Me and the Movies – Part 1

As long as I can remember, I have always loved movies. Our relationship started when i was in grade school, and old films started showing up on our local TV stations. I grew up in Upstate New York, where the winters are cold and long, and a movie on a frigid afternoon was a great way to pass the time. When I got into college, i found film societies, and the rise of the independent and repertory movie theater in Boston and Cambridge. While movies on TV were pretty darn good, movies with an audience were even better. I laughed all that much harder when I saw THE COURT JESTER or THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK with a crowd. We watched the black and white angst of Ingmar Bergman in stunned silence. The audience burst into applause at the end of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance number. Before the days of home video, rediscovering our cinematic past became a communal experience, and I was proud to become part of the community.

Cable TV, VCRs, DVDs, and streaming have all given us opportunities for movie watching that I would not have dreamed of back in the days of repertory theaters, when I would go and see two or three double features (both old movies and foreign films) every week. I particularly liked Japanese samurai films, and managed to see well over 100 of them on the big screen, sure that this would be my only opportunity to watch something that esoteric. I had no idea that, 30 years later, all 26 Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman films would be available as a set from boutique DVD label Criterion.

And so it goes. There are a ton of flicks now that you can get ahold of one way or another,old and new, foreign and domestic, studio and independent. But as we watch them on our big screen TVs, something is missing.

For the past couple of years, my wife and I have visited Montreal for a portion of the annual Fantasia Film Festival. Fantasia is a three week long event that showcases horror, science fiction, and foreign genre films. They showed over 200 feature films this year (they run them on three separate screens)). And just about everyone who attends is as wild about film as we are.

This year, on the very first night we were there, a Tuesday, we watched a double bill that reminded
me how great watching films with an audience could be.

The first movie, IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE, was a very black comedy from Scandanavia (it was a co-production of Sweden, Norway and Denmark). Starring the always great Stellan Starsgard (THOR, among many others), the movie is essentially DEATH WISH with snow plows. About ten to fifteen minutes into the film, you can kind of see where the plot is going, but that just made the ride all the more enjoyable. The audience hooted and hollered with every mounting set piece. And we all applauded at the end.

But is was the second feature that really caught the audience. It was a Korean thriller. These days, Korean thrillers are some of the best movies around. And NO TEARS FOR THE DEAD did not disappoint. Directed by Lee Jeong-beorn, the same fellow who made THE NOWHERE MAN (available on DVD and well worth your time), NO TEARS follows a hit man who makes a literally fatal error, and then spends the rest of the movie attempting to atone for his mistake. And he has to overcome a whole gang of other hit men to reach his goal. Very gritty from first frame to last, and filled with typically very realistic and brutal violence, I could hear the audience grunt with every punch and kick as the film sucked us all in and wouldn’t let us go. The movie (also typical of Korean thrillers) lasted over two hours, but we were all caught in it from beginning to end, in a way you can only get caught in a darkened movie theater with 600 like-minded souls. The lights go up, you stagger out, drained but happy.

You can stream these movies, or rent them on DVD, but nobody shows them on a big screen in Boston anymore. At times in the past, the Kendall Square or the Brattle would screen something for a few days, but subtitled action films no ,longer have any place to go in mainstream Boston theaters. You can certainly enjoy these films in the comfort of your home, but the pure communal joy of being carried along with a like-minded audience is gone. And that’s a real shame.