Not so silent cinema

This weekend I retested (and confirmed) my theory that there’s no better way to spend a Friday night than watching Buster Keaton on the big screen. A dear reader of this blog alerted me that some of Buster’s short films were showing with live musical accompaniment. Let’s get this straight:  Buster Keaton movies, live music, alcoholic beverages, all happening together in a building that looks like a castle? Hot damn, count me in!

The Boston-based outfit Not So Silent Cinema performed their original music for Buster’s “The High Sign,” “One Week,” and “The Goat.” You are already familiar with “The Goat” because that’s where the iconic image of Buster behind bars comes from. I wouldn’t have guessed that the banjo and clarinet would go so amazingly well with Buster’s pratfalls and pork pie hat, but their score was just… wow, it was just an amazing fit.  I’d listen to it right now if I could!  Let me know if they ever come out with an album.

The best part, though?  Sitting in a huge roomful of people, laughing and hooting and clapping together, cheering on our underdog hero as he haphazardly saves the day and gets the girl  Having spent so much time watching silent movies alone on my laptop, or  sequestered in Bowdoin’s basement library, I forget just how joyous and unifying those silent comedies can be.  Here we are, over 80 years later, still laughing at these jokes. I’m impressed anew by how much of Buster’s silent humor translates seamlessly to today (who doesn’t love sticking it to the man?), but these three movies may have been chosen just for that reason. Something tells me that the blackface bit in College (1927) wouldn’t go over too well with Camberville’s film buffs.

In conclusion, I’m experiencing a resurgence of love for Buster Keaton and Arts at the Armory.  Before I leave you, here is a gem from “The High Sign” I identify with these days:

Intertitle from "The Goat"


The Hotel Rwanda Effect

Apparently Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters disappeared from the list on iCheckMovies for 1980s, my bronze medal in that category disappearing with it (yet my dignity remains!).  To rectify things, I need to watch another movie from the 1980s list.  I’m thinking Fanny and Alexander (kids in Sweden and their imaginations) or Fitzcarraldo (love me some Werner Herzog).  I’m not ashamed to admit that Das Boot and its 293 minutes is way more time than I’m willing to put into a film at this point in my life.  I have trouble sitting down to watch war movies, especially ones about Germans and/or submarines.  To people who have braved Das Boot, I ask you, was it worth it?  Did you enjoy it?  Would you do it again?  More importantly, would you recommend that I do it?  I can’t wait for your answers, so for now I’ll just have to go ahead with Fanny and Alexander.  But someday, I will have to make time for Das Boot.  It’s on 14 lists, after all.

I call this “the Hotel Rwanda effect.”  A few years ago, during the reign of Hotel Rwanda, Slate had a piece on the movies Netflix users keep the longest.  By and large, the list is dominated by uber-depressing movies that everyone feels obligated to see because they are “great” films.  But when it comes down to gouging precious hours out of your lovely Sunday afternoon to watch a film about genocide?  Not a chance!  I see two things here:  one, we are an ambitious people, and two, we love movies for the escape.  A well done film can be about anything as long as it has two out of three of the following: an engaging story, stellar acting, and cinematography that doesn’t hurt my eyes.  Overwhelmingly, we love movies for the fantasy and wish fulfillment.  Happy endings and dramatic resolutions.  Please, don’t keep me mired in reality.  If I loved reality so much, I wouldn’t be here at the cinema, paying you $12 to sit in this dark room with strangers so I can eat popcorn that cost 900% more than what it costs to make at home.  Really, the last movie I’d want to watch right now would be about a lackadaisical secretary who blogs on Friday nights and whose most invigorating moment of the week involves a renewed dedication to flossing.  [Note to self:  get a better plot line for your life]

Witness for the Prosecution

On a cold night in January, I picked Witness for the Prosecution because it appears on 7 lists on icheckmovies (I’m now only 1 movie away from getting a bronze award for 1950s, yay!).  It’s a well known classic shot in black and white, a courtroom drama featuring a strong female character… hallmarks of a movie I’d normally love.  Yet, it took me three three tries to get through this movie.  Why?  Was it boring?  Nope.  Was I extremely busy?  Nuh-uh.  Did Marlene Dietrich remind me so much of my wicked stepmother that I could only stomach her for minutes at a time?  Ding ding ding!

