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June post: Cinephelia and Summer

"There is nothing quite like that moment when the lights go down and all our hopes are concentrated on the screen." Pauline Kael

Readers and listeners who know me at all will know that movies have been among my first loves.

Mitch in his happy place, Anthology Film Archives in New York City

While I devoted a previous post to an odd prose poem that expressed the non-rational aspect of this love, seeing the news in March of A.O. Scott's stepping down from being N Y Times film critic got me thinking there was more to say on the subject. The roots of this love were in the 1970s as it was one of the ways my father and I could take in some entertainment - of more kinds than you can imagine - and break up the monotony of the family business.

Interestingly the two places in the United States where we watched movies were Tampa, Florida and New York City aka the island of Manhattan, as Stephen Sondheim put it in a song.

You could not get more diverse locations in which to get a fairly comprehensive overview of all the stuff distributed to the screens in those years. This meant that I could - and did - see movies as oppositional in character as White Line Fever with Jan Michael Vincent and Girlfriends with Melanie Mayron, in Tampa and New York City respectively.

One of the more conspicuous and memorable moviegoing experiences was when a screening of Tidal Wave, a "grind house" Japanese-American co-production actually caused a riot during the afternoon we attended. Tidal Wave was a cheap and inept picture and the theatre was one of the theaters that specialized in such fare - my dad and I had seen Cheaper To Keep Her with Mac Davis as well as Take This Job And Shove It at this same theatre. But Tidal Wave was different.

For one thing it was essentially spliced stock Japanese news and 50s and 60s monster movie footage into a threadbare disaster movie, consisting mostly of scenes of Lorne Green is a sound studio screaming "millions will die if we don't act now" and "The buck stops here" etc. This audience was not having any of this picture: as the movie spun on the audience got more angry, culminating in chanting repeatedly "R.O. Rip Off! R.O. Rip Off!" Finally the cops were brought in and the men who were acting in this way were escorted out of the theatre. Of course that experience, as well as the experience of some of the 42nd Street theaters (some of which deserve blog posts all of their own - don't ask me about Let Me Die A Woman!), is in marked contrast to how culture in general is distributed today - where it often involves the comforts of a house of some kind, probably a living room or even bedroom, and not the proximity of so many strangers with all of the potential chaos mass groups of people can create. And alongside these so-called exploitation pictures, a genre I love and will, if need be, defend to my final days, dad and I also took in some of the finest "mainstream" fare of the era in theaters, to name two favorites, Breaking Away and All That Jazz. I do agree with A.O.Scott and others, most notably Martin Scorsese, who think there is something special about the darkened theatre with lots of other people surrounding you and think the domination of Marvel universe pictures is mistaken. But so long as humans will be making some kind of photographic dramatic fiction there will be something like cinema even if we might be moved to not call it that.

I even agree with A.O.Scott when he bemoaned the loss of a critical culture and its surrender the fandom and conformism that appears to be the order of our current age. Yet the art impulse and thus the art object never goes away and neither do the exemplary ones among these, and whatever the technology, distribution, or platform.

As I have said before, all of us are creatures of our own time and as we are alive we are to live in our time. There are many philosophic questions here, not least of which is the nature of historical time and its relationship with art itself.

The love I had for movies for my adult life though my forties was a love half of which consisted of the theatergoing experience itself in addition to that other half which was the movie itself. And I do apologize for leaving out some great theaters in the brief list that follows, the kind of love I am talking about is a love where I would take an Amtrak train from Boston to New York City to see Jonathan Rosenbaum introduce Jacque Rivette's masterpiece Out-One: Spectre at The Museum Of The Moving Image, where I would also travel to the same city to see rare obscure gem like Model Shop or Lion's Love or Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant - the good version with Harvey Keitel and the great and greatly missed Zoe Lund - because I was too eager to wait for it to come to Boston.

When I traveled to other countries I always made sure to visit their movie theaters: My first viewing of Quentin Tarantino's Bad Lieutenant, still among his very best, if for Michael Madsen's performance alone, was in 1990 in Paris, France. As I graduated from the mythical school of cinema my tastes evolved, sometimes radically. I discovered the avant-garde cinema of Nathaniel Dorsky, Hollis Frampton or Michael Snow and Jon Jost.

