Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cinematic Paradise

Today, the good folks who bring us the glorious Big Screen Classics series of revival film treated myself and my lovely girlfriend (among others) to a screening of the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. I've been to this theater exactly thrice in my life; my first time, I saw another Hitchock classic, North by Northwest, and I saw the original King Kong not long after that. Unfortunately, my work schedule has kept me from going to the screenings consistently, but if there's something really special I'll do my best to weasel my way out of it. I bring this up because what particularly strikes me about the Lafayette is the way the theater itself is as large a part of the movie watching experience as is the film itself (in the case of King Kong, an enjoyable if throw-away adventure, maybe even more so), and the way in which the theater dominates my memory of seeing those movies. Growing up in the age of the multiplex, where one theater is more or less indistinguishable from another, this is something more or less foreign to my cinephilia --- don't ask me where I saw Beauty and the Beast, Jurassic Park or Toy Story as a child, because I wouldn't be able to tell you. I could tell you that I saw them, and that those movies are as ingrained into my childhood experience as my first day of Kindergarten. I saw them at some multiplex here or there, where they shuffle you in and out like cattle. There are good multiplexes and bad multiplexes, but there's no such thing as a special one.

I remember the first time I set foot in Manhattan's Ziegfeld: I was blown away by its grandeur and majesty, and how much presentation mattered to the theater's proprietors. I'd only been in one single screen theater in my life up to that point, which was the shabby-if-charming (and now defunct) Rialto theater in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. Needless to say, it didn't have nuttin' on the Ziegfeld (but, come on, what theater does?), which I still consider an ideal place to watch a movie. Not just because they realize presentation matters (how many times have you been to a multiplex, only to have the projectionist mess it up --- assuming there's even one at all), but because going to the Ziegfeld feels more like going to live theater than it feels like going to some multiplex attached to a mall. This theater was my first glimpse into a bygone era of cinema, one where movies were the dominant form of popular entertainment and they mattered. Not when they were just product being exhibited for a brief window before being dumped on home video, but when films were more special and less disposable. When going to the movies was more than a time-waster for apathetic teenagers on the weekend (and I went to enough movies with enough apathetic teenagers in my life to be able to testify to this --- they don't care what they see, or even if it's any good).

If the Ziegfeld was my glimpse into this era, then the Lafayette allows me to dive head first into the Golden Age, almost like a time machine. With the exception of some minor renovations, the theater more or less appears now as it appeared in 1924, when it first opened. As you walk in (for the Big Screen Classics series, the door opens at 11 A.M. sharp) the distinctive sound of their Wurlitzer organ fills the air and serves as fantastic and unique pre-screening entertainment. Instead of inundating you with advertising for the latest terrible television show, the latest diabetic-breeding-soft-drink, or further crap you don't really need, the sonorous music of the Wurlitzer invites you to relax before the movie, and makes the experience that much more enjoyable. So much popcorn has been sold at the Lafayette theater in its 80+ year history that the smell is part of the very fabric of the building; it's in the walls and carpet, in the curtains and the seats. It's that intoxicating movie theater smell, and damn, it makes you want some popcorn something awful. And the prices at the concession stand are reasonable, not highway robbery like they are at even the best multiplex. This is what going to the movies should be; a reasonably priced experience that exists because of a love of and respect for movies, not to further the interests of advertisers and CEOs who don't even like movies, let alone understand or respect them.

And as for the movie itself, what more can be said of it that hasn't already been said? An aesthetically rich masterpiece with a tortured soul at its center, Vertigo is certainly one of Hitchcock's finest hours. Seeing it projected was like seeing it for the first time, and it's a film that never fails to devastate me. What starts out as a routine Hitchcock psychodrama quickly develops into one of the most tragic love stories ever committed to film, and it's the nuanced portrait of the two leads that keeps the drama grounded and believable, in spite of the fact that the movie makes you swallow its fair share of contrivances. But these contrivances seem incidental when you take into account the depth of feeling in the movie.

I will say that I've always found it interesting that Vertigo tends to be the go-to Hitchcock masterpiece (not interesting in the "that's way off base" kind of way, interesting in the "I'm surprised there isn't more debate on the subject" kind of way), because it's far from a crowd pleaser, to say the least. The first 70 minutes is a lot of exposition along with the most schmaltzy thing Hitchcock ever filmed in his career (the scene where Stewart and Novak kiss as waves crash into rocks behind them is a load of melodramatic hooey, unusually sentimental for Hitchock), and the final hour is just soul crushing devastation. If I had to take a guess as to why Vertigo is so highly regarded, I'd say it's because the film was unavailable for many years and, after a tepid initial reaction to the film (many critics complained that it was too much of a departure from the Hitchcock formula), the film feels like ours in a different way than the other Hitchcock greats do. No matter which way you cut it, this 'aint your daddy's Hitchcock, and I think Vertigo has struck a unique chord with younger movie lovers precisely because it was so misunderstood at the time of its release, and fell out of circulation for a decade.

