Writers at the Movies: An Introduction

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WRITERS AT THE MOVIES: An Introduction

by NOEL KING and MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

[This is the introduction to our new special issue Writers at the Movies. It contains essays by Luc Sante, Sarah Berry, Richard Lowenstein, Richard Hugo, Clive Sinclair, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, and Anthony May; fiction by Barry Gifford; poetry by Michael Atkinson, R. Zamora Linmark, and James Franco; and interviews with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Emmanuel Mouret, Scott Simmon, and Richard Misek. The issue is for sale at Amazon.com]

I: Literary Cinéphilia

This special issue of Contrappasso on ‘Writers at the Movies’ follows our special ‘Noir’ issue of late 2013. Once again we’ve assembled a collection of poems, essays, fiction, and interviews—some republished, some appearing for the first time. In this instance, the common theme is ‘literary cinéphilia.’

Over the last couple of decades the notion of cinéphilia has taken flight, with many articles, academic books, and trade collections exploring this concept from the beginnings of cinema to the digital age[1].

But the version of cinéphilia on offer here in Contrappasso is a little different. Our take is probably closer to what was featured in Granta’s special film issue (#86, 2004). Highlights of that volume were Andrew O’Hagan’s memoir of his short stint as a film critic (“Two Years in the Dark”) and Ian Jack’s loving recollection of the cinemas of his youth (“The Best Picture He Ever Saw”). Jack’s essay tells of returning with his elder brother to Farnworth to seek out the sites of its vanished cinemas—the Ritz, the Savoy, the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Palace. For Jack and his young friends:

Cinema names seemed independent of any history. They may have been intended to suggest luxury, romance, good birth and breeding, foreign parts, ancient history and therefore to be fitting vehicles for the films showed inside them; escapist images inside escapist architecture. But how many among their audiences could have connected the Hippodrome to horse racing in Ancient Greece, or the Rialto to Venice, the Alhambra, Granada, and Toledo to Spain, the Lido to Mediterranean bathing, the Colosseum to Rome, the Savoy to the Strand, the Odeon to Paris, the Regal to majestic behaviour? Not me, certainly.

We also feel kinship with Parnassus’s special issue on ‘Poetry and Movies’ (#22, Nos. 1 & 2, 1997) with its poems inspired by Godard’s Le Mépris, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and the collaboration between Positif and Projections that generated Projections 4½ (1995), from which we republish Richard Lowenstein’s essay, “Elvis and the Aboriginals.” As it turns out, Lowenstein, a well-known Australian filmmaker, is almost an exception in our line-up of literary cinéphiles; most of the selections in this Contrappasso are by people whose principal creative focus is not cinematic at all but in the areas of essays, poetry, and fiction. You will find writings on film by literary practitioners not usually identified as film critics, and also examples of more recognisably academic-scholarly film writing. We think it’s a happy mixture of some of the best movie writing around.

Some of the pieces collected here focus on a single film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), Orson Welles’s rediscovered Too Much Johnson (1938), Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1955), and Robert Siodmak’s Custer of the West (1968). The approaches vary. Other pieces zoom in on an individual: Eric Rohmer, Jean Negulesco, Claire Danes, the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo, Montgomery Clift, Elmore Leonard, and Emmanuel Mouret. We also explore the kind of cinéphilia that escapes the page and becomes filmmaking itself—see our interview with Richard Misek on his film essay Rohmer in Paris.

Movie-going, our favourite ritual since childhood, is undoubtedly changing. We assembled this collection at a time when viewing a movie via a 35mm print became a sudden novelty. The Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, which has an impressive collection of vintage nickelodeons and magic lanterns, now also displays a 35mm projector as a historical artefact. In 2014 Quentin Tarantino called digital projection, now a fait accompli, the very “death of cinema as I know it.” And he’s not alone in the sentiment. The prevailing nostalgia among cinéphiles is not just for the end of 35mm as an exhibition technology, the disappearance of that comforting flicker of scratchy celluloid through a projector. It’s just another change that has followed the passing of the movie theatre from a space of spectacle, even wonder, into the mundane functionality of the multiplex.

Stephen Barber’s Abandoned Images: Film and Film’s End (2010) powerfully outlines the history of cinema as a social space, in particular the slow fade from the grandeur of the early movie palace to ruin and dilapidation. Barber cites twelve cinemas built in Los Angeles between 1910 and 1931, how their facades, “often constructed with premium-quality stone imported from Italian quarries, and intricately carved and decorated with figures drawn from European or Mayan mythologies, both exclaimed the titles of current films on colossal marquees and hoardings, and intimated that the film-going experience was to be a lavish, cultured one.”

