Going to the Movies

by John Bloner, Jr.

My DNA looks like two strips of celluloid, dancing with each other. I inherited this double helix from my grandfather, John Jackob, who worked as a movie theatre projectionist in Kenosha during the 1920s and through the Great Depression.

My father had an appetite for movies about fast cars and airplanes. When I was seven, he took me to the Keno Drive-In to see Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. I fell asleep partway through it, but can still sing a few lines from its title song. That experience and my father’s love of aviation led to my one bout with acting, as the title character in a late 1980s public access television show, The High-Flying Adventures of Stosh Kowalski. Hollywood never called, though, so I retired my leather helmet, silk scarf, and foot-long cigar.

My love affair with movies grew stronger in the 1970s, recognized as a high water mark for movies. Michael Wilmington, from the Chicago Tribune, wrote: “The scripts were better, the ideas more daring, the execution freer, and most of all, the connections to the real world of American life outside much stronger and deeper.”

Francis Ford Coppola gave us The Godfather, Parts I and II, and Apocalypse Now. Martin Scorsese directed Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Woody Allen created Annie Hall and Manhattan, Steven Spielberg made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars arrived in 1977 and The Deer Hunter came out one year later.

Directors from the USA weren’t alone in making great films. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, German directors Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders, French filmmakers Francois Truffaut , Luis Buñuel, and Jean Luc Godard, and Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman produced new classics in that time period.

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and actress Hanna Schygulla

In 1982, one of my favorite films, Fanny & Alexander, directed by Bergman, was released. This movie moves from the opulence of a Swedish family’s Christmas Eve party to the severe austerity of a Lutheran bishop’s home, and finally to the home of an antiques dealer, where magic is afoot and a murderous fantasy is realized. Molly Haskell, writing for the Criterion Collection, comments on the “liminal space between dream and reality” in which this film and its characters take place.

Bergman, like his Russian counterpart, Andrei Tarkovsky, or the Japanese master, Akira Kurosawa tower over their contemporaries and everyone who has made a film since their time.

Photo of the lobby at the Oriental Theatre, Milwaukee, WI by Shadowlink1014

I also love movie theaters, not the cookie-cutter cineplexes, but places – palaces is a better term – like the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, where the parting of its velvet curtains still provides a thrill (as does the real butter from its concession stand.)

A few of my favorite moments there include my first visit to its silent film screenings, 20 years or so ago, to witness organist Dennis Scott and his 1931 Kimball rise up from the stage floor as he played, Let It Snow, while a blizzard ravaged the city. I returned many times to the Silents Please! series and was saddened when it ended. I recall a Silents Please! store (with a massive Wurlitzer in its front window) at 321 Main in downtown Racine, but I don’t think it ever opened it doors.

In 1984, I drove to the Oriental Theatre on three consecutive days to view the film, Berlin Alexanderplatz, all 15.5 hours of it, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. There were plenty of seats available in the theater by the third night, but the place wasn’t as empty as the time I had the entire auditorium to myself for a screening of Hearts of Darkness, a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now. I was the only one there, and I am surprised the concession stand staff and I don’t exchange Christmas cards from the bond we formed on that occasion.

I once told my wife, Roberta, that when I die, I want my ashes scattered on its theater floor, until she reminded me I would wind up in the trash, swept up by an usher to be mingled with popcorn kernels and some squashed Jujubes.

Last month, I invited artists and writers to submit work to my monthly zine, Moss Piglet, on a theme of the magic of movies. One of our contributors was Ted Haines, a foam-fabricator for Hollywood. Ted was born in central Wisconsin, where he spent his childhood cutting up couches for foam material and once nearly burned his ancestral home to the ground because of his experimentations.

His life was transformed in 1977 when nine-year old Ted witnessed a screening of Star Wars. Afterward, he ate, slept, and breathed everything film, monsters and model building.

For over 30 years, he’s made creatures, costumes, and props for over 300 films, TV shows, commercials and music videos, including Pulp Fiction, Iron Man, Blade 2, Spiderman 2, Where The Wild Things Are, From Dusk Till Dawn, War of the Worlds, Jingle All The Way, and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

As a personal project, he fashioned his own Grand Master of the Jedi, Yoda, and brought him to Wisconsin last winter.

