as my dear old grandfather litvak said, just before they swung the trap, he said "you can't cheat an honest man. never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump".
we've now been keeping the drive-in spirit alive since last may. in an effort to make things suitably epic, i wrote werner herzog a while back to invite him to our shindig. file under: you never know until you try. he sent me a very nice note politely informing me that he would be unable to attend. not to be dissuaded, we went epic anyway and all convened to watch akira kurosawa's seven samurai (1954).
it was a great way to start our second year because a) the film is flawless and b) wherever those guys go, it's a party. much birthday cake was consumed and we had ice cream courtesy of the fine folks at chozen and film movement, both of whom i heartily recommend. the sweltering texas afternoon heat gave way to a lovely, breezy evening and we had our best turnout yet. we really couldn't ask for more. thanks, as always, to the smiths for opening their home to all of us and thanks to everyone who came to share the movie.
the starlite summertime schedule is looking top notch, if i do say so myself. here is what we have to look forward to:
the program for late june is going to be 1001 nights in one, with two selections inspired by that timeless collection of stories. first up will be lotte reiniger's the adventures of prince achmed (1926).
it is a stunning, enthralling piece of silhouette animation. intricate and captivating, it is the oldest known surviving animated feature film and is like an hour-long trip inside the genie's lamp. you simply won't believe what someone was able to do with cardboard cutouts. it is astounding. the main feature of the evening is going to be michael powell, tim whelan and ludwig berger's the thief of bagdad (1940).
if you think you know jaffar because of disney, come see the real deal. it is a lavish technicolor sirocco.
in july the band will be on tour, so the austin edition will be suspended for a month. the good news, however, is that we are going to try to take starlite on the road. have projector, will travel. washington, d.c. looks like a distinct possibility, along with other tour stops. i am working right now to coordinate films with geographical locations. once the tour itinerary is completely set i will have a better idea about which days look like we can squeeze films into and in which cities that might happen. if you're coming to see us play you might get a free movie out of the deal, as well.
starlite returns to austin in august with a special program in honor of alfred hitchcock's birthday. there are a couple of my favorites of his lesser known films vying for the top spot there. that one is going to be a great night.
i'll be back soon with more specifics about the june installment, so stay tuned. hope to see you guys some time this summer.
albert lamorisse's the red balloon (1956) is one of my favorite pieces of magical realism in cinema. it's classified as a children's film but i've always thought of that as a narrow and restrictive designation. adults cheat themselves out of a good deal of beauty by ignoring what they consider to be "kid's stuff". in a scant thirty-four minutes, lamorisse - with the help of his own children - transforms a somewhat drab and overcast paris into a place where anything feels possible, no matter what your age.
it begins with a boy, school clothes as gray as his surroundings, descending into the city to make his way to school. almost immediately, something catches his attention outside of the frame and he begins to climb a lamppost to retrieve it. the camera pans up to reveal the most red, lively balloon any kid has ever laid eyes on. right away, the slightly delayed introduction of the balloon is a lovely touch. we are not allowed to see what he sees for a moment or two, both underlining the special relationship between boy and balloon - almost as if he might be the only one that can see it - and piquing our curiosity. balloon safely in hand, he resumes the trek to school but is shut out by the conductor who will have no balloons on his trolley. left with little recourse, he is off to the races, running all the way to school, lest he be late, and leaving his balloon in the hands of the gentle custodian until he can come for it when school is out. with the last bell, he reclaims his balloon and heads home. it's a rainy afternoon, but it presents little problem as a number of adults are willing to share their umbrellas.
throughout this short, almost entirely wordless film, pascal, our little protagonist, impresses us with his boundless energy, charm and active, agile mind. he is no ordinary kid. there is a bright curiosity and genuine happiness in his face that makes it easy to believe that this balloon would seek him out. before long, he and his new pal arrive home, where things are less than ideal, and his grandmother throws the balloon out of the window. for the first time, we see that the balloon is more than an inanimate object, as it hovers craftily around the balcony until the boy lets it back in again, with grandma being none the wiser. slowly, we are seeing a relationship form between boy and balloon.