This was actually the first movie I’d seen Marlene Dietrich in, though I’ve seen her image countless times and am familiar with her genderbending cabaret schtick.  I was waiting for her to sweep into the scene and wow me.  And she did, for a moment, until she opened her mouth.  Then I got the heebie jeebies and gazed at the screen in horror.  The bleached blonde hair, slim hips and square build, that gravelly voice and dreadful accent (pronouncing “married” like “may-weed”).  It was too much!  I compulsively checked IMDB see if it was possible that Marlene Dietrich was alive and hiding out in Florida, making some pensioner miserable.  I was able to verify that she did in fact die in Paris in 1992, and I also realized that when Witness for the Prosecution was filmed, Marlene Dietrich was 56 years old and looking freakishly good for her age (magical blend of soft focus, caked-on make up, and superior genetics?)

If you’ve ever heard me mention my father’s wife, you probably have an idea of why seeing visage on screen was such an unwelcome surprise.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing about that chainsmoking, lifeforce-sucking Berliner with sloppy eyeliner, allow me to catch you up to speed: drunken and verbally abusive voicemails (if you knew her, you wouldn’t answer her calls either), barbs directed at my mother/father/me, outright lies, and clumsy, relentless attempts to prevent my father from seeing me or spending any money on me.  And by “spending any money,” I do mean spending ANY money.  For my 21st birthday, they gave me a used fannypack that looked like it had been picked out of someone’s trash. I looked through it to see if there was somehow something more to it and, joy of all joys, found a dollar bill crumpled up in an inside pocket.  If they’d found it before me, I’m sure they would have kept it, but as it was, I pocketed the dollar and threw away the fannypack.  Happy birthday to me.

Anyways, back to the movie… the movie… this movie is… and… nevermind, I can’t do it.  I can’t separate this movie from awful associations with my stepmother.  Watch the movie if you find black and white courtroom dramas appealing.  Also, you lovers of camp will want to check out one of the hammiest scenes I’ve ever had the pleasure of guffawing at.  Click it, I beg you, it’s 19 seconds well spent and don’t worry, no spoilers except that Marlene Dietrich’s character appears on the stand as a witness for… you guessed it, the prosecution.

Cabot Street Cinema

If you live around Boston, you’re probably like me and paying too much in rent to be able to afford a decent time machine.  Lucky for us, though, we can still live our dream of going to a 1920s picture show.  Say hello to the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts.  You’d have to pry this theater’s old school glamor out of its cold, arthritic hands, because not a lot has changed since its first show on December 8, 1920.

Sign at night

Cabot Street Cinema Theatre - The sign alone is worth the drive.

Last week, my darling accomplice S. and I went to see Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, The Skin I Live In.  Upon our arrival at the theater, the oh-my-god-I’ve-traveled-back-in-time feeling set in immediately.  A doorman in a blue double breasted coat and matching fur hat welcomed us inside (he vaguely reminded me of these guys).  Nestled amid the lobby’s sea of plush red carpet, a live pianist played tunes I imagine my great-grandparents would recognize, and tuxedo clad ushers greeted us with smiles (yeah, try finding THAT at the multiplex!).  We bought popcorn and soda from the one-man concession stand and were shocked by the appropriately sized beverage containers… the small was actually kind of small.  Who knew that still happened?  The lobby is also a shrine to Le Grand David, a weekly production at the theater that’s recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running magic show.  If I make it to Le Grand David, you can bet your ass I’ll update you here.

