On a recent November trip to Amsterdam with my wife, we had no set agenda other than pure pleasure – to soak in the culture, see the city sights and various art museums, tour the canals and neighborhoods, sample the great beers, and occasionally retreat from the constant onslaught of bicycles into some cosy cafe or coffeeshop. (A word of warning to first time visitors to Amsterdam: bicyclists have the right of way over pedestrians and their own designated lanes everywhere. If you don’t look carefully both ways before stepping across a bike lane, you could get creamed by someone going 30 miles an hour or more. The trams (streetcars) can be just as deadly if you aren’t paying close attention to the street traffic.)
Being a lifelong cinephile, I also wanted to check out the cinema culture in Amsterdam because I had always heard the city had a vibrant movie scene like Paris and London with grand movie palaces, numerous art house cinemas, independent single screen hole in the walls, and offbeat film clubs in shared performing arts venues with live music and theatre. All of which turned out to be true though I was surprised at how many screens were playing the same films. For instance, you could catch Francois Ozon’s dark, witty comedy IN THE HOUSE (Dans la mason) or Andrew Dominik’s morose, lowlife gangster drama KILLING THEM SOFTLY with Brad Pitt at one of the many Pathe cineplexes or at a much smaller indie space like the Kriterion (which is run by university students). There wasn’t much in the way of retrospective or classic film programming other than a new print of John Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in a limited run.
Even the spectacular Tuschinski Cinema (built in 1921 and a fusion of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and other architectural influences) is part of the Pathe chain and host to the most contemporary film releases. We tried to see SKYFALL, the new James Bond adventure, in that magnificent setting but it was sold out. The theatre used to hold 1200 seats and had a wide stage for live orchestras and performers (Edith Piaf, Fats Domino and Judy Garland are among some of the legends who have performed there) but after its renovation in 2002, it hosts 740 seats including a few private boxes and love seats. For more info on the Tuschinski, visit http://www.amsterdam.info/cinema/tuschinski/
Then I discovered the Eye Film Institute located on the Amsterdam harbor at ILpromenade 1, across the water from Amsterdam’s Central Station (the train-tram connection). This dazzling structure is relatively new. It opened in the spring of 2012 and is the present home of Amsterdam’s Film Museum and archive which was previously located in an imposing Pavillion (circa 1880) in Vondelpark (the structure is now sadly vacant).
The new space houses a trendy bar/cafe, exhibition spaces, four movie screens, a gift shop and classrooms for educational programs. Plus an interactive digital experience on the basement level where you can sample film clips arranged by theme. The new space houses a trendy bar/cafe, exhibition spaces, four movie screens, a gift shop and classrooms for educational programs. Plus an interactive digital experience on the basement level where you can sample film clips arranged by theme. You enter a large, darkened space illuminated only by the surrounding strobe-like digital wall of looped scenes from movies (if you suffer from vertigo or have an internal trigger for epilepsy, this room might not be for you).
There are several waist level selection stations situated in the space with touch pad screen menus, each one representing a specific topic or genre. Among the categories are Magic, Color, Conflict, Explorations, Movie Stars, Slapstick and The Netherlands (Dutch filmmakers) with a selection of eight or more film clips available on each monitor. Say, for example, you want to sample the offerings under Conflict and choose a title like HIGH NOON. Suddenly before you, a section of the digital wall is instantly reconfigured to display your clip at a much larger screen size while an embedded speaker in the ceiling projects the audio so clearly and precisely that it’s as if you are encased in a sound bubble. If you step out of your cone-like space, the sound quickly diminishes the further you move away. It’s quite a feat of audio engineering but was absolutely essential for this sort of sci-fi installation. Otherwise, you’d have total cacophony with visitors playing different film clips all at the same time.
Outside the interactive room are six or seven yellow cinema pods which can hold up to three people each inside. Each pod has a widescreen monitor and controls which allow you to access hundreds of films from Eye’s vast collection – everything from avant-garde shorts, newsreels, travelogues, animated films and silent masterpieces with a heavy emphasis, of course, on Dutch filmmakers to feature films like Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (I think Kubrick would have heartily approved of the Eye space and its sheer accessibility, despite the fact that his widescreen futuristic epic is served up here in a much more intimate, reduced screen ratio by the archival browser.)