this second act essentially repeats the actions of the first, except boy and balloon are now pretty much inseparable. the balloon is downright sentient at this point, and the walk to school is one game after another, the balloon almost puppy-like in its playfulness. once again, they attempt to get on the trolley and are denied. this time though, the boy merely instructs the balloon to follow and it does, speeding loyally behind the streetcar all the way to school, where it causes a mini-riot among his classmates upon arrival. it manages to avoid the tiny, grasping mob but is such a distraction throughout the day that the boy is taken out of class and locked in a room by himself. in retaliation, the balloon begins a campaign to harass the rigid headmaster that is so confounding and irritating that he has no choice but to let the boy out. together, they amble slowly home again, wandering through a street bazaar that's not so much exotic as it is indicative of a paris that is just a decade or so removed from catastrophe, still digging itself out of wartime rubble in places. the sidewalk is littered with potential magic, objects lying everywhere that could be like this balloon. they are just waiting for someone to see them with the right eyes, to take them in, care for them and protect them. leaving the bazaar, in a touching and comic episode, they cross paths with a girl with a balloon of her own. even balloons can have their heads turned.
crazy dame, nothing comes between a boy and his balloon!
almost home, they are set upon by a group of bullies. chased by this silly rabble, he and the balloon are more than a match for them and they cleverly conspire to outwit them. boy goes this way, balloon goes that way, we'll meet at the balcony and all is well for another night.
the final act opens the next morning with the boy and his grandmother on the way to church. of course, the balloon follows, proves just as disruptive in church as in school and he and the boy make a break for it. together, they can't be hemmed in by any institution or authority figure. the simple pleasures in the relationship between this boy and balloon now transcend all your silly codes of conduct. what they don't transcend, unfortunately, is the lure of the bakery window.
turning his back for a moment in pursuit of treats, his balloon is captured by a group of young thugs. you know the type, the type that has to destroy anything they don't understand. they abscond with it and begin to use it for target practice with their slingshots, that most biblical of children's weapons. he rescues the balloon and leads them on a spirited chase through myriad, labyrinthine parisian alleyways, but it is ultimately to no avail. he and the balloon are surrounded and the balloon meets its sad, slow demise in a hail of stones, eventually stomped to death. this balloon's ability to play a death scene puts many a human actor to shame. at first, you think it might be alright. then you notice an almost imperceptible shrinking. your worst fears are confirmed as a network of creases and ridges shoot across its surface. it looks like a miniature, red armageddon, the end of a tiny world. when that little shoe delivers the final blow, it's hard to tell if it's cruelty or mercy. as pascal mourns his fallen comrade, balloons all over paris shoot out of their owners' hands and take to the sky, rushing to his aid. they descend on this little battlefield and form a colorful brigade to lift him up over the city, taking him where his tormentors, be they bullies or bureaucrats, cannot go with their limited imaginations.
it really is a beautiful paean to loyalty, devotion and the power of imagination. five decades on and it's still sheer magic. find half an hour somewhere in your day and do yourself this favor.
the standard rundown, for the uninitiated: for one solid week i turn over complete control of my streaming netflix queue to one of you fine folks. during that week (excluding visits to actual theaters) i will only watch content curated by them and report back daily, detailing my viewing experience and letting you know what to do with my remains should i not survive.
our next programmer is jon merrill. here he is at a family reunion a while back, looking on as his grandmother took pictures of her stories on the t.v.
jon takes the reins for an action packed week running from 6.13.11 through 6.19.11 and i am guessing it will be a cornucopia of mamet, swayze and gymkata. stop by if you can and see what he has in store for me.
