This Saturday: The Projectionist

Screening: Saturday, August 25, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

Archival Gotham: NYC on Film wraps up this Saturday with The Projectionist (1970), a film about a lonely cinephile whose imagination runs wild. We’ve been lucky to see big name classics like Taxi Driver (1976) and On the Waterfront (1954) as part of this series from MoMA, but a film like The Projectionist really shows us the depth and breadth of their archive. Rarely screened and impossible to find on the internet or in your local video store, this film is a testament to our ongoing (and ever increasing) need for film restoration and the celluloid archive. But besides any such lofty affirmations of the film strip’s 21st century importance, The Projectionist is also Rodney Dangerfield’s cinematic debut! And what’s more, he plays a villain named ‘The Bat’! Finally, we couldn’t ask for a better transition into our upcoming exhibition Fast Forward: Modern Moments 1913–2013, as The Projectionist literalizes a modernist, self-reflexive turn in film history to become a movie explicitly about movies (see clip above). On that note, keep a lookout for our film series that will screen in conjunction with Fast Forward; we’re cooking up some amazing titles to keep us all at the movies straight through the fall.

Reserve tickets for the Saturday, August 25 screening of The Projectionist here.

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Culture Shock Presents: Taxi Driver

Screening: Saturday, August 11, Free and Outdoors on the Sifly Piazza. DJ Set and Video Projections by Ben “Bean” Worely Begin at 8:15 p.m. with Taxi Driver (1976) to Follow After Dark.

Taxi Driver was not just a hit but…an event in American popular culture—perhaps even an intervention,” wrote J. Hoberman just last year in the Village Voice. His essay, written on the occasion of Taxi Driver‘s restoration and 35th anniversary, contextualizes the film within New York history, film history, and American collective consciousness with the kind of linguistic and conceptual economy reserved for paradigm-shifting films. Like all of the movies in this summer’s Archival Gotham: NYC on Film series, Taxi Driver affords us the chance to see that city through the mediations of cinema and history, through a character’s eyes, and through our own eyes. Given Taxi Driver‘s groundbreaking content and landmark status, the rewards of re-watching and re-thinking this movie ever renew themselves.

As Hoberman points out, when Taxi Driver was released in 1976, we knew about Hitchcock and Godard and we knew about Robert Bresson’s ‘tortured loner’ film, Diary of a Country Priest (1951), but we didn’t know that an array of US filmmakers would combine and distill these cinematic influences (among others) to produce a string of ‘tortured man in a room’ films and an American New Wave.

In 1976 we knew about the 1972 shooting of presidential contender George Wallace (and the shooter, Arthur Bremer, whose meticulous journaling would in part inspire Paul Schrader to write the Taxi Driver script) but we didn’t know that in 1981 John Hinckley Jr. would watch the film 15 times and then attempt to assassinate President Reagan, all in an effort to win the affections of the film’s young star, Jodie Foster.

In 1976, we struggled with the omnifarious aftermath of the Vietnam War but we had yet to see wave after wave of veterans come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1976, film critic Vincent Canby could write of Taxi Driver’s protagonist Travis Bickle, “he is a projection of all our nightmares of urban alienation” with a certain immediacy. He was, after all, writing from a desk in the New York Times Headquarters building at Times Square… the same Times Square which Travis Bickle obsessively circles, attracted and unnerved as he is by its prostitutes, hoodlums, chaos, and filth. We didn’t yet know Times Square would be scrubbed of a particular grime, only to have the distopic fear pulsing through Taxi Driver still ring true 35 years later.

As Hoberman so succinctly concludes, “The movie is Scorsese’s hometown farewell… Like Nero, he torches the joint and picks up his lyre. Taxi Driver is a vision of a world that already knows it is lost. A third of a century later, the Checker cabs are gone, as are the taxi garages at the end of 57th Street and the all-night Belmore cafeteria. Times Square has been sanitized, the pestilent combat zone at Third Avenue and 13th Street where Iris peddles her underage charms has long since been gentrified. New York is no longer the planet’s designated Hell on Earth…No nostalgia, though: In other aspects, the world of Taxi Driver is recognizably ours. Libidinal politics, celebrity worship, sexual exploitation, the fetishization of guns and violence, racial stereotyping, the fear of foreigners—not to mention the promise of apocalyptic religion—all remain. Taxi Driver lives. See it again. And try to have a nice day.”

Little Fugitive: Precursor to the French New Wave

Screening: Saturday, June 23, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

As many critics have noted, Little Fugitive (1953) has–to put it mildly–a minimalist story: 7-year-old Joey (Richie Andrusco) is the butt of a cruel joke and goes on the lam believing he’s killed his older brother Lennie (Richard Brewster). He heads to Coney Island where he wanders around, stuffs himself full of carnival food, collects empty bottles for nickels, and rides a pony around a pitiful little race track about a hundred times. The narrative, however, is not what’s groundbreaking about this film.

