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Daily Reads: Selling Movies as a Social Experience, the Conceptual World of James Franco the Director, and More

Daily Reads: Selling Movies as a Social Experience, the Conceptual World of James Franco the Director, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Selling Movies as a Social Experience in New York.
Every now and again, there will be rumblings about how the actual experience of going to the cinema is going the way of the dodo, and that the younger generation will always be too busy watching Netflix than to actually leave their home and watch a movie in a theater. Well, there are a few theaters in New York putting that erroneous assumption to rest. The New York TimesGlenn Kenny reports on the three new theaters opening in the city that are selling movies as a social experience.

The theaters — the Metrograph on the Lower East Side, the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn and the refurbished Quad in Greenwich Village — join a very crowded art-house scene. The IFC Center in the Village is working on an expansion, and though the building housing the Landmark Sunshine on East Houston is for sale, the chain’s chief executive, Ted Mundorff, said that the theater’s lease remained in effect and that “we continue to pursue opportunities in Manhattan” and elsewhere in the city. Other downtown venues like Film Forum and the Angelika are well established, as are institutions like Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art farther uptown. Whether the audience is there to support all of these outlets remains an open question. On Friday, the Metrograph, a two-screen theater that also encompasses a bar, a restaurant and a bookstore, will open on Ludlow Street near Canal, where the swinging Lower East Side abuts the largely resistant-to-gentrification Chinatown. The theater’s owners and programmers are longtime movie enthusiasts with big ambitions for their screens, which will show a mix of repertory and first-run international and independent fare. (“Taxi Driver” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” will play on opening night.) The Metrograph’s founder and chief creative director, Alexander Olch, is also a fashion designer who owns a men’s clothing store in his own name just blocks away. Mr. Olch’s 2008 documentary, “The Windmill Movie,” was distributed by the Film Desk, which is run by Jacob Perlin, and out of that friendship came their vision for a dream movie house. Mr. Perlin serves as the artistic and programming director, and Aliza Ma, who helped develop the Toronto International Film Festival’s highly regarded Bell Lightbox theater before working at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, is the theater’s head of film programming. Showing a visitor around the still-under-construction site, Mr. Olch’s eyes lit up as he pointed to the back wall where a screen was to be installed in the larger house, which seats 175. (The house’s second theater seats 50.) “Scope pictures are going to look great on this,” Mr. Olch said, referring to CinemaScope. Staff members say the Metrograph meets the challenge of a changing film-buff culture. “If 40 years ago you had told United Artists, who were distributing François Truffaut’s films in the U.S., that at this point in time American cinephiles would be more interested in Jacques Rivette than in Truffaut, they would have looked at you like you were crazy,” Mr. Perlin said. And yet one of the most notable film events last fall was the New York theatrical premiere of a 1971 Rivette film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

2. Exploring the High-Concept World of James Franco, Director.
Renaissance personality James Franco has dipped his toes in just about everything, including acting, academia, film criticism, and yes, directing. Though the results of the majority of his work have been less-than-desirable, they are always interesting to watch from afar, even if it’s through crossed fingers. Uproxx’s Charles Bramesco examines the high-concept world of James Franco’s directorial efforts.

“Good Time Max” (2007): Franco dedicated this feature to his brother Dave, now a star in his own right, but one would hope that the Franco boys have a slightly stabler relationship that Max and Adam, the central pair of this oddly mannered, off-putting film. A self-proclaimed “genius,” Max spends his days dreaming up new ways to inconvenience those around him and dealing the occasional drug. Adam keeps up a respectable career as a doctor, but Max’s hard-partying ways inexorably corrupt him and ruin his life. Though Franco whips out every visual trick in the book — mixing digital and analog photography, split screen, slow- and fast-motion — the film is a relatively unadorned dual character study at heart. Maybe James and Dave ought to sit down with a family counselor, though.

As I Lay Dying” (2013):
 A novel from over 15 different points of view, many believed William Faulkner’s classic to be unfilmable. But James Franco isn’t “many.” He devised a workaround by shooting almost the entire film in split screen and showing each scene from multiple points of view simultaneously, occasionally using footage from different takes to create a disorienting effect. Sometimes, one of the characters will leave the scene but the other will take a moment to realize this. In case viewers thought they might be able to cinch their saddle up on the material anyway, Franco also piles on voiceover narration from a rotation of characters that make keeping track of everything nigh-on impossible. Must-see viewing for devotees of Franco, must-avoid viewing for devotees of Faulkner.