the joint was packed for a great evening of classic film hosted by paramount film programmer jesse trussell with special guest peter bogdanovich. the traditional season opener, casablanca (1942), was paired with bogdanovich's own selection for the evening, bogart and bacall's first effort together, to have and have not (1944). prior to the screening, bogdanovich gave a little background on the production of casablanca, just to set the tone for the evening, and came back before the second feature to do an extended q & a with the audience. he held forth on matters ranging from michael curtiz' ruthlessness to the benefits of the golden age studio system versus what we have now to a lesson jimmy stewart taught him about the magic of the movies and how cinema provides the gift of little suspended moments of time that last entire lifetimes. he explained how casablanca was a picture blessed by one fortunate accident after another, made flying by the seat of everyone's pants, filming even as the ending wasn't written. when someone from the audience asked how something like that would get made today, it provided bogdanovich an opportunity to drop my favorite quote of the evening. the studio system was a different animal, he explained, and "what we have now is chaos. and a lot of shitty pictures." amen, pal. things then segued into an interesting discussion of how films aren't written for adults anymore and how what were the B pictures of the golden age have become the A pictures of today. add to this mix a number of his trademark impersonations of hollywood royalty and his pledge to finish orson welles' the other side of the wind just so wes anderson can't touch it and you have the makings of a damn fine evening.
and we haven't even gotten to the films yet.
i am now convinced that the law of diminishing returns simply does not apply to casablanca. i have seen this film so many times now that i have lost count and yet it never loses a fraction of its power to entertain and inspire. it has to be one of the greatest examples of cinematic alchemy in the past century. to have and have not, while not considered the cinematic milestone that casablanca is, has the benefit of incendiary chemistry between bogart and bacall, in addition to sharing a number of familiar faces and themes with it - far-flung and exotic locale, oppressive regime providing the foil for romantic revolutionaries, apolitical bogart having his hand forced by cupid's fickle arrow. both are a grand testament to the craftsmanship of old hollywood. one of the great things about seeing these films a number of times is, through the comfort of familiarity, you can take time to examine elements you might not have paid as much attention to the first (or tenth) time around and last night i found myself doing just that. and you know what i found? i love these guys:
dooley wilson and hoagy carmichael are the unsung heroes of these films. try to imagine these movies without the music. it's impossible. wilson is especially crucial. "as time goes by" is more than just a musical number. it is integral, the melodic representation of the film's complicated emotional core, and wilson cares for bogart's character just as much, if not more, than bergman's, in his own way. when you mull over all that these characters have been through together over the years, offscreen, you are left with no doubt that there are times that rick would have been just as lost without sam as without ilsa. without sam, rick might still be standing on that train platform like a sap to this day. carmichael isn't given as much to do as wilson, but he still evinces a similar easy charm and earned weariness. these characters have seen it all in their respective paths to the other side of the world and yet they remain the salt of the earth, low-key guys that you can always count on when the chips are down. there may be no other character archetype i have a reverence for more than that one. and to think, wilson almost lost his role in casablanca to ella fitzgerald. that would have robbed us of this jam, among other fine moments, and the cinematic world would be less for it.
the summer fun has just started. click the link at the top of the article to see the rest of the schedule and take advantage of these films the way they were meant to be seen - on the big screen. casablanca shows twice more this weekend in a double feature with sabrina (1954). i highly recommend it.
mae plays it nonchalant in double indemnity (1944). macmurray is onto her, stanwyck is oblivious.
mae peeps the big sleep (1946).
mae can't catch a ride in out of the past (1947).
mae borrows the sugar in i wake up screaming (1941).
a tiny mae causes a panic in the streets (1950).
mae takes in a fight in the set-up (1949).
mae fuels dana andrews' obsession in laura (1944).
mae stows away in the rumble seat in they live by night (1949).
mae takes a slug in gun crazy (1950)!
mae gets run down in criss cross (1949).
charlton heston can't believe his eyes, mae can't believe charlton heston is mexican in touch of evil (1958).
while i was going through the archives of cineaste magazine earlier this week, i came across this excellent article about the role that repertory film programmers play in sustaining a vital film culture. i cannot overemphasize the importance of the legion of men and women who do this job for people like me. they spend long, thoughtful hours scouring the globe for films and curating programs, making sure films otherwise unavailable are there, the way they were meant to be seen, for us to discover, reconsider or evaluate in brand new contexts.