Many other artists contributed to the Movies-themed issue of the Moss Piglet zine including Ashi Tara, DW Pleez, Mary Bamborough, Mary Nelson, Rhianna O’Shea, Sylvia Pavlova, Ted Haines, Terry Evans, Wes Fallon, PM Fallon, Jo Thul, and Zelia Zeta. A link to a digital version of this publication will be posted soon for this article.

I also created some artwork of movies and movie stars, including an alien from the Tim Burton film, Mars Attacks!, movie bombshell Brigitte Bardot, Charlie Chaplin (in a reimagined version of his movie, The Kid), a title card from the silent classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, an imagined version of The Wizard of Oz in which the actress Jane Russell takes over the role of Dorothy Gale, and my portrait of silent film star and Jazz Age icon Louise “Lulu” Brooks.

An article about the movies wouldn’t be complete without a top ten list, so if you’ll silence your phones and take your seats, I’ll part the curtains to reveal my selections.

Joe Versus The Volcano, directed by John Patrick Shanley

Reviews of this film were mostly terrible when this picture, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, was released in 1990, but I loved it then and now. It’s a comedic variation of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey told through a tale of a hapless Joe, played by Hanks, who quits his dead-end job when his doctor tells him he has only months to live and sets sail for the Pacific Island of Waponi Woo where he’s agreed to jump in its volcano to appease its fire god and save the villagers.

John Patrick Shanley, who directed this film, also wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck. Both movies have goosebumps moments as their characters contemplate our rocky satellite. They’re both big-hearted romances populated by people with operatic emotions.

I Married A Strange Person, created by Bill Plympton

“His hand-drawn animation style is impressionistic, a garish combination of water colors and pencils,” writes film critic Simon Abrams at RogerEbert.com. Abrams calls the animator, “a sensualist, and unabashed lover of muscular, grotesque images … also a master fantasist, and a genius when it comes to surreal sight gags, crude sexual humor, and almost every other kind of slapstick-y, physical humor.”

In this R-rated, 73-minute feature, a newly-married man discovers a boil on his neck which gives him the power to reshape reality. This sentence, nor any words, can begin to describe what you’ll see in this picture. In an interview for Animation Scoop, Plympton tells Jerry Beck, he found his inspiration in Japanese animation: “I was just amazed in how far they pushed the envelope in terms of sex and animation, the surrealism, and it’s just the outrageousness of the Japanese animation. I said, ‘I want to do that, but I want to make it funny.'”

The Germans have two words for funny. There’s lustig, which is funny/hah-hah, and seltsam, which is funny/strange. I Married A Strange Person is both lustig and seltsam.

Kiki’s Delivery Service, created by Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki fans may cry for me to place Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, or My Neighbor Totoro on this list ahead of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but this melancholy tale of a young girl on her own hero’s journey pierces my heart every time I watch it.

Red Cliff, directed by John Woo

Film audiences know John Woo for his action films – Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and Mission Impossible 2 – but I prefer this five-hour epic, which is a combination of a love story, buddy film, and action flick, mixed in with history. It’s based  on the Battle of Red Cliffs (208–209 A.D.) and the events at the end of the Han dynasty and immediately prior to the Three Kingdoms period in imperial China. Fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will love this film.

Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa

I could have placed many other films by Kurosawa on this list, including his interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays, but Seven Samurai was my first foray into the master filmmaker’s catalog and its images left their mark on me. In 16th century feudal Japan, a poor farming village is besieged by raiders, carrying off their rice crop. They meet a samurai who helps them recruit other warriors to train them and help them defend their homes and fields from a future invasion. Toshiro Mifune shines in his role as one of these men; he isn’t a samurai, but instead a vagrant with a comically-large sword who is eager to belong to the battle.

