Jim Holt on his Afternoon Pleasures in the Dark by Jim Holt

Jim Holt

Jim Holt on his Afternoon Pleasures in the Dark


I love the movies. I am never too busy to go. I usually attend twice a week or so. I especially like going in the early afternoon: it seems a guilty pleasure, with the rest of the world at work, and most of the audience consists of pensioners, who have excellent cinematic manners.

The earliest picture I have any recollection of is Around the World in Eighty Days. My parents took me to see it at a rural drive-in cinema when I was little more than three years old. It must have been a very vivid experience, as I can remember almost nothing else from back then. It was another seven years before I attended my first foreign movie, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, by Pasolini. I went with a group of Franciscan seminarians; we all thought the film rather peculiar in tone and maybe just a bit heterodox. The next day I went to the public library and found an article about it in a film magazine. ‘Ironically, the director is a Marxist,’ it said, which explained everything. This was my first act of film scholarship.

In high school I reverted to cruder cinematic fare. When my friends and I obtained our driver’s licences – the great liberating event for every American adolescent – we were empowered to attend drive-in cinemas without the irksome chaperonage of our parents. To defray the expense of admission, one of us would hide in the trunk of the car prior to entry, emerging only when we were safely parked inside. The pictures of choice for us were raunchy triple-X features like Deep Throat, Love-In ‘69, and Tobacco-roony (the last was much more lubricious than its title might suggest). This is how I got my sexual education. Drive-ins were also ideal for summer dates. Indeed, they were veritable passion pits, and rare was the car whose windows were not steamed up by the middle of the show. A girl could get a bad reputation if she parked with boys in the last row.

Drive-ins represent a synthesis of America’s infatuation with fantasy and mobility. In their postwar heyday there were more than four thousand of them, some furnished with swimming pools, laundry service, and Ferris wheels; there were even a few ‘fly-ins’ for small planes. Sadly, they are almost extinct today, and it is a melancholy experience to pass an abandoned member of the species on the highway, its screen eroded by the elements, its parking area choked with weeds. Today’s suburban teenagers must make do with mammoth ‘multiplexes’ in shopping malls, virtual vending machines for movies, which offer considerably less scope for coming-of-age activities.

During my university days I raised my cinematic sights, attending foreign-language films compulsively and acquainting myself with American auteur classics like Citizen Kane. I shall never forget the aesthetic frisson I experienced when the guy slits the woman’s eyeball with a straight razor at the beginning of Un Chien Andalou. I made it through the entire nouvelle vague canon and thirty-eight out of thirty-nine of Fassbinder’s pictures, not including the sixteen-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz. I dipped into film theory and semiotics. But the most useful thing I learned during this phase was that it is possible to stay awake during the most diffuse, pointlessly obscure, artsy-fartsy picture – even Last Year at Marienbad – by means of the simple expedient of chewing gum. I don’t know why this works, but it does.

Today’s American college students are shirking their cultural obligation to sit through foreign art films; they do not have the requisite attention span, and cannot be made to understand that boredom is an inevitable concomitant of certain worthwhile aesthetic experiences. As a result, the youngish, hip, educated market that in the past made pictures like La Dolce Vita commercial hits in the United States has pretty much dried up. These days, foreign-language cinema accounts for little more than one per cent of the total American box office of five billion dollars. The imports that have been successful here in the past few years are depressing to contemplate: notably, the laughably saccharine Cinema Paradiso, and La Femme Nikita – ‘the end of French cinema as we know it, according to the New Yorker’s apt one-line review. Rather than taking a risk distributing foreign pictures, Hollywood is happier remaking them: Renoir’s Boudu Sauvé des Eaux (which was not shown here until 1967), for instance, was miraculously transformed into Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It is, I think, an index of how far this trend has gone that a bright-seeming Ivy League graduate I chatted with at a cocktail party recently felt it necessary to explain to me what subtitles were, having just encountered this exotic device for the first time herself. Her generation will never know the pleasure of squinting to make out white titles against an equally white background, or of comparing the lines the actors are actually speaking to the subtitlist’s desperate renderings. I’ll never forget the scene in an American Western I chanced to see in Paris wherein a cowboy stomps up to a saloon bar and barks, ‘Gimme a shot o’ red-eye’ – which, Frenched, became ‘Dubonnet, s’il vous plait?

Paris, by the way, though vaunted as the world capital of cinema-going, could not equal the abundance or variety of films on offer in New York when I first came here in the late Seventies. Foreign and avant-garde pictures could be seen at the Regency, the Biograph, the Bleecker Street Cinema, and a host of other grungy, tumble-down, but lovable little houses. Today, alas, nearly all of these have vanished; they live on only in Woody Allen films, whose characters are always dropping into them for light entertainments like The Sorrow and the Pity. I especially regret the passing of the old Thalia, which used to be located in a seedy quarter of upper Broadway. It was the perfect place to watch Ingmar Bergman engage Death in a game of chess, with its floor sloping downward from the front so you couldn’t see half the picture over the hairdo in front of you, and the guy in the next seat (often a recently released mental patient installed in one of the neighbourhood fleabags) gibbering like a loony, and the jammed celluloid melting on the screen before your eyes … Ah, the Thalia!

