Why We Watch: Theatrical Attendance, Archiving and Individualism

It has been a whirlwind last few weeks. Things have been moving so quickly that I haven’t slowed down enough to be able to put both feet on the ground! Either that or I’ve been so thrilled by all the fantastic things that have been happening that I am in a permanent state of 5 feet above the pavement. I’ll let you know which one it is when I know. Which may (fingers crossed) be never…

Exciting things? A life-changing AMIA Conference in Savannah, GA which included meeting Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. Participating in a truly kick-ass small gauge workshop where I learned so much. Attending a fabulous Home Movie Day recently, and a new archiving/metadata project that I’ve been busting my ass on. I’m loving EVERY MINUTE. The latter of these things was yet another case of a colleague in the archiving community reaching out, too. I swear to reels and sprockets if it wasn’t for film preservation and the folks I know and have met in the last few years? I would be lost. L-O-S-T.

Admittedly, something has been bothering me. I have tried not to let it get to me too much because I have all these other things going on but… I can’t stop thinking about it. So here is me. Talking about some things. And I’m not going to bullshit. And I’m not going to beat around the bush. But I am also not here to trash-talk, get personal or nasty. This is not a gossip piece. With that said, let’s get the initial stuff out of the way so we can talk about the REAL issues.

By now many people have probably seen the blog written by Julia Marchese, former employee of the New Beverly Cinema. You may recognize the name of this theater as the one that I have written about several times . Without getting into details or reposting the blog (go ahead and find it yourself if you need to) her article discusses how she felt that she got the raw end of the deal in her recent “dismissal.” While I found her article problematic from a working professional’s standpoint, I think I found the public response even more disturbing. Much of the blind support and anti-theater sentiment came from people who had never met her and/or had never even visited the New Beverly. This felt weird to me.

Do I feel bad that someone, anyone lost their job? Absolutely. But did I think that it was news in the same time period that Home Movie Day was happening (a great film preservation event) or when such fascinating pieces are being written about Christopher Nolan and INTERSTELLAR‘s exhibition changes? Not really. So I was ready to just blow it off. But then it happened. Not once, not twice but over and over. Within the few articles that I read, Julia was referred to as the “heart and soul” and “public face” of the New Beverly Cinema, either by the author or within the comments. How an employee of 6 years could be either of those things for a theater that is 36 years old made me feel even more uneasy.

These phrases and this structure of characterization is what I REALLY wish to explore. I wish to center my discussion on what I see as a kind of posturing, and let me reiterate: it is not endemic to this situation nor to this person. I have seen it before in other situations. I’m sure we all have. But my issue is as follows: anytime someone is built up with their own personal importance emphasized before that of their institution’s or what their institution does, there is a major problem. Especially if that person is not considered to be a major figure within said institution. Not only can this cause unrest and poor work relations in a given work environment, it’s not a healthy way to present any company or team atmosphere. I can only speak from where I sit and this is why sharing credit and community recognition has always been one of the greatest assets to the moving image archiving community. It tends to prevent situations like this. But….not 100% of the time. As Billy Wilder wrote, “Nobody’s perfect.”

From my experience, it is antithetical to our primary goal as a film preservation community to peacock, especially if you have a significant attachment to a company- be it educational institution, regional archive, studio or movie theater. What I have seen within my own community (and yes, Virginia, there are politics in the most altruistic of film preservation worlds) is that those folks who see themselves as an archivist/preservationist first and then an individual are generally far more successful and usually become the central touchstones of this magical world I am part of. That has said worlds to me as I train to become the woman I want to become. Thus I get awfully suspicious when I begin to see any kind of cult of personality being built around someone who has stated that they are tirelessly working for the betterment of the film community on their own.

Now let’s get into wording and some basic reality. Here is a cold, hard fact: the heart and soul of a movie theater will always be the films it shows. It will never solely be a person. What a theater shows creates its personality, its individual culture, its ambience. A programmer is a good portion of that, which is why people like Michael and Sherman Torgan’s development and creation OF the New Beverly is SO VITAL TO BE RECOGNIZED. In addition, Phil Blankenship’s Saturday Midnight series at the New Beverly was a major part of its personality. Brian Quinn and Eric Caiden’s Grindhouse Series. The guest programmers. Hell, even my series added a little bit (I like to think). My point is: content creates character

When I go to the Heavy Midnights series at the Cinefamily, I’m not going specifically to hang with the programmer (sorry, Phil!). I go to see the incredible and rare off-beat movies shown. When I go to the American Cinematheque, I don’t attend the films because I want to chat with the folks I know that work there. It’s a nice perk, but I go to see the movies. There are some incredible programmers in this town. The film events going on are really unbeatable. But am I switching my schedule around and looking at bus plans so I can get to the Echo Park Film Center to be hip? Not even close. I’m doing it because that place is an amazing and dynamic part of LA Film Culture. I get to see cool shit. Really, isn’t it all about seeing cool shit?

Archives work in the same manner. What we collect, how we process and care for the collections, our rules and regulations and our interactions with other professional organizations (including locations of exhibition) help to define us. While we may all have our own individual identities as archivists, projectionists, exhibition specialists, I firmly believe that we are also part of larger systems. Not only are we part of the businesses or organizations that employ us, but we are also tied in through an umbilical-cord-like-network, an over-arching community called FILM. We answer to it as our primary boss. If Mama Film wasn’t there…neither would we be.

What we are not is regimes. If you’re curious, my stance on the New Beverly format issue has not changed. I’m not going to alter my researched and valid personal position that a theater should be equipped with everything from digital to 16mm. And I’m not going to change my opinion about the way in which the New Beverly transition was conducted. I don’t think it was professionally done nor was it respectful. But I highly object to the repeated use of the word REGIME, in reference to either the Torgan family or Tarantino.

Neither of them are tyrannical rulers or fascists. Let’s get real, people. This is a damn movie theater, not the Third Reich. Regime?? Just stop.

 

I would like very much for us to think about why we go to the movies at all. During the Depression, people went to get a sliver of happiness from the horrors of the world. As Hollywood legend Norman Lloyd notes, “They were a wonderful escape. People would go into the theater, in this darkened cavern, and it took them out of themselves. They could fantasize about what happened on the screen, about those beautiful stars that existed then.” I like to think that we still do that. I know that I do. It’s why I went into preservation work. So that the little babies that my friends are having right now can experience what I experience. Big screen magic of beautiful (or beautifully told) stories.

Yes, I returned to the NEW New Beverly last night. I went to go see the two George C. Scott pictures. And I had a great time.

I spent some time soul-searching this week. Clearly. I deeply explored ideas of self-promotion and individuality, love for the medium and exhibition landscape, ideas of preservation. I had major thoughts about the evolution of Los Angeles film spaces, too, since many of the theaters I attended as a little girl are now gone. Even the Egyptian Theater is itself a new iteration- it’s the American Cinematheque. At some point I got all Emma Goldman up in my head, angry at anyone who would try to personally claim ownership for a media environment when it should belong to us all…but that passed. I just put on some punk rock and remembered that DIY archiving is totally a thing and that calmed me down. I just started working on a database. It’s the Ariel Zen.

I had thought that boycotting the New Beverly was going to be my answer but it’s a really stupid answer. Here is where I stand. As someone who puts film above almost everything else in life (including many human relationships), I feel much more comfortable going back there now that I know that I will be able to be in a climate that is more film-centered than personality-centered. My biggest concern? What’re you playing, man? What’s on the marquee? Last night was pretty nice. I was able to breathe easy, enjoy the films, laugh too loud at the damn cartoon that no one else was laughing at (it’s a cartoon, guys!!), got to see some people who I genuinely adore, and watch some rarely screened pictures.

Also, as I was saying to someone in the lobby, one of my favorite things about being in the archiving/preservation field is that I get to learn about new media elements or historical facts on a regular basis. This also happens in exhibition. And that’s just a joy and a pleasure. I saw some trailers last night for films that I have NEVER heard of before. I must see MOVIE/MOVIE. That film looks awesome!!! 

The print for the first film, RAGE, was pretty gnarly, but as someone who’s familiar with 35mm, I know that watching them in this condition is important for me to do so I may learn more about analog and see what I can suss out myself. Is that discoloration due to film stock? Is that a base scratch? Is that due to bad printing? To be honest, this is great practice for me! RAGE does exist on Warner Archives and I’ll bet that their DVD is in better condition but….I’ll take big screen over DVD any day.  The audience reaction alone was worth the price of admission!!!!!!!!! And I’ve seen FAR worse prints. Definitely worth a watch so hey- there’s my plug for Warner Archives! Baby Martin Sheen! OMGZ!! The second print, THE SAVAGE IS LOOSE was simply gorgeous (and a much better film, I might add). I cannot stop thinking about it. Such an incredible, bizarre and eerie film. Absolutely loved it.

