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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Let My People Go

I wasn't planning to stick my nose into this whole Roman Polanski fiasco, as it seems to be bringing out heated emotions from everyone in all corners of the internet. This is all a little surprising to me, because I don't seem to remember anyone really caring about Polanski on September 25, when he was still a 'fugitive from justice' --- presumably when people would be most outraged about his crime, while he was still living free and in the lap of luxury. Coming to this situation as something of an outsider, as Polanski has always been the fugitive rapist director in my lifetime, I can't help but be a little puzzled by the moralizing it's bringing out for those against him, and the righteous indignation and bleeding-heart sympathy it's bringing out for those in support of him. As usual, I'm just kind of sitting on the sidelines wondering exactly what the problem is; he committed a crime, plead guilty to said crime, skipped out of the country, moved to a country that wouldn't extradite him to the United States (smart), then traveled to a country that does extradite criminals to the United States (not smart), and then the United States had their request for extradition granted, and thus he was arrested. What exactly is the problem?

But with the arrest comes petitions, and this is what has floored me the most about Polanski's arrest. Not that there are those who can't help but feel bad for the guy --- he's had a life filled with tragedy that would probably seriously mess anyone up, and dare I say it would be almost inhuman to not feel at least a little sorry for a man who lost his parents his mother in the Holocaust, and had his pregnant wife murdered by cultists who took The White Album as some kind of Apocalyptic manifesto. It doesn't excuse his criminal act, but surely it casts this dastardly predator into a different light.

Now, I'm in no way part of the Polanski lynch-mob, but these Hollywood petitions are down-right crazy. Some real house-of-cards shit. Ignoring the fact that they really have no legal or moral standing to speak of, they're filled with shaky arguments and logical fallacies that wouldn't fly on a High School debate team. This petition, drafted by writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, and signed by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Neil Jordan, Sam Mendes, Taylor Hackdord, and Mike Nichols, makes some rather incredible claims:

"Apprehended like a common terrorist Saturday evening, September 26, as he came to receive a prize for his entire body of work, Roman Polanski now sleeps in prison."
Oh, the humanity! It's of course un-clear exactly what Lévy means by 'apprehended like a common terrorist' (as opposed to, what, an uncommon terrorist?) --- does Mssr. Lévy mean he was subject to waterboarding and other 'enhanced interrogation' methods? Is he implying that he was arrested without formal charges (a blatant distortion)? It's un-clear exactly what Mssr. Lévy means by this phrase, except for the fact that he means to guilt you into sympathizing with a rapist by using non-sequiturs (what one may call a 'strawman' argument). If an officer of the law can take a citizen of this country away in hand-cuffs just because the individual game them lip (doesn't that count as being treated like a terrorist, too?), then I don't really find the handling of Polanski's case to be un-just in any way. Surely this country is filled to the brim with un-just arrests every year, from simple drug possession to, um, being black in the vicinity of a police officer, so getting worked up over the arresting of an admitted child rapist strikes me as a bit... odd.

Moving on:

"He risks extradition to the United States for an episode that happened years ago and whose principal plaintiff repeatedly and emphatically declares she has put it behind her and abandoned any wish for legal proceedings."
Right, 'cept if we acquiesced to the victims wishes in every case, we would have a revenge system as opposed to a justice system. I suppose if Ms. Geimer were crying for Polanski to be put in front of the firing squad, Mssr. Lévy wouldn't take her opinion into consideration while attempting to exonerate Polanski.

"Seventy-six years old, a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland, Roman Polanski risks spending the rest of his life in jail for deeds which would be beyond the statute-of-limitations in Europe."
Then he should have raped the girl in Europe. What a putz!

"We ask the Swiss courts to free him immediately and not to turn this ingenious filmmaker into a martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio that is unworthy of two democracies like Switzerland and the United States. Good sense, as well as honor, require it."
At this point, Lévy is just trying to confuse you with a load of gibberish. Don't ask me what the phrase "martyr of a politico-legal imbroglio" means, and certainly don't ask Lévy. And I'm not sure how arresting a fugitive is somehow "unworthy" of the United States, or any other sovereign nation. But such concerns are trifle, no?

