Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on February 9, 2014
… red shoes and dance the blues. – David Bowie
Last week we screened a nice 35mm print of Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952). I’d put it on my film calendar two months ago and had no way of knowing that on the day of the show an arctic blast would slap us with snow and single-digit temperatures. Cold weather in Colorado is not a surprise in February (or March, or April, or May, even June), but this single digit temperatures was preceded by negative double-digit degree Fahrenheit nastiness. If you’re a film exhibitor like me, you want “sweet-spot” bad weather. You also don’t want a beautiful day so glorious that everyone stays outside staring at rainbows and fresco-tinged sunsets. Nor do you want weather so bad that people stay home hugging their space heaters. From my own personal and localized experience, the perfect weather to motivate people to go out to watch a movie is somewhere between mildly uncomfortable and somewhat nasty. (Think: Portland!) The definition of these parameters will change from place to place, as was clearly seen by Atlanta’s recent travails with two inches of snow. Under those same conditions, here in Colorado, we’d still be firing up our back-porch grills. If you go the other direction, however, and watch us under a three-digit heat wave, we all flee to the nearest A/C controlled environment like anyone else.
Singin’ in the Rain makes very clear during its titular scene that weather is also a frame of mind. Graced by a fresh kiss from Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly bounces off a lamp-post and dances through ankle-deep gutter water with joyful exuberance. Three days before my screening of Singin’ in the Rain the yearly and over-hyped Tight-Pants-Man-Clash event hit my area like a neutron-bomb. As a non-sport aficionado, I had the streets to myself (no complaints, it was lovely). The absolute quiet was punctuated only by the occasional groans emanating from nearby frosted windows. While plenty of pundits referenced The Walking Dead promotional posters to ridicule Atlanta’s response to the weather, I’m here to say Colorado hardly fared better during its humiliating and highly publicized defeat. It felt like everyone in this state needed a kiss from Debbie Reynolds, or Gene Kelly, with maybe a group hug tossed in for good measure. After all, according to ESPN, more than 108 million people here in the U.S. of A. were watching, and that’s a lot of people privy to some major pie-in-the-face. Here in Colorado, amongst the locals glued to the game, we had our share of independent thinkers (exhibit “A” being this Facebook comment from my grade-school acquaintance N. Shuchter):
Maybe, but I doubt Shuchter’s incisive summation will have me watching the next Tight-Pants-Man-Clash. It does, however, make me want to revisit the Oscar-winning doc Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974) or it’s narrative equivalent, Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964). Fitting to think the latter culminated in a famously deleted pie-fight sequence that wound up on the editing room floor.
My good news is that despite freezing temperatures which might have kept John Carpenter’s The Thing deep inside the entrails of its Alaskan Husky host, we had a surprisingly high number of people who opened their doors to venture out into “instant-inner-nostril-hair-freezing-temperatures” (actual quote from one customer) – and they all came to watch Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen. Better yet, they still loved it after all these years, clapping at the end of each song, and some even going so far as to leave me phone or text messages the next day. Here’s one:
Before the hubris gets to my head, let me be quick to add that any received fan mail is easily eclipsed by the volume of icy snowballs pelting my door in all weather, leaving me to believe some store their snowballs in the freezer as if taking a cue from an old Bill Cosby joke. (The metaphor melts under closer analysis, but you get my point. Most the time it’s “Why are you showing this film? Why are you showing this film at this particular time? Why did I get a parking ticket? Why didn’t you plan this event better?” Etc.) It’s also not unusual for me to go to great effort to secure a rare print that is met with a collective yawn, so I’ll admit to having times when I wonder if it’s time to hang up my exhibitors hat. Still, great things come from perseverance, such as when Gene Kelly pressed upon studio executives to watch The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948) in an effort to get them to include ballet in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) – a film that later became a huge success. (The Red Shoes screens on TCM 2/22.)
The Red Shoes was not, initially, a success by any measure. It was originally dumped into the marketplace without any fanfare whatsoever. In retrospect, nobody will deny it’s awesomeness as a masterpiece on every front. It influenced Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, et al., and remains – to this day – one of the greatest films ever made to document the passion of an artist who insists on living through their art, for their art, even if it means dying for that same art. What seems obvious now, however, was not so obvious upon the film’s initial release. Rank Organisation, a primary backer of The Red Shoes, was in serious financial distress thanks to cost overruns on Ceaser and Cleopatra (Gabriel Pascal, 1945), and after a preview of The Red Shoes the accountants who were in charge walked out without saying a word, thinking it a complete disaster.