I can only speak for myself. But from what I have gleaned, I get the sense that the one thing that Michael Torgan and Quentin Tarantino share is the fact that they want films to keep playing at the New Beverly. They may have differing ideas on methodology, but I think that this mutual drive for exhibition and the strong desire for films to be seen is something that needs to be recognized in both men. This is something to be respected. I see this in my own field in the people who fight tooth and nail to keep their archives afloat. It’s not easy. And things are changing all the time. I don’t want to be prescriptive here. I’ve just come to some resolutions over the last week that may make me less than popular with friends but make me feel ethically better with my field of choice and with my self.

I’m not going to be an apologist for anyone or their actions. In fact, I’m staying wholly clear of that. But I also want to examine the idea that maybe we should be deciding for ourselves the ways in which we consume moving image media. And I do believe that it is important to support local theaters, and 35mm and 16mm exhibition. What I am absolutely sure of is that I would not go to a movie theater simply because it is owned by someone famous. I would not go there simply because it is run by a friend or one of the most amazing folks I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, although I admittedly did do that on more than one occasion so….yeah.  Point being, I WOULD go there because it has movies I want to see. I know my reason for attending the theaters I attend.

But at the end of the day, I guess it really is a personal question to be answered: why do you watch?

Of Silver Screens and Family Dreams: Michael Torgan and the New Beverly Cinema

In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.

-Walter Cronkite

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There has been a bit of a shake-up in the Los Angeles repertory cinema scene recently. As detailed in a previous article on this blog, the beloved New Beverly Cinema, a LA institution and a treasured touchstone for cinephiles everywhere, has had a rather surprising change of management. According to reports from Deadline, the LA Weekly and others, the Torgan Family, owners of the New Beverly Cinema since 1978, will no longer be running the show. In their place, Quentin Tarantino, landlord since 2007, will be taking control of the theater as his own.

In looking at all of the press surrounding this, the one thing that has been conspicuously absent is the voice and perspective of the owner of the New Beverly Cinema: Michael Torgan. While the more eagle-eyed readers of these articles may have noticed that Michael reached out in order to correct comment inaccuracies, he was previously hesitant to speak to anyone or discuss some of the major issues that the film community seems to be most concerned about in this transitory time.

As readers of my blog may know, the New Beverly has been a significant feature in my film education and career path. Without this theater, it is unlikely that I would be so passionate about the two things I work the most with: 35mm film and classic cinema.  As a result, I tracked Michael Torgan down and begged him to sit with me and discuss some of the issues that are being confused in the press and get a handle on what being the owner of the New Beverly Cinema has really been about for him.

If you have ever been to the New Beverly, you will know that Michael may not be the most outspoken person but he is unquestionably knowledgable and above all, kind and inviting. What Michael and I agreed upon for this article was that it would consist of two things: written statement and approved transcribed interview. When you see the italicized words, those are from the written statement that I received from him. It summarized many of his thoughts on the theater’s changeover in a way that he preferred. I will actively say that the difference between the words that I took on my recorder in answer to each question and those which he sent me were minimally different if at all.  So with that, I would like to state once again, this article was my idea and any words written by me are mine and do not reflect my employer’s or any organization that I happen to be involved with.

Thank you for reading.



So, Michael. There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding about the way in which the New Beverly Cinema works as a business entity in relation to Quentin Tarantino as a landlord. I think many people may think that owning the building means owning the business as well. Could you explain this a little bit?

 

Well, it’s a concept that gets confused often. And it gets frustrating for me because I can’t go out there and yell, “No! That’s not how it is!” because it is more complicated than a simple landlord/tenant relationship. But basically just like your apartment, you don’t actually own the building that you are renting your apartment from but you do own your apartment. In a sense, you are the tenant of your apartment and that’s the way it was with the theater. There was no co-mingling of our funds; there was no sale of the business at all. The ownership of the theater didn’t change at all; the only change was that the president of the corporation who ran it passed away [referring to his father, Sherman Torgan, who passed away in 2007] and his son assumed that position as the president. But nothing changed. We always had a landlord. We had a landlord in 1978 and that landlord changed in 2007 but the business didn’t change hands.

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There has been discussion about how the entrance of Tarantino as the new landlord in 2007 may have had an effect on the financials of the New Beverly and your ability to support yourself as an independent repertory house. Can you discuss this a bit?

Sometime in 2006, maybe 10 months before my dad died, Quentin got word that the New Beverly was struggling.  Business really had dropped considerably around 2002 as DVDs and home theaters became more and more common.  Back in the mid 90s, business was actually very good. Attendance typically hovered in the 85 to 200 people-a-night range, and it was pretty easy to get over a 100 people a night.  By 2006, we could still pack the theater with the right film, but so many other films that used to be sure things were suddenly getting audiences of under 50 people, often dipping into the very troubling 25 range.  It seemed that audience tastes and viewing habits had definitely changed, seemingly overnight.  This was the same time that record stores and book stores saw precipitous dips in their business and started closing in record numbers.  The digital age had changed things. 

Quentin didn’t want the New Beverly to close, so he approached my dad with an offer to help us meet the shortfall.  My dad determined that the theater was potentially losing around $5,000 a month under the current circumstances, and Quentin very heroically and generously offered to make up this difference behind the scenes.  This is not to say my dad was by any means broke.  The theater had provided him a nice living for over 20 years, my mom worked full-time all those years, and my parents had a house, and savings in the bank. Quentin gave the theater a new lease on life, and his $5,000 monthly contribution was enough for us to pay the theater’s rent and a little bit of its additional expenses, say, the electric bill, which averages $1,000 a month.

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When my dad died suddenly, I quit my job and decided to keep the theater going.  Within a few weeks of my dad’s death, our landlord of 29 years received an offer from a real estate investor to purchase the building.  By the time my landlord informed me of this, the building was already in escrow.  Sensing that the new buyer had eyes to redevelop the property into retail space once my lease was up, my mom and I informed Quentin’s office of what was happening, and, without going into specifics, Quentin was willing and able to buy the building to save both my business and the building’s use as a movie theater.

I inherited my dad’s arrangement with Quentin, and Quentin continued to supplement the business with $5,000 checks every month.  I essentially used that money in the same way as it was being used before, except now the rent money was going to Quentin, so basically he was letting us occupy his building rent free, which of course took a huge load off of the business and allowed it to operate without losing large sums of money.  We were extremely lucky.

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Without in any way trivializing Quentin’s very substantial financial contribution to the theater ($5,000 a month over the course of 7 or 8 years is a HUGE amount of money for a single person to donate to any cause, and I actually felt very guilty and funny accepting it), I do want to make clear that the theater was still substantially surviving on its own.  It costs at least $30,000 to keep the theater open, probably closer to $35,000 or more (film rental fees, film shipping, employee payroll, taxes and fees, permits, costs of goods, and all kinds of miscellaneous expenses), and, short of Quentin’s considerable donation, I was footing that monthly expense entirely on my own as the business owner.  I was not relying on any other funding like membership fees, membership donations, corporate or government grants or anything else.  The theater still very much was an independent family business, very much reliant on its nightly box office grosses.

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And the box office prices have pretty much stayed consistent over the years, right?

 

Yes. I raised the prices maybe once in the last seven years but they’ve stayed the same: $8 for a double feature, which is kind of crazy. It’s unheard of really. What people may not understand is that the cost to rent repertory titles has gone up so tremendously in the last 7 years. So a double feature can cost, at the low-end, $250, but more likely is that the double-feature that you’re seeing costs somewhere between $5-900 and that doesn’t include shipping. It’s a very expensive proposition. Having the subsidy from Quentin Tarantino probably partially allowed me to keep the prices low, but not by much.

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So let’s talk a little bit about what seems to be ruffling some feathers. The idea that since there had been digital equipment bought, the New Beverly Cinema was going digital as a preferred method of projection. First of all, how was the digital equipment financed? It’s not cheap to buy that kind of stuff.

 

I paid for it myself. I basically had cleared a very huge portion of my personal savings and I bought it. I didn’t have the energy to go through Kickstarter like a lot of theaters have…similar theaters in our same position have raised large sums of money through Kickstarter but I didn’t have the energy and I just felt funny about doing it so I just did it. I just bit the bullet. I figured that over 5 years it would pay for itself through rentals. A lot of people want to rent the theater for private screenings of their independent films so that combined with what it opened up the theater for just in terms of general programming? I figured that it would make sense over the long-term. It was a very substantial amount of money to spend at once.

