Cinephilia and the Theaters of Los Angeles, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Movies




Cinephilia and the Theaters of Los Angeles, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Movies by Nafis Shafizadeh

The art house theaters of Los Angeles

July 29th, 2013 reset - +

THERE IS A DAY ZERO, writes film critic Serge Daney — the author of The Tracking Shot in Kapo, one of the best pieces of cinema writing you will ever find, right up there with André Bazin’s The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux and James Agee’s Comedy’s Greatest Era (no more name dropping, I promise) — when one becomes a cinephile. My experience was certainly not as sexy as Daney’s, coming out of Hiroshima mon amour and standing on the platform of a Parisian metro station in 1959 — I was merely coming out of a suburban shopping mall theater in Costa Mesa after seeing Taste of Cherry. Nevertheless, as Daney writes, “[I] never thought that cinema was capable of such a ‘thing.’” The memory is forever with me — the lights turning on, the projector stopping, the curtains coming together in front of the screen, and then unable to suppress my urge, standing and clapping at the now-covered screen, looking around to see the handful of people in the theater already walking down the aisles. That moment was my Daney day zero. I was now not just a cinephile: I was about to enter a very complex cinephilia culture, with its various layers, tribes, and factions.

I have since lived in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and have sat in a multitude of art house and revival movie theaters. They vary tremendously in size, cleanliness, structural integrity, neighborhood location, programming, quality of prints shown, ticket cost, and clientele. This diversity, well exemplified in Los Angeles, mirrors our complex culture: our sense of cultural exclusion; pride in our artistic arcana; our youthfulness compared to lovers of the other high arts; our scholarliness and anti-academicism; and, of course, our troubled, intense association with commerce and industry. Each theater has its own particular appeal and attraction — each a reflection of us, or at least a part of us, the cinephiles.

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In 2010, with its future in question, Quentin Tarantino purchased the New Beverly Cinema, leaving much of the control and programming to the family who had owned it. When asked why, he responded, “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35 mm.” The New Beverly, first a vaudeville theater, has existed in various forms, including as a nightclub and an adult movie theater, since the 1920s. It has been a revival art house theater showing double features in 35 mm since 1978. On Beverly Drive just west of Fairfax, everything about the theater is marginalized: a former adult movie theater (the marginalized of the cinema), its Jewish neighbors (Europe’s original marginalized people), its Hasidic Jewish neighbors (marginalized by many of their modern reformist co-believers), and, in its rundown state, the marginalization of poverty. Until recently, its marquee was in desperate need of renovation. The cracks in the ceiling and floors, the drab and worn fabric on the chairs, the small screen are all in stark financial contrast to the megaplex only blocks away. I have stood in line at the New Beverly with the homeless, or at least people whose attire and belongings suggested they were homeless. One such, an old white gentleman, once sat a few rows in front of me, just in front of the screen, during a showing of Dr. Strangelove. As Vera Lynn started with "We’ll Meet Again," he sang along with the first few lines, rose from his chair and walked by me and out of the theater softly singing along with Vera. He reminded me that the capacity to be overwhelmed by the beautiful has nothing to do with social hierarchy and made those last few hundred feet of film all the more moving. At the New Beverly, the young and the old and the handicapped hold their place in line, and sometimes they converse with those around them, but most of the time they stand in silence, in solitude and loneliness.

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Recently the Cinefamily, also in the Fairfax district, had a one-time screening of Jean Eustache’s 1973 film The Mother and the Whore. Celebrated and canonized, with a running time of nearly four hours, it is best described as the nail in the coffin of the French New Wave. It is one of those films, not uncommon, that the cinephile has read numerous pieces about long before seeing a single frame of film. The critics have given it an almost mystical quality, some viewers so devastated, it is said, they remain paralyzed outside of the theater for hours. A long list of films, of which The Mother and the Whore is one, causes me and other cinephiles to grieve. I can imagine how bibliophiles would feel if Gravity’s Rainbow had gone out of print and was unavailable, with only the teasing descriptions of the great novel remaining, the frustration and yearning that would engender. Finding out that The Mother and the Whore was showing was like hearing the court decision in United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” — the banned novel was finally back in print.

