Monday, January 18, 2016

Kings of the Road

My first encounter with Wim Wenders' film Kings of the Road was seeing the entire film as a physical thing, seeing it as six full reels of 16mm film. This was in the days of campus film societies, which would rent 16mm prints of films and show them in campus lecture halls for a dollar or so on evenings and on weekends. I was on the committee that selected the films and I also wrote the film reviews for the campus paper, so every Tuesday or Wednesday, when the rented films arrived, I would screen them and write about them for Friday's student paper.

My friend Scott and I opened the box that came in the mail and looked at all those reels inside it. Normally a feature was on four or even three reels. This three hour film was on six or so. We were excited to get the film on the projector and start seeing it, not so much because we had already seen many of Wenders' films and wanted to get our eyes and ears on this one, but mostly because of what we had read about him and his position in the New German Cinema movement. Maybe I had seen The American Friend already. Certainly Scott had. He was from Seattle, where there were more opportunities to see films outside the mainstream than there had been in the Montana city that I was from. All I knew is that I couldn't wait to see this film, even though all I knew about it was the cryptic catalog description in the film rental listing.

We tried to thread the first reel, but the sprocket holes were on the wrong side. The film was tails out on all the reels, which meant that the film hadn't been rewound the last time it had screened, and the beginning of each reel was near the core and the end was nearest us. As we started to rewind the first reel we noticed how dusty the film was. We scrambled to find a cloth and then lovingly held the cloth to the strip of film as each reel rewound. By the time we were ready to play the film we had a small mound of dirt on the table and the cloth that we had removed from the long strip of film.

Before the first images of the film flashed on the screen we had had something of a holy encounter with it, feeling the whole movie, getting glimpses of it from its tiny images, seeing them float past us in a blur, our excitement and curiosity building by the minute.

By the time the film was over, we were dazed and it was in the wee hours. I remember it being the middle of winter and a cold walk home but those images were still so solid in my mind and I had no idea what to write about this film.

Cut to thirty years later and I'm going to the Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul at St. Anthony Main to see Kings of the Road with my partner Beth and it's an impossibly cold January day. We are going to see a painstakingly restored digital projection of the film. There are no more dancing dust particles and wandering vertical scratches in the German skies in this print of the film, and I'm seeing the film in the full 1:1.66 aspect ratio that it was filmed in and originally intended to be seen in. I'm not sure, but most of the 16mm prints we would show when I was in college had cropped off edges to fit the squarer 4:3 TV shape.

The film is being shown as part of a retrospective of film from Wenders' career. Earlier in the day Beth and I had seen his film Alice in the Cities, and now we were back for a second Wenders.
Kings of the Road begins with its technical specifications spelled out, its aspect ratio, that it is in black and white, the dates and locations of filming, the fact that the sound was recorded on location, a full listing of the cast and crew. The film starts and ends with bookends that are almost documentary scenes of movie theater oldtimers talking about the days of cinema past. The starting speech is by a man who started his career as a theater pianist and talks about the glory days of accompanying Fritz Lang's two part Nibelungen film with other musicians. The film ends with a woman talking about why she keeps her theater running, but shows no films at it. She does not accept the films of today, which are repulsive to her, and thus she does not show them, but keeps her projectors in repair in case the glory days of cinema return. These two are the grandfathers and grandmothers that own the theaters and that are referred to throughout the rest of the film, but we see them only in these scenes that come before and after the main story of the film. The woman at the end says that she believes that movies are "the art of seeing."

Al Milgrim, who is in his 90's, is perhaps the pre-eminent grandparent of the local art cinema scene as the director for years of the University Film Society. Beth and I saw him in the lobby as we were getting our tickets for Kings of the Road and he talked about bringing these Wenders films to town years ago, along with their director, who he had a chance to meet. Milgrom talked the manager of the theater into letting us in without paying. We tried to talk him out of this, but he insisted. If films are the art of seeing, Milgrom has helped so many people in the twin cities see.

In between those interviews with the cinema grandparents lies the rest of the 3 hour Kings of the Road. It is one of those new films that the woman with the closed cinema was talking about. It has a couple scenes that the old timers wouldn't approve of, but mostly it is a slow and steady tale of a friendship that develops over short bursts of dialogue and long stretches of silence, of just being. The original German title literally means "In the Course of Time."

The characters are a motion picture projector repairman who drives from one small town theater to another along the East and West German border, and a linguist who specializes in child language acquisition. The linguist, Robert, recently separated from his wife. He drives his Volkswagon beetle into a river in spectacular fashion, either in a suicide attempt or just grand frustration. The projector repairman is there shaving to laugh at Robert's sinking car.