Can you expand a little bit on what your intentions were in regards to bringing it in for general programming needs? I think there has been some confusion about that.

 

In April of this year, I came to the conclusion that to in order to survive I had to add a digital projector to my booth alongside the 35mm projectors.  More and more, I was finding that the kinds of newer films the New Beverly always played alongside the usual mix of repertory titles simply were no longer being released in 35mm.  Distributors like Magnolia, IFC, Rialto, etc., etc., stopped making 35mm prints for their new releases last year.  Magnolia told me that TO THE WONDER would be their final 35mm release; IFC told me that FRANCES HA would be theirs; the restoration of ALPHAVILLE was digital-only; Paramount was the first major studio to announce it had stopped making 35mm prints for major new releases; and so on and so on.  I was also constantly getting requests from filmmakers and film festivals to rent the theater, and I was having to rent a digital projector at $500 a night to accommodate these rentals, and repeatedly having to help lug a very heavy piece of equipment up and down those booth stairs. 

I was tired of doing that, and I determined that it would just make sense to finally bite the bullet and purchase a digital projector of my own.  Every single repertory venue in the entire country had already done it, and I didn’t see why the New Beverly should be any different.  So I made the tough decision to take a major portion of my life savings out of the bank, and I purchased a Christie 4K digital projector, server, and the required digital cinema sound processor.  The projector was installed on May 5th, coincidently the theater’s 36th birthday.  The cost of the projector was a huge sum of money, way more than I’ve ever spent on anything in my life.

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In no way was this digital projector meant to replace 35mm exhibition at the New Beverly.  I love and prefer 35mm, most of the repertory titles we screen only exist in 35mm and probably never will exist in DCPs, and I was going to continue to run primarily 35mm for as long as it was possible to do so.  Without 35mm, in fact, the New Beverly wouldn’t be able to exist and would really have no reason to exist.  Why and how would a repertory cinema exist without 35mm?

It just couldn’t and I’d say shouldn’t exist without 35mm.  The price to rent 35mm prints has gone through the roof in recent years (in the case of one studio, the minimum cost to run a double feature suddenly went from $400 to $900, a just-about-impossible-amount-of-money to contend with for a 2-day run), but thankfully most of the studios were not taking any of their prints away as has often been misreported in the press.  With the exception of one studio, the same 35mm prints that were available to rent in 2009, when most theaters were still 35mm, are still available to rent to this day.  In fact, a couple of the major studios are even occasionally striking new 35mm prints of select repertory titles even though I believe there is only one lab left in the entire U.S.

 

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The New Beverly Projection Booth, credit: Robyn Von Swank

So Michael- can you address the rumors that the theater is in a somewhat rundown state or that the prints that are shown are in a less-than-decent condition?

 

Well, as for the state of the theater it is certainly not rundown. We have spent a great deal of time and energy keeping it together. It’s been a combination of Quentin and myself. He spent a good amount of money to give us a new marquee and resurfaced the ceiling. On my end, as a tenant, I put a new screen in, put new speakers behind the screen, upgraded to Dolby sound, bought new projector heads (different newer ones), and put in newer seats. In 2009, we were able to get new seats from the Mann Festival in Westwood, which was shutting down. They weren’t new seats but they were newer than the ones we had. They were being offered free of charge, I just had to pay $5000 to install them in our theater.

Quentin probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the building when he bought it, but I do want to make it known that all the technical, equipment-type improvements made to the theater over the past 7 years were paid for by me as the tenant (as it should be, as those are definitely the tenant’s responsibility).  I purchased the new screen, the new stage drapes, the new carpet, the upgraded Dolby Digital sound, the new speakers behind the screen, the newer seats, brand new, top-of-the-line lenses., etc., etc.  Before the digital projector, I put tens of thousands of dollars into the place on my own. 

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And print quality at the New Beverly?

Well, we are on the trusted list; we’re a reel-to-reel venue. We run everything on 2000-ft reel changeovers, we don’t ever platter prints or build them up in any way, so we’re generally able to get the very best prints from the studios. Some of the studios (not all of them, but some) have a separate set of prints. These are prints that go to platter theaters and the other set go to theaters that will not be plattering them- the museums, the archives, and most of the repertory theaters. So we get the set of prints that run at most of the top venues in the country. I mean, I see those prints, I see the labels, and they’re the same prints. Actually, in the last 15 years, the prints have been better than ever, which is a great irony considering. You know, there’s hundreds of thousands of titles that are not available on 35mm, which has nothing to do with digital, they’re just not available anymore. But it seemed like the studios were refreshing their inventories just within the last 15 years so suddenly titles that used to only be available in faded, scratched prints were suddenly available in beautiful prints so…

What were your responsibilities as the owner of the New Beverly Cinema? Besides the obvious things people may have seen you do, like working the box office or the concession stand?

 

*Laughs a bit* Short of projecting? I guess a bit of everything really. Picking up prints. I put a lot of miles on my car picking up prints. It’s one of the ways we were able to survive is because we didn’t use a courier service. I just did a lot of things myself. So buying supplies for the concession stand, programming the calendar, payroll, changing the marquee, bills and paperwork…so it was a full-time job. I was probably there or spent about 60 hours a week at the theater.

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Thank you so much for speaking with me, Michael. The New Beverly Cinema has been a very special place for so many of us, and it wouldn’t have been without you!



There were some things that we couldn’t discuss and I didn’t press him on them. That’s the way it goes, right?

But the last thing that I want to say about Michael Torgan is that he is one of my Film Heroes. Let me tell you why.

I programmed a fundraiser film series at the New Bev during grad school that celebrated 35mm film, specifically. Michael was kind enough to make sure that my Student Film Archivist group raised a good amount of money. By allowing me to have this series and guiding me,  I was trained as a film programmer, event planner and social media “person.” I have always been very outgoing but in doing this and engaging with Michael, I learned about print availability, pricing and many other critical exhibition details.

While most people in my Archival Studies Program had internships at film and audio labs, I would argue that I interned at one of the best places in town: the New Beverly Cinema. Did I get credit in my program for it? No. I didn’t think about submitting my experience for credit. That seemed so inconsequential when I thought about how much Michael Torgan taught me about exhibition. It’s the one thing I can babble about in the morning before COFFEE and that’s saying something!

I knew Michael on a training level. While I was looking to learn about exhibition, he would instruct me. He would shake his head and smile gently, “No, Ariel, I don’t think we can get that, but that might be possible.” This was a whole different level than the movie pal that I had known up to this point and now afterwards. And yet, he was really good at counseling me in my choices and discussing the ins and outs of what it takes to run an independent movie house and why certain things were not doable.

This was one of the most valuable experiences of my life aside from actually seeing films there. Michael Torgan, once again, thank you and thank you for my New Beverly Cinema experiences. I will miss them most of all.

What Price Hollywood?: The Finale of a Family-Run Movie House

***PLEASE NOTE: ALL OPINIONS IN THIS PIECE ARE MY OWN & NOT THOSE OF MY EMPLOYER OR ANY ORGANIZATIONS WITH WHICH I AM AFFILIATED***

I remember the first time I went to the New Beverly Cinema. I was 15 years old, I was a few months off from leaving the country to go to high school in Israel, and I was smack-dab in the middle of a “party-all-the-time” summer with my best friend Nanette and her two older sisters.

I felt nervous because we were sneaking snacks in and…YOU DIDN’T DO THATNOT EVEN CARROT STICKS. Which, by the way, is exactly what we snuck in.

We were watching Reservoir Dogs at midnight.  I remember bits and pieces of the experience: where we sat, that there were guys in the theater, that they were…”t-shirt guys.” You know, the kind of sloppy dudes who were older than me but might listen to the kind of music that I had been slowly getting into, now that my hair metal and grunge days were petering out- The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Mary’s Danish….T-SHIRT GUYS. I remember the dimly lit lobby. The sticky floor of the theater. The film itself.

That was 21 years ago.

In that 2 decades of my life, I have gotten 3 degrees & 1 special certificate in cinema studies from 4 different Universities. I have studied critical theory, feminist film theory, US film history and all different kind of film preservation and moving image archive studies. I am currently the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project recipient for the Film Noir Foundation in training (hopefully) to be their official preservationist when the time comes. I work almost exclusively with 35mm film. Digital was not very popular in the 1940s, I’m afraid.

Movies are my boyfriend.

