Early Sixties – height of movies as most universal art form

Perhaps an audience could be coaxed into looking at Franju, Papatakis, Shindo, Duras.

Le Petit Soldat — has anyone see this movie?
  • Le Petit Soldat — has anyone see this movie?

In the early Sixties, at the height of enthusiasm for movies as the most universal art form (probably the highest high of enthusiasm since before movies abandoned silence and split into separate tongues), there was a nation-wide area of importance in and about the theaters that were generously called "art houses." For practical purposes, or parochial purposes, these theaters were identified by American moviegoers as the as the ones that showed movies of the following descriptions: (a) any movie with subtitles, (b) a British move set in a social class whose dialect need subtitles but doesn't get them, (c) an American movie with a jazz musical score. The application of the term "art movie" was, in other words, exceedingly loose. (If it had any meaning, and were used with any discretion,. then you might allow that Bresson, for example, made art movies, but Truffaut, no; Chabrol, no: Bunuel no.) However they were classified, movies from abroad were travelling across America almost bumper-to-bumper, ten to fifteen years ago. Today, they are in scant supply. And the reasons for the choke-off can be traced as much to the distributors and to the public at to the theaters that used to host them.

The latest concept in art houses is the so-called repertory theater, exemplified locally by the Ken and the Fine Arts, and by a tentative newcomer to the field, the College. These places earn their credentials as art houses the same old way, by frequently screening movies with subtitles, though the bulk of their movies are still American-made, and they are able to meet the constant demands of the repertory concept (double-feature programs, changing two, three, four times a week) by feeding off the enormous backlog of proven products — classics, cult items, guaranteed money-earners. Every now and then they will slip in a first-run movie, but as showcases of new foreign films, the repertory houses are easily outstripped by such mainstream theaters as the Center 3 Cinemas and, before its sudden switchover, the College. The reason why foreign films are now acceptable in such mainstream places is that, of the select few imports to reach the American provinces these days, most bear names — Bergman, Wertmuller, Truffaut—that are nearly as trustworthy and marketable as any hometown boy — Altman, Coppola, Scorsese ("From the maker of Swept Away…” and so forth).

In any case, the re-emergence of art theaters, under the guise of repertory theaters, must be counted as one of the more gladdening developments on the San Diego movie scene. Not long ago, the number of art houses here had dwindled to exactly one, the lonely, valiant Unicorn. The Ken's conversion dates back just two years; the Fine Arts’ dates to the beginning of this year; and the College's dates only about two weeks. Looking ahead, the Strand, on the evidence of its just-out schedule, beginning December 22, looms as yet another convert to the class.) That said, it remains to estimate the extent of this gladness. And inasmuch at they are repertory theaters, the extent of gladness can fairly accurately be measured by the limits of the repertories.

For them, "limited" is the word. One sometimes has the impression that the movie titles on the repertory rosters of the Ken and Fine Arts would he no harder to memorize than the presidents of the United States. If you focus your attention on these theaters for any extended period of time, you get something like the over-and-over feeling of recognition that you get listening to an all-the-hits AM radio station. (The kingpin creator of the Ken-Fine Arts favorites is undoubtedly Ken Russell, whose almost inseparable works strike a happy medium between arty subject matter and vulgar treatment. Gaining fast on Russell — faster in vulgarity than in artiness — is the prodigious upstart. Lina Wertmuller.)

Each new Ken flier, covering two months and fifty-plus movies, contains, if we're lucky, three or four surprises. The nicest ones on the current schedule both come up this week: Chris Marker’s La Jeter (December 17 and 18) and Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert (December 21), neither of which has been seen in San Diego theaters throughout my lengthy term on that paper (I keep count of the days with old ticket stubs, while with soda straws and a medium-sized dixie cup I tunnel my way toward Los Angeles). In the weeks ahead at the Ken, there are a few others—Stanley Kramer's It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the Robert Wine-Jerome Robbins West Side Story, and Paul Morrissey's Andy Warhol's Dracula — that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, rarities, but have not been seen here in many moons. The high points of the current Fine Arts schedule: a match-up of the two most interesting entries in the Unicorn's recent French series, Chabrol's A Piece of Pleasure and Tavernier's The Clockmaker (December 17, 18, 19); a revival of a seldom-seen and second-rate Truffaut potboiler, Mississippi Mermaid (January 1, 2, 3); and a return engagement of Lina Wertmuller's All Screwed Up (January 7, 8, 9), which attracted no notice when a played at this theater a year ago. The Saturday midnight movies, shifted recently from the Academy to the Fine Arts, sometimes offer more esoteric attractions, like Otto Preminger's appalling Skidoo (December 18) and Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (January 1). The College has thus far been even less imaginative in its programming, but impeccable, confining itself to movies that should unquestionably be seen, and frequently are.

