September 04, 2013

HALFWAY THERE! Falling In Love With Movies All Over Again At The CINEMA PARADISO


"The old movie business is just a memory."
Six months down, six to go.

I wanted to watch something with a little prestige to mark the halfway point of my cinematic journey, and I was all set to spin up Mad Max when Jamie asked if she could make a Wife's Choice pick instead.  I asked what she had in mind and she offered up the theatrical cut of Cinema Paradiso, a film that she'd been waiting to select until a night that we could watch it together.  A movie about falling in love with movies seemed pretty damn appropriate to me.

There's a reason that I usually include details about my specific experience when I talk about a lot of these movies and why I note the viewing method at the bottom of each article.  In many ways, cinema is alchemy and a particular audience or viewing environment has the ability to either enhance or detract from your enjoyment of any particular film.  Whether it be getting into a fight in the middle of the movie or a simple matter of a properly planned pre-show, it's often the intangibles that can help make a movie so memorable.  Just last week I went to see The Blues Brothers in an actual theater for the first time.  It's a film that's routinely tied with Ghostbusters for the title of my very favorite movie, something I've seen so many times that I can recite each and every line along with the exact inflection on screen.  Seeing it on something other than my TV was certainly a treat, but that's not why I'll always remember that screening.  It was dressing up in the standard Blues Brothers attire (black suit pants, black suit jacket, white shirt, black tie, black Ray-Bans and one hat...black) and arriving at the theater to find many others had followed suit.  It was the absolute reverence for the music, with the audience cheering and applauding after each and every performance.  And it was walking outside the theater when it was all over to find the Bluesmobile parked out back, complete with the correct Illinois plates and an empty pack of Chesterfields on the dash.  Needless to say, I took a few pictures.


As filmmaking has inexorably transitioned from an art form into a bottom line industry, the actual viewing experience has become largely homogenized.  When it comes to my local multiplexes, the only real debate worth having when it comes to choosing a venue is which one has the most convenient parking.  The theaters all look the same, the popcorn all tastes the same/costs too much, and the picture and sound quality is all at the same moderately acceptable level.  Most theaters don't project their films nearly bright enough because they're trying to save money by reducing the frequency of bulb replacements, wholly neglecting the fact that it makes their films, particularly 3D films, look like they were shot through a pair of dirty sunglasses.  (Putting on tinted 3D lenses obviously compounds the problem.)  The people who work at your local multiplex have no real or informed opinions about the movies they're showing, as in most cases they probably haven't even seen those movies.  The architecture is uninspired and the interior design simply strives to be inoffensive* in order to get you out of the building as swiftly as possible to make room for the next crowd of people there to see Grown Ups 2.

Which reminds me, your typical multiplex audience sucks SO HARD.  You might recall my comedic and intellectual disconnect with the audience for The Lone Ranger, and I'll admit that's a fairly extreme example.  But I can't tell you how many times I've been to the theater in the last six months only to encounter assholes who have absolutely no respect for the film they're ostensibly watching and utterly no regard for their fellow audience members.  This covers a wide variety of complaints, from talking loudly with their seatmate to texting or taking calls (yes it really does happen!) in the middle of the film, to giggling like children whenever two characters do something vaguely "adult" like have sex or swear or even just kiss.  As sad as it makes me to walk into a screening room on a Saturday night and see mostly empty seats, it's also easy to understand why so many people have given up on the modern movie theater, especially now that HD TVs, Blu-ray and surround sound can help mimic the theatrical experience so closely.  But as much as I love my home setup, in my mind it will never replace the pure pleasure of seeing a movie on the biggest screen possible, surrounded by strangers in a darkened theater that smells of popcorn and magic.

More than anything else, that's what struck me about Cinema Paradiso: the lost notion of the cinema as an almost holy place.  The Paradiso serves as a cultural meeting house for the town of Giancaldo, where everyone gathers together to lose themselves in the magic of the movies.  From the young kids crowded up front passing around cigarettes to the rich asshole in the balcony who spits on the people below him, all are welcome.  You have the guy who comes to the theater solely for a place to nap only to be hilariously woken by the other theatergoers, thus prompting the same angry retort every time.  Then there's the crazed but seemingly harmless vagrant outside in the town square, just as much a part of the theater as anyone else.  The people of Giancaldo practically bang down the doors to see the latest releases and they threaten to riot when the second part of a movie is late getting to theater because they're sharing the film reels with the next town over and have to shuttle them back and forth via bicycle.  The theater itself is utterly gorgeous, both before and after the fire that leaves lovable projectionist Alfredo ironically and tragically handicapped.  The lion's head on the wall, with the light of the projector bursting forth from it's gaping maw...it's simply beautiful.