I love film more than almost anything on earth. I have spent most of my adult life studying it, sitting in dark theaters, orgasmically grinning at that dark screen, feeling goddamn lucky that I, Ariel Schudson, get to see moving images on a big screen!!!!

But if it was not for the New Beverly Cinema I would not have had the inkling of a desire to become a film archivist. The fact that I have assisted on two restorations this year makes my toes curl with joy. These films are saved for the future. I owe this to the HOURS I have spent with the beautiful people in the dark on Beverly Blvd.

I knew Sherman Torgan.  He was the man who took the New Beverly Cinema and made it the welcoming cozy movie house that I fell in love with. I grew so attached to the theater that I got into a GIANT screaming match with my step-dad about why I thought Blade Runner was totally appropriate for my 9-yr-old brother. That argument was NUTS. Sherman was the greatest guy. I got to the theater after that fight, my face puffy with tears. Sherman just let the sniffling teen girl in.

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

Sherman Torgan, relaxing on the New Bev stairs

I wish I had a picture to show you of what he looked like during the time that I knew him, but he was really the first guy that I remember understanding the idea of film community. When I moved into the New Bev area after college, he only charged me student prices (I was no student). One night we had a blissfully wonderful discussion about the audience that came for his Billy Wilder double feature.

“Sherman,” I told him, “I came alone to this double. Like I do to most films here.” I was probably 23 at the time.

He nodded, ok, so?

“I felt like I was FAMILY  with every single person IN there. Wall to wall people! That was genuinely the best movie experience I have ever had!” (I was overemphatic and excited as I still am about everything)

Sherman was a man of few words. But he said something to the effect of, “Well, they’re good movies. They’ll do that!”

I was so high off cinema that I practically flew home.

When Sherman died, it was crushing. But I watched Michael build the theater into something special. He worked hard. EVERY DAY. He never took vacations. The New Beverly was his life. Except for occasional post-screening dinners with regulars. Those were always fun. His cat passed away which (as many pet-owners know) is devastating but Michael took very little time off and dove right back into the New Beverly. He is his father’s son. Being a New Beverly Regular meant I got to see that Michael Torgan’s blood, sweat and tears were the things that drove the very organs of the New Beverly Cinema.

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Old School New Bev Regulars from 2009, RIP Jen Roach

That cinema could not run without him.

He slept there to wait for prints. He stayed until 2am to change the marquee. All the things that you do as a theater owner. Except…he didn’t own the theater. Quentin Tarantino does. So fast-forward to now. Houston, we have a problem. Houston, we have a lot of problems.

OK. One quick step back and some background- when Sherman died, the theater was in danger of closing. Tarantino stepped in and bought the land, becoming, in effect, the landlord. This was FANTASTIC!! Let’s be 100% clear about this: in no way, shape or form was this a bad thing. In fact, this was wonderful. Without Tarantino’s immense generosity, we would have lost our brilliant New Beverly Cinema 7 years ago and countless screenings, historical Q&As, and nights of 35mm brilliance. Thanks to him we have had Edgar Wright’s festivals, Patton Oswalt’s programming, festivals by Diablo Cody, Eli Roth, and Joe Dante,in addition to a film series I programmed that raised $3000 for Moving Image Archiving Students. Make no mistake about it, Quentin Tarantino’s purchase of this land was, as they say in the Fairfax ‘hood, a mitzvah!

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So skip forward to the official news that was made known today through the LA Weekly. Mr. Tarantino has decided to rescind the terms of the contract with the Torgan family. His statement, as published in the LA Weekly reads as follows:

Sherman Torgan opened the New Beverly [in 1978] and had been running it for decades. I had been going there forever. And somewhere in the last four years of Sherman running the theater, word got to me that it might close. So I started supplementing him, started giving him about $5,000 a month, to pay his bills, and meet his expenses. He never had to pay it back. I love Los Angeles, and I love the New Beverly, and I didn’t want to see it go. But then, unfortunately, Sherman died [in June 2007]. And the people who owned the property wanted to turn it into a Super Cuts. So, working through Michael, I was able to buy the property. And Michael’s been running the theater ever since. I could say, ‘Hey, Michael, can we do this, can we show that?’ but basically it’s been Michael’s baby. He’s really done a Herculean job. But after seven years as owner, I wanted to make it mine. (italics & bold mine) – LA Weekly

The Torgans have run the New Beverly for 36 years. In a highly corporate economy and city like Los Angeles, the New Bev is a well-loved family-run-business. And Quentin has had a great deal of control up to now. Basically anything he wanted to do or have, he could do or have. It was his theater. He could program anything he wanted, and have the theater anytime he asked. Any of this talk about trying to make it his is bizarre to me. I have been to several of his 2-3 month-long programming residencies and they were wonderful! The man has good taste. So what is he actually doing?

To quote Michael Torgan himself, in response to Quentin’s article (in the comments section), he states:

An important clarification to this article: like most business owners, my family did not own the physical property from which we ran our business.  We leased it since 1978, so we did not literally own the physical theater.  However, we did own the business known as the New Beverly Cinema 100%.  In addition to being the manager/chief programmer, I was also the owner of the business entirely.  This point has often been misunderstood, so I felt a need to make this statement even if I chose not to be interviewed for this piece.

So, this means that what QT is doing is relieving the Torgan Family of the New Beverly Cinema, of which they have owned for 36 years. Does this seem right to you? I can’t swallow that. Not even a little bit. There are far more decent ways that this could have gone. Destroying a family business not being first on the list. As I’ve read the comments today, people have talked all about the programming. “We’ll see what happens to the New Bev,” they’ve said, “Maybe it’ll be fine! We have to see what the programming is like.” WAIT. GUYS. Have you been living in a bubble for the last seven years?? Where have you been when QT took the entire month of March 2011 to program his birthday month? Or in 2007 when he programmed 1-2 months up until the release of Grindhouse? *insert puzzled expression here*

In the Weekly article, Quentin continues and says, “I want the New Beverly to be a bastion for 35 millimeter films. I want it to stand for something. When you see a film on the New Beverly calendar, you don’t have to ask whether it’s going to be shown in DCP [Digital Cinema Projection] or in 35 millimeter. You know it’s playing in 35 because it’s the New Beverly.” The New Beverly already DOES stand for something. This is also what makes me uneasy about QT wanting to toss out the people who have been running the theater for 36 years and “make it his own.”

I realize that many people are getting incredibly excited about the idea of a filmhouse that will be all-35mm-all-the-time, but my question is at what costWe have been talking about the loss of projectionists and 35mm theaters due to digital, but are we going to turn around and do the same exact thing to one of our own?? Does taking out a Digital Projector that is only used when it is absolutely necessary somehow diminish what the New Beverly Cinema has stood for all these years?

To this film preservationist, this decision is not in anyone’s best interest. I realize that there are a lot of emotions around this, but within my profession, I try my best to look at things critically, not emotionally, and from that perspective (shifting gears a bit) I don’t think this is a good idea. Not for the New Beverly, not for Los Angeles cinephiles, not for the continued discussion of why 35mm film is important.  886965_10200439778213465_146334779_o

Of course, we all know what this situation is really about don’t we? Sure we do. Let’s just come out and say it: digital. Everyone has been beating about the bush and mentioning the silly Wrap article as the cause of this. Let’s stop blaming The Wrap. It’s not their fault. The facts: Quentin had already made his thoughts on 35mm known. The problem is that there is no happy medium here. And there is a high level of format fetishization over film appreciation.  Ask yourself a question: would you rather watch a 35mm print for its last time ever before it falls apart forever or be able to watch a DCP of the same film? Some people will say 35mm. Simply due to the format. This is the unhealthy landscape that we have created for 35mm appreciation. A place where people aren’t aware of why Michael Torgan bought the digital system for the New Bev and how it was being used.

So let’s clear this up. I was able to get a statement from Michael about the addition of digital to the New Beverly and I think going to the source is healthier than conjecture. Provenance, y’all.

Michael states,

I installed the digital projector on May 5 of this year, so I imagine [most people] would have seen 35mm on [their] visits. The majority of our programs remained 35mm even with the new projector, and 35mm would have remained the preferred format always….I just have to say that was NEVER my intention when I made the decision to add a digital projector to my booth. 35mm would have always been the preferred format, with the digital projector there to allow us to continue the newer films we’ve always screened (but suddenly were no longer able to) as well as the occasional digital-only restoration. As a theater that runs all 35mm prints on 2,000 ft reels via reel-to-reel projection, the New Beverly thankfully still had access to lots of repertory 35mm titles from the studios, and I intended to book those prints as long as possible.

