Monday, July 7, 2008

The Education of a Cinephile

My movie-watching experiences began in the 1950's at about the age of seven. One TV station in the small Southern California town where I grew up presented a daily afternoon movie. Most of these were Warner Brothers films, so I grew up watching Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and other Warners contract players portraying working class characters and gangsters, and the private eyes and femmes fatales of the films noirs of the 40's. The musicals I knew were of the WB Busby Berkeley variety.

Occasionally the fare would vary. I remember seeing Rebecca when I was about ten. This was my mother's favorite movie, so I already knew a bit about it. In those days, nobody thought anything of editing movies to "run in the time allotted." This version of Rebecca lacked the entire prologue, where Joan Fontaine meets Maxim de Winter on the Riviera. It simply started with the voice-over "I dreamed I went to Manderly again last night" and began with her arrival there. The first time I saw Casablanca, the entire flashback to Paris had been edited out.

When I was in high school, I began reading a bit of movie history (like which ones had won awards, courtesy of the Information, Please almanac) and staying up late on weekends to watch films like All About Eve and Going My Way. I also started reading movie reviews and catching the best of the current movies, which reached my town several months after their initial release.

The theaters there seldom showed anything that wasn't in current release, although one Christmas vacation when I was in junior high I do recall seeing at a matinee a memorable double feature of North by Northwest (to this day still my favorite movie of all time) and Please Don't Eat the Daisies, a rare example of a re-release. Even though I had read reviews of foreign-language movies, I had never seen one for the simple reason that they never played at any of the theaters in my town. I did manage to see a few real British movies like Tom Jones, Darling, and Georgy Girl.

My real film education began in college. I went to the University of California in Santa Barbara, where I lived in the student ghetto, Isla Vista. Some may recall this as the place where rioters burned the Bank of America in early 1970. While the bank burned, I was in the local theater watching Belle de Jour. After the movie, the audience left the theater only to come face-to-face with a phalanx of LAPD SWAT team members in full riot gear--see-through visors, truncheons, firearms. For a few moments, they seemed panicked, as though the exiting moviegoers were revolutionaries storming the Bastille. I honestly wondered if we were all about to re-enact the massacre on the Odessa Steps in Potemkin.

The local theater in Isla Vista, called the Magic Lantern, was a repertory house, the best I have ever encountered, and for five years I was a regular patron. The bill changed twice a week and was usually a double feature. There was also a midnight movie on weekends. My first weekend at college I saw the short films of Kenneth Anger, collected under the title Lord Shiva's Dream, or LSD. The title film didn't make much sense to me, but some of the others I'll never forget: the one where the sleeping sailor appears to be getting a huge erection beneath his bed sheet, which is then snatched away to reveal instead a huge crucifix rising from his crotch, or the one where the car boy shines a hot rod with a giant powder puff while "Dream Lover" plays on the soundtrack, or the one where the motorcyclist slowly dons full leathers--a sort of striptease in reverse--to "Blue Velvet." These last two were in essence bizarre proto-music videos, incongruously combining erotically suggestive images with two of the most meretricious teen pop songs of the 50's. What an eye-opener for a naive small-town teenager!

Anyway, the double feature at the Magic Lantern was very director oriented. A typical bill might consist of Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid/Viridiana, Polanski's Repulsion/Cul de Sac, Fellini's La Dolce Vita/8 1/2, Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning/Morgan, or Losey's Accident/The Servant. Sometimes there would be a variation on the director theme with a bill like Kwaidan/Woman in the Dunes.

In the fall the Riviera Theater in Santa Barbara would present a classic film festival of director-oriented double features chosen from the Janus (now Criterion) film collection. Here I first saw Through a Glass Darkly/Wild Strawberries (the latter still my favorite work by Bergman). A couple of courses in film history and film appreciation at the university helped fill in many of the blanks.

Later when I did postgraduate work at San Francisco State University and lived in the Haight in the 70's, San Francisco was a cinematic embarras de richesses. The latest foreign films were available at theaters like the Surf in the Sunset District, the Balboa, and at a little art house whose name I have forgotten located in an alley off Van Ness Avenue. In Chinatown was a theater where the bill changed daily and you could see two movies for 99 cents. I remember seeing THX 1138 and the original Russian version of Solaris there.

The morning movie on one of the local TV stations came from the MGM library--the first MGM classics I had ever seen--and featured titles like Father of the Bride. This was the year I first saw The Last Picture Show, in which the Minnelli movie figures prominently. During this time I began reading the essays and reviews of Pauline Kael voraciously, both in the New Yorker and in her published collections.

Shortly after I moved to a small town in Northern California, the local theater, which then specialized in later John Wayne movies and films of the Dirty Harry school, was bought by a young couple from Madison, Wisconsin, who found a felicitous and successful programming mix by showing artsy/foreign/independent/cult movies on weeknights and the best American popular movies on the weekend. It was here that I saw the great American and foreign movies from the mid-70's through the 80's--from Chinatown to Kagemusha.

I also taught a couple of film appreciation courses for the evening program of the local community college. As well as showing some of my favorites, I used the opportunity to watch a few titles I had never seen. Ugetsu, Alexander Nevsky, and Stagecoach worked out beautifully. My one unpreviewed disaster was The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was sunk by its British accents, poor sound recording, and a very noisy 16mm projector.

Until the late 80's I was definitely planning a lot of my free time around attending movies. But the advent of VHS changed that. (I must admit that the general decline in manners among moviegoers around this time also helped drive me out of the theaters.) VHS also permitted me to fill in some of the gaps in my film-viewing education. I was able to see for the first time American classics like Singin' in the Rain and Strangers on a Train as well as foreign classics like Smiles of a Summer Night.

For the last ten years I have had satellite TV and now regularly watch newer movies on pay-per-view and classics on TCM and IFC (both fortunately devoted to the letterbox format) and when necessary on AMC. I have a DVR (digital video recorder, the same thing as TiVo) and have not yet felt the need to buy a DVD player. Perhaps not too far in the future a DVD player and a subscription to Netflix will happen. I do miss the theater experience, but not the boorishness of the typical theater audience.

What a long, strange cinematic trip it has been, indeed, and there is still much left to see. I cannot imagine ever getting my fill of movies.

UPDATE, OCTOBER 2008: I have a DVD player and subscription to Netflix at last, so I will now be able to watch and write more frequently about recent movies.
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Portions of this post appeared in San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle's blog "Maximum Strength Mick" at SFGate.com

2 comments:

Scaramouche said...

Very interesting film-going history. I remember that theater in Chinatown from the late '70s. I saw "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" there. Not great Cassavetes, but I always like Ben Gazzara.

Anonymous said...

Interesting site, and refreshingly well-written.