Okay, I should stop waxing on about the refreshments and magic show memorabilia, since we haven’t yet covered the majesty of this theater’s interior.  I’m talking about a grand old theater, with ornate carvings and bas relief, an expansive stage, heavy curtains, rich reds everywhere… there are parrots hand painted on the stall doors in the ladies room, THAT’S how fancy this place is (apparently I set the bar low).  The picture below doesn’t do it justice, but it will give you an idea.


If you liked the sign, just wait 'til you see the interior.

You gotta have a sense of humor about the seats, as I fear they are too authentic for comfort, but the viewing experience more than makes up for it.  During every single preview, especially Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, I couldn’t help but whisper to S., “I want to see that!” and “I want to see that, too!”  Everything that flickers on that screen looks so damn amazing because of where you’re watching it.

Sadly, the crowds at the Cabot Street Cinema aren’t exactly overwhelming.  I hope they stay in business, though, because they offer something so unique.  For just $9, you can experience a real ’20s style movie house.  I intend to visit them more often, and urge you to as well.  Seriously, if you’re in New England, you owe yourself a trip to the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre.  Similarly, if you’re coming to visit me from an exotic Southern locale, WE ARE GOING HERE, NON-NEGOTIABLE.

I’m so excited about the theater that I almost forgot the movie.  The Skin I Live In, oh boy, where to start…Visually, it’s delectable, that’s to be expected from our man Pedro.  But the story, good lord!  Without giving anything away, I’ll just tell you that the pacing is erratic and there is too much creep and not nearly enough camp.  Multiple rape scenes aren’t really my cup of tea in the first place, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any redemption.  S. and I were so deeply disturbed afterwards that we cruised aimlessly for a while trying to forget how foul this film tasted.  A few hours later, S. had an epiphany that the story was in some ways a retelling of the Bible, and after THAT we were able to discuss the plot without wanting to retch, but no earlier.

You have been warned.

My secret shame

Today is a milestone!  I checked my 1,000th movie on iCheckMovies.  Like most big things in life, it crept up on me.  No doubt, I would have liked to make this a special thing.  I would have liked to select in advance a film to watch, a memorable film of unquestionable artistic merit.  I’d watch it thoughtfully, considering its importance in my personal film history as the 1,000th film checked.  Then afterwards, I’d sashay over to my laptop to ceremoniously click the 1,000th check box.  It would have been nice.  But instead, one instant I was mindlessly browsing lists, and then — BAM!  I impulsively clicked on a film I’d seen before and the little ticker next to my name went to (1000).  No angels appeared with trumpets, Ricky Gervais delivered no monologues.  So, after two years and 1,000 checks, here’s to you, Wayne’s World!  You are a true classic, and perhaps sadly, one of the movies I remember most vividly from my childhood, long before I knew the true meaning of “Schwing!”

As you may have gathered, I take an unhealthy pleasure in cataloguing films I’ve seen on iCheckMovies.    Prior to this lovely website, I maintained a spreadsheet to keep track of the movies I’d seen.  I started doing it because I didn’t want to forget titles from a Russian film class in college, and I maintained it because, well, I liked it.   It was my secret shame until 2009, when three Dutch guys created iCheckMovies exactly for people like me.  Now this obsessive, nerdy hobby can also be somewhat social, deliciously fun, and most importantly, competitive.  You can see how the films you’ve seen stack up against “best of” lists from all over the world, and see where you rank among your fellow users.  Today, I am number 2,394 and have 37 awards.  I’ve ranked as high as in the 1,400s, but slipped as the site gained users and my dedication to film-going waned (I blame grad school and drinking, not exactly in that order).  Today I’ve decided to get back to watching movies and to chart my progress on this here blog, not so I can lord over anyone my success in checking boxes (and seriously, would anyone care but me?  anyone at all?  nope, didn’t think so!), but so I can celebrate the experience.

May 2012 be a year of many movies!