Muzzle Blasts, Cleavage, and Paddle Balls on the Repertory Circuit
William Lustig Presents
The hardest thing to bear about the old movie-going truism “they don’t make them like they used to” is the constant reminder that it’s all too true. Contemporary Hollywood big-screen audience bludgeoning, Sundance sanctimoniousness at the expense of credible, coherent storytelling, and the scattershot bubble-up of pretentious home-grown misfires and carbon copies of bad films arriving from abroad all support the idea that we live in the dubious era of the Cinema of Diminishing Returns.
Major film studios and international film archives meanwhile mock the latest multiplex fodder as they devote increasing resources to keeping cinema’s past available for theatrical exhibition in the present. The unending bonanza of theatrically-screened old movies offered to New Yorkers on a half dozen repertory screens remains one of the great affordable pleasures left in a city that has increasingly compromised, co-opted or withdrawn the opportunity to gorge on its cultural riches. Film Forum 2’s Classic 3-D and Anthology Film Archives’s William Lustig Presents, two of New York’s recent reparatory film seasons bear witness that old movies are better than ever.
While Step Up 3-D, Piranha 3-D, and a gaggle of children’s movies in digital 3-D duked it out for first run box office supremacy, Film Forum presented a two week slate of new and archival prints expertly presented in the monumentally unwieldy “double system” analog 3-D process—a perception parlor trick calling for two 35mm prints shot eye width apart simultaneously projected from synchronized projectors outfitted with polarizing lenses to an audience also outfitted with corresponding lenses on plastic frame glasses.
The 15 films in Film Forum’s survey all date from 1950s Hollywood, but 3-D has been part of motion picture making since its invention. UK film pioneer William Freise-Greene, the Lumiére brothers, and D.W. Griffith’s cameraman Billy Bitzer all made 3-D films years before the advent of sound or Technicolor. “It was obvious at the beginning that if the exhibitors were to accept this kind of picture,” wrote Bitzer’s 3-D collaborator Jacob Leventhal, “it would be necessary to emphasize the spectacular side and make scenes that would startle the audience.” What was true in 1918 remained true in 1953 and 2010. The current multiplex stereo film detour (realized via two images combined, polarized, and projected digitally but still decoded by lenses worn by the audience) was kick-started by studio anxiety about filling seats vacated by fickle audiences lured to home video and the internet and has stuck to the eye-popping “comin’ at ya” middle of the road.
“Classic 3-D” recalls a time when television threatened fatal inroads into an industry already reeling from the Supreme Court ordered dismantling of the traditional studio system business model. A desperate need to “wow” and to dazzle permeates nearly every film. The Film Forum program represents an unapologetic frontal assault on audiences from muzzle blasts, arrows, water pitchers, fists, furniture, cleavage, and paddle-balls. It also prompts the less-acknowledged observation that for the scenarists and directors of early 50s stereo films there was apparently something irresistible about the bodily threat of burning timbers and other flaming debris.
By the penciled-in rules of classical film grammar circa 1952, a character looking directly into the camera violated an audience’s dramatic reality and the safety of dramatic remove. But shooting, punching, spitting, eye-gouging, chest-thrusting, and other standard tropes of 3-D showmanship gleefully made mincemeat of the Fourth Wall. At the same time, filmmakers working in the post-war 3-D boom revived an old constraint from the big screen style sheet by choosing to show characters in full figure static compositions. Medium shots and close-ups risked making the people on screen appear disembodied in 3-D and elaborate camera moves called for endless in-depth calibration and organization of lenses, lights, cast, and props and were easier to omit than execute.
