When did movie theaters specializing in repertory cinema, foreign language films and alternatives to Hollywood mass-produced entertainments become an option for movie lovers in the U.S.? Some might think it all began with the Landmark Theater chain, founded in 1974, which eventually expanded into a network of 46 cinemas in 26 markets. No, the concept of the art house cinema can be traced back to 1952 when the Beekman Theater on Manhattan’s East Side opened and turned movie-going into an event. The man behind the venue was Donald Rugoff and his entrance into the world of film exhibition was due to his father Edward’s partnership with Herman Becker; the two men had built up a small empire of theaters across New York City during the days of the nickelodeon and vaudeville. Rugoff would soon have a major impact on movie-going, film distribution and film culture in the 1960s and 1970s but he is virtually forgotten today. Ira Deutchman, a former employee of Cinema V, Rugoff’s trail-blazing film distribution company, is bound to correct that situation with his fascinating, warts-and-all homage, Searching for Mr. Rugoff (The documentary was completed in 2019 and is finally screening and streaming at various venues).Continue reading
People who disappear without a trace always make the most compelling cold case mysteries, mainly because they baffle even the most intrepid investigators. The famous urban legend of “The Vanishing Lady” also known as “The Vanishing Hotel Room” may very well have been based on a real person but the true facts are lost to time. No matter. The strange tale, which first emerged in the early 1900s, has been appropriated by various writers and filmmakers in some form over the years such as the 1913 novel The End of Her Honeymoon by Marie Belloc-Lowndes (author of The Lodger), Sir Basil Thomson’s 1925 novel The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser and the 1932 film The Midnight Warning. My favorite variation on this theme is the Victorian era mystery, So Long at the Fair (1950), produced by the British film studio, Gainsborough Pictures. The title comes from the English folk tune “Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?,” which contains the line, “Johnny’s so long at the fair.”Continue reading
Almost everyone has attended a dinner party at some point in their lives that was mandatory as well as a memorably bad experience. Maybe it was a communal meal with the boss and co-workers or a formal affair with an annoying in-law or relative. Just be glad you were able to leave the event when it became convenient. The assembled guests in Luis Bunuel’s surreal satire, The Exterminating Angel (1962), don’t have that option but the reasons for their entrapment are never clear.Continue reading
There was a time in the 1970s when film distributors were able to test-market their more offbeat offerings as “Midnight Movies” for adventurous moviegoers. Sometimes these developed into cult phenomenas like El Topo (1971), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), or Eraserhead (1976). Sometimes they failed to find any audience at all like Pelvis (aka All Dressed Up in Rubber with No Place to Go, 1977) or Elevator Girls in Bondage (1972). Arriving at the tail end of the Midnight Movie craze, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) fell somewhere between these two extremes.Continue reading
Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are generally acknowledged as the “Godfathers of Mondo” and took a sensationalist approach to documentaries that revelled in bizarre and shocking cultural practices around the world. Mondo Cane (A Dog’s Life, 1962) was their wildly popular debut film and it spawned a new genre that included their later work Women of the World (1963), Mondo Cane 2 (1963), Africa Addio aka Africa: Blood and Guts (1966) and Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), a critically reviled and polarizing account of the origins of the American slave trade that was filmed as a you-are-there dramatization. What is usually left out of the Jacopetti-Prosperi backstory are the contributions of Paolo Cavara, who co-directed and co-wrote Mondo Cane and Women of the World with Jacopetti. He broke off his association with the other two filmmakers after their second collaboration and went solo with two more Mondo films (Malamondo , Witchdoctor in Tails ) before turning his camera on a fictionalized version of himself in The Wild Eye (L’occhio Selvaggio, 1967), an unforgiving portrait of a ruthless Mondo filmmaker that should be better known today.Continue reading
For most people the films of Andy Warhol were more fun to read about then to actually watch. In the case of films such as the 485-minute Empire (1964) or Sleep (1963), at 321 minutes, it’s hard to imagine someone watching these in their entirety in one sitting. I don’t even think Warhol expected viewers to watch these in real time but to wander in and out of the screenings like you would at a video installation. But even at revivals of the most popular and infamous Warhol titles such as The Chelsea Girls (1966) and Lonesome Cowboys (1968), you can bet on numerous walkouts during the screenings, not from outrage but boredom or disinterest. At the other end of the scale, however, are the short, silent black and white films he made when he was first experimenting with the medium and his Screen Test series shows a brilliance of concept and execution that could easily turn naysayers into converts.