December 15, 2009

my best theater experiences

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to see The Red Shoes (1948) in a theater, on a newly struck 35mm print. The crowd was fussy, and people were walking in and out of the theater throughout the screening. At every reel change, the sound would cut out for a few moments, stopping sentences short and leaving the ghostly image foolishly mouthing words. And, in the quiet moments of the film such as these, the sound from a particularly noisy film playing across the hall would seep into our theater. These distractions were tremendously unpleasant. I had come for the colors and not for the story (which I consider weak P+P), but still, I would not have minded the total imaginative immersion that the distractions made impossible.

All this set my mind on the in-theater viewing experience. Had I ever had a great one? Were such experiences worth anything?

The theater experience is overrated. Most film lovers adore the theater experience, but when I think of the film theater my first thought is of Sullivan's time with the "farmer's wife" ... yes, that awful. I mostly avoid the theater; admittedly, however, this is because the types of films that get screened in theaters are usually the types of films I think are worth avoiding. (My taste is not of the people's.) Some theater experiences have diminished my respect for a film; occasionally I have walked into a screening of a film I once loved in my youth, quite buoyant with anticipation, only to walk out of the screening disappointed and slightly angry. Such is the case with Fight Club (1999) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (And I regret to say that The Red Shoes has also fallen in my estimation since seeing it on the big screen (but not the colors!).) The worst theater experiences generate within me a blistering, uncontrollable rage; Inland Empire (2006) and There Will Be Blood (2007) fall into this category, both experiences thoroughly horrific because the theater's sound was too loud. This sort of experience can only be described as physical violence (think A Clockwork Orange). In both instances, I walked out of the theater never wanting to watch a film again, and my pain only increased when I learned that my friends, whom I had hoped were as tortured by the film as I was, had loved it and wanted to see it again. What betrayal! Good friends are hard to find.

Let no one tell me that I must experience a film in a theater. Such people are insufferable. I know that many of them are good at heart and simply think, however naively, that the in-theater experience is the best. But there are many others for whom the theater is a test of legitimacy -- they think that you cannot have a legitimate opinion about a film until you have seen it "how it was meant to be seen." There are many tests for legitimacy, and undoubtedly your opinion will never be legitimate in their eyes. Legitimacy snobs should be shipped to Siberia.

For all that, I have had fine viewing experiences in a theater. They were difficult to remember, but, having dug them out from all the bad and indifferent memories, I have decided that I would not trade them for anything. In fact, I want to share them. Here are my three favorite in-theater viewing experiences, listed in chronological order:

#1. Jaws (1975); fall 2005

Although films had my attention at the time, I was not yet a film-lover -- I was a physics major, and one morning, while I was driving to school, I noticed a multiplex theater sign which read: "Giant Screen: JAWS." I suddenly had something to do that night.

I went to the screening alone. (I would bring a friend along to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) a few weeks later.) At the theater I discovered that they screened "classics" like this every Wed. for a few months in the Fall and that, to my delight, the screenings only cost $5. I had never been this "in-the-know" about films before.

I took my seat. The theater filled rather quickly ... not quite full, but still a few hundred people by my estimate. Hopefully this gives you an idea of how big this theater is. And "Giant Screen" is an understatement. One could land an airplane on it.

This was my first time in such an environment. For those who can imagine it, I need not stress how deeply, profoundly awed I was by the experience. There was so much space, so much noise, so much energy, so much life. That night, I was in love with movies.

But this was years ago. I hate the film now. And I am more than embarrassed that I once fell under the spell of such vulgar hullabaloo. But nostalgia wins this time. For a night, I understood what movie magic meant. It gripped me. I laughed and gasped and sweated and all sorts of weird things with hundreds of strangers, and that meant something. It was a defining moment. In just over a year I would be making the leap from physics to film studies. Although I have life left yet to regret this switch, today I can remember the Jaws screening fondly and wonder at my innocence.

#2. Brand Upon the Brain! (2006); summer 07

Before Brand Upon the Brain! played in Denver, I had known of Maddin only through his short The Heart of the World (2000), which I watched once on the internet. ("Watch" is a curious word for what I do with movies on the internet.) Others had recommended Maddin's work to me, as I had grown fond of early cinema by this time and Maddin, it seems, likes early cinema, too. I was cautious, though. For most people, a pastiche of early cinematic techniques usually just means cutting out the sound (and putting in ragtime music) and color. Sometimes the actors dress in something like old-timey clothes (usually badly done). Nobody pays attention to framing, lighting, editing, camera movement, and every other technique that defines early cinema. They just cut the sound and think it clever. Such pastiches are always painful to watch.

Hearing that Maddin's work was a pastiche of early cinema did not encourage me to see his films. What was worse were the comparisons to Lynch and surrealism. "Surrealism," too, is a completely misapplied and misunderstood technique in film. Please, people, study up on early cinema some more.

All these things considered, I braced myself and entered Brand Upon the Brain!

