Martin Scorsese claims to have stopped watching most contemporary films. “Cinema is gone,” he told the Associated Press. At a New York press conference Scorsese admitted, “I don’t see that many new ones over the past two or three years. I stopped because the images don’t mean anything.”
Admittedly, a good 85% of current releases have nothing to do with the kind of cinema I first fell in love with. But the 15% that pass inspection are enough to justify the trek through the sludge. What you’re saying is wrong, Marty.
Flash back to 1973, my freshman year at Chicago’s Columbia College. Film Tech 101 and Lighting 1 were always the first classes to fill. Never one with much of a desire to touch a camera, I was in it for the history and aesthetics electives.
Robert Edmonds looked the part of a college film professor: medium height, a bit of a paunch, and his hair sprinkled with just the right amount of dandruff to pull off a commanding salt-and-pepper look. A patch over the 70-something prof’s right eye never failed to bring a snicker from many a first-day student enrolled in Edmond’s Lighting 1 class.
Twenty-three years later found me assuming Edmond’s position behind the lectern, where I spent over a decade teaching history and aesthetic electives, hopefully with a bit more fire in my paunch.
Before detailing a few of Mr. Edmond’s crimes against cinematic enlightenment, it must be said that the guy opened the floodgates to a world of cinema that had previously existed only as footnotes in history books.
Back then one had to work for their art. That meant actually leaving the house to watch a movie. College film societies were running full steam, but more and more aficionados would find revival films popping up on neighborhood screens.
Television viewings were hit and miss. It would be ten years before home video would fully colonize our living rooms. Add to that another two decades before letterboxing became the norm. There came a point in my early twenties where condensed versions of "rence of Arab" or "vasion of the Body Snatch" caused me to swear off pan-and-scan presentations of anamorphic movies entirely.
Howard Hawks’s Scarface was next to impossible to see on any screen in 1973. Even then it was considered too violent for television, and it would be another six years before a spruced up 35mm print began making the rounds on the museum/revival circuit.
Edmonds was able to track down a muddy 16mm dupe. Hours separated my daily class schedule, so instead of wasting time in the library I’d find an empty classroom in which to screen the film. It’s safe to say the eight viewings spread across five days forever changed my life.
He had many a friend in the film industry, some of whom were kind enough to put in personal appearances to speak before Edmonds’ students. Pioneering avant garde filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti (Coal Face, Dead of Night, Went the Day Well), cinematographer Boris Kaufman (L’Atalante, On the Waterfront, Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon), and American legends Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life) and King Vidor (Street Scene, Duel in the Sun, Man Without a Star) were all gracious enough to brave Chicago winters to help inspire a future generation.
To borrow a phrase from Mel Tormé, it wasn’t all velvet. Edmonds actually had the temerity to instruct students who dreamed of shooting in Panavision to position all of the essential information center-frame so the film would play better when compressed to fit a 4x3 television screen.
“Excuse me,” came a voice from the fourth row. “I think you have it reversed. A filmmaker should use every inch of the anamorphic frame to relate a story, television be damned!” It was one of many “agree to disagree” moments.
According to Edmonds, Hitchcock as an artist ceased to exist the day he signed with an American studio. The sociological importance of The Grapes of Wrath far outweighed the visual poetry of The Searchers. Last Tango in Paris was “pornographic filth” and part of the reason he turned his back on commercial cinema. He even refused to sit through The Long Goodbye. Guilty as charged!
About a month into the class, the Chicago International Film Festival screened a picture that, like Scarface, could forever change a person’s approach to cinema. After pitching the film to Edmonds, he shook his head and with a laugh confided, “With rare exception, I stopped watching films made after 1970.”
What was the film that left me hotter than the lid of a pot-bellied stove? Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.