The Cinefamily is housed in an old silent movie theater with a long and somewhat sordid history. The theater is approximately the size of a modern art gallery space. Lining the walls on either side are the framed photographs of our early Keystone deities: Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. The first several rows consist of, a little strangely, couches and sofas — no different than would be found in a living room. The remainder of the theater, which is not on an incline, boasts the normal, small, uncomfortable, foldable chairs of a high school assembly. There was a line that night, unusual for the Cinefamily, and we sat in the two closest seats we could find. It became quickly apparent that they had oversold tickets, as the carpeted walkways against both walls started to fill with viewers. Chaplin and Keaton stoically looked on. Ten minutes after the stated start time — on a weekday night, before a four hour film — a young man at the front of the theater announced they were bringing in more chairs to fill the walkways; the print had been flown in from the French cultural ministry and they had promised to ship it back the following morning, and so it was impossible to have any additional showings. The extra chairs were set up at fire hazard density, people had already begun to be turned away at the door, and nearly 30 minutes later, the film started to roll. United in our cinephilia, we were the select few who had arrived early enough to be admitted, who were aware of the cultural rarity being projected in the theater that evening — as the rest of the world went about its business, uninterested, except for the unlucky latecomers stranded on the sidewalk.

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The American Cinematheque operates two theaters in the city, the historic Egyptian in Hollywood and the Aero in the upscale Montana Avenue section of Santa Monica. Nothing brings out the hipsters like a revival showing at the Aero on a Friday night — the sidewalk a cornucopia of tweed flat caps, fedoras, Gatsby caps, trilby hats, beanies, Converse All-Stars, plaid scarves, and T-shirts emblazoned with either Che Guevara staring out into the ether, unknown musicians, or cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. How choreographed and predictable this display of coolness may be, when it congregates in front of an art house or revival movie theater, it is a reminder of the inherently youthful nature of cinephilia. Though the cinema has all the earmarks of a serious art form — codified aesthetics, canonized and glorified artists, academic jargon, textbooks, theorists — the cinephiles retain a countercultural unruliness. Compare the audience politely and dutifully standing in front of the LA Opera on any given night to this one loitering in front of the Aero for a showing of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.

The inside of the Aero is similar to the theaters in commercial megaplexes. The screen may be a bit smaller, the seats not as plush or comfortable, but the general size of the room, the seating capacity, the theater’s angle of declivity are all what a general moviegoer is accustomed to.  There is a concession stand selling the usual popcorn and boxed sweets, the bathrooms are of an appropriate size and well maintained, and its overall simplicity is in contrast to its hipster patrons. The print was of especially good quality that evening, and the sound was excellent, which is why, I think, Walter Thatcher’s “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper” line elicited a particularly robust response of laughter, especially during the film’s joyful closing credits. As the projector stopped and the lights turned on, a young, somewhat awkward and shy theater representative announced that in the audience was a filmmaker, and close confidant and friend of Welles, who had agreed to have a short Q&A session. The litany of questions and responses were, and are, inconsequential, save for the first one. The first question, more of a plea, felt like a collective exasperated inquiry from the audience, from all of us, as to the status of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’s grand six-year project comprising 10 hours of raw footage, unreleased due to sordid litigation related to ownership and financing, involving legal battles beginning even before Welles’s death in 1985 — a story which contains mysterious and almost film noir elements right out of a Welles film, elements including complex family relationships, Parisian vaults, and the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran (a financier of the film). There have been ongoing efforts over the last several decades to finish editing the film, a film that the few who have been granted privilege to view have described as extraordinary. But nearly 30 years later nothing has come to fruition. Welles's friend grimly predicted the film would never be finished or released, forever mired in legal and financial issues. Despite his pessimism, the question itself elicited hope and cinephilic rejuvenation, that after so many failed attempts, young cinephiles — cinephiles that have been at times accused by their older counterparts as being more interested in fashion than art — were still concerned and waiting for a lost part of our culture, and collectively mourned the film's continued absence.

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), located along Museum Row in the Miracle Mile district of Mid-Wilshire, houses a vast collection of art from antiquity to modern times, and is considered the cultural center of the city by many of its citizens. Museums such as these seem to legitimize any object displayed in them as “artistic” — serious works that deserve careful attention from an interested public, a status not granted to even the most informed and thoughtfully programmed revival film theaters. It is at the theater in the LACMA that the cinema is given the acceptance and approval that some of us willfully reject — afraid of the possibly corrosive influence annexation into the establishment may have on our identity — and that some of us find a final, almost maternal comfort in. There is an undeniable difference in seeing The Rules of the Game in a small, impoverished, worn-out theater in a seedy part of town, compared to a venue where both Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir’s works seem to be equally cherished, equally venerated, displayed in adjacent buildings with only a few meaningless yards separating them. That is why, in August of 2009, when LACMA announced it would be discontinuing its film program, the cinephiles’ objections were laced with overtones of rejection and abandonment. A group calling themselves Save Film at LACMA formed in protest and the list of objectors quickly grew in prominence, including luminaries like Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote to Save Film at LACMA, “Now is the time for cultural institutions to step up and be counted, not run away. I vehemently protest." Film preservationist K.A. Westphal wrote, “The dismantling of the film program, which requires a truly miniscule portion of the Museum’s operating budget, is not an unfortunate accident but instead an ideological prerogative." Martin Scorsese wrote an open letter in the Los Angeles Times:

People [. . .] see this action — correctly, I think — as a serious rebuke to film within the context of the art world. The film department is often held at arms’ length at LACMA and other institutions, separate from the fine arts, and this simply should not be. Film departments should be accorded the same respect, and the same amount of financial leeway, as any other department of fine arts. To do otherwise is a disservice to cinema.

