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Monday, January 09, 2023

Again the Cinema Sharing Struggle ...

If I Like It, Why Shouldn't Everybody?

If you show someone a movie, let alone show a movie to a group, you own that movie, at least for purpose of credit or blame depending on where opinions land. There is burden to having an intense interest that others do not share. A scene playing tad slow to you will seem tenfold that to guests, few if any having asked to be put through such ordeal. Actors overact? Mount the scaffold, as you must answer for it. I’ve had reaction anxiety since ten-years-old running 8mm to other ten-year-olds. Who wants rap for wasting other folk’s time? Hardcore movie buffs are not necessarily to be trusted for taste. I approached at least half-dozen neighbor boys for accompany to Castle of Blood in 1964, none taking bait despite avowal that here was most horrific of horrors, result me at the Liberty alone for a first time ever. It would not be the last. The Alamo coming back in 1967 saw assure for half a seventh grade that it was a must-not-miss, four or five taking a chance to satisfaction of all, but later The Greatest Show on Earth was no sale no matter my guarantee it was a pip. Risk and maybe-or-not reward persist to present day. Ann and I over the holidays watched, or rather she submitted, to nine features: Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment, San Francisco, Hot Saturday, The Lady Eve, Frenzy, The Big Clock, Libeled Lady, and The Thin Man. I sweated each out. Response was generally good until sour note struck by The Thin Man, which we had seen twice before, though 2022 found it “not so sharp as the last time.” Boring her with analysis of what might have gone wrong and why, I right or not concluded that coming on heels of Libeled Lady (which Ann called best of the nine) created expectation of wall-to-wall comedy, which The Thin Man for all of merit is not, being in large a mystery to ploddingly work out. So what had The Thin Man become? A great movie suddenly not so great anymore? She had liked it in the past. Did I program carelessly? Quest seems forever after “safe” choices. Is there a film alive to please everybody for always? If so, I haven’t found it.

Turn over floor then to Dan Mercer, him having traveled fifty-year road with me since we met at alma mater Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, NC. Dan gives rich testimony re night The Black Cat played at Monroe Auditorium in autumn ’73. I’ve reprinted his thoughts below, in part culled from 5/31/2021 response to a GPS column entitled “Critics --- Get to Know Your Audience.” Primary concern Dan addresses is how will 1973’s crowd react to a feature thirty-nine years old at the time (like age-equivalents Ghostbusters or Gremlins unspooling today):
As I was sitting at the campus auditorium showing … I was almost frightened that the crowd of students, who did not know (The Black Cat) and could not be expected to, would treat it with derision. The mood established by the film was so delicate that it could be rent by a single chuckle or sarcastic comment. The film began, playing to an audience that seemed interested in it, at least initially. There was a moment early on, as Lugosi and the young American couple played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells are riding on the train, when Lugosi reaches out to caress the hair of the sleeping Wells and Manners looks on, neither startled nor offended, but contemplative. Had the audience been other than entirely engaged with the film at that point, here is where they would have mocked it. But they were entirely engaged by it, swept away by its mystery and sadness, and would remain so until the very end. I, too, was thrilled by their reaction and so proud of them.

Being also there that night (my 16mm print), I worried too of rent by a single chuckle as Dan described. Relief that none came was palpable. No two audiences being alike, a next time for The Black Cat might have brought an irreverent house down. You just could never tell. I spent days toting Sherlock, Jr. on 8mm from one indulgent English class to a next, instructors curious enough to let me run it, classmates relieved not to hear teacher teach. This was daytime play in high-ceilinged rooms with windows tall as in a cathedral, so light poured forth no matter shades let down. Bad enough I was shooting small gauge across thirty-foot expanse, grain dispersed like rain entering gutters. Sherlock Jr. is famed for dream scenes of Buster amidst camera effects and wow chases, getting there a march through set-up with him accused of stealing a watch, me on edge for having stole valued time of watchers impatient for Sherlock Jr. to “get good.” Whatever their response, I would press Keaton upon further groups, always a voice whispering maybe this time he'll click. Came eventually to a point where like a playwright or director of stage doings, I’d stand clear of the audience and wait instead for comments going out. Lesson hammered home then and often after: Never make promises your movie may not keep.