i am one of the lucky ones. i live in a town with more than its fair share of venues devoted to exhibiting films that fall far outside of what is available at the local multiplex. in the paramount theatre, austin has one of the few genuine movie palaces left in the united states. we have the eclectic offerings from the alamo drafthouses, the arbor and the newly opened (and very promising) violet crown. as if that weren't enough, alternative venues are just about everywhere you look. you can find something cinema-related going on in this town every night of the week on campus, in libraries and gallery spaces and in other places that become impromptu screening rooms on special occasions. at this point in my life, it's probably the main reason i still live here. it wasn't always this way for me, though. for the first thirty years of my life i was basically at the mercy of the multiplex. fortunately, my folks fostered my love of classic film by exposing me to saturday matinées and late, late shows on television. this was in the dear, dim past, though - before cable television came along - so the menu was limited. i got a little older and discovered siskel and ebert on our local PBS affiliate and that blew any number of doors wide open for me and you better believe i was running through them. even if i couldn't find these movies in my local theaters, i stored the things they told me about away for future reference. as just one example, i have had their discussion of a taxing woman (1987) rattling around in my head for many years before i finally tracked it down (and subsequently was able to share it with an audience) just this year. the next time you hear one of those "who needs critics?" arguments spring up, i want you to think about me. i needed critics, and so did a lot of kids just like me. they are a conduit to things a lot of us would have otherwise never known about.
thumbs up for that mustache, gener!
anyway, cable television came along a few years later and changed the whole ballgame, especially turner classic movies, in my case. outlets to find film have proliferated in the last few years to the point that just about anything you want, depending on how ethical you want to be about it, is available for the cost of a few keystrokes, twenty-four hours a day. if you had told me in 1978 that it would be this way, i simply couldn't have conceived of it. but here we are. now, just this week, i have seen this article and this one that suggest a sea change is coming in the way we partake of the moviegoing experience. i don't fear that all theaters will go the way of the dinosaur, as convenience isn't the overriding factor that dictates where and when film lovers see movies. in the years before i moved here, i traveled the length and breadth of oklahoma, digging up student union film schedules and going to converted exhibition halls of museums, to see the handful of things that were offered outside of the chain theaters. i know other people did the same. what i am fearful of, though, is that the filmmakers and audiences will suffer by extension. it's entirely possible, in the world of video on demand, that it will mean fewer screens for worthwhile films and shorter windows for them to find an audience, possibly resulting in a situation where practically everything that's not a blockbuster has no home in the first-run world, consigned immediately upon its birth to the world of niche/repertory houses. while that's fine for people like me who live in towns like this, it is far from ideal for the artists who make them and for the audiences who find themselves hamstrung by geography, as i once was. yes, it will be available on your computer or television but it's simply not the same. we all know damn good and well that baseball on television is nothing like a day at the ballpark. there is simply no substitute for experiencing a film in the lovely cold and dark of your favorite theater.
the confluence of all these articles this week has me thinking a great deal about how thankful i am for all sorts of things, some of them seemingly contradictory. i am grateful for the technology that puts so much film history at my disposal. i am confident that i won't take it for granted because i belong to what was probably the last generation that couldn't get everything instantly, the last generation that had to put in the time and energy to achieve competency. when you spend a good portion of your youth scouring 'zines, doing a lot of your record shopping via mail order out of handprinted/xeroxed catalogs and clinging to every bit of exciting word of mouth music/film news like a life preserver, you tend to treat these opportunities that are available to us now with more reverence and diligence. i just hope everyone keeps in mind that it's a tool. it's a fantastic instrument, but we should never confuse the availability of a wealth of trivia for having wisdom. let's keep doing the work and sharing what we find. to that end, i am also incredibly grateful for just the kind of people that are profiled in the aforementioned cineaste article that keep the discussion going and never stop trying to show us things we may have missed. i admire them and their work an awful lot, so much so that i attempt a minor league version of it myself with our starlite cinema series and i look forward to expanding those efforts with this upcoming series at the cedar park library. i know my programming efforts reside squarely in the amateur/hobbyist realm and that my film knowledge is in its infancy, but i thought it might be a fun exercise to go through and answer the series of questions they posed to the participants in the cineaste article and see what comes of it.