The film program director at the LACMA, Ian Birnie, attained almost Henri Langlois-like status; Scorsese calling him “a programmer of immaculate taste and knowledge,” and Save Film at LACMA warned of “a perfect storm of Paris 1968 . . . [rolling] across Wilshire Boulevard!” Within a month LACMA reversed its decision and announced it would continue the film programming — a victory for the begging orphans. A few months later the museum had a tandem exhibition of father Renoir paintings and a 19-film retrospective on son Renoir — an olive branch of conciliation that some of us accepted, while the more militant of us turned a scornful shoulder, warning their more pacifist brethren of the platitude regarding the leopard and its spots.

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Some time ago, waiting with a friend in front of the UCLA Film and Television Archive James Bridges Theater for a showing of Zabriskie Point, with the customary pre-movie coffee and cigarette — at least at that point in my life they were customary — a middle-aged, balding, somewhat short cinephile played with his glasses while loudly instructing his friend on the inadequacies and shortcomings of Antonioni’s work. No Antonioni film was spared his pontification, nor were any of the patient moviegoers spared the torment of listening to him. I imagined him listing his credentials, including his associate professor status and the Italian film class he taught on this very campus, and Woody Allen appearing and initiating an Annie Hall-like confrontation, pulling Antonioni onto the scene —  “You know nothing of my work!" Seeing a film at a university screening often brings the cinephile in close contact with his university counterpart — the film academic. There is an uncomfortable, détente-like, mutually beneficial, but at times antagonistic relationship between the two. There are several reasons for this complex and nuanced relationship, including the academic’s extensive use of specialized jargon, which is perceived by the cinephile to be willfully opaque; the validation the cinephile feels when cinema receives scholarly attention; the academic’s dismissal of what Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests is seen as “maniacal, unreasoning cinephilia” (that is, adolescent and naïve fandom); the shared interest in early critics and cinema writers like André Bazin; the cinephile’s belief in a canon the academic dismisses as provincial and antiquated; and the academic's devotion to critical theory. Although the commonalities likely outweigh the differences, it is these last two issues — the belief in a canon and the position of critical theory — which can be particularly divisive. My wife, a one-time film academic herself as a graduate student in film studies, can attest to its divisive nature — our first date, I’m loathe to admit, slowly deteriorated into an argument on reader-response theory and ended with her pejoratively accusing me of being a formalist, a term I happily, although perhaps peevishly accepted. At the heart of the matter is the cinephile’s perception that academic film studies places theory before the cinema; if film theory is defined as the study of the nature of the relationship between the screen and spectator, cinephiles are all for it. It is an issue of priority. As a graduate student, my wife joined the undergraduate film society — it is, of course, how we met — because she found it to be a refuge for a more pure, unedited experience than her more sterile seminars. Our film society, which we meticulously programmed, often after many heated discussions, showed 16 mm films every Friday evening during the academic year. The visual studies department at the university — visual studies being another loaded term reflecting this dichotomy, suggesting the more erudite way to approach the cinema is a study of the visual in all its forms rather than separating film as a medium worthy of study by itself — showed movies on a much more capable 35 mm projector sporadically throughout the year, also on Friday evenings. Their movies were selected by a single faculty member and shown at the university film and video center — another term we objected to then, not wanting to sully film with video — with, at times, post-movie discussions led by one of UC Irvine’s notable theorists. Although at the time we resented the film and video center’s paternalistic approach to the film society, they clearly served necessary but separate cultural needs. Neither organization currently exists, ostensibly due to funding.

The Antonioni expert at UCLA continued his lecture as we filed into the theater and took our seats. He chose a place in the first row, sat on the top of the seatback, and turned around to face his friend in the second row who had yet to interrupt him. His monologue continued and due to the amplitude of his voice, the echo in the theater, and his position in the middle of the first row, it was as if he was addressing all of us in the theater in front of him. As embarrassed as I was for him, and partly for all of us, who were slightly ashamed that this too was part of our culture, it did nothing to change the experience, once the lights were turned off and he was forced to shut up, as we all were, and watch the film.