Best experiences were ones where none of responsibility was mine. The Carolina in Winston-Salem ran the Janus King Kong in March 1970 (Uncensored! cried ads), first out-of-town distance I drove, having been in receipt of an operator’s license for all of three weeks. Mesmerized for three views, I wanted to impress upon my mind how the audience absorbed each one. Would they laugh … jeer … and if so, when? First forebode was sailors fleeing the brontosaurus, camera undercranked so they resembled Keystone Cops, this after Bruce Cabot saying “I guess I love you” to Fay Wray, tipping his hat forward post-kiss. Laughter at Bruce/Fay was OK for it being affectionate mirth. This ’70 crowd understood King Kong was a very old movie and so gave quarter. I could relax for anonymity midst nearly full houses and not being liable for anyone’s disappointment. Dream of time travel often finds us “back then” when classics were new and we experience them with first-ever timers. Closest I came was Deja vu of The Tall T at a tiny-town theatre filled with former front-rowers and offspring they brought to breathe air that was great westerns, an only occasion where time’s threshold was seemingly breached, cherry atop being fact I was mere one of fulsome lot with enjoyment again not incumbent upon me. It was like being with Sullivan’s Travels chain-gang as they watched Pluto, merely present as opposed to “presenting.” 

Nature of a viewing event can relieve pressure, like where there’s gather for a party or cookout and your flicker is mere side dish, less critical than deviled eggs or who won at horseshoes. These were shows I liked for being incidental to fun, like ring toss at a crowded county fair. My brother had Christmas feeds for which 16mm was novelty projected in dark space apart from mingling, guests free to wander in/out to entertainment not crux of being there. Such was context for Meet Me in St. Louis, White Heat, among others. I noted specially those who sat for a whole thing. Note mine were non-challengers, as opposed to something of sort like You must watch Lightning Strikes Twice It’s late King Vidor! Classics are enjoyed most where big deal isn’t made of them. Son of Fury around a same epoch (early eighties) played to an outdoor crowd inert from day spent swimming, more immersed in eats than problems of Tyrone Power, points to me for filling 98 minutes sat on grass (Disney’s Ichabod Crane as warm-up). Again, not the film that must pass muster (rather mustard itself a priority), Son of Fury but coda to jollity (site by the way was Camp Susan Barber Jones, closer-by prototype for years-before Parent Trap-ish week). Are we best served by least attention (by others) on stuff we like? Maybe it’s better to let oldies creep in upon cat feet and surprise whoever arrives not expecting to be enriched. Someone else bring horseshoes and deviled eggs, and maybe I’ll again take a chance.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Had a movie gathering this past Saturday. There were ten of us. The menu was the first two Road Runner cartoons, the recently restored Our Ganger Shivering Shakespeare, Leave it to Beaver's first episode, then the feature, the all-but-forgotten 1959 musical/comedy Li'l Abner. Every title was received enthusiastically. Off to a good start for 2023.

7:39 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The first time I saw THE THIN MAN at midnight on TV. I was drained, exhausted, completely worn out. I had turned on the television by chance not knowing what would be on. Within seconds I was wide awake. Stayed wide awake right up to the end. If your wife did not like it this time round, well, that's on her. The movie is fine. Great pst.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

My three most memorable experiences of showing movies to others:

Early '70s during my student teaching I showed a Chaplin short (might have been THE IMMIGRANT, but I'm not sure) to my class of 8th graders and they roared. Just as they're supposed to.

Around 1980, when I was the first person in the world with his own VCR (or so it seemed at the time), I showed THE SEARCHERS to a couple of guys. When the door closed on Ethan at the end of the movie, they laughed. I didn't speak to either of them for weeks.

