Feb 28, 2011

Film Forever at Film Forum: Fritz Lang in Hollywood

by Ashley Swinnerton

The curated film screening I attended was a double feature of The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, part of the “Fritz Lang in Hollywood” series at Film Forum, at 5:25pm (and 7:20pm) on a Sunday. The main idea behind the series was to “[spotlight] all twenty-two American films made by the German master over twenty years (1936-1956).”[1] Lang is remembered primarily for his contributions to German cinema, but his Hollywood films are just as noteworthy and incredible both aesthetically and thematically. Further still, he managed to create works of art within the confines of the studio system, which desperately tried to force him into their streamlined, cookie cutter molds, and Film Forum’s series strove to underscore this achievement.
The series ran for two weeks (January 28-February 10, 2011) and included a total of 22 films, all of which were paired as double features (two films for one admission), except the final pairing (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Fury), which was ticketed separately. Half the films in the series screened on two consecutive nights while the other half screened for one night only. Nearly all the films had three show times per night, though a few had only one or two (presumably based on length and print availability). All the films were projected on 35mm, many of these recently restored and/or brand new prints.
The double feature pairings were not random, but made with a conscious acknowledgment of some common filmic link, including shared cast (The Woman in the Window/Scarlet Street: Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson, Dan Duryea), genre (The Return of Frank James/Western Union: Western), theme (Hangmen Also Die!/Cloak and Dagger: anti-Nazism), release date (Clash By Night/Rancho Notorious: 1952), and Lang’s “first and last” Hollywood pictures (Fury/Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). The series also included both famous and oft written about titles (The Big Heat) as well as harder to find, lesser known but should-be-classics (House by the River). Film Forum’s director of repertory programming is Bruce Goldstein, who was responsible for executing this series.
The audience demographic at the Sunday night screening I attended was primarily comprised of white men over the age of 40, though I was pleased to see more people of color than at, say, the Aero in Santa Monica, more women than at the Brattle in Cambridge, and more young people than at both theatres combined. The groupings of viewers seemed to be evenly split between heterosexual couples, single males, and small clusters of two or three friends (usually three males or two males and one female; least represented was three females). Noticeably absent was the “elderly person plus son or daughter” demographic—one that seems particularly scarce in New York City in general, but which is also likely related to the 5:25pm screening time (there is no reduced senior price for movies after 5pm at Film Forum).[2] The double feature aspect may also have been a factor, but seems less likely than the ticket price/interference with early dinner issue, as I have seen 80-year-old women power through two DeMille epics in a row on more than one occasion. Still, the “typical” ticket buyer in Manhattan for Hollywood films made before 1960 seems to be the single, 40ish white male.
I make this observation as a person who has frequently attended comparable programs (read: “old Hollywood movies”) in similar venues starting at age 18, and who has constantly been singled out and asked “Why are you here?” in direct response to my age and gender, which somehow always seems out of place to the other audience members. And, more often than not, these questions about my desire to watch “old movies” (and, at times, “boy movies”) come in the form of assaults from middle aged men, many of whom feel the need to test my knowledge of whatever film or genre we are about to encounter.[3] Sometimes the question comes in the form of harmless, line-waiting banter, such as, “What is your interest in German Expressionism?” but almost invariably the question is tinged with insult, such as, “Why would someone like you want to see a movie like this?” Other gems include: “You do know this movie is silent, right?” “Do you even know who Billy Wilder is?” and “Aren’t you in the wrong place? The Jonas brothers movie is playing next door.” This is the same in every city, at every repertory theatre I’ve ever attended.
All this is to point out that there is nothing in Film Forum’s programming of these films that outwardly attracts one demographic over another—nothing in the advertising or pairing of the films that would either overtly appeal to an older demographic or work to exclude a younger one, nor market the films to men over women. Though the programmers obviously make an effort to guide our viewing, grouping like films together even under the umbrella of “directed by Fritz Lang,” the films themselves attract audiences. Either you like Fritz Lang or you don’t. Either you want to see The Blue Gardenia or you don’t. Film Forum functions as an outlet for access, allowing us to see films we already love or that we’ve been meaning to see, as well as pointing us towards films we may not have heard of or read as much about but will more than likely enjoy based purely on association. They do not care about gender, age, or race; they just want to sell tickets.
