“The problem is other people crazy people.”
“The only thing that ever improves is the past,” proclaimed Ben Hecht. Applying this bon mot to movies makes sense to some, but I don’t believe that old movies seem better because of the poverty of current attractions. They were better for sound aesthetic reasons. Reels of film don’t mellow in their vaults like wine in cellars, nor do they sour. What was really good in 1940 is still good in ’80 and will continue to be so in ’90. Styles may change, but basic appeals to our senses and feelings remain the same.
With the possible exception of Paris, New York is the best place to revel in the glories of our cinematic past. Revival houses such as the Thalia, Carnegie Hall Cinema, Bleecker Street Cinema, Theatre 80 St. Marks, Eighth Street Playhouse, Cinema Village, Regency; institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, Public Theatre, New School, and many colleges and universities satisfy our desires. Moviegoing in New York has a time-defying quality. In one day it is possible to hop from a Sam Fuller action melodrama of the fifties to a 1911 Griffith two-reeler and finish up with a deco drawing room comedy directed by George Cukor starring the luminous Constance Bennett. However, for those of us interested in studying film, concentrating deeply enough to receive a full emotional experience, the road is bumpy — and I’m not talking about potholes on the way to the theatre. The problem is other people — crazy people.
Books could be written to explain why demented souls are attracted to old movies. The sensuality of the medium, those huge velvety images shining in the dark, provides an effective sex substitute for repressed or rejected individuals. Failures of all kinds can relive a more hopeful and happy period in their lives by losing themselves at a revival. Others find simple escape from the push and shove of modern life. The quiet and passive lonelies do not offend, but the actively crazy loonies do. Who cares what people look like after the light goes out if they have difficulty keeping spittle from rolling down their cheeks or if they think there’s a commie conspiracy to take over the Museum of Modern Art? Just as long as they shut up. How well I recall my shattered nerves trying to enjoy The Dawn Patrol while a semi-derelict carrying hooch in a brown paper bag kept cheering on the German aces. Why do the shopping bag hags always choose climactic moments to take out their ham sandwiches wrapped in heavy-duty reinforced aluminum foil? “Hey lady, you’re not at home watching TV. Your gabbing is drowning out the actors.” “Hey mister, quit singing along.” “Must you jingle your keys?”
Many of these pests have such strong personalities — or odors — that they become notorious. For years before her banishment, Ida was as much a fixture at the Modern as Picasso’s Guernica — only much more animated. A small but feisty old woman dressed for mourning, she muttered earsplittingly during screenings and broadcast curses if anyone so much as brushed against the back of her chair. She also swung a mean pocketbook if some poor soul was feckless enough to sit in her chair. “I been comin’ here for thirty years and sittin’ in this here seat.” Well, after 31 years, Ida was forcibly retired; a petition was drawn up and passed around which detailed her outrages and finally she was told never to darken the auditorium’s door again. I saw her last a year ago, checking subway payphones for stray dimes.
New York film circles have more than their share of sinners, but they also have a saint. During my early ‘teens, I knew him only as “the man with the schedules.” Later on we became friends and I could appreciate Ed’s service from a closer view. Built like John Carradine, he will gladly whip out his unlimited supply of schedules as fast as you can say “Thalia.” He is a one-man Cue magazine with a gentle smile and an easygoing manner and, unlike most of us, never has an unkind word to say about anyone. He always listens sympathetically to the complaints of others. Frankly, there’s a lot to complain about on the revival circuit: color prints which are so faded there are only two colors — light pink and dark pink; splicey prints which go click, click, click, removing dialogue and confusing plot points; dupey prints which look like Xeroxes, the characters so moon-faced that expressions cannot be discerned; rotten projection that encourages audiences to constantly clean their glasses. Ed listens and then reaches into his battered Sunday Times doubling for a portfolio) and removes another brochure. Theatre managers are only too pleased to give him stacks because he will make sure they get into the right hands.
More than any Howard Hawks adventure, this is a male universe. There is, however, a sprinkling of valiant women who are movie wives. When they marched down the aisle, did they know they were headed for front row center; that the aroma of apple blossoms would give way to the smell of stale popcorn; that rice would metamorphose into torn ticket stubs? They follow their men, yet bored, bitter facial expressions tell the tale.
Eastside, Westside, it’s impossible not to notice the group which resembles Peter Pan’s band of lost boys. Ten years ago I called them “the NYU people” because they thronged to free campus screenings. Soon I discovered that none of them were in any way associated with that institution; they simply went where the movies were (unlike registered NYU students who couldn’t be bothered with extra-curricular showings). By now they’re too long in the tooth to be mistaken for students of any kind, but they still have that rah-rah spirit and a love of debating. The release of a new Robert Aldrich enterprise fires their hearts: “the best since Ulzana’s Raid” or “the worst since Hustle.” All have spilled gallons of red ink for their common cause — auteurism — underlining entries in the directorial filmographies of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema. None, it should be noted, has any visible means of support. If they had clocks to punch, how could they catch the 2:30 show at the Modern?
Also among movie junkies are antiquarians who’ll watch absolutely anything that flickers (over 30 years of age). They don’t trust anything under 30, you see. Others make no distinctions at all, and are prepared to see everything ever made. These raunchy simpletons don’t notice the films; they’re too busy spotting character actors. A day without Bess Flowers is like a day without sunshine. Then there are the genteel gentlemen who shun butch genres like the western and only have eyes for the glamorous get-ups of the ladies: cinema as sequins. Not to be overlooked are the middle-aged kiddies who bounce up and drown in their seats, enthralled by the human drama of serials. But why go on? Let him who is without a fetish cast the first stone.