Before Brand Upon the Brain! started, The Heart of the World screened. I did not know this was going to happen. I was excited to see it for real. In the five minutes between the start of The Heart of the World and the end of it, I discovered that everything people said about Maddin was wrong. This is not a surrealist pastiche of silent cinema. This is something completely different, completely new, completely awesome.

And nothing could have better prepared me for Brand Upon the Brain! My heart was flying. It flew through most of the feature. I wish to describe the sort of impact it had on my mind while I was watching it: with most films, I can grasp an image easily; I can understand it spatially and figure out its place in the broader context pretty quickly. When I cannot work out an image immediately, I ask myself questions and play with the image in my mind. Why this shot? Why this time? How does it fit? In Brand Upon the Brain!, I began by trying to apply the same thought-process; many of Maddin's images are complicated -- they are very expressively shot, and their subject is frequently unreal and surprising, and all of this is made the more overwhelming by the rapid-neuro-editing style Maddin has adopted. The film's incredibly complex images pass across the screen like lighting, and one barely glimpses an image before another strike occurs. All my efforts to stop and grasp the image failed. I could not understand, in expressible terms, what the images meant, and somewhere around "Chapter 6" I stopped trying. One doesn't need logic for Maddin. One needs emotions. I let Maddin's pseudo-retro childhood fantasia flow through me. Those are vague words for a vague experience. I cannot describe what I thought or felt once in the grip of this film, but hopefully you trust me when I say that it was thrilling.

Maddin had me thinking in images, not words. There were times when, because the editing is so frantic, I began to feel as though I were catching the individual frames. And not only those frames, but the moments of darkness that cushioned them. That's right, I saw the darkness on the screen that no one sees thanks to the "phi effect." And ever since that night, when in the presence of some banal moment in other films, I have sought that darkness, have looked for that darkness between the images. It never fails to restore my interest in film.

It was a special night. I became a Maddin fan. I learned that for some festival screenings, Brand Upon the Brain! had live sound performers instead of a soundtrack. That sounded cool. Would that have been a better experience? I doubt I would have seen the darkness in such conditions. The performers might have been altogether annoying. No need for envy. I was perfectly happy with my theatrical experience. Best to treasure this memory. Best to remember the darkness.


I may complain about the theater experience, but I have been lucky enough to see many wonderful movies on the big screen, including my favorite film (listed first): Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Sherlock Jr. (1924) (and many others from Buster), Rules of the Game (1939), It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Lady Eve (1941), Black Narcissus (1947). The list goes on. Comfortable theater experiences. I have also had a good dose of the 60s arthouse experience: I have survived the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Fellini, Godard, &c. in the theater. I do not get to the theater often, but I have accumulated a list of in-theater experiences that impresses even me.

And I am usually alone (or virtually alone -- at a screening of Amarcord (1973) this past summer my two comrades fell asleep!). My aloneness also impresses me. It could be that I regard the theater to be so low because I go there alone ... but then I remember that most of my worst theater experiences have been with a group. Also that I was alone for each of the three screenings in my list.

So I have a brief story to tell which, I hope, explains both my mysteriously impressive in-theater list and my preferential in-theater solitude:

On the first Saturday of every month, Starz Denver Film Center, the theater at (what was once) my school, screens a free classic. Many of these films are taken from the theater's small archive, whose history I have heard pieces of but has yet to be satisfactorily explained. In my fledgling film days, these screenings were a blessing -- I could count on going to the theater at least once a month (and the theater is a luxury for a poor student) and seeing a film which was, at the very least, old, which was all I needed to know I would enjoy myself.

I went to these screenings alone, mostly because it is hard to find people willing to see an old movie, even a free one. One month, however, I convinced some friends to go. Or precisely: one friend, his younger brother, and his younger brother's friend (but I consider all three to be good friends). The film was Went the Day Well? (1942). We loaded ourselves with Japanese candy from a nearby Asian grocers before the film. We were all quite happy.

At these screenings, before the feature, the theater also plays a short film (all films selected and introduced by H. Movshovitz), and since this short film is not noted on the schedule, it is usually a surprise. That night, Listen to Britain (1942) played. I had heard of this short before but did not know much about it. I soon discovered that it is a montage documentary. I also discovered that I absolutely loved it. So much detachment and artistry, yet so much pathos! Such a strong propagandistic message of unity and strength, but so little of it feels like propaganda! My brain filled with thoughts and questions. I did not want the feature to start yet.

But it did. And I enjoyed Went the Day Well? a great deal. I absolutely connect with British WWII propaganda and its understated emphasis on British character. Normal, stubborn people continue to be normal and stubborn, in spite of those humorless Germans. Brits don't lose their heads or get sentimental. Went the Day Well? is all about this sort of thing; ordinary Brits do ordinary things which happen to be extraordinary in wartime. And, with all that, the film does something beautifully audacious, in a very British sort of way: the film takes place after the war has ended, even though the war was still happening. Were I a WWII-era Brit exposed to such films, nothing could have stopped me from enlisting.