Seeing Vertigo projected has always been something of a dream of mine, and it's thanks to all the wonderful, dedicated folks behind the Big Screen Classics series that my dream of seeing this landmark of 20th century cinema became a reality on this cold Saturday in October. Considering I live a stones throw away from New York, which is allegedly a hub for the arts, there is shockingly little respect for film history displayed in the Big Apple, and it's refreshing to know that there are people out there who care enough about the medium to put together a series of meaningful revival films for the good of the community; and they've proved that such a program can indeed be a success. They've been rewarded for having faith in their customers as opposed to giving them no credit at all, though the Big Screen Classics series strikes me as ultimately a labor of love, and should you ever be privileged enough to see a classic film at the great Lafayette Theater of Suffern, New York, you too will feel the love. It shines through in everything they do.

So, to Nelson Paige, Pete Apruzzese, and anyone else who brings us this indispensable series of classic cinema, I extend a most hearty thanks. Though I may not be able to go as often as I would like due to my work schedule, just knowing there are people who care enough to bring classic movies to our cinemas year after year gives me faith.

To my East Coast readers, the Lafayette Theater's schedule of classic films is available here, and Teaneck's Cedar Lane schedule is available here. If you have the time, be sure to check it out. You won't be disappointed.


Krauthammer said...

When I was in New York for an internship I went to a showing of Cocteau's Beauty of the Beast at an old 40's theater over at Jersey City. It stuck out like a cathedral among boarded up businesses and sad little chain clothing stores. It really was a magical experience, popcorn cost a dollar and the entire audience was enthralled and respectful.

Multiplexes have certainly improved choice and convenience, I won't deny that. But every change involves loss, and what has been lost becomes clearer when you experience something like that.

Miranda Wilding said...

Ah, Mr. Kelly...

Your awesomeness is decidedly unparalled, honey.

We also have a classic film series in my home town. But it's on very early (TOO DAMNED EARLY...)at the artsy multiplex on the west side.

I'd kill to see some of those films in the theatre because they're long time favourites and I never have (THE APARTMENT, THE GRADUATE, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S etc.).

But 10 AM on a Saturday morning???

I might still be up from Friday night. But it still seems an unappealing prospect.

I've never seen VERTIGO in the cinema either. Much as I adore it. We just had it here. It played at the same place that had our Film Noir Festival.

Let's just say there were other things that had to get done.


When I was a little kid in the 80s we still had tons of single screen movie palaces up here. By the time I was an adolescent patron in the 90s, there were damn few left. Though a number of them are oncert halls or opened up now and then for special events of various types.

I certainly make a point of visiting the three single screens that I adore on a regular basis. I would do anything to keep them in business.

As you pointed out, it's all about THE EXPERIENCE. It's not the same in MOST multiplexes. Though some are far better than others.

One of the big cinemas in a huge suburban mall has a multiplex where each auditorium has its own distinctive decor. They've all got different names that go back to the way it was in the 1930s (the Bijou, for example).

I hope that place never closes. It's a damn sight better than that other complex in the same mall. That enormous hellhole is as impersonal as an airport.

That's exactly what it reminds me of, too.

There's a real romantic ambience behind most single screen cinemas. The architecture is usually stunning. If management has kept them up properly, they're gorgeous inside. Just like spectacular jewel boxes.

That's what's missing at these modern monstrosities.

They have no soul. There's not a vestige of seductivemess to them.

We have talked about the ZIEGFELD before. When I get to New York, I'm not leaving until I check that place out thoroughly.

But I want to go to the PARIS even more.

Some day. It will happen. Mark my words.

Thanks for this, Ryan.

Fabulous read as always...

Tony Dayoub said...

Nothing like watching a classic film at a movie palace. Whenever I go to NYC I try to squeeze a classic film experience onto my schedule, or at least a visit to somewhere like the Ziegfeld (hard to find somewhere that does both as you were fortunate to experience). Sad thing is I couldn't do it this time when I attended the NYFF because of time constraints.

But it's one of the things New Yorkers take for granted that I miss here in Atlanta. You guys can catch revivals at the Film Forum any old time. Or see a film the way it was meant to be seen on a gigantic screen. I was fortunate enough to see the Roadshow edition of Che at the Ziegfeld and it made all the difference.

One of my fondest childhood memories is watching Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie at the Dadeland Twin theater in Miami back in the day. I sat in a balcony(!) seat, and really believed a man could fly.

K.Donovan said...

