Thursday, November 8, 2018

Skin of My Teeth

My film education continues to unfold nightly.

On the surface, last night's installment of VCU Cinematheque should have been right up my alley. I've gone on record admitting that '60s and '70s movies fascinate me for the shifting cultural mores given voice through Hollywood's eyes.

Of course, the groovy fashions and music don't hurt, either.

So, by all accounts, I should have loved Michelangelo Antonioni's overblown paean to the late '60s counterculture, "Zabriskie Point." Mr. Wright had not only been to Death Valley and spotted the sign for Zabriskie Point, but had already seen the film several times, including as an impressionable young man when it came out. For me, only the title was familiar.

We started at Ipanema and then shifted the action across to the Grace Street Theatre. Both were full of people who weren't alive when Kurt Cobain checked out. Think about that.

When the visiting professor with the German accent got up to introduce the film, he began to wax poetic about the era of student protests and dropping out and turning on, explaining to the clueless student audience that the film was part of a 3-part deal with MGM for the talented Italian director. "Hollywood thought they cold throw big money at Antonioni," he shared and then chuckled in disgust.

Little did they realize that he'd just spend all their money while essentially holding up a giant middle finger to the U.S. To that, I say "well done," although I can see where others might see it as ungrateful and nervy.

Looking around the theater at students born at the tail end of the '90s, the prof instructed them, "Go ask your grandparents about the '70s." If they remember, they weren't there.

It was just too bad that no one had taken the time to explain to these world studies and film students how and why films were being made in 1970. No doubt Antonioni, known for his brilliant framing,  cinematography and use of music, would have been disdainful of students today who simply couldn't fathom a film with an extended orgy scene in the desert (first uncomfortable tittering, followed by outright laughter) or a succession of a dozen shots of a house being blown up from different angles.

And don't get me started on their major sighing at the leisurely pacing of the film, which I loved.

If only MGM hadn't cut Antonioni's original ending - a plane sky-writing "F*ck you, America" - they'd have seen something they could understand. As it stood, they'd need to go ask their grandparents why there were so many bad mustaches in the olden days.

Tonight's lesson in film was much more of a treat because there's a particular pleasure to seeing a Hitchcock movie you've never seen before. Even Mr. Wright was in the dark on this one.

Hello, "Shadow of Doubt," nice to make your acquaintance.

After crispy golden rolls and a banh mi at Sen across from the Byrd, we crossed the street for the 1943 psychological thriller written by Thornton Wilder - yes, he of "Our Town" - that Hitch often referred to as his favorite.

And, if not his favorite, according to Byrd manager Todd, his most plausible story.

Because only Hitch would think that a serial murderer coming to live with his older sister's family in the bucolic town of Santa Rosa and talking an unnatural interest in his namesake niece (knowing Hitch, he probably intended the squirm-worthy implications of Uncle Charlie hitting on his sister's oldest daughter) was perfectly plausible.

Not that I cared. From the opening shot, what had my attention was that I was seeing the actor Henry Travers onscreen as something other than Clarence, the angel, from "It's a Wonderful Life." Like a kindergartner who thinks her teacher lives in the classroom, I just assumed Travers had only played that one role.

The funniest scenes in the movie were those between Travers and a nerdy, young Hume Cronyn (whom I only knew as an old man, so I didn't even recognize him until the credits), neighbors who spent their free time trading ideas for how to murder each other creatively and successfully.

Mainly, I reveled in watching a Hitchcock movie I'd never seen before, taking in every dramatically lit shadow, oddball ceiling angle and telltale hand gesture in a crisply black and white movie with infinite shades of gray.

I was so engrossed I missed Hitchcock's cameo as a bridge player on board a train and had to ask Todd on the way out when he'd been onscreen.

Best of all, there were no tittering students and nobody whining about the film's pacing, although a couple in our aisle walked out after half an hour (I was dying to know why). Everyone who'd come to see "Shadow of Doubt" - and many of us were first-timers, evidenced by Todd asking who'd never seen it and more than half the room raising their hands - accepted the film for the 1943 Hitchcock classic that it was.

And if you don't believe me, go ask your grandparents.

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