The accountants were wrong. The Red Shoes, which never even got the promotional muscle to put out an original poster for the film, eventually found a champion in the exhibitors at the Bijou Theatre in New York City, where it ran for two years. It was the single theater to do this, but its success caught the eye of Universal who then took over the U.S. distribution in 1951 and the rest, as they say, is history. The Red Shoes would become one of the highest earning British films of its time. Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984) had a similar story, but this time it was Bleeker Street Cinemas to the rescue, screening the film for such a long stretch of time, and to mounting popularity, that Universal eventually realized this property they had unceremoniously dumped in the market place actually had legs.
For an exhibitor like me, these are fairy tales come true. It gives me skin in the game. Not in the Tight-Pants-Man-Clash game, which is – granted – way more crazy popular than arthouse films have ever been. But the skin in a film exhibitor’s game predates the Tight-Pants-Man-Clash game by hundreds of thousands of years if we allow that the art of film shares DNA with our cave drawings. A ball thrown back-and-forth in a violent game between two teams that carries with it a real body count (as measured in concussions that might later lead to depression and suicide) draws on natural blood-lust, so it also has a quality that surely dates back to the stone age. It can not, however, match a narrative well delivered by master story tellers firing on all cylinders alongside their crew of other artists, be they dancers, actors, singers, or whatever talents are needed. When football fans looks to their past they might remember a miracle Hail Mary pass or some extraordinary play, but how many of them really trot out an old VHS tape to re-watch that particular game? Cinephiles, on the other hand, will always have Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds looking great thanks to film preservation, remastered Blu-Rays, and who-knows-what other new formats that might come down the pike. Regardless of the medium, a good movie will invite repeat screenings and survive the test of time.
Movies have this other amazing advantage: they can make us, the viewer, sympathetic to a different point of view by the transitive power that the camera wields when it puts us in the shoes of a protagonist who inhabits a very different realm from our own. That is the exact opposite of any football game that celebrates the most base and simplistic dramatic formula of a primal “us” vs. “them” paradigm. Of course even in binary games humans inject layers of complication, as was the case with the viral video of Richard Sherman that created such a fuss. I’ll admit that, after reading the New Yorker‘s coverage of this, I was ready to put money on Seattle simply to throw my support behind Sherman in honor of his compelling back-story. After all, who doesn’t like a good rags-to-riches yarn?
Still, the primary motor behind football is that it feeds the reptilian id, whereas movies are free to indulge multiple points of view. They can be id, they can be ego, they can be super-ego. They can be all three. None at all? Try that with football. True, football gives you the dance of athletic competition and the song of the half-time show, but a good movie can go anywhere. It can have song, dance, violence, as well as reconciliation, closure, peace, and even provide a transformative experience or slow meditative groove for those with patience. Anyone who thinks 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) is too long need not apply.
I once spent hundreds of dollars to travel to Seattle to watch a 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Seattle Cinerama Theater so I can understand how people, similarly, would spend even more than that for a beloved and yearly event. My gripe is simply that film nerds like me that care not one whit for football seem to be outnumbered by sports-enthusiasts on a scale that makes it easy for me to hear Carl Sagan’s voice in my head. I’m also expecting a slew of comment wedgies for my dig at our nation’s most popular sport, as well as a note of reproach from the Colbert Nation for over-using the phrase Tight-Pants-Man-Clash. I’m naively hoping repetition will help it become a popular catch-phrase.
Despite some of my comments, I remain cheerily optimistic. After all, how many people will revisit this month’s T.P.M.C. game 60 years from now? Whereas in 2074 – if we as a species get that far – I’m guessing people will still be familiar with a film from a long, long time ago called Singin’ in the Rain (and Dr. Strangelove, and The Red Shoes, and… oh, so many great titles). If I’m wrong about that and our future is more of a Rollerball/Idiocracy world, that will mean that all the promise we exhibited in our cave drawings so long ago simply could not compete against our more base instincts. Kubrick’s vision of the victorious ape comes to mind, but without the space-station or promise of visiting other worlds. We’ll have clobbered our ape brother, but have nowhere to go once the blood has dried.
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