This lengthy personal aside about audiences’ expectations of fellow audience members is relevant because it happened again at this particular Woman in the Window/Scarlet Street screening and highlights the strange dichotomy between young and old viewership: Waiting to be let into the house, a man in his late 50s looked at me and the 20something couple standing in front of me and asked, “What are you youngsters doing at a film noir screening?” and wondered if we’d seen either of the films before. Neither half of the couple had seen the films, but both were fans of Lang’s German work and were looking to expand their knowledge of his canon, which seemed to be an acceptable response for the man. I said I had seen both films before, had actually seen the restored print from the Library of Congress already, and was a fan of all of Lang’s work, which seemed to surprise and almost bewilder said man. I added that I was an even bigger fan of Joan Bennett and was mostly in attendance to hear Bennett’s (and producer Walter Wanger’s) daughter introduce the film.
Yes, Shelley Wanger, daughter of the films’ famed producer and glamorous star—also Film Forum board member—was in attendance to add a few words about the incredible aesthetics of the films and their inspired director, her experience having briefly met Lang once as a teenager in the ‘60s, and her memories of her parents’ discussions about their joint work—or rather, of her complete lack of memory because her parents never discussed work at home. Basically, the kind of introduction that makes an Old Hollywood geek salivate all over her ticket stubs.
Such “expert” introductions seem to be standard operating procedure for many arthouse and repertory cinemas and other non-multiplex theatres—the types of theatres that play movies with descriptors such as “newly restored,” “archival,” or “anniversary rerelease.” IFC often invites filmmakers, historians, and scholars to speak critically about a film either before or after a show; The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles often finds children of silent screen stars to read excerpts from their parents’ autobiographies and related personal anecdotes before screenings; and the Academy just recently hosted a film noir series highlighting excellence in writing, with each film introduced and critiqued by a contemporary, acclaimed screenwriter. This appears to be an attempt by these theatres to create “an event”––something more than just “going to the movies.” For me, seeing a film such as The Woman in the Window on the big screen is treat enough, but it seems as though many audiences do not feel that this is sufficient, that there needs to be something “extra” to draw them to these movies that are readily available on television or home video. Consequently, programmers and curators look for those little bonuses to coax people out of their homes and off the couches, providing introductions, narration, or contextualization that is not available on a DVD.
Similarly, the appeal of the collective experience of film is no longer an appeal for many, but rather an annoyance. About 30 minutes into The Woman in the Window, one of the reels broke and the movie stopped for about 10 minutes while the projectionists repaired it. Several people groaned and half joked about wanting their money back, but I’ll take film breaking over video lag any day of the week. For me, an equipment malfunction such as this actually adds to the communal experience of seeing a film with an audience and is almost exhilarating, like hearing that massive intake of 500 breaths when the car goes off the cliff, or the joy of a roomful of spontaneous applause after a favorite musical number, or the nervous but sympathetic laughter after an unknown voice yells, “No, don’t open the door!” Film Forever at Film Forum!

Further reading:

Without question, the best line in Scarlet Street.

[1] From a PR flyer: http://www.filmforum.org/newsletter/langpr.html
[2] Film Forum does offer discounted membership prices, but this classification is impossible to determine from a visual study of a particular audience.
[3] Occasionally this question is posed by a harmless elderly lady who, upon learning of my love for Classic Hollywood, then delights in using me as her own personal IMDb for the remainder of the screening, reminding her “how many movies Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy made together” or “how many husbands Judy Garland had.” However, this type of interaction usually occurs in a museum setting during a matinee, which is irrelevant in regard to the Film Forum screening in question.

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