Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Solitary Pursuit

When filmgoing required dressing up, a bit of travel, and punctuality, there was also an expectation that, even if one was going alone, there would be other people attending the screening. Such an expectation was greater in the years before the arrival of multiplex cinemas and home video. For a cinephile devoted to out of the way films, fetched mostly from overseas, there was at least the knowledge that, no matter how great a distance any particular film had to travel to reach one's hometown, it would not have come all that way for nothing. Even the most obscure films in the world got some mention at a festival, a line or even a paragraph in a film guide. But the days when an intelligent and challenging film like Seven Beauties or Cousin, Cousine could pack a cinema in America are long gone.

And yet the number of times I found myself alone or nearly alone in a movie house in the 70s or 80s would surprise even the most cynical culture critic. Mixed up with my memories of a particular film by Tavernier or Troell that I saw at some long-defunct art house was the dearth of fellow celebrants at the altar of film art. Having my pick of seats wasn't always a happy affair, especially when the lights went down and looking around revealed an empty theater. So what if another customer, two rows back, laughed ridiculously at even the unfunny lines or had a chronic cough? At least his or her presence made the experience a shared one.

In 2001, seated at the screening of a new Czech film (Divided We Fall) with a friend in a twin theater on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines (the pretentiousness of college students can always be relied on, thank god), between reels the projectionist got the Czech film mixed up with a Chinese film showing next door. And so my friend and I were transported momentarily from a grim wartime Prague to a resplendent Chinese countryside. With no one in the theater but us, it took the projectionist several minutes to notice his mistake and stopped the Chinese reel. I was in no hurry to alert anyone, since, by the time the Czech film was restarted, I'd realized that I should've been watching the Chinese film instead.(1)

I never thanked the the proprietors of those theaters for having the guts to schedule and screen (and advertise) films that were sometimes guaranteed to lose them money. Consider this my very belated thanks.

I remember with pleasure watching The Earrnings of Madame De..., Grand Illusion, and Kagemusha with my older sister, and watching Seven Samurai with my brother, and Seven Beauties with my mom. When a Navy buddy was off the Gulf War in '91, together we watched Dr. Strangelove the night before, and we stood up at the end of the film and sang along "We'll Meet Again." I've been lucky to have found so many people with whom to share such wonderful films. I look forward to doing it again, someday soon.

But I never really regarded filmgoing as a communal or a group activity. Rock or pop concerts and sporting events, in which singing along or cheering for one's team are where the ethics of the crowd come in. Watching a film in a cinema should, ideally, be no different from watching a play in a theater or listening to a symphony in a concert hall. Even if every seat is taken, when the lights go down and the show begins, one should be able to hear a pin drop. Of course, this is dreamland. After reading John Simon complain, in an interview with Bert Cardullo,(2) about the bad behavior of theater-going audiences, filmgoing audiences must be incalculably worse:

"People don't know the difference between an extreme sports event and a piece of theater, which potentially can be a work of art.The difference between an extremely violent wrestling match and a play on Broadway has become eroded. The audiences go in the same spirit to both events."

Home video has made it possible to watch a film in one's home, among family and friends, which are much more agreeable conditions. When I recently contacted someone on Facebook whom I hadn't heard from in twenty-six years, I asked him if he remembered who I was. "Of course I remember you," he said. "You introduced me to Seven Samurai." I felt thankful that he remembered it, as well as somewhat vindicated.

(1) A few months later I purchased the Chinese film (Zhang Yimou's The Road Home) on DVD.
(2) According to an anonymous comment on this blog (which I believe was from Stanley Kauffmann), "Cardullo is not a scholar, but, rather, a charlatan and thief who has ransacked the work of critics he professes to respect and admire.”

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