Like most people who grew up in a town without a dedicated repertory cinema, I couldn’t afford to be picky about movies or the way I watched them. I sought out titles that I read about and didn’t much care how I encountered them for the first time. A first-run movie at the multiplex? Great. A dodgy VHS copy of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) borrowed from the library? Not a problem. Cat People (1942) airing in the 6 AM slot on Turner Classic Movies? Wonderful. GoodFellas (1990) on broadcast television, bleeped left and right and bloated to unimaginable length by commercial interruptions? A terrific movie, even so.
It wasn’t until I began college that I met people who approached films a bit differently—people who braved multiple buses to travel across town to see a particular 16mm print or lamented that our city’s sorry iteration of a traveling retrospective had omitted a 35mm print that had definitely been screened on another leg of the North American tour. (You know they’re playing Chicago for dupes, right?) These were people who placed immense value in seeing a film in its original format, and felt closer to the work’s essence on that basis. One friend even used format specificity as a cudgel; whenever he couldn’t settle an argument on a film’s merits, he would ask his interlocutor whether she had seen the title in question projected from 35mm, or only watched it on video. If she’d only done the latter, he would declare himself the winner—he’d seen the print, so his opinion was automatically, axiomatically more valid.
If you think the people described above sound like insufferable hipsters, like the cinephilic equivalent of lanky kids eager to declare “Ahem, I have that on vinyl,” then I’d advise you to stay far, far away from Rochester and its now-annual Nitrate Picture Show, the George Eastman Museum’s three-day celebration of a defunct, flammable film stock that civilians haven’t encountered in seven decades. (Disclosure: I worked for the Eastman Museum from 2010 to 2012, before planning had begun for the inaugural edition of the Nitrate Picture Show in 2015.) Such a festival necessarily invites an escalation of the dynamic described above: “You’ve seen Bicycle Thieves in 35mm, eh? Well, I’ve seen it in nitrate.” Continue reading
Last week we posted an overview of Cinefest and a few of the films on offer. We conclude this week with an extended account of four more Syracuse rarities.
Not many folks seemed to like Stolen Heaven (Paramount, 1931), a shot-in-Astoria doomed romance with Nancy Carroll and Phillips Holmes as a pair of fugitives blowing through stolen bills at a posh resort, but its concentrated intensity (often confused for early talkie stiltedness) is definitely something to be reckoned with. In this respect, it recalls (but does not reach the heights of) its near contemporaries, One Way Passage and After Tomorrow; Stolen Heaven is cut from the same cloth of romantic delirium, with an integrity of time and space (but not necessarily plot) that feels particular to its period. Holmes’s anxious, ex-working stiff (lately of a radio factory) is just boyish and skittish enough to convince us that love and larceny derive from a common and unripe source. Carroll constantly and impressively modulates her dignity and exudes excited awareness of her own sexuality. While the film does not follow through on all of its chilly implications, the result is still attractively spare and effective.
The Phantom President (1932) rounded out the Paramount highlights. Perhaps not as fully realized as Hallelujah I’m a Bum, Rodgers and Hart’s urban operetta of the next year, Phantom President still succeeds as a wonderful film record of a living legend, George M. Cohan, playing the double role of a stuffed-shirt politico and his medicine show lookalike. Simultaneously topical to the point of being mercenary (released on the eve of the ’32 election) and not specific or pointed enough to divulge any partisanship or ideological commitment (beyond showbiz itself, of course), Phantom President nonetheless offers edifying, near quintessential, sketches of a broad swatch of ‘30s potentates and string-pullers, along with a library of au courant phraseology and jabber. (That Hoover would soon offer to install FDR in advance of the inauguration—a literal phantom president!—makes the Cohan Conspiracy look mild indeed.) An extended sequence at the party convention—Cohan flaunting his political wares and ‘sex appeal’ to a gaggle of regional and ethnic caricatures so broadly drawn and played as to suggest a hilarious, monomaniacal reductivism—is so good that one wishes there were more music on whole. (Paramount cut much of it, understandably anxious that singing and dancing pictures had yet to re-prove their box office worth after a spectacular burn-out months before.) An earlier blackface number will probably keep Phantom President out of circulation for a goodly long time, which is silly—no one would ever confuse this for anything but a movie of its narrow, beguiling moment and that’s the best thing about it. Continue reading
Posted in Blog
Tagged 16mm, Festivals
Friends enthuse daily about the treasures they’ve found on Netflix Instant. Old media salutes new, with print critics prophesying a day “before too long [when] the entire surviving history of movies will be open for browsing and sampling at the click of a mouse.” For some, the day has already arrived. “This instant, sitting right here,” Roger Ebert recently observed, “I can choose to watch virtually any film you can think of via Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, MUBI, the Asia/Pacific Film Archive, Google Video or Vimeo.”
The annual trip to Syracuse teaches a very different lesson. Now in its 31st year, the shoestring festival known as Cinefest (organized by the dozen or so members of the Syracuse Cinephile Society) suggests not only an alternate history of cinema but also of cinephilia. I have seen the future and it is a conference room at the Holiday Inn. Continue reading
Posted in Blog
Tagged 16mm, Festivals