1950s 3-D’s enduring appeal seems bound up in a modern bending of old cinematic rules coupled with the aesthetic compromises demanded by the then “new” photographic technology. Actors stride around sets with the same pre-determined sense of proscenium of a vintage 2-D Griffith Biograph. That staid Victorian theatricality is regularly punctured with sudden close-ups of objects pointed and hurled at the camera. Two of the Columbia westerns in Film Forum’s program, The Nebraskan and The Stranger Wore a Gun, combine projected stock footage with foreground prop rocks that move in tandem with the panning 3-D cameras. Buying additional depth and motion as cheaply as possible, the effect evokes Betty Boop creators Max and Dave Fleischer’s 30s experiments combining cartoon animation with miniatures—a technique as modern as an ice-wagon and as analog as an Edison wax cylinder.
Among vintage 3-D enthusiasts, the medium’s abrupt disappearing act in 1954 is usually blamed on a combination of poor scripts, audience frustration with wearing glasses, and the advent of widescreen processes like Cinemascope. Bruce Goldstein additionally argues (from his well informed vantage point of having revisited classic 3-D exhibition from the projection booth and box office) that the incredible pain in the ass factor of 3-D encouraged theater owners to consign old school 3-D to films history’s margins barely 3 years after its sudden popularity. To present the films, theaters needed to handle enormous reels of film, match frame damage on dual prints through laborious inspections to preserve perfect synch, not to mention get the damned glasses back undamaged from patrons after each show. Who or what to blame for the current wave of 3-D filmmaking is up to the bloggers. No matter how dazzling you may have found Avatar, if you’re like me, once you experience the murk of a film like The Last Airbender that has been hastily repurposed into digital 3-D, you’ll never go back.
Across town, Anthology Film Archives’s William Lustig Presents offered depth and ingenuity of a different sort. For the second summer in a row, Lustig, a veteran grindhouse director (Vigilante) and operator of the essential Blue Underground DVD label, assembled a program of late ‘60s and early ‘70s exploitation cinema of pigeonhole-violating breadth.
None of the titles in either Lustig retrospective are available on DVD (though Giuliano Montaldano’s excellent 1969 Machine Gun McCain starring John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands is due out on Blue Underground). Gems like Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 White Line Fever and Larry Cohen’s suffocating, tabloid pitched, 1977 biopic The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover have been unspooled in immaculate prints via the good offices of the film’s copyright holders. These renditions of movies that have otherwise fallen through the cracks prove that the conglomerates owning many of the various titles in the Lustig calendar don’t cultivate communication between their DVD and reparatory divisions. The irony of current reparatory movie-going is that it’s increasingly possible to see old films projected in like-new condition that have never been available on DVD, and which, due to marketplace timidity and anxieties about new distribution platforms like download, are not likely to get home video release any time soon.
Among the sheer delights of the Lustig retrospective were two marvelous slices of European genre anarchy: 1975’s policier/Italian Giallo mash-up Fear over the City and the 1971 Athens-set heist picture The Burglars. Both films feature Jean-Paul Belmondo executing breathtaking stunts that offer revelation to American cineastes more familiar with Breathless than That Man From Rio. The Belmondo films are also blessed with characteristically engaging scores from Ennio Morricone and nervy, energetic direction from Turkish-born Armenian Achod Malakian doing business in France as Henri Verneuil.
One of the rare essences that Verneuil, Kaplan, Jack Cardiff (Dark of the Sun), and most of the other filmmakers Lustig celebrated share is an unerring sense of escalation. No matter how high the stakes or absurd the circumstances, the best of these films all reach for some stunt, gag, chase, or other show-stopping foothold above what’s come before. The inclusion of 1980’s Defiance—one of the few outright duds in the program (from director John Flynn, whose Rolling Thunder and The Outfit were among the best of last year’s Lustig survey)—was in itself an object lesson.
Clichéd, loosely tethered to the reality of its Lower East Side location, grotesquely sentimental yet creepily prurient, and, most damningly, endlessly repetitive, Defiance serves as a harbinger of the muddle-headed, dulling action blockbusters of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The film was an early outing for Jerry Bruckheimer, then at the start of a career making elephantine, overloud, barely coherent, short attention span, patchwork films that offer little in the way of the craft, intelligence, passion, and shoe string budget ingenuity of the bone fide audience rousers and curious in the rest of the Lustig series.