1) is there a future to repertory programming, given the momentous changes over the last decade in technology and viewing habits? how would you characterize the impact on theatrical exhibition of home video, internet streaming, downloading, et cetera? are the consequences entirely negative, or are there collateral benefits (i.e., new prints struck for video releases, more informed audiences, et cetera)?
i think there is absolutely a future to repertory programming. as i mentioned, the experience is something there is no substitute for. even with as much film as i consume in other ways, and it is a lot, my theater attendance has not suffered. i think the majority of the repertory audience is the same. they are devoted to the experience as well as the content. the fallout from video on demand may actually benefit repertory houses in some unforeseen ways. if it reduces the choices at the multiplex to nothing but blockbusters all those smaller/edgier mainstream films have to go somewhere. in searching for them, people everywhere may discover smaller arthouse theaters they didn't know existed. that will bring at least a few over to our side. i give repertory audiences a lot of credit, actually. i think home video just whets a cinephile's appetite. it allows for a lot of great discoveries to be made and the new availability of a title that has long been out of regular circulation is often like a breadcrumb trail to the theater. if people are clamoring for a title to come out on dvd it's not primarily because they want it in a convenient and portable format. it's because they want to see the movie. you put that same movie in the theater and those same people will come see it. i have no doubt. just one example: after picking up that budd boetticher box set a couple of years ago, had you told me that seven men from now (1956) was playing downtown, i would have bought a ticket on the strength of the films i had seen in that collection. restoration efforts and new prints are most definitely a positive side effect of the home video boom. an enormous opportunity is there for audiences to be more educated, so i know at least a fraction of them must be taking advantage of it. i think, much more than the average multiplex audience, repertory audiences enjoy and look forward to having their eyes opened.
2) how would you characterize your programming philosophy, with regard to the variety of films selected, preferred formats (retrospectives, thematic series, national surveys, double features, et cetera), your attitude toward audience expectation, or other considerations?
up front, i have to say doing all this on the amateur level, as i do, relieves a whole lot of pressure that i think people who do this for a living must feel. since i don't have a venue, organization or business to support, i can afford to be a lot more idealistic about things. that being said, if you know me, you know that i wouldn't do it if i had to compromise the things that were important to me about it. my philosophy can broadly be described simply as encouraging cinematic discovery. i feel successful if i show you something new that excites you, something you've already seen that makes you consider it in a new light or something wholly familiar that simply encourages you to go out and find the next link in the chain. i have a tendency to lean toward much older films because i like to give audiences a foundation, an appreciation of where all those things that have since become convention first came from. i've done miniature versions of all the formats they mention, but my favorite thing to do is to dream up a ton of crazy lists and stretch a theme to its utmost. i have yet to really go as far as i would like with some of the starlite choices. i tend to favor a lot more confrontational film experience than a lot of people, so i have to rein those tendencies in a bit when i am choosing movies for public consumption. after a year of doing these, though, i think the people that usually come to starlite would give me the benefit of the doubt. in year two, i anticipate we'll move into slightly more complicated territory more often, but we've laid the groundwork for that now. they know i want the experience to be ultimately encouraging to them and that i wouldn't waste their time. we've established a good track record. the cedar park series will be a bit more tame, but no less satisfying, as i think i will still be introducing people to new experiences. it's a good time whether it's curtiz or cassavetes.
3) do you find that good quality prints continue to be available? do you think film prints will continue to be struck and distributed, or is this a dying exhibition format? and if projecting from film is destined to become obsolete, how great a loss do you think this is? are you open to screening video or digital formats?
i truly have no idea about the availability of prints and whether or not they'll continue to be struck and distributed. economics will dictate a lot of that. all i can say is that i hope film never becomes obsolete. i think it would be an immeasurable loss. the only option available to me at the moment is digital projection so i obviously have no qualms about using it. having said that, my ideal situation would be a theater that had the capability to project film, video and digital formats. film would always be the default position but i would never want what i exhibit to be limited by the availability of a good print of a title in a given format. nothing looks like film, though. that is undeniable.
if you've seen this, you know what i mean.
