Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.
– Martin Scorsese
I have always thought that, of all the arts, the cinema is the most complete art.
I have been singing the praises of cinema for a long as I can remember to anyone that cares to listen..or not listen. This art form is a universal language that transcends all cultures, all beliefs, all man-made notions of a one absolute truth. Cinema is an art that can change the world in small ways, such as casting a stone in a still pond that echoes its arrival with ever widening ripples. It either reflects life or displays other possibilities within our reach. Cinema is not an obsession with me, but I will champion it ever more in the face of an increasing dogma of non-science and non-arts rhetoric we seem to be facing these days.
When I speak of “cinema”, I am speaking of those films that are adventurous. Films that risk stretching the boundaries of ordinary storytelling to ask questions, make the audience question to seek those answers within themselves. Showing audiences a story or situation that hits close to our hearts and minds. We bring a lot of ourselves, as with all art forms, into the darkened theater. The piercing light projected onto that blank white screen gives us opportunities to escape, learn, appreciate, empathize, embolden, or give fuel to what is already bubbling deep inside.
Make no mistake, I love escapist films as much as anyone else. The universe of Star Wars, James Bond, Indiana Jones, or (yes, I am guilty of liking these) the Fast & Furious movies are pure audience candy. There is nothing wrong with them and are all very popular. There is a genuine need for them worldwide. They provide a rest from real world troubles, a haven for turning off your mind for a couple of hours. Everyone needs that from time to time. One comedy I return to again and again is Stanley Kramer’s insanely epic 1963 comedy “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World”. It stars many of America’s comedy greats of yesteryear with a story of absolute greed and outrageous gags. It reminds me of my childhood watching this with my parents on the living room television set and listening to them laugh, along with me, as Jonathan Winters completely destroys a gas station single-handily with his physical presence. There is joy in these kind of films because of what we inject ourselves upon them. For others it could be the 1977 Star Wars film because your father took you to see it as a special treat. Memories and feelings all coincide with movies.
Why all this talk about cinema? One of my points is to shine a light on the other films out there; the overlooked or hard to find films that richly deserve an audience as much as the latest Fast & Furious chapter. Recently, I have been adding to my True/False Film Festival category with many films that are astounding in their courage and risk taking techniques (one example is “Brimstone & Glory”…see my review). Many of these are small films, but epic in their cinema language. These are documentary films and seldom seen in any mainstream theater. If we are lucky, an art-house theater (like Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, MO; pictured above) will present these films for a few nights. International films provide a wealth of new cinema going experiences with cultures, insights, and stylistic choices waiting to be explored. Let go the fear of subtitled entries and really listen to the original language of these films with all its inflections and nuances. A lot is lost on dubbed voices in these films. Sitting in the dark, with a receptive audience, brings a communal bond much like sitting around a campsite fire telling ghost stories.
Which brings me to my last point regarding cinema; the theater going experience versus watching at home. The rise in technology has made it so much easier and accessible to reach many of the films that I champion. I absolutely love that I can peruse a streaming catalog of everything Rainer Werner Fassbinder has ever made, along with all my favorite Bond films. Watching at home is convenient and less costly. However, we are losing the communal bond I mentioned before by not watching with a large audience. The feeling of being a part of something, the gathering around that campfire. Like many, I can remember moments in theaters that cannot be matched by viewing at home. I can list five such moments right away.
1.) Sitting with my older sister, almost front row center, watching the opening crawl from 1977’s Star Wars with the sound going in and out. The audience rebelled (no pun intended) and the theater rewound the film and started over after fixing the sound.
2.) Watching a reissued 70mm Six Track Dolby Stereo presentation of Apocalypse Now with my father. The immersive sound and picture was overwhelming to both of us and merited an entire car ride home talking about it (a rare occurrence).
3.) Taking in a rare 70mm showing of Lawrence Of Arabia and being able to see the shimmering haze of Omar Sharif’s entrance in the distance. The audience applauded when the film began and when the end credits appeared. There was a love for this film that could be felt from everyone. Absolutely stunning to see after years of television pan-and-scan views.
4.) The loudly receptive audience mesmerized by a sneak preview of a little film called Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The sound was set so high, just the cocking of the pistol in the beginning sequence hurt our ears…but it was magical and felt as if you were part of an event with a hundred other people all gasping, laughing, and smiling ear to ear.
5.) Sitting in the audience with my 10 year old son watching Donald O’Connor making everyone laugh in Singin in The Rain. I watched my son’s face as he responded to this film, but also engaging with the audience with laughter and some big smiles. Cinema can truly transcend time.
Cinema is art, but I believe it also needs participation. It can be sitting at home with a bunch of friends or sitting in the dark with an audience at your favorite theater. Cinema wants you to engage, to discuss, to bring up questions. I am a contributing member of Ragtag Cinema (a locally owned/run theater using memberships to thrive…a rarity in these parts) because I believe and live in that community of arts. I want audiences to take a chance on stories that can have a profound effect on them socially and artistically. To be inspired by others and art, is the path to becoming better ourselves in ways we might not even imagine.