It's easy to see how young Toto can so totally fall in love not only with the movies, but with the Paradiso itself.  That sense of wonder that only comes when you're a small child and the world all seems so very BIG is a major part of why movies are so appealing at that age.  You get transported to far away lands and meet interesting characters who don't exist in your normal life, and yet the entire complicated world is condensed into an easily digestible story that insinctively makes sense.  The bad guy gets punished.  The good guy gets the girl.  It's our first taste of how the world works, or at least how we'd like it work.  There's a reason I referred to the cinema as a holy place: when you're that young you can get just as much (if not more) wisdom and idealism in the movie theater as you can from the church.  (This connection is reinforced by the film, in which the local priest pre-screens all the movies so Alfredo can edit out all the "morally questionable" content.)  Movies can have a tremendous influence on the mind of a child, reinforcing the power of dreams and imagination while filling our heads with images that remain with us long into adulthood.  When the older Toto returns for Alfredo's funeral to find the cinema an abandoned shell of a building, it's just as sad as losing Alfredo himself.  There's a reason all the older folks in town turn out to watch its demolition - like Toto, they're losing an old, dear friend.  I want to live in a world with more cinemas like the Paradiso, where people treat their theaters as integral parts of their home instead of interchangeable venues to see the latest Transformers.  Perhaps it's a trade off of sorts: living in a small country village in the late 1950's, before the internet and mobile phones and DVDs and Playstations...well it's easy to see why the local cinema would be a place of such joy and influence.  Being the technophile that I am, it's hard to imagine living in such a time and place, but in light of the current state of the moviegoing experience, it's also hard not to long for such an era.

But it's not all gloom and doom.  My favorite thing about this project to date (aside from the movies themselves) is that it's forced me to go out into the world and spend time at some of the great theaters in the Boston area, places that harken back to the golden age of the Cinema Paradiso.  Theaters like the Brattle Theater in Cambridge and Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline really highlight the stark difference between showing movies for profit and showing movies for the love of movies.  These are places that have character, whether it be the art deco aesthetic, the little spiral staircase from the lobby to the theater, the neon marquee out front or the guy who comes out to introduce the movie and talk about all the theater's upcoming shows and events.  There are different beers on tap, balcony seating, and great places to eat and drink in the surrounding neighborhood.  Plus each theater has its own distinct look and feel that accentuates the movie itself.  Lawrence Of Arabia is a perfect fit for the vintage charms of the Coolidge, while something like Cheap Thrills is far better suited for the intimate, punk rock style of the Brattle.  Theaters like these are becoming more and more scarce as time marches on, but these are the places where the real love of cinema still lives and breathes among a swarm of stale corporate imitators.  Not only do they provide a marvelous opportunity to view classic films the way they were meant to be seen, but they're also the best chance to catch smaller, more interesting films that simply don't have a chance at your local mall.  The Brattle and the Coolidge still have the ability to unleash the joy of discovery, to let you stumble upon something you've never heard of but that might turn out to be your favorite movie of the year.  Just like the Paradiso, these are theaters for the genuine film fan, and if you're not experiencing them (or whatever equivalent theaters live in your own neighborhood) then you really are missing out on something truly special.

I realize I haven't actually said much about Cinema Paradiso as a film, so for the record I totally loved it.  It's a beautiful tale full of rich characters that encapsulates pretty much everything I love about the movies.  The score by Ennio Morricone (which I've been listening to on a loop while writing this) has been instantly propelled into the pantheon of my favorite film themes, lilting and fragile and dripping with memory.  The film's final scene is nothing short of breathtaking, one of the most affecting moments I've ever witnessed and something that's stayed with me in the week since.  (I can't shake the image of Alfredo's fingerprints visible over the actual film print.)  If you don't get at least a little bit choked up watching that finale, you should probably check yourself for a pulse.  Aside from being my absolute favorite of all the Wife's Choices, Cinema Paradiso reaffirmed my deep love not only for movies themselves, but for the act and experience of going to the cinema.  It was exactly what I needed to power me through the second half of the year.

Six months down.  Six to go.





*I'll give credit to the Boston Common AMC, which first opened when I was in college.  They at least have classic quotes painted on the ceiling and old posters hanging in the hallways.  I wouldn't mind seeing them rotate those posters a bit, but it's hard not to love a theater that puts up an Action Jackson poster and leaves it there for 13 years.


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Title: Cinema Paradiso
Director: Guiseppe Tornatore
Starring: Salvatore Cascio, Philippe Noiret, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Leopoldo Trieste, Agnese Nano
Year Of Release: 1988
Viewing Method: DVD