Barber says that Broadway in downtown Los Angeles “holds the greatest concentration worldwide of abandoned, but intact, cinemas.” These “once-lavish and luxurious cinemas represented the zenith of technological innovation in their respective moments of construction.” These buildings present “an astonishing litany of names emblazoned on dilapidated but still prominent marquees and signs: the Million Dollar Theater, the Roxie, the Cameo, the Arcade, the Los Angeles Theater, the Palace, the State, the Globe, the Orpheum, and the United Artists Theater.”

As he charts the shift in the social function of the movie palace from its time screening mainstream films to showing “specialist, cult or martial arts films, and finally, pornography,” Barber argues that these changes place a double temporality on the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, such that “the moment at which it served as a riotous all-night site for cult-mania or pornography becomes inseparable from that of its prestigious moment of ascendancy as the venue for searchlight-illuminated star-premieres.” For Barber, “abandoned cinemas form landscapes of disintegration.”

That 35mm projector at the Frankfurt museum was appropriately surrounded by an exhibition of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s stunning large-scale photographs of the United States’ abandoned picture palaces. Annie Baker’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick (2014), is set in a “falling-apart movie theatre in Worcester County, MA.” Its four characters work, watch movies, scam, endlessly toss out film references and play (in this case) three degrees of separation games linking film actors across recondite films. This ‘smallest picture show on earth’ operates in the full recognition that the days of celluloid and analogue video have been replaced by a (fallen) digital world.

Iain Sinclair’s 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (2014), also bears personal witness to the vanished spaces of cinema. The book is a record of a unique film festival in which sometimes unlikely corners of contemporary London—a city suffering ongoing authoritarian usurpation of public space—become ad hoc exhibition spaces for seventy films that have mattered most to the seventy year old author. As ever, Sinclair’s psychogeographical prowl of London provokes memories, in this case of former exhibition sites where his younger self first encountered particular movies.

We hope some of the pieces we have gathered here resonate in a similar way.

Nevertheless, we also acknowledge there is much for the cinéphile to celebrate in the digital era. Access to obscure films is now easier than ever. One of the most ardent surveyors of international DVD and Bluray releases is the writer Jonathan Rosenbaum. We caught up with him to talk about his recent activities.

II: Novelists and Poets

We find no shortage of fiction writers obsessed by cinema. In his introduction to Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies (2000), Jim Shepard makes the case that writers “write about movies… not only because we love them but because their cultural power obligates our response.” In Shepard’s anthology we discover that the late, great Robert Stone liked The Krays (1990), Lorrie Moore likes Titanic (1997) and J. M. Coetzee likes The Misfits (1961).

We like Gore Vidal’s engaging book-length essay Screening History (1992), in which he recalls being spellbound as a boy by Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and await an English translation of Carlos Fuentes’s posthumously published Pantallas de plata (2014), a personal study of Buñuel and others. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) offers a powerful commentary on the movies, on black spectatorship and the representation of race in cinema. It begins by recalling

Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

Don DeLillo is a committed literary cinéphile. His fiction is crowded with movie and television references. In one interview he described his cinematic conception when he starts writing: “I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor…” In 1971, when Nelson Algren reviewed DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, for Rolling Stone, he connected it explicitly to the New Hollywood cinema: “Don DeLillo’s swift, ironic, and witty cross-country American nightmare, as seen through a Scoopic 16mm news camera, doesn’t have a dull or unoriginal line. If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces, or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”

DeLillo has said in several interviews that he was most excited by the movies of the late 1960s when he was first trying to make a living from writing. Some of his earliest stories are in fact literary responses to movies. “The Numbers” was provoked by Godard’s Weekend (1967). DeLillo explained, “I consider this piece of work a movie as much as anything else. Not my movie, however. No, the work is an attempt to hammer and nail my own frame around somebody else’s movie.” Another early short story, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” done in a kind of 1960s European art-cinema shorthand, is now available at The Kenyon Review website[2].

Fiction aside, by now DeLillo has published enough essays on film to constitute a short book. His essay “Woman in the Distance” is a brilliant poetic exploration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), a film also greatly admired by Marguerite Duras (see her 1980 interview collection Green Eyes). In the manner of DeLillo’s novels, the Wanda essay has a great opening:

Early in the film a woman in the shape of a white shadow moves in long shot across the bitter gray landscape of slag heaps and mining equipment. It is a scene of phantom beauty: a spacious moment seemingly displaced in a movie that levels every energy at small and local matters. But the scene is only the first component of an equation in the making. That chalky figure in the distance will appear in powerful close-up at the end of the film, face and heart revealed.

