Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

Manhattan Moviegoing

There is a plexiplex on the square, a few blocks from my apartment building. It hulks on a quarter of city block. Escalators run up and down, on every floor there is a gauntlet of concessions to run before you reach the right theater, they show umpteen movies at a time. Not there.

A few blocks in the other direction is the retroplex, housed in an old Yiddish theater. Molly Picon must have been a big draw back in the day, to judge from the size of it. Now it is carved into one or two big theaters and a cluster of little ones, tucked in like pockets in a hunting jacket. Probably not there.

Downtown a bit there is the high-endplex that puts on cineaste airs: the lobby decked with golden-age-of-Hollywood posters, but in French, for foreign release. We did see a French movie there once — a film of a literary classic, in alexandrines no less. When we got to the theater it was filled with small children. Aspiring city parents start their kids young in hopes of pitching them into the right private schools, but this seemed remarkable even by those demanding standards. Then we realized we had mistakenly gone into the auditorium showing a movie about heroic turtles. Quickly into the right one, where we had missed only a few couplets. For the new French movie — no édition Pléiade — not even there.

For this movie we went to one of the theaters that are devoted to such things — foreign films, old movies, documentaries. There are a number of theaters of this type in the city, though they all seem to be run by foundations. They have mailing lists, and they show, among the trailers, requests for support — better than the Hollywood Q&As that run in the plexiplexes (“He played Third Monster in The Jedi vs. E.T.”), though you do feel as if you’re watching public television in begging season.

It didn’t always use to be this way. Demand was great enough (constant) and expenses (rent) low enough that there were revival and art houses that seemed to make it on their own. I remember one off Broadway on the Upper West Side where I saw Olivier’s Hamlet with Joe Sobran, he saying all the lines as or before Olivier did, occasionally spinning his right hand impatiently (pick it up, Larry!). There was another in the East Village where I saw, with Walter Olson, my first double bill of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes (how we applauded the death of the wretched appeaser). My wife, who is a few years older than I am, remembers a theater in Times Square — the ranky-skanky Times Square, when the desnudas were hands-on — that showed samurai movies. There, at the climax of Ugetsu, as the hero made love in a windswept outdoor pavilion to the ghost of a lady who had never known passion, Jeanne’s companion stage-whispered, “It’s a shande for the neighbors!”

You went to see such movies with a friend because seeing them was showing off, or at least sharing a sense of specialness (they’re watching Julie Andrews, we’re watching Toshiro Mifune). Snobbery can be mere pride; it can also express appreciation and friendship. The theaters that showed such movies encouraged the comradely experience by serving espresso — this in the days when, outside of old Italian neighborhoods, caffeine came only as plain old coffee, made (you hoped) that year.

Then movies changed. Out went the studios and Julie Andrews, in came the auteurs (and agents). Out went the regulation of content policed by Cardinal Spellman. A movie could show naked women and bloody men if that was germane to its purpose. The auteurs, whose methods were thought to be incarnated in foreign films and certain old classics, went mainstream — a little bit. Good movies of the new type got made (gentlemen, start your lists). But then it turned out that what inspired the two most successful auteurs — you’ve seen their stuff a million times — was boyish thrills: sharks, spaceships, tomb raiders. It got old very fast. Worse were the movies that took their boyish thrills from comic books. They were old the minute they were born. I have seen the inevitable fruit — a YouTube mash-up of Batman and Hamilton; the lead rapper, in place of Aaron Burr, is the Joker. Marvel and DC are our classical civilization. With the result, one among many, that the French movie still plays in a dinky theater.

The star of the French movie, and the reason my wife wanted to see it, turned out to be a parenthetical figure. The starlet, who played his long-lost love, recovered in memory, had big eyes, a crooked smile, and pale skin, and burned eros like rocket fuel. The theme of the movie was a young man (the hero as a lad) trying to find his way.

Earlier in the week, on the exercise bicycle at my gym, I saw a bit of a Hollywood western, one made before the auteurs came in. The old hero sat in the back of a saloon, chatting up some Mexican women. In walked a young man, trying to find his way. He addressed a table of poker-playing villains, center stage. One of them had killed a friend of his once. Killer drew, but young man beat him, with a knife to the chest. Behind the young man another villain drew, but the old hero, whom we had momentarily forgotten, shot the gun out of this villain’s hand. The chief villain then good-humoredly called for order, and we went on to the next turn of the plot.

When you think how obsessively the auteurs, especially the French ones, studied Hollywood, including its westerns, maybe the array of theaters and the change of tastes and even the mash-ups (well, maybe not the mash-ups) don’t matter so much. Roll ’em.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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