When I first moved to New York from California, I looked forward to March as the official end of winter. This is a trap. As all seasoned northeasterners know, spring only technically begins in March. Cold weather will linger for a couple more months yet, and March is arguably the worst because by this point your patience for snow and ice has worn thin.
On the upside, it gives you a good excuse to shelter inside a movie theater. Below are some highlights of things to see in March, and check out my Film Guide for a full calendar of upcoming revival screenings.
First stop: BAM’s ongoing series “Black & White ‘Scope: American Cinema.” From their website:
Behold some of the most stunningly photographed films of all time. In the late 1950s, sumptuous black and white met CinemaScope. The result was a cinematic era that married the dramatic chiaroscuro of monochrome with the expressive freedom of the widescreen frame. Lensed by some of film history’s most renowned cinematographers—James Wong Howe, Joseph LaShelle, and Gordon Willis, among others—these shimmering black-and-white beauties demand to be seen on the big screen. (bam.org)
This series has several titles that jumped out at me, but I’m most excited about “The Tarnished Angels” (1957). I’m a sucker for Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, and this one features Dorothy Malone who previously caught my attention in Sirk’s “Written on the Wind” (1956), in a performance that must have influenced the early career of Ann-Margret.
And if it’s melodrama you’re after, you’ll have to check out “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) at the Nitehawk, featuring Liz Taylor doing one of the best movie screams of all time. This is part of their March brunch series “Committed,” a selection of films set in mental institutions. This series also includes one of my favorite silent films, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). A creepy exploration of the dark corners of German Expressionism, it’s perhaps the closest anyone’s ever come to capturing a nightmare on film. Perfect brunch fare, right?
I love silent movies. They float between dreamy and nightmarish. Silent filmmakers didn’t bother trying to replicate the real world. What would be the point? They created their own worlds, they experimented, they pushed and expanded the boundaries of their craft. For about ten or fifteen years. Then they disappeared. Usurped forever by talkies.
My admiration for silent films may be in tandem with my love of history. These “moving pictures” are so old they feel like relics. One of the oldest, “The Birth of a Nation,” celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year and is part of Film Forum’s D.W. Griffith retrospective. This is a film that serious lovers of cinema need to see and appreciate. Griffith pioneered the use of close-ups, intercuts, and other techniques that are so fundamental to filmmaking that it’s hard to imagine that movies ever existed without them.
A casual viewer will be oblivious to Griffith’s genius. I mean that not as an insult to casual moviegoers, but as a compliment to Griffith. His greatest achievement is that the innovations in his films are no longer visible. He designed the grammar for a universal language – the language of film – and the generations that followed him have completely absorbed and internalized it.
Its technical aspects aside, “The Birth of a Nation” is a challenging film to watch. Griffith apparently had no idea he was making a racist manifesto, and spent the rest of his career apologizing for it, most famously with his three-hour epic “Intolerance” (1916), also in Film Forum’s retrospective. And his love stories have a gentle sweetness about them that make you wonder about the man who contained such multitudes.
“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean?” So said Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens” (1975), also on view at Film Forum this month. Here is a documentary about how living people can turn into relics. It unfolds as a fable about two women who retreat inside their East Hampton mansion, reasoning that if they never see that the world has changed, they can imagine that it hasn’t.
“Grey Gardens” is a cautionary tale. Edith Beale, the elder, tells her daughter Edie, “You’re in the world. You’re not out of the world.” But it’s only true in the sense that they occupy space. They stopped living in time, and paid the price. Their mansion rots and falls apart, and their minds don’t fare any better. One watches this film with mouth agape as these two former aristocrats lounge in a room full of garbage and pretend that cat food is liver pâté.
This reminds me, I need to return to the world of time. There’s a lot more to see in March, so I’ll post an addendum soon.