DeLillo wrote a short New Yorker piece on star spotting in Rome—its subtitle ‘Movies and Memory’ could be an alternate title for this issue of Contrappasso—and another long essay in Brick, ‘Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,’ which throws together The Fast Runner, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, and a documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. He penned elegant capsule descriptions for the three films he selected and introduced as Guest Director of the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. He chose Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (“A beautiful and disturbing movie of remote landscapes, dreamy scenes of childhood and the advancing shadow of the state… Shot in deceptively serene tones, paced in the rhythms of rural isolation, Spirit of the Beehive exemplifies what Erice calls poetic cinema”), Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) (“With its dangling flashbacks, long takes, deep spaces, and hovering sense of violence, The Passenger is one of the strongest films in Antonioni’s enduring study of identity and apartness”), and Loden’s Wanda (“It might be regarded as the unsung herald of the American surge that sent many fine and famous movies coursing through [the 1970s]”). There was a “lost” aspect to all three films. It was the first time in twenty-five years Spirit of the Beehive had been screened in the US. The Passenger had not been screened for a similar time owing to a bizarre legal situation that required either Antonioni or actor Jack Nicholson to be present at any screening. Wanda, shot on 16mm for a mere $160,000, the only film directed by Loden, only found visibility in recent years when released on DVD.

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OF COURSE, literary cinéphilia does not automatically denote the composition of fiction or an essay. Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” opens with the invitation: “Come, my love/let’s go to the movies/in the village/ … Old movies/are/secondhand dreams.” The American Frank O’Hara wrote poems about James Dean and penned the marvellous “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the speaker reveals that his main love is not for “lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals,” nor the Catholic Church, nor for “the American Legion” but rather for “you, Motion Picture Industry.” It is for “glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound.” The poem lists many Hollywood stars and describes scenes from unnamed films. The speaker refuses to “prefer Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker” in Tarzan movies, and ends by saying, “Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on.”

Readers of our Noir Issue will recall several distinguished poetic responses to the cinema: Nicholas Christopher on film noir and the HUAC-destroyed career of John Garfield; Barry Gifford’s short evocation of actress Terry Moore (a poem dedicated to, and admired by, Elmore Leonard); Suzanne Loomis’s noir poems; and Jonathan Aaron’s response to Out of the Past.

In this issue we reprint James Franco’s poem in honour of Sal Mineo, two poems by R. Zamora Linmark on Montgomery Clift and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, and two by Michael Atkinson.

III: The Movie Theatre as Social Space

The British Film Institute’s series of ‘Film Classics’ (soon followed by another on ‘Modern Classics’), began a trend in English language film writing: small books, normally between 65 and 150 pages, on individual films. The ‘short takes’ idea was the brainchild of Edward Buscombe, then head of BFI publishing. The concept now exists in many articulations: series of small books on films that fall into the categories of Classic Canadian Cinema (University of Toronto Press), Australian Film Classics (Currency Press), Queer Film Classics (Arsenal Pulp Press), Pop Classics (ECW Press), and Controversies (Palgrave Macmillan). There are also Bloomsbury Film Guides (now discontinued), Wallflower Press’s Cultographies, Soft Skull Press’s Deep Focus series, and the Cinetek line from Flicks Books. Certain films appear on more than one of these lists. We also find monographs on individual films outside any publishing series: two notable recent books are Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012) (on Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (2011) (on Ozu’s Late Spring).

With this type of book came a greater emphasis on where and when the authors first encountered the film in question. One example is Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on Antonioni’s L’avventura for BFI Film Classics. His first viewing took place in

Paris, in November 1960. I was a language assistant in a lycée in a small town in eastern France. One weekend I drove with friends to Paris—250 kilometres in a Citroen 2 c.v., maximum speed 90k.p.h.—intending to see Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes, and other new French films. First, however, I decided to take a look at the Italian film which had caused all that uproar at Cannes the previous spring: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. For two and a half hours I sat spellbound in the cinema. I was captivated by the film’s lingering rhythms, its decentered images, its listless characters, and especially by Monica Vitti, the star of the film and incarnation of the director’s vision. No film before or since has made such an impression on me as L’avventura did on that occasion. I saw the film again the following day, and went back to Paris three weeks later to see it again—this time with the intention of writing about it.

Similarly, Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997/2006), a very different film book which surveys not one but hundreds of films, orientates the reader with a wonderful description of the author’s first encounter with film noir in a Paris cinema in 1973:

This was a tumultuous time, not just in the Unites States, but also in France, where massive student and labor unrest had emerged that spring. Barricades blocked the steep streets near the Sorbonne, tear gas bit the air, and at particularly explosive city arteries, rubber bullets were being fired into crowds of demonstrators. Still, people were going to work, eating, drinking, making love, and attending the cinema. The theater was located in a narrow side street off the Rue de Rennes in a working class district. Surrounded by tire shops, garages, and a sausage factory, it was improbably named The New Yorker, the letters glowing in indigo neon on the small crooked marquee. So I found myself alone on a hard seat in the rear of a packed smoky theater (with posters of the Manhattan skyline in the lobby) where one could hear a pin drop—so reverential, so congregational was this chain-smoking French audience—and watched Out of the Past.