Best of all, there is no admission to visit Eye or use a pod (only the theaters require tickets) and you don’t need to book a pod in advance though this will surely change in the future; they are becoming far too popular. Currently the pods are on a first come, first serve basis. Nor could I discern any time limits for usage so I happily surfed and explored the archive for about 2 hours. I returned with Beth the second day (we arrived when Eye opened at 10 am) for a three hour plus pod adventure.
On day one, I watched the 1936 animation short Ether Symphony which was a promotional film for Philips Radio that George Pal produced while working in the Netherlands. I followed that with Body and Soul (1966), a quirky little black comedy by Dutch filmmaker Rene Daalder about a young weightlifter whose is experiencing a major disconnect between his mind and his body. There is a decadent party sequence in the last half that captures some of the world weary cynicism/boredom of jet set culture glimpsed in both La Dolce Vita and John Schlesinger’s Darling. Daalder relocated to Hollywood in the seventies and made the landmark cult film Massacre at Central High (1976) and the lesser known sci-fi musical Population:1 (1986) starring Tomata du Plenty (from the L.A. punk band The Screamers). You can actually view Body and Soul and several other Daalder’s films at his official web site – http://projects.renedaalder.com
On day two, Beth and I started with Alice’s Spooky Adventure (1924), directed and produced by Walt Disney. It was one of his early silent shorts featuring child actress Virginia Davis and was predominantly live-action with some animated sequences. The central premise has tomboy Alice going to retrieve a baseball which has landed inside a deserted mansion that the other boys are afraid to enter. Inside a chunk of the rotting ceiling falls on her head, knocks her out and Alice enters a dream world inhabited by a sympatico cat (a Felix the Cat variation) and ghosts and supernatural beings who pursue her. After this we sampled Een Film voor Lucebert on the pod menu by renowned Amsterdam filmmaker Johan van der Keuken (1938-2001). This is a playful, colorful free-form portrait of the artist/poet Lucebert who was part of the COBRA movement (1948-1951) that came out of the avant-garde art scene in Europe (embracing artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). I’m not sure if this was an excerpt from van der Keuken’s later 51 minute documentary Lucebert: Time and Farewell (1994) but it works fine as an introduction to his work.
We followed this with two silent travelogue shorts – one from the 1920s (La Perle de la Mediterranee: Barcelona) and the other, a portrait of an Italian harbor town from 1914 entitled Rapallo (in the province of Genoa). Both were wonderful time travel machines back to two picturesque, underpopulated European locales before automobiles and progress changed the landscape. We ended our day at Eye with a film by Bert Haanstra – Dokter Pulder zaait palavers (1975, aka Doctor Pulder Sows Poppies). Haanstra is recognized as one of the Netherlands’ most revered filmmakers and an internationally acclaimed documentarian, famous for Glass (a 1958 short which won an Oscar), Alleman (1963 aka The Human Dutch) and Bij de bees ten af (1972 aka Ape and Super-Ape). He didn’t make that many theatrical features but Fanfare, a 1959 comedy, is one of his most popular.
Doctor Pulder Sows Poppies, on the other hand, is a psychological drama with a black comedy streak and some oddball slapstick (including a sequence where an overflowing bathtub transforms a posh hotel dining room into a disaster area). The movie primarily focuses on the title doctor (Kees Brusse) who is visited by Hans (Ton Lensink), a former medical colleague who is now secretly addicted to morphine. When Hans steals Dr. Pulder’s drug supply and flees, the narrative tracks the ensuing consequences while charting the good doctor’s puzzled but dogged determination to uncover Hans’ hidden past. A slowly paced character study, Dokter Pulder zaait palavers manages to hold the interest with Brusse’s sympathetic performance, an evocative wintry setting in a small coastal village and the odd detail (the doctor cuts his finger while preparing a hors d’oeuvre plate and the blood drips all over the sliced cheese – bon appetit!).
For more information on the Eye Film Institute, visit http://www.eyefilm.nl/en