But that other petition, this one drafted by France’s Société des Auteurs, is so full of holes it makes Lévy's case seem air-tight. This petition has been graced with the presence of such signatories as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar Wai, among many more, and while it's not as outwardly batshit crazy as the Lévy petition it's just as fundamentally illogical.

"We have learned the astonishing news of Roman Polanski’s arrest by the Swiss police on September 26th, upon arrival in Zurich (Switzerland) while on his way to a film festival where he was due to receive an award for his career in filmmaking.

His arrest follows an American arrest warrant dating from 1978 against the filmmaker, in a case of morals.

Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision. It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him."

The astonishing news of Polanski's arrest. Yes, I too was astonished that Polanski, who more or less was going to get off scott-free for a very serious crime (one you or I would have no doubt been locked up without a moment's hesitation for), was dumb/arrogant/drunk enough to travel to a country that has extradition to the United States, because he just had to receive yet another award (remember when he didn't come to the Academy Awards for fear of being arrested? Going to Switzerland was every bit as dangerous). Many people use the fact that he fled the country as proof-positive of Polanski's scumbaggery, but I honestly have a hard time blaming him for his instincts of self-preservation. But, still, the dude was dumb enough to go to Switzerland, which has an extradition agreement with the United States, and expect to not be arrested (doesn't he ask his travel agent about these things?). Now, I understand that he had indeed gone back and forth over the years, but talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Hey now, wait a minute! Switzerland is a netural terriroty, man! That means they don't take sides:

"By their extraterritorial nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely, even when certain States opposed this.

The arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country, where he assumed he could travel without hindrance, undermines this tradition: it opens the way for actions of which no-one [sic] can know the effects."

So film festivals and their patrons are granted diplomatic immunity? News to me. And I love how the the Société des Auteurs makes it out like the United States government is in opposition to the film festival itself, instead of just arresting a criminal that they have been trying to arrest for 30 odd years.

But the real kicker is that the Société des Auteurs is using the fact that Switzerland is a neutral country as a defense of Polanski. Perhaps they don't realize that neutrality is a term that refers strictly to warfare, which really doesn't have anything to do with extradition, now does it?

"Roman Polanski is a French citizen, a renown [sic] and international artist now facing extradition. This extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom."

File this one under "DUH".

"Filmmakers, actors, producers and technicians everyone involved in international filmmaking want him to know that he has their support and friendship.

On September 16th, 2009, Mr. Charles Rivkin, the US Ambassador to France, received French artists and intellectuals at the embassy. He presented to them the new Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the embassy, Ms Judith Baroody. In perfect French she lauded the Franco-American friendship and recommended the development of cultural relations between our two countries.
If only in the name of this friendship between our two countries, we demand the immediate release of Roman Polanski."

Read: Let Polanski go or it's war, muthafuckaz!

OK, maybe it's not quite that extreme --- but surely that last sentence is going for intimidation, which is just plain ridiculous. All I can say is that, if the Frenchies wants to make a mountain of this mole-hill, I say: have fun.

But more upsetting to me than these idiotic petitions is the artists, many of whom I have nothing but respect for (and some of whom taught me how to love movies in the first place), condoning such idiocy. I know, this is the part where I'm supposed to say, "And I'll never see another so-and-so movie as long as I live" and, no, that's not what I'm trying to say at all. Just as Polanski's hideous act doesn't prevent me from enjoying his work, neither does Scorsese, Anderson, Wong, Almodóvar, or Allen condoning said hideous act going to prevent me from enjoying their work (and, make no mistake, signing these petitions is nothing short of condoning). But I can only imagine what on earth compelled them to sign these petitions, and what exactly it is about rape that they don't have a problem with.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Playing Catch-Up

I haven't been as productive 'round these parts as I would have liked these last two months. I was on a bit of a roll in the early parts of summer but just kind of fizzled out through August and September. Lots of my fellow bloggers have spoken of feeling this kind of burn-out, so perhaps it's a communal thing, but for me it stops today.

So I am hereby declaring October catch-up month here at Medfly. I'm gonna do something I've never done here before, review movies from DVDs, and try to write-up some of the 2009 releases that I haven't seen yet, in addition to staying on top of the new releases this month. It's a new dawn , it's a new day, it's a new life for me... and I'm feelin' good.