Jessica Hagedorn’s novel, Dogeaters (1990), features her Filipino characters watching Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) in a Manila cinema. In an email Jessica Hagedorn told us, “The Avenue Theatre, which appears in Dogeaters, actually existed when I was growing up in Manila. My description of it in the novel is inspired by the ‘real’ Avenue and other old-school movie theatres in Manila, like the Odeon.” The narrator of Hagedorn’s novel tells us that her group of friends “affect the casual teenage glamour of Gloria Talbott” in All That Heaven Allows. These characters offer an intriguing take on one aspect of Sirk’s great melodrama: why would someone so evidently wealthy as Jane Wyman’s character bother to drive her own car when she could afford a chauffeur?

Hagedorn’s characters watch a great many other films but avoid the cinemas infested by rats. One character, Romeo, a waiter at “the exclusive Monte Vista Country Club,” goes to the movies “as often as his modest salary” allows. Romeo “would see anything: comedies, Tagalog melodramas, westerns, musicals, and religious extravaganzas like The Ten Commandments, which played to packed houses in Manila for what seemed an eternity. Audiences never failed to clap and cheer each time the Red Sea parted on the giant screen.” Mabuhay Studios is cited along with Lolita Luna’s softcore ‘bomba’ movies (A Candle in Burma, The Agony of Love). Romeo also learns from the movies insofar as he models his hair on “Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Or that decadent Nestor Noraliz in Tormented.” As the Hollywood titles suggest, American movies appropriately align with the modernity represented by US pop culture, and in 1960, when a character returns from the US with a batch of the latest rock ‘n’ roll records—”45s, 78s, 33LPs. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Richie Valens, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee and the Starliters”—the female narrator studiously learns how to do The Madison and The Twist.

Other writers remember other movies and other cinemas. Michael Barker remembers watching Executive Action (1973) “at the Texas Theater in Dallas, a savvy booking if ever there was one—this was the theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended. The marquee proclaimed NOW PLAYING EXECUTIVE ACTION and underneath in big, bold letters OSWALD CAUGHT HERE. I remember kids taking turns sitting in his seat.” Greil Marcus feels a movie theatre “creates an atmosphere of anticipation, it sparks the feeling that, whatever might be on the bill, something extraordinary is about to take place.” Marcus remembers first seeing The Manchurian Candidate “alone when it came out in 1962, at the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, California, a Moorish wonderland of a movie house.” He saw it again in 2001 “in the Castro Theatre, an ornately baroque movie palace with a steep balcony and an organ that emerges from a pit in front of the stage.” Leonard Michaels’s terrific essay on being overwhelmed by Gilda (1946) on first viewing, initially published in the Berkeley broadsheet The Threepenny Review[3], is very precise about where his life-changing act of film spectatorship occurred: “I saw this movie in the Loew’s Theater on Canal Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

DeLillo gives a lovely description of his 1960s and early 1970s moviegoing habits:

I went to the movies on weekday afternoons, a movie on a dead afternoon, the merest scatter of people in attendance, always someone reading the Voice in the half murk before the house lights died. In many cases I can recall today where I saw certain movies back then, drifting from The New Yorker Theater one day to the Bleecker Street the next, alert and ever expectant, ready to be taken out of the day, the week, the plodding writer’s one-room life, and into a fold of discontinuous space and time.

In conversation with Lorena Cancela for Otrocampo 7 in November 2002, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that “where and when one is viewing a movie has an inextricable relation to what that movie means, and consequently, no meanings should be regarded as universal or eternal… Movie-going—and therefore film criticism—is a social act.” This is precisely what art critic Lawrence Alloway says in his 1971 book, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964: “The routine of movie-going is the basis of any criticism of popular movies.”

We think what is happening in our different examples is a merging of two perspectives: the first linked to the long tradition of academic-scholarly and amateur accounts of the history of movie-going and of the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, and the second which exhibits a very localized, one-off-film-specific cinéphilia. To the extent that some contributors write about a time when going to the movies—the flicks, the pictures—was a weekly or twice-weekly routine, they often remember a specific cinema. In so doing they confirm the adage attributed to Marcus Loew (whose US theatre chain played MGM’s pictures), “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.” Of course Loew and his viewers knew, as we know, that it is always both.

In an 2003 online interview with Identity Theory, David Thomson spoke of the loss of the tradition of large cinema theaters as distinctive social spaces—or what once were called ‘picture palaces’ in an era when, as the publicity phrase had it, “the show starts on the sidewalk”—in contemporary San Francisco. Thomson doubted whether San Francisco now had more than four cinemas capable of seating 600 or 700 people, and felt that it was important to convey to young people “that feeling I grew up with… that you had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital.”