But the best was about '81 when I showed a VHS of PSYCHO to three ladies in their twenties who'd never seen it, knew nothing about it, had never heard of Norman Bates. It was a wonderful vicarious experience for me because the movie's big secret had been spoiled for me before I got to see it.
These girls reacted just as you'd hope. During the shower sequence, they clutched at each other, screamed and closed their eyes. They were all very concerned about the stolen $40K and just knew it had to be important later in the story. Then, approaching the climax, as Vera Miles approached Mrs. Bates in the cellar, they all groaned and grabbed at each other. Just as Vera reached out to touch Mrs. Bates on the shoulder, one of them gasped and said, "Oh my God! She's dead!" The others said, "what, what, what are you talking about?" Then the chair turned, the corpse was revealed and they all screamed their guts out.
It's also interesting, considering how so many folks rag on the Simon Oakland wrap-up, that they remained silent and fascinated throughout.
As a substitute for being allowed to view the movie without having been spoiled, it couldn't have been better.

4:28 PM  
Blogger Cheez Whiz said...

I watched Its A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World the other night on PBS (no commercials!). I had similar feelings, imagining showing it to kids who would have no idea who 90% of the cast was (Zazu Pitts! Paul Ford! Arnold Stang! Stan Freberg, for crying out loud), let alone explaining the sight gag of preparing for an airplane crash, the camera silently pans past 3 guys in fireman uniforms just standing there, holding fire extinguishers and axes: the Three Stooges. I was back in my parent's living room, listening to them identify actors I'd never heard of in some old movie on TV, talking about how great they used to be. You want to believe there's something there that can transcend the moment it was made, and maybe sometimes there is.

10:45 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I was the kid running an 8mm marathon in the den for other kids while adults socialized in the living room.

Eventually I would gift DVDs on relatives, young and old. The year "The Essential Laurel and Hardy" came out I splurged and hit the whole family with that set. Later, when the first set of Fleischer Popeye cartoons amazingly reached the Big Lots $3 rack, I grabbed most of the stock for my coworkers. Back when I was actually able to talk ladies into dates, I'd sometimes push my luck with an animation festival or even a silent feature.

With nieces, nephews, and their own heirs I've tried to push classic Disney and silent comedy, with limited success thus far. When my brother and his wife visit, I try to talk them into a two reeler now and then. My brother -- younger than me, mind you -- replies in the lecturing voice of a tired father, explaining how the general population is Not Interested and I'd get further in life if I kept such enthusiasms to myself.

Such is the burden of a film lover.

1:40 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts shares a most interesting and unexpected encounter he had with a former schoolmate:


Sometimes it takes a while for the feedback from presenting a film to get back to you.

Case in point, I was at a Cinecon a number of years ago, wandering around the dealers room when a fellow walked up to me and said, "Excuse me, are you Richard Roberts?"

I said yes and he replied," I just want to thank you for what you did for me a few years ago".

"Oh, what did I do this time?" I answered, keeping it light and wondering if he had read an article, seen me talk, read me online or whatever I had been doing for the last few decades.

" We were in the same seventh grade class," he said, " and one day for show and tell you ran us THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. I loved it, and it sent me out to find and find out about old movies. They've been my passion ever since, if it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be here today."

I was dumbfounded, and amazingly speechless for a moment. I didn't know him, didn't remember him. Finally I spoke:

"I'm very sorry, " said I, " if it hadn't been for me, you could have had a normal life."

Fortunately he laughed, and we parted on friendly terms, he thought I was kidding, and perhaps I was. I wonder.


7:23 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I grew up with Saturday movie marathons on television, which were by far cheaper to produce than the omnibus shows that other channels were airing, and there were later some marathons on Sundays too. These marathons, were the same movies were rotated over and over again for years, were crucial to create and engaging audience. The marathons were far more successful than the movies shown on prime time because it was simply impossible to keep steady ratings because it was impossible to one title to keep the same high numbers than the one from the week before. TV relies on routine and some movies worked better catering that routine than critical praise. I remember seeing THE SEARCHERS first duing those marathons, where they were repeated it frequently, and still getting impress by its quality. On the other hand, the George Stevens post war films always worked better in those marathons than in the routine special video editions.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

When my daughter was growing up, she loved Laurel & Hardy, Hitchcock (I can still hear her scream when Raymond Burr looks at the camera in "Rear Window"), and all the Mr. Moto and Rathbone Sherlock Holmes pictures. Otherwise, I avoided "classics" and showed her and my wife the more offbeat stuff that they would never see otherwise -- "Crime Without Passion", "Central Park" (the great Joan Blondell pre-code with authentic location shots at the beginning), "The Stranger on the Third Floor", and God knows what else. I'd like to think that they remain in my daughter's subconscious.