Yes Kelly, New York has relatively few classics screenings, and what's really the kicker is the amount of Kubrick screenings they have relative to the other New York city greats, but that itself speaks of whose pushing the buttons these days on their side.
And...yes I remember your' first trip to the ziegfeld very well... it's amazing how a viewing of the (minus uma thurman) woeful cinematic reproduction of the producers could stick in one's head but it has.

The thing about Vertigo is that even if you have never had a relationship that has ended up in the death of the same girl twice, there are a great many things that the average person could relate to. It isn't a film hatched out of some absurd scenario that only could spring from the mind of Hitchcock but perhaps his most human tale of them all despite its' contrivances. One of the greatest things about it, I feel, are the use of storyboards and how skillfully they convey Jimmy Stewarts and Kim Novak's despair. Not to mention Bernard Hermann's excellent score that is really allowed to roam for the long stretches of the film that are absent of dialogue.

It is the apex not only of Hermann's score but of the Hitchcock brand of cinema of the 50's along with the acting style that was falling out of fashion by 57 that Jimmy Stewart was so adept at.
And as for the tragic and disturbed characters the one that always goes unnoticed is Jimmy Stewart's friend Midge who is one of the under sung mental case figures in all of Hitchock.

And another thing pertaining to the commercials' the suffern theatre leaves out in order to house its' Mighty Wurlitzer.
You forgot to mention that is one of the concession's the ziegfeld makes. Remember that Levis commercial we saw before Tropic Thunder..."Delirious!"
anyway... til next time.

Ryan Kelly said...

Krauthammer, I've actually never been to the Jersey City Loews, which is the theater I assume you're talking about. Again, it seems like the area's repertory film series are plotting against me, since they only seem to play movies I want to see while I'm stuck at work.

Yeah, multiplexes make life easier. And recently AMC built a 16 screen multiplex attached to my local mall, and it's a big improvement over most multiplexes I've visited, in the sense that all screens are at least created equal. What bothers me most about a lot of multiplexes is that if you miss a movie on the opening weekend they tend to stick you in a theater the size of a closet. But part of me feels dirty going to a movie in a freaking mall, so I park as close to the theater as I can, so as to minimize my time in a mall. But other than that fact, it's far and away the nicest one I've ever been in.

Ryan Kelly said...

Miranda, movies are the only thing that can get me about of bed at such an unreasonable hour on the weekend. Generally, when I go see a new release, I go early in the morning, partly because I'm cheap, and partly because the crowds are either too small or tired to be disruptive. It's worth fighting out of bed for.

I am envious that you got to grow up in the time when single screens were still in style, before they realized they could make more money with more screens. The worst is the theaters that used to be one screen that become chopped up into multi-screen atrocities. The Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan, while having some really nice screens, suffers from this.

Ryan Kelly said...

Tony, it's true, Film Forum has a brilliant repertory schedule --- but I hardly ever go out there, unless it's something not available on home video. The reasons being that it's a really long hike from where I live by public transportation, and driving your car into the city and finding parking is simply a nightmare. Not to mention the screens are really small.

The Ziegfeld is of course great, but how often do they waste their screen on junk. What were they showing while you were here for the NYFF, the re-make of Fame? Followed by Disney's The Princess and the Frog in a few weeks, which looks downright racist, and Amelia, another token biopic.

But I've had some unforgettable experiences at the Ziegfeld. Within about a two week span I got to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I've also been able to catch Blade Runner and Jaws there. So they certainly show their fair share of good stuff, I just feel like for a majority of the year, they're playing junk.

Ryan Kelly said...

Donovan, it's true, it feels like Kubrick is constantly showing one place or another. Not that I'm complaining about the favoring of Stanley in any way. I just wish they'd show his movies somewhere other than the IFC Center.

I'm glad we shared our first Ziegfeld trip, since we both agree that it's the best place to see a movie like, on the planet. I do kinda like The Producers remake, if only because I'm so fond of the source material. But, yeah, it's not very good.

I don't know if I agree that it's most human (I'd have to go with either The Wrong Man or the version of The Man Who Knew Too Much with Stewart), but it's certainly his most deeply psychological tale. But one detail that I feel makes the movie is the scene after Stewart finds Novak again after he thinks she's dead, and Hitchcock reveals that it is indeed her, thus removing the 'mystery' element from the movie (something many critics complained about on the film's initial release) and making the drama the core focus. A lesser movie would have preserved the 'twist', but Hitchcock's masterstroke invites us to sympathize with her as well as him. And then it becomes a real tragedy.