Patrick McGilligan uses the phrase “film craziness” to describe the cinéphilia that, he says, “was endemic around the country, indeed around the globe, in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” and adds that “the mutant strain found at the University of Wisconsin in Madison had something to do with the unique combination of the long, subarctic winters—from which escape was desirable—coupled with the inviting central location of the film archives in the State Historical Society building.” For McGilligan the film archives were “a treasure trove,” the result of the fact that some “unsung archivist had managed to obtain the United Artists collection, which included… 16mm prints of every Warner brothers, RKO, and Republic motion picture dating back from the early 1930s through to the early 1950s.” He describes this particular viewing venue:

Mornings at the archives, the film crazies would gather to watch whatever some graybeard (i.e. graduate student) had put on the schedule—say, three or four William Wellman films, the earliest, most obscure, most topical titles from his Warner Brothers period.

The room set aside on the top floor of the State Historical Society building was a long, narrow concrete bunker with utilitarian chairs scattered around… Once started, the only interruptions were for reel changes, and we often squeezed in several films, back to back, before lunch. Some of us slurped coffee or chewed gum. Some made loud comments about the film in progress, others watched silently, scribbling notes, gazing intently at the rectangle of light dancing on the wall.

Juan Goytisolo’s wonderful essay, “Cinema Eden,”[4] from a book of the same name (Peter Bush’s 2004 translation is subtitled Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean), begins by saying:

There exists an almost extinct species of cinema whose auditorium, dense atmosphere and original setting stand out more strongly, more glowingly in memory than the meandering plot of their films. My childhood experience was decisive in this respect and casts light on my future fondness for flea-pits that recall those first cinemas I patronized in the neighbourhood of the district of Barcelona where I was born.

Goytisolo remembers a cinema called “the Murillo—the Primavera from the pre-war years—a name it reclaimed in the fifties before being closed down for good and replaced by an apartment block at the point where Paseo Bonanova crosses Calle Angli—and the smaller, humbler Breton, right in the heart of the still rather prim and provincial suburb of Sarria.” He mentions many other cinemas, as his essay goes on to discuss the Eden cinema—”an old down-at-heel fleapit” in Marrakesh—and reveal his fondness for Hindu melodramas and karate films.

Italo Calvino’s superb long essay, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” written at the urging of Federico Fellini, was possibly Goytisolo’s model. In it Calvino recalls the films and stars he saw in his adolescence, a time “when the cinema engrossed me to an extent far beyond anything that came before or after.” The essay, part of The Road to San Giovanni (1990), begins:

There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe twice a day, and those were the years between ‘36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me…

Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week.

Calvino was watching dubbed US films and French poetic realist films in San Remo on the Ligurian coast in his favourite open-air theatre. On the other side of Italy, in Rimini, Fellini was watching films in “the little towns in winter,” where “the movie theatre was like a tiny galaxy, a planet under a spell, a grand passion that seems forgotten today.”

Years later, in Paris, Calvino would go to “tiny, smelly cinemas of the Latin Quarter to dig out films of the twenties and thirties” he “thought he had lost forever,” and also to encounter new films, screenings of contemporary cinema: “I go looking for old films that tell me about my own prehistory or those that are so new as perhaps to suggest what the world will be like after me.”

But of course memorable movie-going doesn’t have to occur indoors. Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Secret Language of Film (1994) opens with a description of a screening in French colonial Africa after the First World War. It deftly conveys elegant ironies of a colonialist moment: “A sheet was stretched between posts, the mysterious device was carefully set up, and suddenly, out in the dry night of the African bush, moving pictures appeared.” However, the “African notables and religious leaders,” although obliged to attend lest their absence indicate an unfriendly or rebellious attitude towards their colonisers, “were for the most part Muslims,” and obedient to the prohibitions of their religion against the depiction of the human face and form. They politely took their seats, and when “the lights went down and the first beams flickered from the curious apparatus, they shut their eyes and kept them shut” throughout the screening. Carrière “often wondered what invisible, soundless film was shown during those few short hours.”

The editors of this issue are both Australians who grew up with the presence of the drive-in. In Australia a drive-in could also be used as a ‘walk-in.’ On hot summer nights, if you didn’t yet have a driver’s license, you could sit near the refreshment building, and have a sound box at your table. You would watch children in pyjamas and dressing gowns play in the playground just under the giant screen in front of all the parked cars until the drive-in’s double-bill started. Before the fading of the drive-in as an exhibition site—when the land on which it stood became more valuable to sell off as housing—cinéphiles would often seek out a drive-in screening as the only venue at which a particular film would find release, much as some suburban/neighbourhood cinemas in Australia became the place for the first-release of Five Easy Pieces (1970), Cisco Pike (1972), and some other offerings from the New Hollywood cinema.