But enough about the film. It ended. And I was still thinking about Listen to Britain. My friends and I strolled out of the theater. They had enjoyed the film a great deal. That is good, I thought. I was hoping they would enjoy it. But what I wanted to know was: "What did you guys think about the short film that played before?" They hesitated. Nothing to say, perhaps. Finally somebody responded: "What was the short film? I don't remember it."

#3. Major Barbara (1941); fall 2008

This was another such free monthly screening. I had been attending the screenings only rarely by this time since I had become familiar with most of the films they showed, but were they to play nothing but Major Barbara every month I would attend every screening. I had fallen in love with it earlier that year, quite by accident, after stumbling upon a VHS copy of it in the library. This is what a screen version of Shaw should be, I thought.

Every seat in the theater was filled. This happened sometimes. I remember one night when, after having ticketed out a screening of The Third Man (1949) and still having people line up for it, they decided to show the film simultaneously on another screen, and promptly ran out of tickets for two whole theaters. One screen played a 16mm print, the other the Criterion DVD. My friend and I saw the Criterion screening. But The Third Man is one thing, Major Barbara quite another. A lot of this crowd had come after hearing Howie review it on the radio; I do not know what praise he heaped on the film, but judging by the crowd his review must have been stellar. Major Barbara needs the publicity -- if only more critics would follow this example!

When the film started, I worried that the crowd would have trouble understanding the jokes; Shaw's wit is many-layered, and some of the jokes are difficult to catch when they are delivered by thick, lower-class London accents. But the crowd surprised me. They caught all the jokes I hoped they would, and they laughed at many jokes I had never caught. I was surprised. I had underestimated the crowd.

The greatest joke comes in the third act, when Undershaft rebukes his son. I copy it here from the play (slightly different from the film), but change the final lines to the punchline I remember from the film:
STEPHEN. I hope it is settled that I repudiate the canon business.

UNDERSHAFT. Come, come! don't be so devilishly sulky: it's boyish. Freedom should be generous. Besides, I owe you a fair start in life in exchange for disinheriting you. You can't become prime minister all at once. Haven't you a turn for something? What about literature, art and so forth?

STEPHEN. I have nothing of the artist about me, either in faculty or character, thank Heaven!

UNDERSHAFT. A philosopher, perhaps? Eh?

STEPHEN. I make no such ridiculous pretension.

UNDERSHAFT. Just so. Well, there is the army, the navy, the Church, the Bar. The Bar requires some ability. What about the Bar?

STEPHEN. I have not studied law. And I am afraid I have not the necessary push -- I believe that is the name barristers give to their vulgarity -- for success in pleading.

UNDERSHAFT. Rather a difficult case, Stephen. Hardly anything left but the stage, is there? Well, come! is there anything you know or care for?

STEPHEN. I know the difference between right and wrong.

UNDERSHAFT. You don't say so! What! no capacity for business, no knowledge of law, no sympathy with art, no pretension to philosophy; only the simple knowledge of the secret that has puzzled all the philosophers, baffled all the lawyers, muddled all the men of business, and ruined most of the artists: the secret of right and wrong. Why, man, you're a genius, a master of masters, a god! At twenty-four, too!

STEPHEN. You are pleased to be facetious. I pretend to nothing more than any honorable English gentleman claims as his birthright.

UNDERSHAFT. ...You know nothing, and you think you know everything. That points clearly to a political career.
At this, the audience burst into the loudest, longest applause I have ever heard. This was the election season, you see, and we still had a month left until the vote and were all rather exhausted with politics. The applause/laughter was deafening, intoxicating. I have never heard a more beautifully crafted joke receive more beautifully sincere applause. I did not realize Shaw could still be appreciated. I did not expect it. I will never underestimate the crowd again.

A good crowd is worth so much. A bad crowd ruins the whole experience. I had the best possible crowd for Major Barbara. If only Shaw had been there! It is a night I relive with joy. Truly, I had seen Major Barbara "as it was meant to be seen."

That's it for my theater experiences. A smart reader will notice how dull my "best" experiences have been. I bet there are some wild theater stories out there. I would like to hear them. Please tell them.


wigwam said...

these arent dull experiences at all! im someone who is def one of those big screen / meant to be seen snobs and who prefers being alone in/at the theater (i also love certain movies - def those two - to be 'too' loud), but i think your enthusiasms here are identical to mine, esp abt the huge laugh (that's one long joke you've reprinted there!), and i've also had those disheartening tech prob / bad crowd experiences but i think you've nailed it there w/ your Jaws experience (Ian at Jaws? Really?! Fight Club? No way!), about the scope and the space and big-ness - great essay here, loved reading it - Happy Holidays / New Year etc etc - Barry/wig

Ian said...

Hi wigs. Happy holidays! Thanks for stopping by!

I'm not sure anything will live up to my Jaws experience. Not even girls.

Hope you enjoy your trip to Siberia.