Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
I seldom remember where I see films, only the films themselves. This has as much to do with the bland multiplex theatres where they’re now shown as with the increasingly generic nature of the mainstream movies that now mostly get made. They say that, once the lights go down, the film takes over from the surroundings, but that’s not true, not with the disruptive presence of texting, iPhones, noisy candy wrappers, food smells, and subhuman audiences talking to each other and at the screen.
My friend David Kleiler, who has taught film and run theatres, is different. He can remember, for practically everything he has ever seen, where he was sitting, what he ate beforehand, and whom he saw each film with. That said, certain of my filmgoing experiences do linger in my mind as freshly as my fondness for the movies connected with them. I can’t explain why, but they do. Understandably, some were part of my formative years. Others involve an ineffable combination of time, place, and content.
When I was a film critic in Boston from the early 1970s to the early 1990s -- arguably a period that saw American movies surge and then suffocate -- I saw thousands of films, mostly in the company of colleagues. We were a convivial bunch. If one of us had to leave a screening to go to the bathroom, when he returned, he’d routinely ask, “What did I miss?” and, out of the darkness, twelve of us would answer, “the car chase.” This disrespect drove the publicists crazy but it always brought a big laugh, especially if the movie being screened was some austere foreign film.
Time and place were more important to me when I was young. As a kid attending regular shows at the Langley Theatre in Langley Park, Maryland, I loved sitting close to the screen. The projectionist had the habit of starting the show with the house lights up, then lowering them at the same time he parted the auditorium’s heavy red curtains. Each show began with a newsreel and I remember jumping when its theme music blasted out from behind them.
It was at that same theatre that I bored my way through the 1964 general release edit of Cleopatra (1963) I was 16 at the time and had heard so much about it that I felt I ought to see it. The story made no sense -- it wouldn’t until decades later when it was restored to its full 192-minute length -- and I spent half its running time in the back of the house sipping an orange soda (you couldn’t bring drinks to your seat in those days or the usher would brain you with his chrome flashlight), stalwart to the end.
I fared no better with Lawrence of Arabia which I caught, not on its initial roadshow release, but in a last-ditch summer run at a drive-in theatre on Cape Cod where my parents and my oldest-friend-in-the-world Andy Hoy were vacationing. At some point the fog rolled in and we watched Peter O‘Toole lead the Arab revolt through a misty windshield. We probably left early and I didn’t revisit the film until the 1970s when it showed up in Boston’s revival houses in a 35mm Technicolor print that had scenes cut from the pan-and-scan TV versions then in circulation. As many times as I’ve seen it restored in 70mm splendor, I miss hearing the fog horns
Memories of other screenings click through my mind like a random slide-changer:
Opening night of Cabaret in 1972 where the audience applauded the musical numbers. It was just a normal showing, but we felt compelled to show our approval.
Watching Enter the Dragon (1973) from the closed-off balcony of the Savoy Theatre in Boston during lunch hour with the equally young theatre staff, eating sandwiches and passing joints. When Enter the Dragon closed and Magnum Force opened, it was even better. Heh heh.
Seeing the 1967 reissue of Gone with the Wind at the Apex Theatre in Washington, DC. This was the version that MGM decided to “modernize” by cropping the top and bottom of the image to make it widescreen stereo. Instead, it looked and sounded awful and it took me (and Ted Turner) years before the original version was restored.
Being awed by 2001: A Space Odyssey opening week in 1968 in Cinerama before Kubrick made his cuts. I saw it straight and sober and remember the curtains opening and opening and opening and suddenly we were in deep space. I was mesmerized by it. Still am.
Speaking of Cinerama, my first three-camera Cinerama experience was Cinerama Holiday in 1955 at Washington, DC’s Warner Theatre. The film was unmemorable but the process was captivating. The Cinerama shows that I recall -- all of them at Washington, DC’s Cinerama-equipped Uptown Theatre -- were How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. Magnificent. Distorted, overblown, and staid, but the experience was unequaled.
I also took in Doctor Zhivago at the post-Cinerama Warner with my Aunt Helen. It was our favorite movie together. When she was sick in bed toward the end of her life, I gave her a VHS copy. Every time I watch it now, I think of her, and I watch it a lot.