Memories of the drive-in also stir fond thoughts of the so-called “Drive-In Movie Critic” Joe Bob Briggs, whose flamboyant redneck critical posture celebrated movies exhibited at Texas drive-ins. We also recall J.D. Reed’s poem ‘Drive-In’, which vividly juxtaposes teenage sexual moves in a parked car while “giant caterpillars are fighting on the screen/waving monster feelers and spitting/plastic drool.” (It nicely echoes Luc Sante’s essay ‘Enormous Bodies in the Night’, which we reprint here.)

Several other pieces in this issue present readers with a similar evocation of exhibition sites, grounding their cinéphilic explorations in the experience of architectural space.

Readers of our Noir Issue will remember the late Morris Lurie’s essay on his unchaperoned visit to see The Maltese Falcon on its first release in Melbourne. He was five years old. Leaving the cinema by the wrong exit, he became confused, caught the wrong tram, and arrived home late only to be chastised his very worried parents. In this issue we republish Barry Gifford’s short story, “The Ciné,” which relates a narrative of a young boy whose father deposits him in a cinema while he does some work around town. Gifford’s poetry and fiction are filled with allusions to movies; his collection of short essays on film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films (1998, later republished as Out of the Past) are not just about the movies but peppered with details of his original viewing context. Gifford unashamedly uses the films as launch pads for autobiographical reminiscence, as when his discussion of Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves (1956) prompts the recollection of his mother’s marriage. Gifford’s ‘Author’s Note’ confesses: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagined many of the Cahiers du Cinéma reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning.”

Among the other contributions here that foreground a specific screening venue is Richard Lowenstein’s account of watching an Elvis Presley movie in 1969 in an outback open-air cinema with an audience of Australian Aborigines. We are also delighted to republish American poet Richard Hugo’s ‘The White Line,’ both a beautiful essay on Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952) and an exercise in poetic reminiscence of a specific cinema: George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre in White Center, Washington.

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

IV: Learning from the Movies

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “I have often learned a lesson from a silly American film.” As he sat in his preferred place, the front row, watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films, other musicals, westerns, and detective films, it occurred to him that, “In one regard I must be a very modern person since the cinema has such an extraordinarily beneficial effect on me.” Victor Erice said that during his period of being a young boy watching Hollywood movies, it was always westerns he and his friends loved most. And in Neruda’s ‘Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,’ we learn, “Cowboys/make/Swiss cheese of/the dangerous Arizona/moon.”

In the special ‘Movies and Poetry’ issue of Parnassus, Susan Sontag wondered whether “cinéphilia—the name of a very specific kind of love that cinema inspired” had ended:

Until the advent of television emptied the movie theatres, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive, such as… it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining… The strongest experience was simply to surrender to, to be transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.

In a short piece at the New York Review of Books blog, poet Charles Simic (who has a poem entitled “Double Feature”) describes one of his earliest movie-going memories, seeing a Buster Keaton film “in World War II Belgrade where I grew up… Neither Nazis nor Russian tanks could stop my mother from going to the movies, and taking me along.” And we agree with Simic when he says, “It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them.” Barber says that cinema going populations worldwide “learned to remember filmically, within the narrative forms and visual cadences of film.”

The Australian writer David Malouf’s essay “Growing up with Stars” recalls many hours spent in the Lyceum and Odeon cinemas. Malouf’s essay is now available in his new collection, Being There (2015), but it was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999, as an ‘edited version’ of a talk he had given at the Seymour Centre near Sydney University. That talk was meant to inaugurate a series of talks by various people on ‘Transformations’ but, as it happened, his was the only one to take place. Malouf’s essay begins:

We grew up with the pictures, we little Australians of 50 years ago, and we grew up with the stars. When we were children Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were still youthful, like our fresh-faced uncles and aunts. Later we grew old with them and they were like ancient cousins. In no other art do we retain this lifelong relationship with its practitioners, this close, almost family, intimacy with figures who are bonded to us in a special closeness because they belong not to our public lives of industry and duty but to that other life we live in our senses, in our imagination, which is irresponsible and free. As the members of a new and popular audience, we were educated, like all popular audiences, by the medium itself. No-one was there to guide us or tell us how it was done. We picked that up on our own; the movies themselves taught us. And we did not have, afterwards, to describe or account for what we had discovered; it was just for us. There in the dark, with just ourselves to please, and with those evocative images to tempt us and so many “situations” to slip into and identify with, we were free, off the hook; no-one was watching. We were watching. This was another sort of education, and if we learned something, it was on our own terms.

Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006) is a wonderfully poetic short film about cinema and childhood, rich with detail about a distinctive historical-national instance of movie-going, the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Madrid, World War II, the utterly terrible real-life images encountered then by children outside their moviegoing world. Don DeLillo, presenting it at Telluride in 2013, said that it “addresses such major subjects as personal memory, the past and the present, history and fiction, and the way in which a movie can assert itself in a young mind as a scary extension of immediate household reality.”

Erice is five years old when he accompanies his twelve year old sister to see a Sherlock Holmes film, The Scarlett Claw (1944). The cinema is within a grand building that had briefly functioned as a casino until the prohibition of gambling obliged the building to find other ways of being in the world. Erice refers to his childhood self in the third person, as “the boy,” someone who is having his first ever experience of the social act of moviegoing, who immediately notices that the adults in the audience comport themselves differently from the way he comports himself. The film is affecting him much more strongly than it is these adults who surround him. He recognizes that “they knew something he didn’t.” The cinematic unknowingness of Erice’s five year old—”But what was an actor? The Boy didn’t know exactly.”—matches that of Lurie’s five year old persona wondering about his viewing of The Maltese Falcon: “Would it have been good if I had understood it?” In the extended interview included on the DVD, Erice says he didn’t see the film again for forty years. This first traumatic experience of cinema caused him to develop a dread of postmen and letters, a fear not in the least assuaged by his sister, whom we presume chose this film, taunting him at bedtime by whispering, “the postman is coming!”

Film posters figure strongly in Erice’s film, beginning with a large wall poster of The Mark of Zorro (1940). Later Erice presents posters of the other films he might have been able to see that particular first week of his filmgoing life. His research revealed what else was on release that week: Gene Tierney in Henry Hathaway’s Sundown (1941) and Hedy Lamarr in Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). But it was The Scarlett Claw that changed his life. During an interview exchange (a DVD extra), Erice alludes to the criticism of Serge Daney and the way Jean-Louis Schefer’s L’homme ordinaire du cinéma reverses the phenomenological trope of a child watching a film; instead, these are “films that watched our childhood.” Erice also reveals that the first film that prompted him to write about it was Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—once again a film about childhood and a childhood obsessed with cinema.

In several of his other comments Erice is in synch with Malouf, Sontag, Calvino and Simic on the idea of the movie theatre as a para-educational institution, one which, in Erice’s case, helped a Spanish resident of a country whose borders were closed, whose citizens daily experienced attacks on their liberty, whose experiences of political and clerical censorship were ongoing and profound, discover that moviegoing, with a nod to Casablanca, made them “citizens of the world.” These probings of cinema as an education outside school and its pedagogy suggest a cinematic spin on Bruce Springsteen’s line from “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

The remarks from Calvino, Sontag, Goytisolo, Malouf, and Erice point towards nationally specific remembrances of the international act of movie-going. Similar offerings are to be found in Serpent’s Tail’s collection Seeing in the Dark.

V: Movies and their Critics

In Maria de Medeiros’s informative and amusing documentary Je t’aime… moi non Plus: Artistes et critiques (I Love You I Love You Not: Artists and Critics, 2004) a wide range of directors and critics are interviewed at the Cannes Film festival and asked what they think is the relation of the film critic to the filmmaker. We learn that in Spain film critics are paid much more than opera or art critics. At one point Gérard Lefort insists that “film criticism is a literary genre.” Inevitably many directors (from Almodovar to Cronenberg) express pugnacity and disdain for the critic, and some Spanish and Brazilian critics tell funny stories of being physically attacked (on the street, in restaurants) by directors unhappy with a review they have received. The late Alexander Walker, to whom the film is dedicated, tells of having his face slapped twice—on both sides—on UK national television by director Ken Russell. Russell used a convenient weapon for the slap, the newspaper that had carried Walker’s negative review of The Devils.

We hope that the pieces we have assembled here avoid those kinds of confrontational oppositions. To conclude by reiteration, what many of these essays seem to us to do is contribute in a positive way to two developed areas of film criticism and film history: on the one hand the concept of cinéphilia, and on the other the history of movie-going as a distinctive social practice with significant historical, regional and national variations. We like the description put forward by Lawrence Alloway in Violent America, and his take on how best to capture the compelling particularity of the act of movie-going or of a specifically memorable cinematic encounter. Alloway says that I Walk Alone and other ‘movies of the second half of the 40s’ were ‘the first movies that I saw that I still remember’. He says he hopes his film criticism will

hold onto its source in the original act of movie-going. The critical notions to be discussed are not those I had as a regular, not to say compulsive moviegoer, but I do not want to lose that early feeling, the capacity for identification, that made me see I Walk Alone several times when it was first released.

