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The Reeler Blog

Reeler Pinch Hitter: Lewis Beale, Journalist

The defunct, demolished Colonial Theater in Alentown, Pa. (Photo: Cinema Treasures)

[Note: Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale is taking some time off, but The Reeler is in the good hands of trusted friends and colleagues. Lewis Beale is a veteran Reeler contributor who also writes about the entertainment industry for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday..]

It was at the Circle Theater in Washington, D.C. that I first got turned onto Ingmar Bergman. I was attending George Washington University at the time, and occasionally I'd cut class to hit the local rep house, which showed double features of the best in foreign film. This is where I caught The Devil's Eye, a minor piffle from the great Swede but a flick that seemed incredibly exotic to me because it was probably the first subtitled movie I'd ever seen. And for some obscure programming reason, Bergman's little comedy was paired with Peter Ustinov's Billy Budd, starring the utterly angelic-looking Terence Stamp as the beleaguered Melville sailor. I remember stumbling out of the theater that day absolutely destroyed by Billy's fate, and wondering who this Bergman guy was, determined to see more of his films.

This is what it was like back in the days BSW (Before Star Wars). Especially for those of us who grew up in an era when multiplexes didn't exist, and moviegoing generally meant heading downtown (in my case, Center City Philly) to sit in a large theater and watch the latest Hollywood extravaganza -- usually a musical, western or Biblical drama. If independent pictures were out there, I sure didn't know about them, and the same goes for films from foreign lands; they weren't on the radar of most Americans.

And they still aren't. But the recent deaths of Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni reminded me of a time when cineaste culture was all the rage. It was a time when the release of films by Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard and others was not only written about with intelligence and passion, but talked about in numerous conversations at the end of screenings, when the coffeehouses and bars of every hip neighborhood were filled with excited filmgoers grooving on the art of le cinéma.

This was the era when the student film program at Temple University, where I went to grad school, would show a work like Persona, a picture viewed reverently by the sellout crowd of several hundred, which filed out stunned and speechless at its shattering conclusion. Or, if you were lucky enough to live in certain areas, you could go to a first-run theater and catch Costa-Gavras' Z, whose anti-authoritarian political message was wildly applauded by the New York audience with whom I saw it. It was even a time when Pauline Kael's floridly-written criticism was read religiously, and no one could have imagined that a derisive term -- Paulettes -- would ultimately be attached to her most rabid followers.

In those days, the films of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and (thank God!) Michael Bay and Brett Ratner were still years in the future. People didn't talk about box-office gross, but mise en scene and meaning. No one had come up with the term "postmodern." And movies had yet to achieve Tarantinoesque self-referentiality. All of us, everyone who went to see Dersu Uzala or The 400 Blows or Cries and Whispers, we all felt we were discovering a new and exciting art form. Film had become part of the intellectual canon.

So what happened? Star Wars and Jaws happened. The international market and the concept of the mega-blockbuster happened. People began assigning star ratings to pictures and discussed weekend box office as if it were as important as the stock market ticker.

Then the grand masters of the cineaste culture began to get old or lost their creative steam, and were never replaced. No new Bergman, no 21st century Kurosawa. Film schools began showing works by the new elite -- Scorsese, Altman, etc. -- and started bumping the classics off the agenda. Even worse, all too many film fans grew up with a love for big effects and a hatred of slow-moving, thoughtful, black-and-white films. Show a b&w film in a classroom these days (I have) and the response you get is outright boredom, if not intense hatred (which, of course, eliminates even cool stuff like film noir).

It's not that there isn't a cinema culture out there anymore. It's just that what there is has somehow been diminished, been crushed in spirit and driven to the cultural edges. Does Wong Kar-wai get the same amount of media attention as Bergman did in his prime? Is the latest from any current Italian director (I'll bet you can't name three) greeted with the kind of critical exegeses that attached to Last Tango In Paris?

There were giants in those days, and an audience that looked up to them for a sort of spiritual guidance. Now they're nearly all dead. And their replacements are nowhere in sight.

Posted at August 10, 2007 8:59 AM

Comments (2)

I can sympathize with the lament for a particular kind of cinephile culture, but this article makes no sense. How can you seriously claim that "no one had come up with the term 'postmodern'" and that movies had yet to achieve "self-referentiality" while talking about a period that includes the Freaking French New Wave?????

If Godard cannot be said to have "self-referentiality," then the term simply ceases to have any meaning whatsoever.

Also, while I too wish that the great days of the Italian cinema were no longer behind us, I think you make a mistake when you draw attention to the fact that that nation's art cinema is collapsing. True, Italian filmmakers don't make much of an impact anymore. (It would help if the best ones didn't desert their country for English-language filmmaking -- a trend that the English-language LAST TANGO well may have presaged, since after the success of that one Bertolucci wouldn't shoot another film in Italian until 1984.) But what about the cinemas of Iran, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, China, Denmark? Some of these countries have experienced explosions in filmmaking achievement in the intervening years.

That the cinephilia of the 60s and 70s no longer exists is a damn shame, to be sure. But it was a moment in history -- a grand moment, to be sure -- and to keep lamenting it, especially in such an irrational, sky-is-falling manner, does the current film culture no favors.

Instead of damning the current culture at large with unnecessary digs at Tarantino (who, after all, helped introduce Wong Kar-wai to broader US audiences), it might be more constructive to try and highlight those filmmakers who might inherit the mantle of Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, et al. But that would require foresight and optimism, instead of navel-gazing pity.

Again, the simplistic "Star Wars" and "Jaws" screwed up everything argument that we've all heard ad nauseum that completely ignores other factors, such as the failure of The Directors Company and the flop of "Heaven's Gate" in creating this simplistic breakdown of why we're stuck sitting through shite at the mulitplexes. Yawn.

The author also gingerly sidesteps the fact that he was in grad school at the time all of these impassioned discussions were taking place. Go to any grad school now and you'll find a number of passionate exchanges on a number of topics. And yes, they even talk about black and white movies!

I will give him the point that, yes, Michael Bay and Brett Ratner are (duh!) less interested in pushing the envelope than Bergman or Luis Bunuel, but if he's really interested in finding edgy filmmaking, it's out there to find. So the state of subversive cinema is that it's dead and buried? Tell that to James Fotopolos, David Lynch, Alex Cox and countless others out there still fighting the good fight, if Mr. Beale could be bothered to step out of the insular world of NY piss and moan essayism and go hunting for the good stuff.

That's the thing, see. Good stuff is always out there. You just have to work to find it if you're not in grad school and having it spoon fed to you.

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