The Kid Brother, starring Harold Lloyd

Name one silent film star. Bet you said, Charlie Chaplin, didn’t you? Or perhaps you called out, “Buster Keaton!” or “Clara Bow!” Harold Lloyd not only produced, in my opinion, the greatest silent film ever made, he created one of the best films ever when he starred in The Kid Brother, playing the hapless youngest sibling in a family of a rugged father and his other two brutes. It’s been called the male version of Cinderella, but Cindy never had to outwit her sisters from being pummeled in the way that Lloyd’s character, Harold Hickory, deals with in every waking moment or from being killed by a medicine show’s strongman. The Kid Brother was Lloyd’s favorite film of the 300 in which he was involved in his career, and is my favorite, too.

Topsy-Turvy, directed by Mike Leigh

She isn’t a household name, but Scottish actress Shirley Henderson shines in every film in which she’s involved, no matter how small or large her role in it. If her name is in the credits, I know I’m in for a good time. In Topsy-Turvy, filmgoers are treated to a behind-the-scenes adventure in which the librettist Gilbert and composer Sullivan create the comic opera, The Mikado, while dealing with their own foibles and those of cast members, including the real-life Leonora, played by Henderson, as an unwed mother and alcoholic who lands the plum role of Yum Yum, leading the music and dance in several scenes.

Fans of the film Amadeus will love Topsy-Turvy. Both are rich in character, setting, music, and costuming, as well as fabulous actors. Check out Shirley Henderson in Stan & Ollie, Trainspotting, Yes, and my next section, Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom

Director Michael Winterbottom and actors/comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon make their art look effortless. They’ve worked together in the quartet of films, derived from the British TV series, The Trip (2010-2020), wherein Coogan and Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves, taking verbal jabs at each other as they travel around England, Italy, Spain and Greece, while also playing games of one-upmanship with their impressions of other actors. Michael Caine is a favorite one.

In Tristram Shandy, Coogan and Brydon play contemporary actors in a film-within-a-film, hired to play roles in an adaption of the 18th century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, written by Laurence Sterne, as they live out their personal dramas. Coogan is an insecure thespian who’s pregnant girlfriend is on set, while he flirts with an earnest assistant. Brydon is not content to play second-fiddle to Coogan, asking wardrobe department to modify his shoes to make him taller and badgering him in their dressing room, where he bares his teeth and queries Coogan about their color. Do they remind him of a Tuscan sunset? A barley meadow? Perhaps the decorations in a baby’s room. They’re not yellow, he says, but a shade known as “not-white.”

Tristram Shandy is a cinematic romp. Worthy of Monty Python comparisons, in parts, and This Is Spinal Tap, in others.

Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman

If I could be transported into any motion picture, I’d choose to visit Fanny & Alexander, whose opening section takes place on Christmas Eve, 1907, in the Swedish town of Uppsala, where the matriarch of the Ekdahl family is entertaining in her opulent home, where we meet young Alexander, who, it’s not difficult to imagine, is representative of the movie’s director, as Bergman expresses in his book, The Magic Lantern.

I think back on my early years with delight and curiosity. My imagination and senses were given nourishment, and I remember nothing dull; in fact, the days and hours kept exploding with wonders, unexpected sights, and magical moments. I can still roam through the landscape of my childhood and again experience lights, smells, people, rooms, moments, gestures, tones of voice, and objects. 

Baraka, directed by Ron Fricke

This movie is 97 minutes of trying not to blinkOmer M. Mozzafar

The film, Baraka, is called a documentary, but a better term for it would be a meditation. It’s a meditation on mankind and how we treat each other and our planet. Another term can be found in the film title’s translation: a blessing,

Baraka has no narration; it unfolds like a flower. It opens like an eye on our world. It’s Yeats’ cold eye, witnessing beauty in a Japanese macaque, rising from the steam of a hot spring, and terror in the remnants of a torture chamber of the Khmer Rouge. It’s a film that exists out-of-time like a Buddhist monk, engaged in walking meditation, moving slowly and purposefully on a Japanese urban street while others bustle around him. It’s the best film ever made.

Photo:
Capitol Theatre Windsor Marketing Group

What are some of your favorite films? Has your own list changed throughout the years? I’d love to hear about them. Drop me a note in the comments section or share one on Facebook.

See you next week.

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