Thursday, June 22, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Overwhelming First Viewings

Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings in "Blow-Up"
This edition of Five Film Favorites makes a short list of movies that absolutely bowled me over when I saw them for the first time. Each of them prompted me to rethink what I expected from a movie. In the vernacular of my youth, these great films expanded my mind.
  • “8½” (1963): B&W. 138 minutes. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée. Note: A film about making a film, but fret not about making sense of it. Just watch as Fellini dazzles you with unforgettable characters and images. Eventually, you'll get the picture.
  • “Blow-Up” (1966): Color. 111 minutes. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin. Note: With England’s cool mod scene in the background, a detached, cocky fashion photographer stumbles onto a murder mystery … or does he?
  • “Chinatown” (1974): Color. 130 minutes. Directed by Roman Polanski. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. Note: This is a dark story about a dogged detective who won’t let go of a dangerous mystery. The evolving truth keeps getting more diabolical. Ironically, this noirish tale unfolds in soft pastel colors. This one is about as close to a perfect movie as it gets.
  • “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972): Color. 102 minutes. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig. Note: This is said to be the prankster director's most accessible film. With its dry wit this dream within a joke, within a dream, sparkles like a jewel.
  •  “Napoleon” (1927): B&W (a few scenes are tinted to achieve a color effect). 240 minutes. Directed by Abel Gance. Cast: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daële. Note: The tale of resurrecting Abel Gance’s masterpiece from the ash heap is almost as fascinating as this ancient film is eye-popping.
It was in the summer of 1964 that I first saw “8½” in Virginia Beach. I was 16 years old when I watched it to kill some time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Beach Theater. As I hadn’t seen many foreign films, it was utterly fascinating, but I hardly knew what to think of it. It didn’t seem to have a plot.

The ending seemed to mock all of what had preceded it. So, I went back the next day and saw “8½” again.

“Blow-Up” played its first run engagement in Richmond at the Loews (now the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage) in 1966. After seeing it, I remember arguing about the movie with a group of friends on the sidewalk under the theater‘s marquee. Some of them thought it was overly artsy and made no sense. The mysterious ending of it was criticized. 

While I loved “Blow-Up,” ambiguous ending included, I was hard pressed to make a convincing case of why. The process made me want to both read about and see more foreign films.

In the summer of 1974 “Chinatown” made its Richmond premiere at the Biograph Theatre, which I then managed. First watched it before it opened with a small audience; it was a critics’ screening which included a few friends and members of the theater’s staff. As it ended I was sure we had just seen the greatest movie ever made. I couldn’t wait to tell the whole town.

Now I’ve seen “Chinatown” countless times.

My first viewing of “Discreet Charm” was at the old Cerberus in DeeCee in late-1972. After it ended I stayed and watched it all the way through a second time. I can still laugh out loud upon remembering certain scenes.

When the famously restored version of Gance’s “Napoleon” played at Radio City Music Hall in 1981, it was an event unlike any other in the history of movies. Francis Ford Coppola’s father, Carmine Coppola, conducted an orchestra to accompany the silent film as it played out on three large screens. That I was paid by my bosses to go to Manhattan to see it just put the frosting on the cake ... but that’s another story.

All five of the movies on this list played at the Biograph Theatre while I managed it (1972-83). So I had a chance to not only see them again, but I could study them. Anyway, like some others these five movies tattooed my brain and deepened my understanding of film.

Note: Two first-run highlights:

On April 11, 1973, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” opened at the Biograph for its Richmond premiere. It had just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie. That I wasn’t able to persuade enough Richmonders to see it to keep from losing money on its two-week run was a huge disappointment at the time.

  
On June 28, 1974, “Chinatown” opened at the Biograph. It did good business and ran for five weeks. As a movie theater manager, I was never happier with a first-run engagement than I was during those five weeks. Watching it over and over and drinking in all those details changed me … hopefully for the better.

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