Sometimes the movie transcends the setting. The picture I cite for this phenomenon is Mad Max which I watched practically alone in the decrepit Pi Alley Theatre near Government Center in Boston. Its distributor, American International Pictures, for whom I had once worked, had just been sold, and Mad Max was orphaned with scant advertising and no publicity. I wasn’t expecting much from an AIP motorcycle picture but, within ten minutes, I knew I was seeing something remarkable. I’m not saying that I discovered Mad Max, Mel Gibson, or director George Miller. They discovered me. But it was one of those moments you pray for in a screening where ones expectations go from zero to sixty and keep rising.
Another epiphany was seeing Apocalypse Now at the Ziegfeld Theatre in midtown Manhattan prior to interviewing the filmmakers on a United Artists press junket. We had been told that editor/sound designer Walter Murch had personally set up the theatre. The effect was physically and emotionally overwhelming. so much so that it wasn’t until halfway through the press conference the next day that someone was able to tell Francis Ford Coppola was a masterpiece it was.
On the other hand, the Boston press screening of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was physically painful because the sound levels were set so high it was hard to think, let alone enjoy, the master’s work. When several of us complained, we were told flatly that that was how Mr. Kubrick wanted it. The next day Warner Bros. sent an apology; they had misread Kubrick’s instructions.
Those were public screenings, Trade screenings are different. They used to be where exhibitors got an early look at an upcoming film to help them decide what deal they would offer the distributor for the right to show it. They don’t really exist any more because film companies and theatre chains are so interlocked, but when I was starting in the business they were de rigueur -- and noisy. Looking to knock the price down, exhibitors would rank on the film worse than Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Two stand out for me. One was Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend where several bookers locked arms and tap-danced out of the screening room as the picture ended (probably to lower their bids). The killer, though, was a screening of Sam Peckinpah’s uncut Straw Dogs before the censors got to it. It was intense beyond belief but the intensity was undercut by several exhibitors discussing, quite loudly, where they were going to have lunch as soon as the movie was over and what they would like to do to Susan George in the movie. I’m not a big Peckinpah fan, but if he had been there he probably would have shot the men who made those comments and I would have testified in his behalf. Susan George probably would have, too.
In December 1970 I was an assistant publicist at a special pre-release screening of Love Story at the Circle Cinema in Brookline, Massachusetts hosted by producer Robert Evans and theatre owner Sumner Redstone. It was a private showing for the Harvard students and faculty who had appeared in the movie as extras. Evans had just taken over the Vice Presidency of Paramount and word was that his low-budget production would save the studio, which was wallowing in the failure of several huge-budget pictures. In their welcoming remarks Redstone, a few years away from owning Paramount, expertly jawboned Evans into giving him the studio’s upcoming release of Plaza Suite, a tactic that Evans finessed with charm and skill. Then the lights went down and the picture rolled -- except the lights didn’t go down -- the theatre kept blue lights on the screen framing the picture. This triggered an outburst from Evans, who ran around the lobby screaming, “Get those lights down! You’re ruining my movie!” Finally they went down, and so did Evans. The Harvard audiences ate it up. Remarked one attendee after it was over, “this is the only screening I’ve been to where they applauded the buildings.” Needless to say, the $2.1 million Love Story was the first modern blockbuster grossing over $100 million.
As I think back while writing this blog, one movie experience leads me to another. And then they stop. The wonder is gone. At first my mind was awash with moments at the grand Savoy and grander Music Hall in Boston, the Warner in Washington, DC., the classic Fulton in Pittsburgh, the Radio City Music Hall in New York, the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, and a handful of other survivors. The films I saw in those palaces are forever joined in my memory with the grandeur of the theatres themselves. For me, going to “the movies” used to be a total experience. Now it’s a chore, and I seldom go. Nine years of monitoring audiences (four in college theatres, five in PR) and another sixteen as a critic, then twenty more as a producer have sadly made me immune to being impressed.
At first I hesitated to re-watch on video the movies that had first impressed me. Then I discovered that they possessed the power to draw me back to when I first made their acquaintance regardless of the medium. They are a testament to the showmanship that has practically vanished from today’s business of show. I would still rather watch Lawrence of Arabia in the fog than on a two-inch iPhone screen. But maybe that’s just me.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.