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The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood was built by Sid Grauman in 1922 to be a cinema palace and has never been anything else. A temple to cinema in all its forms — commercial and artistic — it is our personal temple and a reminder that the cinema at its inception had an unequivocal bond with commerce and industry, even while being an exalted amalgam of literature, theater, and photography. Standing in front of the Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard we are forced to confront commercialism and admit to ourselves that part of our culture is just one big advertisement, that the distinction between commerce and art which is rather clear in many other art forms is blurred in ours, that Sid Grauman was a showman and an entrepreneur, building the Egyptian for a staggering $800,000, hosting the first ever Hollywood premiere for the movie Robin Hood, which had a budget of a million dollars, charging a hard-to-believe $5 for admission to opening night. The theater is now operated by the American Cinematheque, an organization devoted to art rather than commerce, and we try to resolve this contradiction, or at least wonder if a resolution is possible, necessary, or fruitful. 

We enter our temple through the same large open-air courtyard, complete with palm trees and lined by walls with faux ancient Egyptian paintings, as they did that opening night in 1922, filling the courtyard with excitement in anticipation of Douglas Fairbanks’s adventures in defending the oppressed against the avarice and rapaciousness of the wicked. We sit in the same ornate theater, surrounded by the same baroque ceiling and painted pharaohs. The cinema is not just an amalgam of literature, theater, and photography — that’s just a convenient description — it is indescribable and entirely unique, requiring temples all its own.

I recently saw Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights at the Egyptian — one of our sacred texts, it is the emblematic Tramp film. Following the comedic and ill-fortuned adventures of the Tramp through an uncaring city as he attempts to raise the necessary funds to prevent the homelessness of a blind flower girl and her grandmother, it ends with one of the most exalted and discussed moments in film. In City Lights, the essence of the Tramp is most perfectly shown: kindness, tenderness, generosity, humanity, an indestructible optimism, and an undying belief in living with dignity, all in the face of an indifferent world, a world that is not only aloof to his continuing abasement, but at times even relishes in it. We, the audience, tolerate the indifference and coldness — find great humor in the Tramp’s clever and comedic ways as he navigates the world. He must manage a drunken millionaire, a man who sees the Tramp as his closest friend when intoxicated, but fails even to acknowledge him in sobriety. He finds work as a street-sweeper, shoveling trash and excrement of all sorts off the streets, when suddenly the streets are comically filled with horses and elephants, presumably with well functioning bowels — the world’s ludicrous cruelties know no bounds. He must box an opponent twice his size, who refuses to “take it easy” and split the prize money, instead pummeling him unconscious, but not before a valiant effort from the Tramp — dancing around the ring and confusing the brutish giant, filling the theater with mirthful laughter. We tolerate these injustices, this indifferent world, because of the Tramp’s unshakable spirit to face it head on and the comedy that results from this conflict — all until the last scene, those last five minutes. While collecting the money that not only saves the blind woman from homelessness, but also provides for the operation restoring her vision, the Tramp is wrongfully accused of stealing and is jailed. Upon his release, he is even more destitute than when the movie began, far more ragged and disheveled, wandering the streets. A couple of newsboys shoot spitballs at him and laugh at his annoyance, a prologue to what we are about to witness. Trying to maintain some dignity he chases the newsboys away, and in the background we see through a shop-window the flower girl. Her vision restored, she has been saved from poverty and is running a flower shop with her grandmother. The Tramp turns and looks through the window, first stunned and then overjoyed. The flower girl laughs at him and tells her grandmother “I’ve made a conquest!” — an intolerable act of cruelty, a moment where there can be no laughter and no comedy. A moment when he is not just humiliated, but betrayed.

The flower girl takes pity and offers him a flower and a coin. The Tramp at first retreats but then returns to the doorway and accepts the flower, and when the flower girl presses the coin into his hand she recognizes him through his touch. Shocked, she realizes that the Tramp was her benefactor, her face fills with love, and the movie ends. It is this juxtaposition — the horror of her relishing in the Tramp’s suffering, of her laughing at him, of the cruel intertitle, abruptly followed by the first act of kindness the world has offered the Tramp — that gives the scene its great pathos and the aesthetic bliss associated with it. That state of being we occasionally enter sitting in the theater — a combination of intense pleasure, profound awe, mystical reverence, and an undeniable touch of sadness that seems to emanate from an actual anatomic location somewhere between the upper abdomen and lower chest.

We have all experienced those moments of rapture we rarely talk about, showing reverence for both the images and the experience by not sullying them with language. Everything else is secondary — the marginalization, the pride, the acceptance, the academics, the commerce — to these moments which rarely occur but we all continue to seek out. As long as there are people who are junkies for that experience, the fearful warnings of the decline of cinema and cinephilia that have been sounded continuously for the last 20 years can go unheeded and disregarded — and a culture that first started when we sat in terror and astonishment watching the train arrive at La Ciotat Station will continue indefinitely.

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Nafis Shafizadeh is a physician, cinephile, and writer living in Los Angeles.

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