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.