The comments that are turning up on the QT article are not unexpected but they are sad-making. Much like the digital technology changeover, these comments are favoring 35mm over human experience and that weirds me out since it is analogue we are choosing in this circumstance. Are we doing this because it’s Quentin and it’s his star power? Is it really a kind of format fetishization and intense nostalgia that will relieve us of the ability to see the time and energy that a family has spent a lifetime building? What does it REALLY  mean when a fancy filmmaker says, “After 7 years as owner, I wanted to make it mine,” and yet does not know that the New Bev already stands for film community, film devotion and film education? If it wasn’t for the Grindhouse Festival that he programmed in 2007, I wouldn’t have gotten into that genre! And the IB Tech films that he programmed were truly spectacular! I was in heaven!473764_4108270061541_2000490191_o

We are headed on the wrong track here if we allow things like this to continue. There is a necessity for both 35mm and digital in the film community. Not one nor the other but both. A friend said that he believed that 35mm theaters should show only 35mm film. Well, in my experience, those theaters may end up suffering great financial loss. Unless (as Tarantino noted) they have large collections like he does. It is extremely exciting to me that he is installing a 16mm projector. I LOVE THAT. That (again) showcases the necessity for these formats and the materials that exist (possibly) ONLY in that format!! There are films that may not have been able to be saved without a 35mm blow-up of a 16mm. My Film Saying is: never say never. But looking at this situation critically, I would never choose a format over a human. It defeats the purpose of what I do as an archivist and preservationist.

The Torgan Family is what the New Beverly Cinema stands for. And I stand behind that statement.

The Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome: Music and the Cinema

When I was in junior college, I took a class on psychology (specifically, I believe that it might have actually been biopsychology, but I’m not about to dig up those transcripts to find out, no offense!). One of the more interesting things that we learned within that class and the one thing that I have remembered to this day was that of all of your senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling) only smell was directly linked to the memory processing area of your brain. While other senses can trigger memories and have memories attached to them, none travel quite the same direct route and therefore have a very different relationship.

The olfactory (smell) cortex has an uninterrupted neural connection to the hippocampus. Uh, what? Well, basically, the way your sense of smell works? It’s on a beeline path towards your hippocampus (which I always pictured as a mini-Hippopotamus with a cap and gown on, living inside your skull, but that’s because I’m silly like that) which happens to be the very center of transferring information into memory. Oh and where is this party going down? Inside the limbic system, which is totally a part of the emotion center of your brain.

This is your brain...This is your brain with all your senses pointed out...no graduating hippopotamus, sadly.

So here’s the way I’ve generally explained the chain of events and relationship between your senses and memory and why it makes such a huge difference. I use Chocolate Chip Cookies (if you’re vegan or hate chocolate or have other dietary restrictions…well, know what? Mentally substitute your own nostalgic food!). Due to the fact that we start developing our memories as soon as we ourselves begin developing, we are going to imagine that your grandmother was a hellova baker, and baked the hell out of some chocolate chip cookies. Every time you visited. And you visited on a very regular basis because your family was less dysfunctional than everyone else’s, so you have been smelling these morsels of sugary goodness since you were gumming mom’s nipples. You are now a grown person, and Grams has unfortunately left us, as happens with our elders. One day, you are visiting the family of a friend for *insert holiday here* and all of a sudden you are nearly knocked over by the scent of…what else…chocolate chip cookies baking. However, it is not the recognition that makes your knees practically buckle, it is the fact that it is so much like your grandmother’s house and it all rushes back to you in one intake of breath.

It is a mistaken assumption to make that when you breathe something in, you merely recognize it for what the scent is. Smells are complex relationships. And what may be simply some loudmouth douchebag in front of me in line wearing too much cologne may make the woman behind me start to cry due to the fact that this was the very same scent that her former husband wore. Each person has their own set of smell-relationships that has been created due to memory and their life. Fascinating, no? Fascinating YES!

So what does smelling chocolate chip cookies and getting nostalgic for grandma have to do with cinema? Actually, quite a bit. It’s something that I am calling the Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome. While cinema clearly cannot deal with the intricacies of smell (unless you count things like Smell-O-Vision or John Waters’ version, Odorama, neither of which should be included necessarily in today’s argument), that does not mean that it has not attempted to develop a very intense relationship of its own between memory and another sense aside from that which is visual. What I wish to discuss here is sound and not simply sound but musical sound, specifically of the soundtrack variety. 

As film scholars and fans, we are all aware of the highly associative properties of a piece of music that is used in a film. But has it ever been something that you have given much thought to? Have you ever sat down and traced those associations throughout the world-at-large or, indeed, your own life?

Perhaps you have not. I have realized that I have to leave room for people who do not engage in aural stimuli as much or as passionately as I do or as my friends and associates do. Sometimes I need to step away, pull myself back, and realize that some people are just visual. And you know what? That’s totally fine. I probably will never have the same visual conception of certain things that they have. On the other hand, I will probably always feel that they are missing the film in its totality, the way it was intended. At least a little bit. This is something I will try to work on.

I think that people like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Cameron Crowe have all created films that scream, from the first to the very last reel, Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome. Especially the first two directors. The key to Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome (or CCCS for short) within a film is the meticulous ability to texture the film with something, in this case music or certain songs, and make those items so damn iconic that you will forever remember the movie every time you re-experience them.

I will never ever be able to hear “Please, Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes again without thinking of the bar fight scene in Mean Streets (1973). And while that film is arguably one of my favorite films ever made, that song doesn’t give me goosebumps. Does it please me to hear it in a random store while I’m buying detergent? HELL YES. All I can think about is the camerawork and the choreography that goes right along to the song.

Gone to a party or a club recently? OK, well even if you haven’t, there are kids out there who were not even born when Say Anything (1989) was released who are imitating the John-Cusack-with-boombox-posture when Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is played. I’ve even seen it for Halloween costumes, and the kids run around playing the song (as though we were unsure which trenchcoat-wearing, boombox-wielding weirdo they might be dressed up as…there were OH SO MANY you know!).

For my money, however, Crowe will always have me from the opening strains of Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns.” In my world it is the film Singles (1992). While the sequence that it is plays during  and the song itself may not be quite as iconic as “In Your Eyes,” they will remain, for me, embossed upon my brain, images that are always there to be sparked every time I happen to hear the song in whatever context that may occur. I hear Mother Love Bone, and I have my Chocolate Chip Cookie moment, and no one knows that my knees are jelly and my heart is all kinds of achy inside my chest.

And…well…need we mention the numerous films and associated songs that Tarantino has blessed our ears with? Really, he is remarkable in that his musical obsession seems to rival his filmic one. I’m not trying to worship the man, but as far as musical accessorizing is concerned, Quentin Tarantino is almost a special case unto himself. Tarantino’s own CCCS is so multi-generational and multilayered that he draws incredibly rare and eccentric songs from the ether and makes them into communal property. He removes them from a place of musical obscurity and re-places them into a realm that no longer simply exists within the confines of his own memorial space. Not only that, but he has given each song a creative context for which it will now forever be associated.

He uses songs like “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack in Jackie Brown (1997), even though that song was the title song of its own film from 1972. OK, OK, so perhaps that song wasn’t as rare as, say, the entire Reservoir Dogs (1992) soundtrack but it did its part to re-member certain aspects of that film genre (blaxploitation) and that era. The song set up the film and within that set-up said to the viewer that there was history here. The casting choice of Pam Grier only reified that statement, as the entire film is about a past/present conflict.

Even more efficiently than Jackie Brown, I highly doubt that there is a single person who can even one song from the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack and not associate it with the matching scene in the film (unless of course they have not seen the film, but that’s a no-brainer). Tarantino was, perhaps, one of the more significant people in the last 30 years to utilize this relationship between aural recognition, visual enjoyment and memory to catalyze his own form of synergy (in the media economics definition- this soundtrack has sold insanely well and continues to do so). He did the exact same thing two years later with Pulp Fiction (1994), and made a killing.

Media economics aside, it is the cultural economics that Tarantino has managed to manipulate through the use of aural stimulation and historical association. We all have personal relationships with these films and the music/songs contained and yet, due to the medium of film itself, we have a communal experience as well. The CCCS that we develop from the musics that we hear within a filmic context CAN sometimes be just as complicated as the olfactory relationships that are imprinted upon us throughout our lives, just in a very different way. They are, most certainly, both stemming from the same memory center/hippocampus/limbic system that has been in development since we were children!

