Though I consider myself a fairly levelheaded person, not much given to mysticism, I’ve had certain movie experiences that I would say approached the magically sublime. Often they involved revivals of previously unavailable films I was dying to see. Being an incorrigible auteurist, I’ve brought a collector’s passion to my efforts to complete the sets of directors I revere. As most of this hunting took place in the days before VCRs and DVDs, I had to keep an eye out for rare titles popping up at a revival house, film festival, or museum, and then pounce. Usually there would be only one screening of the film.
Was my ecstatic response, in the best instances, determined by the picture’s quality or my sense of privilege in catching up with it? Both. I’ve been particularly drawn to earlier works by great filmmakers, before they had created their ripe masterpieces. There is something delicious about retroactively seeing the promise of a mature manner before it has been totally perfected.
For instance, when Antonioni’s L’avventura and La notte were all the rage, it became imperative to see the maestro’s apprentice films. I heard that a bootleg print of Le amiche had been smuggled into the U.S. and was to be projected one night at the Charles (a revival house on the Lower East Side, therefore a grungy forerunner of the Metrograph). The film had no subtitles, so a bilingual speaker, stationed to the side with a microphone, translated the dialogue into English seconds after it was uttered in Italian, in a flat monotone intriguingly at odds with the intense drama of alienation, suicide, and careless love being enacted onscreen. It did not hurt that this visually elegant film was adapted from a novel by one of my favorite writers, Cesare Pavese, and was drenched in his alluring melancholy, as was another early work by Antonioni, Story of a Love Affair, which also moved me deeply when I saw it.
The New York Film Festival was a reliable source for filling in the gaps in great auteurs’ oeuvres. In this fashion I caught up not only with Antonioni’s bracing, bitter The Lady Without Camellias but also several of Max Ophuls’s stunningly lovely, worldly-wise, 1930s works, such as the romantic, snow-kissed Liebelei (with Magda Schneider, Romy’s mother), the backstage drama Divine, and the starlet tragedy La Signora di tutti, with its exquisite lakeside sequence tracking shot that rivals the water-shore separation scene in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu.
Speaking of Mizoguchi, my wife and I were living in Madrid for a year in 1965, after graduating from college, and were poor as church mice but determined to see Princess Yang Kwei-Fei when it showed at the Cinemateca. We had saved our pesetas, only to discover at the box office that the screening had sold out. We lingered at the entrance, crestfallen, until an usher took pity on us and let us in a side-door for free. The titles were just going up as we found places on the carpet steps, and we watched, in thrall to this ravishing color film, not really sure what was going on as we tried to keep up with the fast Spanish subtitles. Curiously, I did not find the film so special when I revisited it years later. It strikes me as a bit too stately, lacking the customary hard edge of Mizoguchi (practically my favorite director), so perhaps this enraptured experience in Madrid can be chalked up to circumstance and youthful exuberance. I did have other enchanted encounters with Mizoguchi years later, as when I saw his first masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, and the minor but ineffably affecting Miss Oyu.
My most exalted movie experience occurred not in a movie theater at all. I was visiting the Bay Area and dropped in on my friend Tom Luddy, at that time director of the Pacific Film Archives. Tom sometimes let me go through the film cans that happened to be on hand in the PFA archives and pick out something I wanted to see. He would then have the staff projectionist screen it for me, and I would watch it alone, feeling blissfully spoiled. One afternoon I arrived late, and Tom mentioned they had just got in a 16mm subtitled print of Visconti’s Ossessione. Previously unseen in the United States because of a contract dispute (Visconti had never paid for rights to the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which he’d freely adapted), Ossessione ranked very high on my wish list. The problem was that the PFA was about to shut down for the night, and I was flying back to New York the next day. To my amazement, Tom kindly let me borrow the print and a 16mm projector. I took them back to my friend Herb Kohl’s house, where I was staying. I lost no time borrowing a sheet from Herb and tacking it against the wall. Threading the projector, my hands trembled, fearful of harming the only print of Ossessione in America. Herb liked movies well enough but was staggered to see the religious reverence and tremulous ardor with which I blocked out the light and set up the proper throw. I invited him to watch it, but he left soon after the first few minutes, pulled away by the swirling life of his children. Those familiar with the film, and its aching, fatalistic rural atmosphere of longing and eroticism, can picture the dusky black-and-white cinematography as it was projected on a wrinkled white sheet. The neorealist acting by Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti seemed much more modest, believable, and naturalistic than the glamorous stylings of Lana Turner and John Garfield in the Hollywood version of the Cain novel. As I lay on my borrowed single bed, the images transporting me, I was happy beyond belief. Years later, I saw Ossessione again at the New York Film Festival; it was still noble, tragic, and superbly poetic, but I regard the time I saw it on a hanging sheet in Berkeley as the platonic incarnation of the movie.
One last memory: it was snowing in a big way in New York, and the public school where I taught was closed for the day. I enticed my friend Peter M. away from his serious, responsible desk job so we could catch The Bad and the Beautiful, which was showing that afternoon as part of a Vincente Minnelli retrospective at the Carnegie Hall Cinema. Midtown had slowed down, there were barely any cars, and people were walking down the middle of the street without fear of being run over; some were even skiing along Seventh Avenue. Nothing could have suited the free holiday spirit more than this half-comic, half-melodramatic, sardonic confection about moviemaking, with Kirk Douglas playing a rat producer and Lana Turner thrusting her chest forward. We surrendered to its charms; we were in heaven. My friend Peter is no more—is indeed, for all I know, in heaven—but I still think back to that matinee as an instance of pure grace. Magic, if you will.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell. He directs the nonfiction program at Columbia University.