One wonders whether more innovation isn't possible within the repertory format. Never mind the hundreds of new movies eluding San Diego; think just of the hundreds slipping into the oblivion of unremembered history. As a starting point, take Truffaut's Jules and Jim, a cornerstone of all repertory theaters everywhere. Personally, I like Jules and Jim, and I don't grumble about how often it is shown. But must it invariably be shown in tandem with Black Orpheus? What do these two movies have in common? Why are they, in the idiom of Variety, a boffo combo? Would the box-office receipts really do a swan dive if Black Orpheus were supplanted by, say, a never-anymore-shown Truffaut named Soft Skin? It seems to me that if Visconti's Death in Venice and The Damned, if De Broca's King of Hearts and That Man from Rio, and if Bunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Phantom of Liberty are proven winners, it might then be possible to induce the same audiences to sample Visconti's The Stranger, De Broca's Cartouche, and Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid. And there seems to me no safer testing ground for little-known and little-tried movies than the double-feature format of repertory theaters. Draw in the crowds with one hand, and slip them something unexpected with the other. And perhaps, in time, an audience could be coaxed into looking at Franju, Papatakis, Shindo, and Duras. But I shouldn't let myself be carried away on a wave of wishfulness. The principle I am suggesting, in the interest of movies, is forever expanding the known boundaries; the principle these theaters seem to hold to, in the interest of money, is fortifying their established territory. They would evidently like to get their roster of movies to where there is not a weak link.

Other potential outlets for movies in San Diego — the colleges and museums, whose commitment to art and education are presumed to supersede their commitment to wampum — have been notably remiss in this field. San Diego State doesn't admit the outside world to its on-campus movies, and if it did, you could see almost nothing more exotic than Elvira Madigan and Hour of the Wolf. (The series of Kurosawa films this fall, open to the public, free of charge, was rare and worthwhile In other cities, such institutions can be looked to, to fill up the gaps where the commercial- minded theaters cannot be expected to go. I am thinking, in particularly, of my own hometown, Minneapolis. I don’t draw attention to it with any kind of civic pride (in truth, I am attached to very little there, outside of the pro football team), but with simple factualness. During my one-­week visit there last Spring, the museums and colleges around town were offering the following: Rolf Lysse’s The Confrontation, Yvonne Rainer’s Film about a Woman Who..., Werner Herog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and an ongoing program, for purposes of comparison, of films by R.W. Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk (the week I spent there, the Fassbinder selection was Gods of the Plague, a companion piece to his other gangster take­off, American Soldier, and a movie I have not noticed on exhibit anywhere else). By one week, I missed Syberberg’s Karl May and a Bruce Baillie retrospective. I obviously can’t, on the experience of one quick trip through town, hold up this evidence as typical in Minneapolis. Rather, I hold it up as possible in any place.

It would be entirely too simple to fault only the exhibitors and the should­-be exhibitors in the decline of imported movies. If there is a lack of adventurousness in programming movies, there is the same lack in attending movies. From firsthand, off­hand observation, I would guess, for instance, that possibly one-­third of the audience for Kurosawa’s ever- popular Seven Samurai would disappear if the same director’s Dodes-ka-den were to replace it on the bill. Still more, any first­-run foreign film, one without a time-­tested reputation (e.g., Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends or Ripstein’s Castle of Purity at the Unicorn, lately), will predictably starve for customers. There is as much conservativism and safe­playing among the buyers in the movie marketplace as among the distributors and exhibitors. Even viewers who profess a studious interest in movie history will maintain a taste for little but certified classics; they will go only to the movies they already know about or, the second time around, already know they like. To take a further step—to deduce that if one likes Blow Up, one might also find Eclipse interesting — demands a moderately advanced mental process, at least as advanced as Pavlov’s dogs. Theaters cannot be expected to play movies for empty auditoriums, and they cannot be held to blame for the imbecilities of their audiences.

During the foreign film boom of the Sixties, exhibitors were willing to try out almost any new name from A to Z (Antonioni to Zurlini), and the true beneficiaries were the rapacious moviegoers. But those who missed such offerings the first go­round — the too young and the too slow — are not likely to receive another opportunity in this town, even though two, three, or four local theaters may be dedicated to revivalism. The profusion of foreign films in the last decade has by now been thinned out, leaving a “representative” selection — an easy­ to­ swallow capsule summary. For instance, the concept of of the French New Wave fostered in the repertory theaters consists of Breathless, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and hardly more. There you have it — the New Wave in a nutshell, or in a pig’s eye. And most moviegoers, for convention’s sake, are probably content to think so, and to hell and oblivion with The Lovers, Le Beau Serge, Paris Nous Appartient, The End of Desire, Lola, Cleo from 5 to 7, Life Upside Down, Adieu Philippine, etc., etc. As Day for Night, Romeo and Juliet, and The Seduction of Mimi roll into town for their monthly visits, it is the disappearances without trace that nag at me. Really, I wouldn’t care so much whether the theaters made marvelous profits by showing some of these ignored movies, and I wouldn’t even care whether moviegoers went ga­ga over them. It would be nice, I suppose, but it would be nicer yet, I think, if the people who longingly wished to see these movies occasionally got the chance. They, after myself, are the ones whose interests I care for most, no matter whether their numbers be five, four, three, two. exception — worthwhile not for the usual Seven Samurai, Rashomom, and Ikiru, but for the unusual Stray Dog, Drunken Angel, and The Bad Sleep Well.) UCSD's movies are open to the public, but the film selection is geared to students who have presumably been chained to their desks for four years and have theretofore had no access to the outside world (hence, Hearts of the West and American Graffiti and the like). The erratic Saturday night film series is always somewhat better than the Friday series, but it does not approach the ingenuity of a Visual Arts Department film class. Local museums, despite sporadic attempts over the last several years by the La Jolla Contemporary, are mostly mute on the subject.

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