4) how have your audiences changed over the years? are they increasing or decreasing? have their demographics changed, in terms of age or background? have they become more or less receptive to challenging and innovative programs?
again, my experience is terribly limited in this regard, but i think the audience for starlite is going to steadily grow once people come and realize what a good time and great environment it is for watching movies. i know that everyone that takes part always looks forward to those nights and it's such a communal feeling. it's the type of thing that we'll all look back on fondly a long time from now. i think we're all sort of evolving as a whole. as their film literacy grows so does my ability to put together things that will stimulate, entertain and satisfy them. the whole experience just gets better every time we do it. i feel like they're extremely receptive. people invite me into their home to turn their backyard into a theater and show anything i want and people come out every month. if that's not receptive i don't know what is.
a sight you will never see at starlite cinema.
5) what are some of your formative memories of repertory filmgoing? do you have stories of particularly unforgettable experiences, inspiring series, or legendary venues?
i have had a number of fantastic experiences. one of my earliest favorites was driving two hours to some weird little strip mall theater in norman, oklahoma to see sunset boulevard (1950). it was devastating to see hollywood decaying on such a grand scale right in front of my eyes. i still think about that trip on a pretty regular basis. i once was able to see the shining (1980) on the lawn of the stanley hotel - the hotel that inspired the book - in estes park, colorado. that was pretty great. the absolute number one experience i have ever had, though, was here in austin at the paramount theatre. a couple of years ago they screened buster keaton's the general (1926) with a new score performed live in the theatre and it is the single best time i have had at the movies. there is no debate. what i felt for that 75 minutes was true joy. i will never forget it. i felt like i was the only person on earth and the whole thing was happening just for me.i appreciate you indulging me, gang. those were interesting to think about. if there happen to be any programmers out there that would like to chime in, chide me for being naive or have a go at those five questions i would love to hear what you have to say. i would like to hear what any of you have to say, for that matter. thanks for reading.
they haven't officially released the schedule yet, but if you would like a sneak peek here you go. between now and september you can see over eighty classic films on the big screen. jesse trussell, paramount film programmer extraordinaire, has dug up some real gems this time around. there will be a lot of new prints, some restorations of landmark foreign films and a week of 70mm epics. peter bogdanovich will be there discussing film history at the casablanca (1942) screening. other highlights for me include orson welles' f for fake (1973), charlie chaplin's modern times (1936), nicholas ray's they live by night (1949), a new, restored print (!) of luchino visconti's the leopard (1963), one of my all-time favorites - robert altman's mccabe & mrs. miller (1971), kaneto shindō's kuroneko (1968) and every single thing in the world cinema classics block in august. for all the double features (and practically every show is) you get both films for the price of one ticket. if you'd like to get even better deals, and support the crown jewel of congress avenue in the process, you can join the paramount's film fan club. the benefits vary according to donation level but no matter which one you choose if you go to these on a regular basis the memberships pay for themselves and the proceeds support the ongoing presentation of film at the greatest venue in town.
it's shaping up to be a fine summer. let me know which films you are looking forward to and i will see you in row q.
the general idea would be one feature film, free and open to everyone, in a given evening with a brief introduction, possibly printed notes and a discussion period afterward if anyone is interested in sticking around. i am assuming we will do a trial run to see what kind of response we get. to that end, the initial run will most likely be composed of milestone films. if that proves to be successful, i will branch out into themes/seasonal programs once we establish an audience. given that things go well, expect to see monthly runs featuring noir, screwball comedies, world masterpieces, director spotlights and the like. with the digital projection format, program choices will be limited to titles available on dvd. my collection is sizable enough to keep us in movies for years, though. combine that with library loan resources and i am sure we could offer just about anything. bearing all this in mind, what would get you to attend to this type of thing? i would like to hear about what titles you consider essential classics and what titles would get you to come back for more specific programs. do you like film notes? discussion? if so, formal or informal? i know the average filmgoer probably doesn't go out of their way to check out repertory cinema programming at their local library, but i figure if you are reading this you at least have those inclinations, so let me know what about the experience would actually get you out of the house. what haven't i thought of? i appreciate everyone's input and i will let you know more details as soon as i can. thanks.