Herrmann's score is indeed incredible, and I wonder how well the movie would work without it. Seeing it on the big screen, I was particularly struck by how many long stretches there are without dialogue, and how the score really helps tell the story as much as the images do. I'm glad you bring up Midge, who is a great character, though I don't feel she's a 'head 'case' as you put it. I think Hitchock uses Midge to show how fundamentally the Stewart character changes after getting involved with Novak. The Scotty at the beginning of the movie would have seen the humor in the portrait she paints around the middle of the movie, but he's been changed forever, and that scene perfectly, and heartbreakingly, details that.

Ah, yes... the infamous Levi's commercial. That may have been more memorable than the movie we saw that night.

Krauthammer said...

I'm definitely spoiled by the AFI back home because when I went to The Film Forum it seemed like a step down. It's still a neat place and they show great stuff but, I mean, it's pretty cramped.

Ryan Kelly said...

Yeah, the screens at Film Forum are about the same size as the screen at my college, which is to say they're pretty damned small. The one great thing about Film Forum, though, is that their policy is to only show new 35mm prints, so the movies at least look great. And if you sit in the front row it's not so bad. But I haven't been there since I saw Bigger than Life at the beginning of the year, which is shamefully not available on Region 1 DVD>

Miranda Wilding said...

You're one up on me, my darling boy.

I, like you, have seen LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and JAWS in the cinema. All of them multiple times.

Simply stunning, never to be forgotten experiences. Fortunately the theatres where I indulged were usually top of the line.

Doesn't matter that you're seeing them all long after their original releases. You want that time to be MAGICAL.

If you're not viewing them in a godforsaken hellhole, it genuinely helps.

But you have seen 2001 in the cinema. I haven't. That's not only one of the greats. But it's a motion picture that is meant to be seen on a massive screen in a gorgeous movie palace.


Care to explain how going to the movies IN A MALL makes you

It's true. Some of those places are just the end of the line. But quite a few of them are fabulous.

I'll have you know, little Mr. Future Oscar Winner (yeah, you heard it here first...), that the Kodak Theatre is in a shopping mall.

Hollywood & Highland. There she be...

But perhaps by then you'll be over your aversion.

Don't take offense. I would not be teasing you unless I had a particular fondness for you...

Ryan Kelly said...

Well, Miranda, it's probably because, at my heart, I'm an anti-corporate little bleeding heart.

Oh yes, it's true. Shocking, I know.

Let me give you some background. There used to be a cute little ten-plex right on the highway in my area, about a mile from the mall (tops). Once AMC bought the place out, they decided they'd shut down the ten-plex and open a new 16 screen megaplex at the local shopping hub. Now, I'm not denying this place has its benefits; as I noted earlier, this is the only multiplex I've ever been to where every screen (but not auditorium) is the same size.

But I can't help but feel that being assaulted by advertising every time you go to the movies really takes the piss out of it. As if all the stores and banners my brain can't help but absorb on the way to the theater isn't bad enough, if you're stupid enough to get there early (as I am, because I have a very specific spot I need to sit in), you're sititng through essentially television on the big screen. Commercials for bad TV, soft drinks, fast food, and so on.

And I have to go in the morning because the night crowds at the mall theater are just atrocious. They tend to be mostly people who wandered in because they had nothing better to do, so they walk in and out the entire movie, take out there cell phones, and just are generally rude and disruptive. I mean, some disruptions are to be expected, but the mall crowd just doesn't care at all.

And that's why I feel dirty at the mall theater. But the screens are so nice I just can't stay away. Nicest screens on this side of the Hudson, for sure.

Sam Juliano said...

My wife, five kids and I are regulars at the Jersey City Loews, and in fact attended the screening of Brian De Palma's CARRIE there last Friday night. We have been attending there for years, and I almost always write reviews of the experience.

Similarly, the Saturday morning Lafayette itinerary has been maintained by us as well, and we managed 7 in last year's big screen classics series, the last being the cartoon bonanza. It's a great place, and I can well imagine your excitement at seeing Vertigo there.

The manager of the theatre and series, "Nelson" also runs a similarly-theme annual series at Teaneck's Movie City, which is literally right around the corner from both of us. This past year, a number of films graced Teaneck's screens, which we were fortunate enough to catch like ON THE WATERFRONT, IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, and a Valentino silent.

Wonderful report here. The Lasfayette is a Mecca for film lovers.

Ryan Kelly said...

Sam, I haven't been able to get to Cedar Lane for Big Screen Classics because of work conflicts. I seem to have work every time they do it. In fact, I work Saturdays in the early part of the afternoon through the evening and thus I had to weasel my way out of work to see Vertigo a few weeks back. Needless to say, it was a fair trade.

Every time I've gone to Cedar Lane, the theater has been tiny. It's my understanding, though, that they put the Big Screen Classics series on their biggest screen. It's a real shame they had to chop up Cedar Lane into 5 screens.