Gone too are the sumptuous first-run cinemas of the past that rivalled La Scala for splendour – the Roxy, the Astor, the Rivoli, the Victoria. These ornate palaces, with their armies of liveried ushers, were built in the 1920s to lend bourgeois dignity to a form of entertainment hitherto thought suitable only for the working class and immigrants. Even the Broadway building, where the world’s first commercial exhibition of motion pictures took place in 1894 – featuring fifteen-second films pioneered by Thomas Edison showing cockfights and blacksmiths at work – is being pulled down. Still, today there are more screens than ever in New York, thanks to the proliferation of new cinemas; the most extraordinary of these is housed in a doomed Moorish wonder on the Lower East Side’s ‘Jewish Rialto’ that was formerly the world’s greatest Yiddish theatre.

With the new movie halls come new technical tricks. Back in the Fifties the big breakthrough was 3-D, which Hollywood saw as its best hope of stemming the emptying of theatres occasioned by the rise of television. Viewing a 3-D movie meant wearing a pair of disposable glasses, one lens of which was red, the other blue. No sooner did you put them on than large-calibre bullets, bloodthirsty bats, flaming arrows, and all manner of other scary things came flying out of the screen directly at you. Although 3-D movies were soon made obsolete by Cinemascope, which provided a greater illusion of depth, the technique is still nostalgically revived now and then; I recently saw the slasher film Freddy’s Dead in 3-D, and bravely managed not to flinch once.

Recently, the most talked-about innovation is the ‘interactive’ movie, which every few minutes allows the audience to decide which course the plot will take by pressing coloured buttons on pistol grips (modelled on those of the F-14 fighter plane) attached to their seats. In the currently playing thriller I’m Your Man, for instance, the hero, pursued by murderous thugs onto the roof of a skyscraper, turns to the audience for advice: Should I run or jump? A democratic vote fixes the outcome. ‘In another year, you’ll see the pistol grip plus a seat with gyroscope motion control,’ says the fellow who invented the interactive gimmick. ‘Two years after that, it will be virtual reality with goggles and gloves.’ Merchant and Ivory, take note.

Movies have always been a ‘cool’ medium – the term is Marshall McLuhan’s – in the sense that they are high in audience participation. In the past that participation was largely subvocal, with overt audience reaction confined to the occasional cheer or belly-laugh. Today’s moviegoers, however, have no qualms about declaiming their own ‘supplementary dialogue’ and entertaining fellow viewers with japes and witty glosses on the action; it has got to the point where every movie is like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This breakdown in etiquette has been accompanied by a relaxation of standards about what sort of food it is permissible to consume in the cinema. No longer are popcorn, milk duds, and jujyfruits deemed sufficient; now moviegoers must import entire Chinese take-out meals, and crudités in Tupperware containers – crunch, crunch. At a showing of Branagh’s Henry V, a little old lady in tennis shoes I sat near noisily wolfed down an entire pepperoni pizza, the pig.

I suppose, though, that this is better than bringing firearms to the movies, another disagreeable trend here. On the opening night of the film Boyz N the Hood a couple of years ago, shooting broke out in twenty cinemas across the country; thirty-three people were injured, one fatally. It has been conjectured that this has something to do with an inability on the part of younger inner-city audiences to distinguish between illusion and reality: where guns are drawn on the silver screen they bring out their own weapons, just as earlier audiences reacted to shots of rolling waves by ducking under their seats. It gives a new twist to the words Pauline Kael once saw on an Italian movie poster, words that for her summed up the basic appeal of movies: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

The surrealist André Breton once declared that ‘It is at the movies that the only absolutely modern mystery is celebrated’ – which is perhaps the most fatuous thing I have ever heard said on the topic. Much more is Quentin Crisp’s dictum: ‘If we go to the movies often enough and in a sufficiently reverent spirit, they will become more absorbing than the outer world, and the problems of reality will cease to burden us.’ As for the most disingenuous remark uttered about the cinema, that would have to be Gore Vidal’s opening sentence in Screening History: ‘As I now move, graciously I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.’

I leave you with a list of the top ten greatest films ever made, which I worked out one afternoon with Orson Welles and John Huston:

1.  Pather Panchali (Ray)
2. Zazie dans le Métro (Malle)
3. Brazil (Gilliam)
4. Billy Liar (Schlesinger)
5. And the Ship Sails On (Fellini)
6. Simon of the Desert (Buñuel)
7. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein)
8. Playtime (Tati)
9. O Lucky Man (Anderson)
10. The Dead (Huston)

By now you must have guessed it: Movies are my life!

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