorable theatrical screenings so far…Stay tuned!

Coming Attractions: 7 Favorite Film-going Experiences, My Criterion Top 10, Favorite LGBTQ Films, Summer Movie-going…

Chantal Akerman (19500-2015) at the 1982 Venice Film Festival
Chantal Akerman (19500-2015) at the 1982 Venice Film Festival

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