One of the best examples that I could possibly give you of the Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome would be a working one, therefore I have chosen a personal example and one that I currently experience on a regular basis. The central component of this is the musical figure: Leonard Cohen. If, while reading this, you get the feeling that it maps out quite like a kind of family tree, you would not be wrong. In a sense, I mapped out my relationship to Leonard Cohen by creating a media family tree that involved all the different branches (of which there are quite a few odd-seeming ones) that poked out when I thought of my relationship to the music of “Leonard Cohen.”

It is almost difficult to diagram my Cohen-lution, due to the fact that I knew his work before I knew his work. While that may seem convoluted, I promise, there is a method to my madness (or so the doctors have told me…). Therefore, instead of starting at the very first time I heard a Cohen song, I will start at the place where hearing a Cohen song connected me with my own version of CCCS.

Watching this clip again, even briefly, I am imagining myself back at 19 years old. I think I was probably blown to bits by this film, even though I didn’t know it. Altman seems to me to be that kind of director. When I saw M*A*S*H (1970) for the first time a short time later, I remember being overwhelmed by how great it was. But also having a delayed sense of its brilliance. Most of the truly good stuff didn’t hit me until waaay later! My experience has always been that a good Altman film, like a proper, well-made cocktail, sneaks up on you. You taste it, you know it’s extremely intoxicating, smooth and enjoyable but what you don’t realize is that a short time later, you get an additional kick. And all of a sudden, you’re thinking, “Oooo! My cheeks are warm, the room feels delightful! Goodness, what was IN THAT THING ANYWAYS???”

That is Altman to me. So what did I get out of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)? A deeply obsessive voice that kept saying, “that damn soundtrack! I gotta have that soundtrack! Who is the guy on the soundtrack??” Mind you, I was living in Santa Cruz at the time, and therefore was pretty much in  Hippietown, USA (there was a designated corner called “Hippie Corner” for kids to spare change and busk on). I had been surrounded by hippies for most of my childhood and yet I didn’t know who Cohen was. While I admit that it’s mildly unfair to associate his entire career with the hippie subculture, this particular singer-songwriter album was very much on that track, so my first impression was that was the genre that he was part of.

The album that I searched all of Santa Cruz for and listened to RELIGIOUSLY for....good grief. I have no idea how many weeks/months. I blame Robert Altman.

After rewatching that opening scene that I posted, I have had to reconsider my notion that all I received from McCabe was the soundtrack. I’m going with the Altman-as-killer-martini concept. There is a very distinct possibility that this film truly changed me for the better and used music as the catalytic agent. I’m not necessarily comfortable discussing the film content in any depth here, as the last time I saw it was the first time I saw it, but based upon that fact and revisiting the opening piece using “The Stranger,” I will have to say that this was a piece of cinema that struck me in a way no other movie ever had. When I posted it here on my blog, I heard the guitar, saw the visuals, and literally felt like I was being transported back to when I had first experienced the film. The feeling that washed over me? Indescribable. Needless to say, when I sat down to write this and planned on including that, I NEVER expected that to happen. The irony of this entertains me quite a bit and the experience itself only underscores my own relationship with this song and, thusly, this film. Clearly, it is something that I cannot escape as it is built into me and my memory just as strongly as Gram’s cookie sweetness might be.


As a more educated Leonard Cohen scholar these days, if you asked me where I first heard Leonard Cohen, I would give you an answer that a good chunk of women my age would give you: The film Pump Up the Volume (1990).Within the film narrative, Allan Moyle uses the original version. I remember being quite taken with it, and being pretty weirded out when a chick began to sing the song. So I fast-forwarded through the song at first, and moved on to the rest of the soundtrack.

That damn soundtrack. DEAR LORD, DID I LOVE THAT SOUNDTRACK.

Bad Brains. Peter Murphy. Rollins. Pixies. Sonic Youth. Concrete Blonde. Mutha-effin' Soundgarden. Did you NEED more? If you did, I didn't wanna know you. In fact, I may still hold to that rule...um, same bands too.

First of all, there was The Pixies. THAT was a major discovery in my life. I later learned that there was a different version of The Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation,” but not having any friends at the time who were into that kind of music really (we were all more or less Hollywood metalheads with braces and Catholic school girl uniforms…danger, Will Robinson!), I just listened to the soundtrack repeatedly. Soon after, I met a friend at summer camp who made me a tape that had The Pixies’ Doolittle on one side and Bauhaus’ Burning From the Inside on the other. I may still have that cassette tape somewhere. I hope I do. I don’t think I took it out of my bright yellow Sony Walkman for the rest of the summer…and then some.

After my initial shock and disappointment at not having the actual song from the movie on my tape, I got incredibly attached to Concrete Blonde’s version of “Everybody Knows.” Lord knows this was not the first time someone had “switched it up” on a soundtrack I had bought before (and it wouldn’t be the last) but I was a bit miffed. However, as I listened to it more, the song became more ingrained upon me than the one in the film. So much so, that I barely remembered that Moyle had even used Cohen’s version in the first place!

I believe that this version became the more powerful one to me for three main reasons. First of all, it’s a brilliant song in general, no matter who is singing it. Secondly, its use in the film is critical and striking, and for a girl who was as attached to both the message and the story of that film, I was, literally hanging on EVERY frame, visually and aurally. Thirdly, as far as cover songs go, this is a really decent one. Johnette Napolitano can belt it out but…she can also emote. Within the strains of this song, she sounds exhausted, worn out and bitter as a $2 whore, but that only serves to give the song the depth it needs.

To switch a singer’s gender can be tricky for the outcome of a given song. It changes the meaning and can give it an unreasonable amount of complications. But here, it works perfectly. In fact, it worked so effortlessly and seamlessly that few people knew that this was, indeed, a cover song. I’ve never been ignorant of things, but at that age I wasn’t exactly paying attention. Here is what I did know:

The song was amazing. It rocked me. I was hooked. I couldn’t say for sure if the other girls I knew/hung out with listened to the soundtrack with as much joy and spirited pleasure as I did, but there was something about that song. It had to do with the film, it had to do with the music, it had to do with the filmmaker making the right choice and hooking me in like the little adolescent goldfish that I was. And I remained hooked for life. The first clue came a precious few months after the August, 1990 release of the film and its soundtrack.

January, 1991. I watch the “One Man and a Baby” episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. There it was. There was the VOICE. Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” was on that episode and I nearly had a heart attack. I was thrilled to pieces. I joined one of those CD clubs and bought the album Bloodletting specifically due to these events. Between Allan Boyle’s Pump Up The Volume and Aaron Spelling’s television, um, “piece,” I became a Concrete Blonde fan.

But nothing ever hit home the same way that “Everybody Knows” had. I didn’t find out until years later why: Leonard Cohen. Due to the fact that his version was only on the film and not on the soundtrack (issues of access!), my familiarity was almost entirely with her version. Thus, “Everybody Knows” has always been, more or less, associated with female vocals rather than Cohen’s own.

When I hear “Everybody Knows,” I have a very complicated response. In essence, it is the Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome, as it leads me directly back to the film I associate it with, Pump Up The Volume. However, when I hear Leonard Cohen sing it, I become very mixed up in my synthesis. Do I hear Johnette? Leonard? Do I hear a man weaving the tale? A woman? Does it matter? Is the end result the same? How do gender issues enter into a song so very complex and soaked in social politics? And how to translate the cynicism, especially through the person that I am today, versus the person that I was 21 years ago?


I don’t have an answer for those questions. And I’m very happy to tell you that I do not. If I did, then I would no longer be able to think critically about the relationship I have with these very diverse memories that all seem to share the same base camp, even if they do reside in different tents. I enjoy being able to think about this song and what it means for each person to sing it and also what it meant to me then…and now. Playing the compare/contrast game is part and parcel of my appreciation of the music.  Really, this isn’t far from the experience of finding that it wasn’t simply Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger” and other songs in Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller that rocked me, but the entire damn film! This is why music in film is important. It inspires memory. Personal and otherwise.

The association of music and film has always been a crucial one for me. From the musicals of yesteryear to the films of today that utilize music in such a way that song could not be torn from image without destroying the whole piece, the match of sound and visual is more powerful than if it were just simply one media or the other.

Film is essentially about transmogrification, anyway. If one leaves a film completely unchanged, even if it is for the worse (I hated Hangover 2, I am sorry that I saw it, but I was still altered in that I will TRY never to see such a terrible movie AGAIN), there is something dearly wrong. One of the most efficient ways in which to permanently conduct change in your audience is to associate certain things with your piece. Music can do that forever. Currently, due to the film Waltzing With Bashir (2008), I am pretty certain that I will never be able to go to any club and hear O.M.D.’s “Enola Gay” without being utterly devastated. That is power. I really loved that song, man. And…I still do. But in an entirely different WAY. If you are able to completely translate someone’s conceptions of a piece of music and forge them around your creative image, I applaud you. And I want to see your film.