This "genre" of film also introduced me to unusual places like Millennium, and Anthology. I was fortunate to be a close to fifteen year member of Harvard Film Archive where I got to meet in person artists I truly admired like Jerry Schatzberg, Agnes Varda, William Friedkin, Elaine May and Stanley Donen, Arther Penn, Tsai Ming-Liang, and even got to play Cole Porter on piano at a party for Monte Hellman!

When Harvard FIlm Archive did a retrospective of the films of Samuel Fuller one film of his that stands out in my consciousness is his film,"White Dog" with Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield and written by Curtis Hanson.

Still from the film "White Dog"

Christa Lang, his wife until his death in 1997, was introducing that film one night and she signed my copy.

Christa Lang's Autograph, a treasure from Mitch's collection!

When Kathryn Bigelow brought her The Hurt Locker in 2007 long before its official release I impulsively asked her out on a date and while I may not have gotten acceptance I did get a story about her ex James Cameron which I will not repeat here.

Here are two souvenirs from the HFA, one a photo of William Friedkin signing his book for me and an Agnes Varda signature on the Criterion edition of her Cleo From 5 to 7. You can see that even though I might own a physical or, now, a streaming copy of a film, I will still go to the big screen and theatre if at all possible.

Willam Friedkin signing his book for Mitch

Agnes Varda's Signature on Cleo from 5 to 7

Some of the theaters that were part of my weekly life included the Coolidge Corner and Brattle in Boston and during a year, when I was fortunate enough to be in NYC, places like Anthology Film Forum, Lincoln Center, and the Quad - and, most recently, the new Metrograph which might be my favorite movie theatre in all of NYC.

I remember watching a screening of Freebie and The Bean, with Josh and Ben Safdie at Film Forum before they had made it really big with Uncut Gems and all of us erupting into the most raucous laughter at the sheer weirdness of that picture and the era which gave it birth.

A lot of these experiences inside a darkened theatre were in the Summer months. I think I probably will always see June as much a month for the movie theatre as the beach or the ocean, at least in terms of my immediate experience. But what I want to emphasize above all else is that the movies I have mentioned in this post are valuable and important if for very different reasons.

Some hold value for their silliness or strangeness. Others hold value for being, yes, masterpieces of art in their own fashion; still others are valuable as well wrought craft. There are two different matters that I am urging us not to conflate: the matter of where we happen to find ourselves in History, such that to be in a "buck a movie" theatre with one's own father in Tampa watching the boys, Paul Dooley, and Barbara Barrie and my beloved Robyn Douglas onscreen in Breaking Away is a moment that is utterly unique to 1979 on the one hand, and on the other hand, the separate matter of being in one's own home and watching the Nan Goldin documentary All The Beauty And All The Bloodshed in 2023.

Would I have preferred to have seen Nan Goldin and her loved ones and colleagues in a theatre?

Without a doubt.

Is it basically the "same" object in both circumstances? In many respects it is. And interestingly, the Nan Goldin film is itself about a period of time roughly contemporaneous with the movie Breaking Away. So long as people will be making objects for the screen I may very well want to continue to view them and even to keep current with whatever is going on. And though I may very well love movies more than many other things I am also keenly aware that there is much to those other things that might have parallels to what I have experiences with movies.

There is, as I said above, the art impulse and the art object - which importantly also includes things that are not static objects at all like all sorts of performances in motion. And impulse and object alike have some commonalities alongside the important differences which commentators like Scorsese and Scott do tend to overemphasize.

The irony is not lost on me that many of the major innovators in theatre based cinema of the 60s and 70s had careers in television before movies, like Friedkin, Lumet and Penn. And historically television and movies were always talked about in opposite to one another. This is the way to talk about art in terms of its sociology which always foregrounds the motivations and intentions of the creators behind the objects and the nature of the distribution system. This is art defined as some kind of drivers ed manual.

When art goes out into the world however, other matters come into play and those matters are a little more universal and free from historical time than the sociological attitude would have it. This is where the word aesthetics comes in as it usually does with me, which has to do with some kind of ineffable experience of sensual feeling and has the potential to communicate across the greatest spans of geography and time.

Such communication and its meanings are in a very real sense the theme of our podcast.

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