Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Old Films, New Eyes: The Aesthetic Pleasures of Cinema

I'll never forget the experience of seeing The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on the big screen for the first time. It was about 20 years ago and --the fact is-- I didn't sit through the entire movie. Having seen the movie on TV years before, I thought I had already seen it. Boy, was I wrong. Stopping by the Original Princess that night, I stepped in the auditorium to check out the crowd and watch some of the film. I was blown away by what I saw on screen. There was Clint as Blondie, larger than life on an endless vista of Cinemascope glory. 
"You dig!"
After that night I learned my lesson and since then, I make a particular effort to see the revived old classics that appear on the Princess Cinema's program, not only because I want to take advantage of the chance to see these gems on the big screen, but also because I know these screenings are rare. When I describe them as once-in-a-lifetime, I'm not kidding. We recently screened the remastered version of my all-time favourite film, The Red Shoes, at the Princess, a magical experience I will recount another day. Since all three screenings were well-attended, I asked John if he could bring the film back. No, was his response, as the film had been shipped off and returned to the States (which meant it would be far too costly for us to bring it back over the border).
I doubt that I will ever tire or cease to be amazed by the experience of seeing an old film with new eyes. To me, the sense of re-discovery is like falling in love again ("can't help it!") It's a unique and somewhat addictive sensation and, while it is uncommon, this year I've had the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with old titles several times already, and I know there will be more to come because the Princess --as part of our 25th anniversary-- plans on screening many of our classics from years past. 
Last August we screened the 40th anniversary re-release of Woodstock. WOW! And to think I almost didn't go because, well, I'd seen it before (on VHS when I was fourteen). I definitively had NOT seen this movie before. What a privilege to see this amazing documentary in 35mm in a theatre with full stereo surround sound and --I don't care what anyone says about their home theatres-- they can never match the true, collective, cinematic experience.  I have a lot to say about Woodstock, but I'll save that discussion for another post.
My next "scales-fell-from-my-eyes" experience came while watching Lawrence of Arabia last fall. Although I had seen it when it was re-released in 1988, perhaps at the age of twenty I was too inexperienced to fully appreciate the grandeur of this magnificent film. It was not lost on me this time, as the opening scene of T.E. Lawrence riding his motorbike made me feel dizzy and ecstatic. This film, originally released in 1962 in 70mm, should never be aired (or viewed!) on television. A waste of time, in my opinion. Recently Cinematheque Waterloo presented Fellini's La Dolce Vita. I had seen this movie multiple times, in multiple formats (VHS, DVD, 16mm) but never in 35mm. Again, I felt like I was seeing an entirely new movie. It was a delight from start to finish.
One can be forgiven for getting certain Fellini titles mixed up: many of his mid-period, semi-autobiographical films have recurring, similar dream-like scenes, as though he was continuing to process their latent meaning in his own psyche. Last night I went to see 8 1/2 at the Original, not entirely sure whether or not I had seen it before. I had, but not in 35mm. I actually moaned with pleasure upon witnessing the following scene, one of many dream-scapes Fellini explores in this film.  
Martin Scorsese once said that Peeping Tom and 8 1/2 say everything one needs to know about filmmaking, an interesting (and I hope tongue-in-cheek) observation about the filmmaking process. As for comparitives, I would pair 8 1/2 with Kurosawa's Dreams, as both movies suggest, by theme, the truth that watching a film in a movie theatre is the physiological equivalent of going into a dream state. The visceral pleasure of watching a 35mm film projection is considerably different than watching a digital projection. When we watch a film in a cinema, because of the projector's shutter mechanism the screen is actually black for almost half the time; of course we don't perceive it (because of "persistence of vision") but physiologically we do: it's like being in an alpha-state. Call me old-school, but I won't be entirely sold on the complete digitization of cinema until that alpha-state can be mimicked with digital technology. Obviously the difference is subtle, but film-lovers can sense the difference. It's an analog sensation: it's felt.
Special mention should be made that the recent availability of some Fellini titles can be credited to the venerable Janus Films, the 1950s distribution company that brought many of the classics of world cinema to North American viewers. Now owned by Criterion, last year Janus released its first theatrical title in over thirty years! 
Previously, I noted that this year --September 18th, to be exact-- the Princess Cinema will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. In addition to screening the first film ever projected at the Princess, Casablanca, we'll be presenting a series of Charlie Chaplin films, released by Janus. I am encouraged by Janus and some of the majors, who periodically dip into their vaults and clean up old titles for theatrical revival. Let's hope that the distributors continue to re-release some of these great films, so a new generation of film lovers can truly see these films as they were meant to be seen: in 35mm, on the big screen!
See you at the movies!

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