It may sound silly but I am proud of having Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome. I would be a terrible audience member without it. Right now, I am your ideal audience member, even after far too many classes in film and television theory. I greatly appreciate the filmmakers who work hard to give me those “chips” so that I can TOTALLY GEEK out by myself when I’m out and I hear something like “Down in the Park” by Gary Numan and remember it not from the album Replicas or even Urgh! A Music War! (1982) but from another Allan Moyle movie entitled Times Square (1980).

We all have our own memories. Hell, we all have our own limbic systems! But let’s face it, folks- the fact that you remember that Huey Lewis contributed music to Back to the Future (1985) is no accident and no small feat. Laugh all you want, but it was creatively negotiated to match those tunes up with the film and to make damn sure that this many years later…someone remembers it- and that someone is you. The other memories surrounding Back to the Future? Where you saw it, who you saw it with, what theater or whose house? All of those things are your business, and yours alone, which is a beautiful thing.

And as some great writers once wrote in a great script, that’s the way it crumbles…cookiewise.

March Madness at the New Beverly Cinema: The Whole Bloody Affair

Standing in line tonight I had an infuriating conversation.

“Yeah, I only went to Grindhouse and Kill Bill. But I came to Kill Bill yesterday and today, and I’ll be coming some other days too. I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan,” the young man said, nodding at me wildly, trying to assure me of his fandom.

My eyes widened. They must’ve gone fiery. “No. You. Are. Not,” I calmly informed him, “if you were a ‘huge’ fan, you would’ve been to at least a few of the other shows that he programmed this month. You would not have just attended the films that he directed.”

The young man fumbled a bit and came up with a few reasons that he couldn’t be at the other shows during the month. Work, life, and so forth. Now, I will readily admit- not everyone is as big of a cinephile as I am. Very few people are. I know most of the ones in Los Angeles, and I treasure them like they are my Holy Grail. However, this specific argument upset me.

I’m not going to blame this particular gentleman. For all I know, he could have been insanely busy, and these occasions very well could have been the only times he was able to come to the New Beverly. However, what he is bringing up is an issue that I take issue with. This month we had a very special calendar. One that was very carefully and lovingly put together by Quentin Tarantino himself, as it was his birthday month.

Now, whether or not you are a fan of Tarantino, there is one thing that you cannot deny no matter how hard you try: the man LOVES film. When someone loves film as much as he does, there is a better than average chance that in a month of programming movies, there are going to be at least a couple of great choices. In addition to this possibility, even if you dislike every film on the roster, the chances of you getting to see some of them again, in actual print format, on a big screen…? Well, I don’t think I have to tell you the likelihood of that. So, if you’re into rarities, you got that going for you too. And, for those out there who are fans (and this is what really gets my goat), this month of movies is essentially serving as a microscope onto HIS films. Each film shown this month had something in it that was directly related to his own work (aside from the pieces of his own work that he showed). For me, that was the true gift. All the kids out there complaining about the fact that Quentin hasn’t done any commentaries or doesn’t take pictures with fans or assorted other excruciatingly shallow comments missed the point of the festival: this was his commentary track, guys.

I saw a plethora of great films this month. I saw a double feature of Blume in Love and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, with a Q&A with Quentin and Paul Mazursky himself. Not only did these films floor me, but they were perfectly programmed.

Paul Mazursky, 1969

While Bob and Carol will fill your heart with joy and hope for relationships and teach you that marriage CAN work and that human beings CAN properly communicate with one another if they wish to, Blume in Love will disturb the hell out of you, and teach you how one person’s ego can completely ruin a relationship to the point of disaster. Blume is fascinating in its dark horrific complexity where Bob and Carol is equally fascinating in its comedic intricacies.

Paul Mazursky, 1973

I got to put another notch on my Clint Eastwood belt and see Escape From Alcatraz (I have a goal which is to see every film either starring or directed by Clint Eastwood on a big screen- silly, I know, but whatever. It’s my dream, lemme have it!!) alongside this INSANE film called I Escaped From Devil’s Island. What can I really say about Devil’s Island except that any movie that has alternative male sexuality, native nymphomaniac women wielding coconuts as weapons (and no tops), a prison camp narrative, and random bits of stock footage shark sequences pretty much automatically has my heart. That movie don’t fool around, no way, no how.  And will I ever get to see such a beautiful print of that again? Nope, I seriously doubt it.

William Witney, 1973

And then, of course, there was Rod Taylor night…the night that so many of my friends were looking forward to and I was so very interested in. To be frank, I had only a peripheral knowledge of Taylor. I knew him slightly, but so many people whose opinions I valued so very highly were so very very excited about this event that I knew I had to attend. Once again, my lovely cineaste-cohorts were not mistaken. While I felt a bit embarrassed about not knowing more about the actor and yet being excited about the night, I was more excited about learning what I had been missing. See, I’m not one of those people who will fake it if I don’t know something or haven’t seen something. I will come right out and tell you, here and now, I have never seen Jaws. Go ahead, make fun if you like, but my first time seeing it will be on a big screen dammit, and I. Will. Have. A. Blast. In any case, I figured that this could only be another case of me getting to know a new person in my life! So, I strapped on my Rod Taylor MAN-boots, and went to the double of Dark of the Sun and Hell River. While I greatly preferred Dark of the Sun, Quentin’s intro to the films and his enthusiasm for Taylor was catching. I was an instantaneous fan, and a few days later at stupid o’clock in the morning, I found a Rod Taylor film playing on TCM, and I totally watched it.

Jack Cardiff, 1968

I saw so very many things this month from Tarantino’s programmed calender. I watched Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981) along with Sydney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971). I finally got to see Stone (Sandy Harbutt, 1974) and enjoyed the living HELL out of the moonshine double-feature of White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973) and Last American Hero (Lamont Johnson, 1973).

While I didn’t see everything, I saw quite a bit of what was offered. While I didn’t like everything I saw, what I liked, I loved. I think my favorite part of the whole deal was that for a month straight not only did I see my film-friends at the movies (who also seemed giddy at the chance to see rare films on the big screen) but we were all having fun. The main theme in all of these films was a kind of energy that is endemic to the Tarantino product. Each film projected held some kind of spice that Quentin has used to build his own works, and not in some “rip-off” way as I used to believe. I also do not believe it to be simply homage either, but that is due to tonight’s viewing of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

I will readily admit that I was never a huge Tarantino fan. I always adored him for Rolling Thunder Pictures and was forever grateful for his help in making Wong Kar-Wai a “film household” name. I always respected his film knowledge and I always admired his passion for cinema as it seemed as gargantuan and as intense as my own. While I have often gotten made fun of over the years for my obsessive devotion and outspokenness in regards to the Seventh Art, so, too, have I heard people knock him for the very same thing. But in my world there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting seriously excited about something that you love dearly and that gives you so much joy .

In any case, suffice to say that I certainly liked his films a lot but didn’t love them. Except maybe Jackie Brown. For some reason, I really loved that one. But that’s a whole other blog entry for another time. My fandom was basically predicated primarily on his self-achieved academic success and only partially on cinematic product. Things have since changed a bit. And this is where his March programming at the New Beverly fits in.

As I moved through the month with my friends and we cheered and clapped and laughed our way through the films, I noticed other things besides the fact that there were certain running themes of moonshine, racing cars/motorcycles, Dyan Cannon, and prison escape. There was cinematic tension to be sure, but I also started recognizing elements that Tarantino had taken from these particular types of films (and sometimes exact films) and used for his own- the “spice” I mentioned earlier. Many people have seen this as a kind of “lifting” or “borrowing,” which would ultimately mean that a Quentin Tarantino film is nothing but a collage. People accuse him of being nothing but a rip-off artist. Years previous to now, I might have agreed. But after having seen many of the films being paid homage to and worked with, I see that that is not at all what Tarantino ends up creating in his own pieces. Even by placing actual set-pieces that are almost identical mirror-replicas from the original source (ie the fight scene in Kill Bill between Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman in the snow is shockingly similar to one in a film called Lady Snowblood) it does not mean that the film itself is a “rip-off.” In fact, to me, it is the exact opposite. While that scene may end up becoming part of the history of that piece, certainly, it does not cause the initial piece of cinema any harm nor does it mean that the new cinematic creation is carrying all the little bits and pieces of meaning from the “first draft.” After all, no one got angry at George Lucas for “ripping off” Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces with Star Wars, did they?