ENDNOTES

[1] See for example:

Antoine de Baecque and Christian-Marc Bosséno, “Constructing the Gaze: An Interview with Jean Douchet,” trans. Timothy Barnard Framework : The Journal of Cinema and Media 42 (2000)

Scott Balcerzak & Jason Sperb, Cinéphilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, vol. 1: 2009 & vol. 2: 2012)

Joe Bobb-Briggs, Joe Bobb-Briggs Goes to the Drive-in (New York: Delacorte Press, 1986)

Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond, ed., Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990)

Philip French, I Found it at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinéphile (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011)

Christian Keathley, Cinéphilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2005)

Martyn de Konig and Matte Hagener, Cinéphilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2014).

Jacques Rancière, “The Gaps of Cinema,” Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies (Spring 2012), available at: http://www.necsus-ejms.org/the-gaps-of-cinema-by-jacques-ranciere/

Rasha Wadia Richards, Cinematic Flashes: Cinéphilia and Classical Hollywood (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2013)

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinéphilia (London: BFI, 2008)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2010)

[2] See www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/don-delillo-342846/

[3] It is now available at sensesofcinema.com/2002/female-glamour-and-star-power/zipper/

[4] The essay is available at www.theguardian.com/film/2004/mar/06/film

WORKS CITED

Nelson Algren, “Review of Americana,” Rolling Stone (August 5, 1971)

Lawrence Alloway, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971)

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976) (New York: Vintage International, 2011)

Michael Barker (Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics), “Guilty Pleasures,” Film Comment (July-August 2003): 8

Italo Calvino, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” in his The Road to San Giovanni trans. Tim Parkes (New York: Vintage, 1994): 25-50

Lorena Cancela, “Jonathan Rosenbaum: A Life at the Movies: An interview,” Otrocampo 7 (November 2002)

Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film (New York: Pantheon, 1994)

Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: The Free Press, 1997) (Expanded edition from Counterpoint in 2006)

Don DeLillo, “That Day in Rome: Movies and Memory,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 76-78

Don DeLillo interviewed by Adam Begley: ‘The Art of Fiction No 135’, The Paris Review (1992), available at: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1887/the-art-of-fiction-no-135-don-delillo

Don DeLillo, “Woman in the Distance,” Black Clock 4 (2005): 56-59

Don DeLillo, “Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,” Brick 74 (Winter 2004): 96-105

Don DeLillo, “The Uniforms,” Carolina Quarterly 22, (1970): 4-11

Don DeLillo, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” The Kenyon Review 28, 3 (1966)

Marguerite Duras, Green Eyes trans. Carol Barko (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1990)

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Vintage, 2012)

Barry Gifford, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films (New York: Grove Press, 1988)

Barry Gifford, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Jose Goytisolo, Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean trans. Peter Bush (London: Eland Books, 2003)

Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin, 1990)

Morris Lurie, “Introduction to Adulthood,” Meanjin 59, 1 (2000): 51-53

David Malouf, “Growing up with the Stars,” The Sydney Morning Herald “Spectrum,” (March 13th, 1999) and in Being There (Sydney: Knopf Australia, 2015): 48-58

Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling (London: Nottingham Hill Editions, 2011)

Patrick McGilligan, Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

Leonard Michaels, “The Zipper,” in Susan Sontag, ed., Best American Essays 1992 (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992): 244-252

Granta 86: Film (Granta Books, 2004)

Greil Marcus, The Manchurian Candidate (London: British Film Institute, 2002): 48-49

Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997)

Projections 4 and ½ in Association with Positif ed. William Donohue and John Boorman (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)

Tony Maraini, “Fellini Interview,” trans. A. K. Bierman Bright Lights Film Journal 12 (1994): 33-37, and Bright Lights Film Journal 14, (nd): 33-37

Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 147, 155-157, 159

David Naylor, ed., Great American Movie Theatres (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1987): 18

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” trans. Margaret Sayers Peden

J. D. Reed, “Drive-In,” in his Expressways (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969): 12

Charles Simic, “When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night,” available at: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jan/18/when-movies-kept-us-awake-night/

Charles Simic, “Poetry in Unlikely Places: Review of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda., ed. Ilan Stavans,” The New York Review of Books (September25, 2003), available at Javous Arcades Project (Monday, May 9th, 2011), http://javous308.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/poetry-in-unlikely-places.html

Iain Sinclair, 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (London: Volcano Publications, 2014)

Susan Sontag, “Century of Cinema,” in Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997): 23-29

32nd Telluride Film Festival Program (September 1-5, 2005)

40th Telluride Film Festival Program (August 29-September 2, 2013)

David Thomson, “Interview with Robert Birnbaum,” Identity Theory, available at: http://identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum82.html

One thought on “Writers at the Movies: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Contrappasso: Writers at the Movies | Matthew Asprey Gear

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