This list is actually going to be short of one of my favorite movie-viewing experiences, since I’ve already written a post about my first movie viewed in a movie theater, a story I love to tell again and again, but I’m just linking to it. (So, yeah, I kind of cheated. This is actually Top Five after one other top viewing experience.)
The One Where My Film History Class Laughed at D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.
During the late 70s and early 80s, when I was a film major in college, watching silent film could be a bit of a trial, for a few reasons. Projectors didn’t show silent films at quite the correct speed, so there was a slight jittery look to the films. This was before the film preservation movement (I had a professor who periodically begged his students to consider it as a career) and prints were kind of crummy. Plus, we just weren’t used to watching films without sound (which is still true today).
My biggest gripe was how my film history professor would only show parts of films he felt were too long for our apparently short attention spans. He often would show the beginning and the end, and leave out most of the middle.
Very annoying. When it was a movie like Greed.
Not short enough, when it was a movie like Intolerance.
In this case, he showed mainly the Babylonian and modern sections. He seemed to think we were going to be super-impressed by the genius of D.W. Griffith, and it’s true we had watched attentively during screenings of some of his other films.
During Intolerance, we HOWLED through most of the movie.
At this time the modern blockbuster was still in its infancy and we were used to the hyper-realism of 70s movies. The Babylonian scenes made us giggle uncontrollably, because they seemed SO over-the-top.
But it was the contemporary scenes that sent us into hysterics. We couldn’t buy into the sentimental way the relationship between the two young lovers was portrayed.
I’ll never forget the professor yelling, “You’re all cynics!” while we laughed at those scenes. “You don’t know what’s good!”
Maybe, but I think we did detect something that was somewhat overrated.
The One Where I Finally Figured Out What the Fuss Over John Wayne Was All About.
When I was a kid, John Wayne was in the twilight of his career. He was still popular with my grandparents’ generation and still gaining awards and accolades, for movies such as True Grit and The Shootist.
To me he was the guy with the funny drawl and even funnier walk. Comedian John Byner practically made a career out of impersonating John Wayne, and it was hard for me to take him seriously, even though I was a big fan of Westerns from a tiny age.
It wasn’t until I was in another film class that I finally got it.
We were watching Stagecoach. Up to then, I had only seen it on TV. Projected on a screen, the scene where Wayne’s character is introduced, with the famous tracking shot to a close-up while he’s shooting a rifle to signal the stagecoach, literally knocked me back in my chair.
“Oh, wow,” I thought. “I get it now. He’s…SEXY!”
The difference might have also been that I was in my late teens as opposed to watching it on TV when I was ten years old.
It also helped me finally figure out why my grandmother liked him, even though she didn’t like Westerns.
The One Where I Unexpectedly Got the Opportunity to See the Restored Version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon.
During the same time period I was in college studying film, my mother worked for New Yorker Films, a company that owned theaters and distributed foreign and independent films. In 1981, Zoetrope Studios released a restored version of Abel Gance’s 1927. It was shown at Radio City Music Hall for only three days with a live orchestra, led by conductor Carmine Coppola.
You think Hamilton tickets are hard to get? It was practically impossible to get tickets to these showings. My mom got a call from one of her bosses on the day of the last screening telling her if she and a guest could get downtown (we lived in Queens) within an hour and a half we could have his tickets. He had a sudden family emergency and couldn’t use them.
I was still in my jammies and hadn’t showered yet. It was a freezing cold January day, so I jumped into an old bulky sweater and jeans. We were out the door within minutes. We just made it.
When we settled into our seats, I looked behind me for some reason and spotted Andy Warhol sitting by himself with a white shopping bag on his lap. Yes, I stole looks a couple of times during the movie. He held on to the shopping bag the entire time.
The movie was A-MA-ZING. It is truly a unique cinematic experience. (I’ve heard they are doing another restoration and release sometime this year. If you get the opportunity to see it, take it, it’s a must if you love film.)
We were so close to the orchestra pit it felt like I could reach out and touch Carmine Coppola as he took his bows (I didn’t). As we exited the theater, we walked right by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, looking incredibly chic as always, while I felt grungy and tacky in my old sweater.
I didn’t care. (O.K., I cared a little, but everyone looked tacky compared to Jackie O, so…) It was one of the most memorable movies I’ve ever seen. I have the poster from the event hanging in my bedroom to this day.
The One Where I Foolishly Thought I Was Going to Walk Out Early During Chaplin’s Modern Times.
On the last day of my first semester of Film History, the professor announced we were in for a treat, as he was going to show Modern Times.
I was not having any of it. I had handed in my final paper, it was a gorgeous May afternoon, and we’d already seen plenty of Chaplin during the semester. I sat in one of the last rows of the lecture hall, planning a quick escape.
Those who have seen and love the film probably know where this is going. As I plotted my exit, a scene caught my attention.
It was the scene where Chaplin’s character sees a flag fall off the back of a truck. He picks it up and begins running after the truck and waving it in an attempt to return it to them. Unbeknownst to him, a pro-union demonstration comes up behind him, making it look like he’s leading it.
For some reason, that hit me right in the funny bone—I couldn’t stop laughing. That was it. I was in, I wasn’t going anywhere after that.
The scene where I really lost it? When Chaplin is a singing waiter and writes the lyrics on the cuffs of his shirt so he won’t forget them. They go flying into space as he moves his arms to the music and has to make up nonsense words.
When it was over, I felt so silly for wanting to walk out on it. I made a note to myself that when this particular teacher said he had a treat for us, it would really be a treat.
The One Where Something Strange Happened While Waiting to Watch The Empire Strikes Back.
Back in the day, the movie-going experience was somewhat different. Big movies were usually “platformed”—i.e. they would play in one theater in town and then were slowly released to more towns and more theaters in each town. (This still happens with art house films.) In New York City, our routine was to arrive at a movie theater two hours ahead of time with coffee and a copy of the New York Times, sit on the sidewalk and wait to be let in.
The blockbusters of the mid-to-late 70s changed the routine. Of course, there were people who literally camped out to see the Star Wars movies’ very first showing. My friends and I were content to wait until Sunday of the first weekend it was released. For The Empire Strikes Back, we arrived just around 9:30 AM for a 12 PM showing and were surprised to see they had added a 10 AM show. (Now they do that all the time.) We were thrilled to not have to wait on line for two hours.
By total coincidence, we spotted someone else we knew walking into the theater. We waved to him to sit with us before seats next to us were taken. He and another young man sat on the other side of me.
One of my friends used to like to play movie games. While in a restaurant that had paper tablecloths and crayons for kids to draw on them he would say, “Here, everyone take a crayon and write on the tablecloth the ten greatest movies of all time. Don’t think about it! Just write them down as you think of them!”
There were a ton of kids pouring into the theater so it was taking a while for the ushers to get everyone seated and calmed down. This time he took out a pad of paper and a pen and said, “Let’s make up a schedule of films for a Robby Benson Film Festival.”
(To those too young to know who Robby Benson is, he was a popular teenage actor during the 70s. He is also a singer and songwriter. He’s probably best-known today for voicing The Beast in Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast.)
We all began naming Robby Benson films, including the young man sitting on the other side of our friend.
The lights finally went down. We watched the movie, of course totally loving it.
When the lights came up, we invited the friend we had unexpectedly met to come have lunch so we could all talk about the movie.
“Sorry, I’m going to play softball now.”
“How about your friend? Can he come with us?”
“I thought that guy was your friend.”
We laughed about it at lunch because it was a very New York thing to happen.
But kind of rare to find someone that knowledgeable about Robby Benson films.