What Tarantino manages to do is something that I have written on many times- he creates a kind of cinematic palimpsest; something that only someone who truly loves the originating work can do with any modicum of success. Now whether you like/love/hate/feel indifferent towards his own films, his meticulous ability to create new and exciting media while reworking older visuals and themes is to be respected. There is indeed much within Tarantino’s film content that may indeed seem familiar. OK, fair enough. But to oversimplify the work and say that his films are mere pastiche is to underestimate the original content and downplay the effect of the newly created feature. I have many compatriots who are not fans. To each their own. My take is that, regardless of personal feelings on the content, one should be able to respect the construction. And as far as that is concerned, Tarantino just keeps getting better every film he makes.

What happened this month for his birthday celebration that was so very fabulous was that he revealed that construction- he told his New Beverly audience what goes into making a Tarantino film. This was quite a bit different to the last festival he did at the New Beverly, which was the Grindhouse Film Festival, back in 2007. That was another one that knocked my socks off. In fact, I went to so many shows, I couldn’t remember the exact number! My ex-boyfriend reminded me that I only missed 2 out of 25. It was another awesome engagement, but that one was focused on celebrating the release of the film Grindhouse (2007), thus they were all GRINDHOUSE features. This month? It was a slow build-up, and you HAD to be there. If you missed it, then you missed out.

As a cinematic architect, Quentin Tarantino built up the entire program this month in accordance with showing the grande finale which was Kill Bill: the Whole Bloody Affair. The last films I saw before I saw Kill Bill were the films contained in the triple martial arts feature: Avenging Eagle (1978), Duel of the Iron Fist (1971), and Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1973). I believe that the first two films were the very first Shaw Brothers films I had ever seen in my life, although I cannot say for certain. Going to college in Santa Cruz, I have to admit that there were several times I found myself hanging out with young men who would light up a joint and toss on a kung-fu movie, while I sat there amused on the couch, drinking a beer. In any case, I was totally consumed by the ones I watched at the New Beverly. Unlike those lazy college afternoons, I was sitting in my favorite movie theater watching an incredibly colorful print and engulfed in some pretty intense storylines regarding honor, friendship and respect. Avenging Eagle was undoubtedly my favorite (and not just because the stars were super hot). This film got me due to the fact that the narrative had a wild amount of humor intermixed with the drama and the physical dynamics that were truly on a different level than anything I had seen (at least recently). It was shot in such a way that the camera work itself seemed balletic alongside the intensely beautiful martial arts.

What I remember noticing as well was that each fight told its own story. Being a noir scholar, I felt that these fight sequences were not dissimilar to the way that noir cinematographer John Alton used to talk about physical darkness in film: he said that there was more contained within and more fullness/usefulness to shadow than there was in light. Thus he used more dark. If you see any of his films, they are some of the BLACKEST films ever committed to celluloid. Now, I’m definitely an action girl. I dig me some Die Hard, some Commando, some Lethal Weapon and many more. But what action films seem to do and martial arts films do not is weave the action directly into the narrative. Martial arts films create a very significant and almost sacred space for the action to take place in. Within the films we are used to, the action simply is part and parcel of the film, just as most films are shot using light as a method of focus. Alton’s theory of using darkness to flip things around was significant. It said: read this film differently- this is not your standard film, with your standard everyday narrative. And, indeed, Alton’s films were most definitely not standard fare. Watching these Shaw Brothers films and seeing these action sequences spoke to me on that same level.

I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to see Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, to be honest. It sold out in no time flat. I was gut deep in the middle of writing something for the Film Noir blogathon when they went on sale, and totally missed out. To be honest, I wasn’t that upset. I thought, “No big deal, so there’s gonna be s’more gore, in color, it’d be cool…but I missed my chance at a ticket. Oh well!” I got lucky. And I am so very very thankful that I did.

New Beverly Cinema, March 28, 2011

I would like to point you towards two lovely write-ups that have been done on Kill Bill, as they are smart, succinct and perfectly written. They also go into quite different arenas than I will. However, I think they deserve to be read, as they assist me in my argument on why this version of the film is so wonderful. The first, from Mr. Beaks at Ain’t it Cool News, is a beautifully composed piece that essentially posits: “Shorn of commerce-conceding baggage, turns out KILL BILL is a masterpiece after all.” The second, from Todd Gilchrist over at Cinematical, discusses all the things that were done correctly in this updated version and the things that he feels were not necessary. Both pieces say much of what I feel on the subject and are exceptionally written. In addition to those pieces, however, I have a few thoughts that I would like to share.

I like to refer to myself as a feminist film theorist. People bristle when I say that…I could care less. But I’m that chick that has a raging hard-on for horror films, action films, Giallo, pre-code and noir and finds very little that is “anti-women” in any of it. I don’t think violence inflicted upon a female in a film is, in and of itself, misogynistic. You have to really prove to me that there is misogynistic intent. Then again, there are so many films that are furiously angry towards women in such a way that it cannot be immediately understood. To me, those are the most dangerous pieces of media. Then again, it’s a very tricky area with lots of fine lines. That said, I would like to argue that Kill Bill:The Whole Bloody Affair is, by and large, one of the strongest pro-female films I have ever seen. Indeed, I feel that Tarantino himself is an incredibly pro-female director. Unlike many filmmakers who divest their female characters of all their agency (and yes, this does include some female filmmakers sometimes) Tarantino’s modus operandi is to instill as much power in his ladies as possible. Powerful examples of this (aside from basically every female character in Kill Bill) include the characters played by Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997),

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown...The New Beverly showed several trailers of her early films during March; films that clearly influenced the way Tarantino chose to portray women in film

Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Death Proof (2007), and both Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna/Emanuelle in Inglourious Basterds, the brave and talented projectionist who, essentially, wins the war through her actions in the film

The empowerment that the women in his films receive is, by and large, more effective than the empowerment that I have seen any women receive in “chick flicks.” But then again- perhaps Kill Bill is just my kind of Chick Flick. Tarantino uses the Kung-Fu rhetoric within Kill Bill to establish and discuss the reclaiming of power within one woman, played by Uma Thurman.

Uma Thurman as The Bride/ Beatrix Kiddo

He leads us, through several different time shifts, through her multiple rebirths. He shows her powerful as a well-oiled machine and as helpless as a newborn baby and aligns us with her each time through her direct address. And just at the point in the film when she is the most powerless, when she has been stripped of all possibilities of escape and the world at large thinks she has been, literally, laid to rest…she is reborn yet again through her inner strength that she was trained to translate into outer strength. Now…seriously…how new-age-y does that sound, right? But that’s what happens. And it’s damn BLOODY. Holy CRAP.

The devastation of the Crazy 88 in The Whole Bloody Affair takes on a whole different meaning than it did before. The additional footage and the fact that it was entirely in color made the scene completely seamless. By repairing the color consistency and removing the black and white shots, the whole thing reads more like the gore-filled ballet of beauty it was intended to be.

Just as I noticed that the Duck hood ornament from Deathproof was the same one featured prominently in the trailer for Convoy showing right before Five Minutes to Live (Bill Karn, 1961), I realized that many of the elements that had been featured in the martial arts triple feature were the ones focused upon in Kill Bill. Honor, integrity, physical dexterity/ability, and (most importantly) revenge. However, placing it within western confines and the female spectrum lent it a uniquely new flavor. While Tarantino clearly used the original Kung-fu films as part of the original thematic parchment, the strong female iconography was the other main layer he put on top, in addition to the other, more aesthetic ones (the anime section, the graphic violence, etc). In total, his Kill Bill palimpsest reflected the Shaw Brothers title card that he slated at the very beginning of the picture, but also each of the additional filmic influences, from Lady Snowblood to The Searchers. Through this combinatory tactic, Quentin Tarantino created a new product that we know as Kill Bill and is best seen as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

If one were to look closely at Deathproof or Inglourious Basterds or his other works, you could see the same kind of architecture. They are all cinematic palimpsests: layered parchments that reflect the past but have new stories written upon them. Cinema itself is like that, a kind of self-reflexive medium, so it is no surprise that Tarantino’s work would constant reflect and refract its own history. But his twist is that it is not simply mirroring, it is creating as well. And to me, that is impressive.

I know that what I learned this month was that I really don’t need any damn commentary for a Quentin Tarantino film, because I needed to know about Tarantino films, I learned at the New Beverly Cinema. Thanks again guys for an amazing month. See ya in the front row soon!