Some dry clothes for Robert lead to the two of them sticking together, first silent but with looks and then gradually telling each other small parts of their stories. As they go from one town to another to fix theater projectors, they run into other people, a group of unruly kids at one theater who they end up entertaining by making shadow play on the screen; a man whose wife has just driven her car into a tree, killing herself; a young woman who works at her grandmothers theater and bonds fleetingly with the repairman; Robert's father, who sleeps in his equipment-strewn printing shop, and who Robert can only talk to by printing up a special edition newspaper out of all his suppressed rage.

The film is a deep exploration not of theaters, but of theater projection booths, the small rooms way up high over the audience where the gigantic pair of film projectors live and poke their noses out of small windows. These are not room that the public sees - instead of the curtains and chandeliers of the theater auditoriums there is peeling paint, exposed plumbing, and rough plaster. One of the booths featured in the film is so isolated that it is accessible only by walking on the roof of the building next door. The projectionist is like a gargoyle looking down with stillness upon the house and the image on the screen.

In one of the last scenes of the film, the men dismantle the projectors in a theater that has closed, and leave behind a stark empty booth, a room of wires and nothing on the walls but a series of faded 8 x 10 magazine images of movie stars from long long ago. Take away the movie star images and it could be almost any theater projection booth today.

When I was in third grade I did a report about motion picture projectionist as a career. Back then it could be a career, a job for one person to sit up in that booth and watch the single film the theater played so carefully that he could make the reel changes between two projectors without anybody even knowing. Motion theater projectionists were a lonely lot, up in that room, but they had all the people in the theater below them, all those people depending upon them to keep the dream of movie going without interruption, without noticing how smoothly the projectionist is doing his job.

The booths in the theaters that are still around don't even necessarily have to be small rooms - they only need to have enough space for a digital projector and a bank of audio panels. One person can operate all the projectors in a multiplex through a video server on a single computer. You don't have to be a professional projectionist to operate a whole theater, you only need to know how to create and adjust a schedule on a computer screen.

The booth behind me at St. Anthony Main does not look much different than that booth that the travelers emptied out in Kings of the Road. It no longer holds the twin giant projectors that it one held. There is nobody in there when the movie is playing.

I am not advocating a return to the days of celluloid films projected through dust and scratches, and neither is Wenders' film a nostalgia trip. The film is about the theaters as a way to explore the relationships between the people inside and surrounding that booth, that theater, the town and cities in which the theaters are located. It's about the relationships between the people in the film on the screen and what those relationship can do to guide or illumine our own in our own times and cities.

As much as the film itself, what has made my encounters with this movie special are the people that I have shared it with. The discovery and attention to the 16mm print that arrived dirty and backwards 30 years ago was special because I shared the experience with my friend Scott, who was one of the people who I met in film school who shared my intense passion for ribbons of celluloid and all the magic that could burst forth from their tiny images. My recent encounter was important because of the screening I shared with my partner Beth, and how Al Milgrom brought us to the screening like some kind of guide figure out of Greek mythology. A film experience is special because of everything around it, the town that the theater sits in and all the people who stand in the streets or look out of their windows, and all the visitors that might drop by that isolated projectionist's booth, the head from which we look out at the world and project some parts of ourselves upon everyone and everything around us.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Movies and Buses

I don't drive, so when the weather is too cold or slippery for me to bike, I'll ride the bus home from a movie. I sometimes wonder why I don't see more of the folks I see at a movie on the bus afterwards. It's a similar experience.

You have to wait patiently for the bus to arrive just like you have to wait for a movie at a theater to begin. You sit in rows with strangers and everyone is facing forward. You have to remain patient if people act out or are disrespectful of the enjoyment of others. You share the sounds and smells and just plain presence of those other people, and that makes the experience so much richer. Getting some place by riding in a car is like watching a movie on TV - you can start whenever you want and can pause somewhere along the journey, but it's lonely. You don't get the rich experience you get when you share the movie or the journey with complete strangers.

One of the earliest cinemas was called "Hale's Tours." It was a room disguised to look like the inside of a train car. The screens were the windows, and images of faraway places appeared in them as if you were traveling, but you were really in a movie theater. This was one of the many models that could have influenced the form that movies would take, but it didn't have much of an influence. Now it's more like you watch movies while you are travelling, on planes, trains and even SUVs.

The view from a bus seat can be like watching a movie. Street scenes pass you by but you keep a distance that you don't have if you were walking on that street. Many buses in the twin cities even have two rows of seats that rise up in back. I called these "stadium seating" buses.

The shared experience, that community of strangers, is what makes the experience of watching a film in a theater so special, whether that film is shown digitally or on celluloid, that doesn't matter as much as the warm bodies around you, and how their presence affects how you view the show.