Now that she's grown up and moved away, it's strictly pre-codes and film noirs for my wife. When I initially watch them alone, I always get a feeling of what she "should" see as good examples of the genres, especially if they aren't necessarily considered classics. "Baby Face", "Devil and the Deep", "The Sin of Nora Moran", "Employees Entrance", "Red-Headed Woman" , for all example. They tend to shock her, and I know I've hit a home run when, say, Warren William gets an "Oh, yuck" from her.

I've lost track of all the noirs, but they tend to be the B's which run no more than 75 minutes. While my wife was never a fan of noirs, she enjoys these, partly because they're better and more unusual than she expected, and partly because of their tight running times. It's why I've never run, say, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" for her, even though I think it's brilliant. It's always good to know your audience.

9:42 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Davy Crockett! Jim Bowie! Colonel Travis! Smitty!

8:10 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

My wife and I tried watching "The Thin Man" with my kids (ages 13 and 17 at the time, and both fans of classic films) last year, but they couldn't get into it. It's a bit slow in spots, and the lack of a soundtrack feels palpable in some scenes. But I watched it with my dad (age 82) last week (possibly his first viewing, he wasn't sure), He roared with laughter throughout most of it, and we found no moments dragging. We followed it up with "After the Thin Man," not quite as good but better than I'd remembered. (Incidentally, in all the times I've seen those two films, this felt like the first time I'd come to end fully aware of every plot point and how every loose end and red herring resolved.)

6:53 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Movies are becoming more like books insofar as their greater availability has given people room to view precisely those films ( or even parts of films) they wish to view, whenever and wherever they wish to view them - and those films only, if they so choose to limit themselves.
That we had become accustomed to view movies in a public setting, along with other people, seems now to have been like that time in history when only a small class of people could read, and the majority had to gather round to hear the reading with little or no say as to what was to be read to them.
Being no longer so constrained in our choices, and becoming or being used to that freedom of choice, it somehow now feels odd to allow others to determine what you are about to watch without having at the least some say as to what's being scheduled - just as it would feel odd to read (or to listen to) only those books which others recommend (or are read to us).
We can now as a result of technological development freely explore for ourselves the "library of film", if we wish to; just as learning to read allowed us to explore for ourselves the library of books.
I cannot see this as a bad development, but on the other hand I'm not in the business.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Chill Wills (Francis, the flying mule) had a best-supporting actor Oscar all but locked up for THE ALAMO. But he so obnoxiously self-promoted himself that he drove Academy voters nuts, to the point that they punished him by voting for someone else.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

My solution to the dilemma of what to screen for people is now to let my guests themselves choose which they would like to see from the titles on the shelf; and I was truly surprised to find that some long-time acquaintances wouldn't watch B&W movies at all - although their non-interest in watching any subtitled movies didn't surprise me.
I have also noticed that they invariably choose a title they haven't before seen - but when I'm watching on my own I'll frequently watch films I have seen before, though I tend to choose titles which I've not seen for many years.
Come to think about it, after I've first seen some films, I do tend to re-watch select sequences after the movie ends - usually action or other "spectacular" sequences - which go by quickly when watched as part of the movie viewed as a whole; I like to see how they did what they did from a more technical viewpoint, but only after the drama and suspense has been sorted out for me by letting the film run once through without any interruptions.

8:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer weighs in on this week's topic:

“If you show someone a movie…you own that movie…” It does become such a burden, all the more when you have a special regard for what you are showing. Then there is an almost evangelistic fervor to what you are doing, when what you want to convey is not merely the film itself but an understanding of its significance, as art, perhaps, but even as great entertainment. You want your audience to be captivated by it, as you are, whether this is conveyed by the silence and sighs of the enraptured or the howls of laughter of those whose funny bones have been relentlessly smashed--assuming of course that this was the intended effect. In so doing, you recapture your own feelings upon first discovering it, but, more than that, you share those feelings with other human beings. No longer are you alone in your enthusiasm but part of a larger world that, for that moment at least, is peopled by those whose hearts beat as yours. A person is not meant to live alone, no more than he is meant to breathe without air. The special movie you’re showing is a key to those hearts. The lights go down, the switch is turned, the projector comes to life, and a screen is illuminated by a beam of light piercing the darkness. But will the lock spring to the turn of this key? You wait for their first reaction, trembling inwardly. Will the world of your experience become that much broader for their acceptance of what you’ve shared, or will you remain on the periphery with a discovery that is seemingly of no interest to anyone else? “Never make promises your movie may not keep”? But there’s the rub, when what you are really showing is not just a series of images on film or some equivalent, but your heart laid bare.

4:13 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

When I was 12 and 13 and living during the "Nostalgia Craze", I assumed that all 20-somethings were fans of old movies, and impatiently waited for 1929 Two-Color Technicolor musicals and forgotten comedy teams like Wheeler and Woolsey to become popular again. Boy was I naive. A Boston station showed the Leon Errol and Edgar Kennedy shorts and I imagined the college crowd eating them up, but they died in the ratings.Most patrons in the 70s wanted Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, not Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough or Ted Lewis singing "Motion Picture Pirates".

7:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer expands on his memories of THE BLACK CAT at Lenoir-Rhyne in 1973:

I found myself apprehensive about the showing of "The Black Cat" at P. E. Monroe Auditorium because it was part of a double bill with "Horse Feathers." I expected that students would be coming to the show for the Marx Bros. and might not be that patient with a film that was decidedly different.

When you showed me your print of the "The Black Cat" at Cromer Center that evening, it was the first time I had seen it. I thought that it was superb, easily one of the best films I had seen to that point. Karloff and Lugosi I was familiar with, but I had never seen them better, especially Lugosi. He played his character forcefully but also with subtlety and nuance, wreathed in the quiet melancholy of a man who had seen much in the way of horror and degradation.

As for the film itself, the gliding camera movements through the futuristic sets, the witty, urbane screenplay, and the carefully chosen musical excerpts from classical pieces--especially the brooding second movement from Beethoven's Symphony No. 7--were a revelation to me. The scene when Poelizig guides Werdegast down a spiral iron stair case into the chartroom and magazines of the fortress on which his house was built, chiding his old comrade for his childish melodrama, for thirsting for his blood when they both as dead as those buried with the fortress, not only establishes the plot of the film but, to my mind, is still one of the great scenes in film history.

Somehow, though, I thought that anything that I had become so enthusiastic about could have little appeal to most other people. It was the real reason for my worry. I didn't want something I found so beautiful to be mocked.

Of course, that didn't prove to be the case. The students seemed much taken with the film almost from the beginning, as though they, too, found it to be something out the ordinary, something to be taken seriously. Perhaps the playing of David Manners and Jacqueline Welles was in part responsible for that. Their characters introduce an audience to the story, and though they are young and on their honeymoon, their humor and gaiety was charming and not overdone, but attractive and believable. They gained an acceptance and sympathy from the audience, in this way opening a door to what was about to unfold.

If anything, it was "Horse Feathers" that the audience found a trifle tiresome that evening, possibly for what lingered with them from "The Black Cat."

7:25 AM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

Cheez Whiz: I watched "Its A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" with my two kids and my wife a few months ago. The kids didn't know 90% of the cast ... but they roared with laughter. This was a Criterion edition, and we watched disc 1, but when enough time has passed we'll watch the longer cut on disc 2.

4:21 PM  

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