Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Great Cinema: Lesson 3 - How I Got Hooked

Learning to watch art movies is important. As a very young man I first read about Bresson, Bergman, Hitchcock and Fellini films in columns written in the New York Times, New Yorker magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. The writers would gush about a particular movie and then tell you where you could go see such a film. Even in the 1960s and 70s it was not easy to find theaters playing these types of films. There would be a paid ad next to the column describing the movie.

For the first year or so I read about these movies and stared at the small still photos sometimes printed beside them. I saw some on television by staying up late at night. The local community college screened old classic movies sometimes but that was a long walk. Then in 1972, a local movie theater in my little small town was leased by Amos Farruggio, the retired owner of a Philadelphia trucking company. Amos started showing what where then called nostalgia movies along with “second-run” hit movies. My future as movie-buff was assured.

Oddly, I pretty much stopped reading about movies before going to see them. I knew there were articles that dissected the movie’s meaning, along with books about movies and directors. But I found that even the short description of the movie in the paper or on the VCR sleeve was a spoiler so I would try not read them in advance. I wanted my art neat, straight-up and there in my head fresh for me to decide.

Using an 50-year old RCA projector (actually a RCA/Breakert/Simplex) Amos projected films on the screen of a theater built in the 1930s in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Newtown is an old colonial American town. The combination of old town, old theater and old movies somehow became successful. I saw Fellini movies, Bella Lugosi acting, and so many different types of movies available in no other locations.

I was still a young boy and not really permitted to see these movies but after talking with Amos and his wife, when I was caught sneaking in, we agreed I could watch some of them, often from just outside the projection booth up in the balcony. There were times when the place was nearly empty, but I always showed up. On school nights I showed up. I showed up to watch the same movie two or three times. I scraped up coins to buy the ticket. They gave me free leftover popcorn. I was advised not to mingle with the crowds during Intermissions. Yes, Amos gave the viewers an Intermission so they could smoke a cigarette outside the old wooden theater.

Sometimes the movie broke and Amos has to rethread it through the projector. Once in a rare moment a reel got mixed up. Amos quickly fixed the situation but this meant I got to see a scene again. I also came back to watch great movies two or three times. The tickets were quite inexpensive and I was flush with paper route money. I occasionally took young friends but they were bored and the girls sometimes got embarrassed. Classic movies are often more sexy than modern movies.

In addition to being a trucking company owner, Amos was also a projectionist and clearly a cinephile. We talked about the movies before and after the show and during intermissions. I could see the giant projector running and watched him swap the reels, this being nearly as much fun as the movie itself. The movies were sometimes violent or sexy or had foul language but I learned very little new from those scenes alone. I was an avid reader of books and magazines and my family was hardly puritanical.

This was my initiation on watching old movies, reading the subtitles, and enjoying every minute of the show. My head was spinning like the reels themselves during the long walk home. I would pen essays about the ideas these movies generated in my head. I still do, obviously.

In the years ahead I also watched many more classic movies at the nearby community college, in art museums, and eventually on VCR tapes and DVDs. I learned to try to watch several movies by the same director in sequence. I still do this today, watching three or four by  Fellini, then 4 by Hitchcock, then Woody Allen, then Bergman. This is the way you gain a deeper understanding of a particular director’s style.

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