Riding the bus is like that too, but it doesn't seem that this is the reason that most people ride the bus. Maybe it's about money, maybe it's environmentalism, but few might say that they ride the bus to be around other people.

I don't recognize a lot of fellow moviegoers on the bus these days, but a few years ago I would sometimes see Terry Blue on the bus. He was a very dedicated watcher and critic of films. I remember him always in the back row at the Oak Street Theater. I usually sat near the front, but I could still hear his raspy voice across the theater before the movie started and as the credits rolled.
He was always talking about and judging movies. He put together his "Cobalt Blue" list of his favorite films every year, and was also curious about what other people were seeing, both to boast that he had already seen it, but also maybe to find out if there was something that he hadn't seen yet.

I didn't talk to him at theaters as much as I talked to him on the bus. I'd see riding the bus every now and then, maybe returning from a movie, maybe going to one, or just getting around. On the bus he could expound about one movie or another until one of us had to get off.

He was one of the six or so people at the Parkway Theater the night that my animated feature, "Wargoon Flishe" played there in 2007. Although the shared experience of watching a movie with a theater full of strangers can add layers of insight and delight to a film, watching your own movie in a gigantic but nearly empty theater can be fairly heart-breaking. And to know that one of those people was the very critical Terry Blue made me want to run out of the place before it even ended.

But I stayed. And he walked up to me after the show to tell me how much he liked my movie. It sounded like he really meant it.

I haven't seen Terry Blue on the bus for years, or at a theater. He passed away almost five years ago.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Films from the Front Range at Cellular Cinema

Cremation has in many states supplanted the traditional coffin burial as the method that families use to deal with the body of a family member after death. The family may say goodbye to the body of the deceased in a morgue and then a few days later receive a small box containing the deceased's ashes. The transformation of the body into dry gray matter is something that happens in a crematoria, far from the eyes of the family.

In his film "Open Air," Adam Sekuler documents a cremation as memorial at an open air cremation site in a valley of the Rocky Mountains in the southern part of Colorado. He screened his film with five other films he chose at last night's Cellular Cinema at the Bryant Lake Bowl in a program called "Films from the Front Range." These films were produced by faculty and students at the University of Colorado film program, where he is working on an MFA.

Sekuler, formerly of the Twin Cities, looks at the mystery of death with the camera technique of a film from 1905. His camera keep a respectful distance and tripod stillness that helps us notice the smallest of movements, and leaves it up to us to apply to them significance.

Near the beginning of the film we see the backs of people forming a line along a path with an impossibly majestic range of the Rockies seeming to form its own mourning line behind the people. We know that the body is being carried by pall bearers through this line of people, but it is only toward the end of the shot that we see the body emerge from behind the line of backs and then exit the screen to the right.

The next cut, like a transition in a film by Edwin S. Porter, takes us into the cremation site before the body arrives. People adjust the ceremonial fire and stand in preparation for the body. The body and pallbearers and other mourners enter from the back of the frame and walk toward and away from the camera, leaving and re-entering the frame. The concrete pyre stays in the center of the image, and we occasionally see the shadow of the filmmaker near the bottom of the frame edge.

Sekuler cuts occasionally, sometime to show details, sometimes to show the full shot, as mourners place juniper branches full of grey berries over the body and then completely cover the body with precisely cut wood.

Once the pyre is lit, the flame becomes the lens. We see the mourners thru the bending yellow and orange and notice a distantly smiling woman with her palms to us, a man with a wide brimmed hat who may be the husband of the deceased, and a circle of drummers who march slowly around the pyre.

Sekular looks at death and mourning as dispassionately as Stan Brakhage did in his poetically clinical immersion into autopsy, "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes." The potential emotion of the images must be released by the viewer and his or her own commitment, as Brakhage's title suggests.
Brakhage, who taught for many years at the University of Colorado, is present in spirit in the program of films that Sekuler brought. Many of the films deal head on with death.

In "Corn Mother," Taylor Dunne mourns her mother with a super 8 elegy as her mother walks through her garden and is dwarfed by massive leaves. Phil Solomon's "Valley of the Shadow" combines painfully strange video game backgrounds with voice-over of passages from the Michael Furey episode from James Joyce's "The Dead," a reflection of what life might have been if somebody so full of life had not died so long ago, of illusion, of the falling snow. Other films addressed the mystery of separation, and the way that photographic images can bring the dead back to some kind of life.

Sekuler said that the influence of the landscape is present in many of the films made at the University of Colorado, and we could see that in his choices, in the mountains that tower and threaten the small figures in these films and that end the flat wide open spaces where the people gather, in the faint blue sky that is wide enough to engulf the spirit of the dead.

(Still above from "Open Air" by Adam Sekuler)