As soon as Joey arrives at Coney Island, the story (its caricatures and all other trappings of the 1950s television-era) melts into the background. Shot with a concealed strap-on 35mm camera, what emerges from these bare narrative bones is a rare historical document of Coney Island–its beaches, hotdogs, lovers, ferris wheels, and its tens of thousands inhabitants all caught performing their minor roles in the chaos of their natural habitat.

Amidst the inherent overstimulation of Coney Island on a summer day, Morris Engle (who shot the film and also wrote and directed it along with Ray Ashley and Ruth Orkin) beats a path for his young protagonist. Joey weaves and darts among bigger bodies, squeezing by and bumping into them the way focused kids do when they are after a stray ball or have just found change for more sugar. The camera most often at waist height, Engle recognizes the inevitable slapstick of being little and the utter sweetness of demanding to be taken seriously anyway. So we can’t help but be endeared when Joey tackles a piece of watermelon so big it eclipses his entire upper-half or, in perhaps the best sequence of the film, swings a baseball bat so hard it turns him around and furrows his brow pitch after pitch.

And yet, as hilarious as these moments are, Little Fugitive also casts a sensitive gaze on what it’s like to be small and lost in a world that’s not built for you…turns out it’s a lonely and filthy reality where triumphs are hard-earned but fleeting and there’s no choice but to live moment by moment. This, perhaps, does not make a “good story” or so Bosley Crowther for the New York Times seemed to think when, upon the film’s 1953 release, he wrote, “there is little conception of drama in this trick, and the mere repetition of adventures tends eventually to grow dull” and “count it a photographer’s triumph with a limited theme.”

This “repetition of adventures” and “limited theme,” however, is what inspired Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which kicked off the French New Wave. Little Fugitive‘s affective duration, the attention it grants to mere human existence, and its will to record a specific time and place was seen by cutting-edge French filmmakers and Neo-Realists around the world as a vital testament to humanity in all its everyday joys and tragedies. Luckily for us, there is an adorable pint-sized fugitive and a lot of over-sized snacks at the center of this “bad story” and landmark film.

“Gotham Shorts” Kicks off “Archival Gotham: NYC on Film”

Frame from Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th to 42nd Street (American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1905)

Screening: Saturday, June 9th, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre, High Museum of Art, introduced by Museum of Modern Art Associate Film Curator, Anne Morra.

This Saturday we kick off our summer series Archival Gotham: NYC on Film with a night of short films that span 60 years of the gritty city’s history. Landmark films like On the Waterfront (1954) and Taxi Driver (1976), which will be screened later in the series, bear canonical prestige and boast star-studded casts, but this first night of short films wraps the viewer into another, equally alluring texture of New York experience.

The cinematic eye that looks upon roofline buildings in Architectural Millinery (Sydney Peterson, 1952), manhole covers in the aptly named Manhole Covers (Ruth Cade, 1954), and subway tunnels in Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th to 42nd Street (1905) takes in the detail of the city’s visceral body. Images of the subway, in the case of this latter film, transform under the strange gaze of a 1905 camera. As the earliest footage of the New York Subway system and as a very early actuality, this four minute film is a historical document that marks a particularly nascent moment in both cinematic and subway history. But in the silent rhythms of shape and light, the film also becomes an abstract aesthetic experience. The image of the train and the glimpses we catch of early twentieth-century Americans scuttling aboard—these historically bound images recede into an endless progression of hexagons, shadow and light bursting and vanishing across the face of the image in a dynamic play of grays and whites and blacks.

Every one of the short films screening on Saturday offers up New York as this kind of historical/aesthetic marvel, and in this way these shorts speak most profoundly to the accompanying photography exhibition, Picturing New York: Photographs from The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition presents 150 photographs from MoMA’s collection which similarly capture the detail and abstract beauty of the city. In addition to the study of the subway, roofline buildings, and manhole covers, the night of short films include John Hubley and Faith Elliott’s The Tender Game (1958), which gives us an image of New York love set to Ella Fitzgerald, while Joseph Cornell’s Flushing Meadows (1965) presents a particularly mournful image of Flushing, Queens. Finally, a nineteen year old Orson Welles and his classmate William Vance give us a Surrealist take on the ceaseless tolling of life’s bells and death’s frenzied grasp in The Hearts of Age (1934). If you’re any kind of Welles fan, you won’t want to miss this chance to see the origins of his wild-eyed performance style as well as a moment of sheer Wellesian depth of field of the sort that would one day make his Citizen Kane a masterpiece.