“Interior. Leather Bar.” (2013):
 James Franco has made plenty of movies about people making movies. But James Franco has only made one movie about James Franco making a movie about people making movies. (On his deathbed, Charlie Kaufman’s going to pen the “Being John Malkovich” sequel about Franco and it’s going to be either unwatchable, the greatest work of fiction of this century, or both.) This docufiction hybrid features James and indie filmmaker Travis Matthews as themselves in the process of shooting a recreation of approximately 40 minutes of footage deemed too graphic for inclusion in William Friedkin’s 1980 film “Cruising.” Franco insisted that it was not a flimsy excuse for him to kinda-not-really make gay porn, and held fast to his position that the film provided a commentary on censorship and art. Perhaps future generations will look upon Franco as some restlessly experimental trickster god of Hollywood, and perhaps future generations of film students will draw up theses on “Interior. Leather Bar.” and begin the navel-gazing academia cycle anew. And perhaps posterity will winnow these away as an eccentric’s side projects and shift focus to Franco’s film roles, many of which are solidly entertaining. But for now, all we can do is bow our heads and pray that this conceptual bastard doesn’t foul up the “Adventures of Jess and Zola,” which could very well be our generation’s “Vertigo” if handled correctly.

3. How London Became Hitchcock’s Greatest Character.
One of cinema’s greatest directors, Alfred Hitchcock split his career between working in America and working in his home town of England. Little White Lies’ Ivan Radford explores how London became Hitchcock’s greatest character in his illustrious career.

For Hitchcock, place was as important as the other parts of the script. “Rope,” “Rear Window” and “Lifeboat” all show the claustrophobic tension that can build up within one single location, but the director’s films are about expanses as well as confines, events ballooning out into grand climaxes, usually involving a major landmark. After “The Lodger’s” titular mist, Hitchcock’s sightseeing trend began with “Blackmail.” The film ends with an exhilarating sprint across the roof of the British Museum. Smartly screened by the BFI in the museum’s own courtyard, we see Tracy (Donald Calthrop) dash down Great Russell Street, nip through the gates, pause by a water fountain and then enter the building. What follows is an extravagant chase in between artifacts and past rows of books. These background details add a huge frisson of excitement to events. Sitting in the courtyard, you could swear everything was taking place behind the doors at that very minute. But, amazingly, none of it ever did. Instead, Hitchcock sent in a team of photographers to capture the various rooms. These pictures were then reflected onto 45-degree mirrors for filming and parts of the silver were scraped away to make room for doorways or props. A bravura bit of special effects work, but you’d never know just by looking at it. Constantly flashing his lens about, Hitchcock was no slouch when it came to such trickery. He used a similar effect for “Strangers on a Train” years down the line, back-projecting an image of that wildly spinning carousel – in reality a miniature – in front of which Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) fight to the death. But sometimes you can’t substitute effects for the real thing. Part of the carnival climax uses a real merry-go-round: when an onlooker frantically tries to stop the whirling machine. “That little man actually crawled under that spinning carousel,” Alfie confessed to Truffaut. “If he’d raised his head by an inch, he’d have been killed.” He added: “I’ll never do anything like that again.” You can tell, though, that the mad dog wanted to. As the years went on, his location scouting became even more ambitious. In 1935, “The 39 Steps” zoomed from the Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland to The London Palladium for its on-stage finale featuring Mr Memory. (While the 1978 remake of the film got many things wrong, it ended in a surprisingly apt way, with Robert Powell hanging off the face of Big Ben – exactly the kind of crazy stunt Hitchcock would have pulled. It’s hard to believe he hadn’t tried it already.) Go back one year and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” established Hitchcock’s relationship with spies. The man in question? Bob (Leslie Banks), who stumbles across a plot to assassinate an ambassador while on holiday in Switzerland. His child kidnapped, his wife scared, they venture back to old London Town to foil the murder. Where on earth could such a suspenseful showdown take place? The Royal Albert Hall, of course. The imposing location was so fitting, in fact, that Hitchcock used it again in 1956 when he remade his own film starring James Stewart. In the leaner, superior original, the Master of Suspense relied on photos to recreate the interior scenes in a studio. In the remake, he had the chance to shoot more of it on location. He even begins it with a colour shot of the concert hall, eagerly showing us where we will end up. But fake or not, the effect is the same: each dialogue-free sequence, firmly rooted in the music filling the grand arena, is nail-biting stuff. No wonder, then, that the film acted as his calling card to America: a showcase of the director’s talent for crafting gems of cinema, locations and all.

4. White Guys Always Win: The Allure and Legacy of Bruce Willis.
Bruce Willis’ unlikely rise in the late-80’s enamored an entire generation of boys who wanted to be the buff action star and crack wise at the same time. But at Oscilloscope’s Musings blog, Anthony Kaufman argues that a reactionary politics lies underneath that well-placed smirk.

For many a boy of the 1980s, Bruce Willis was a profound (though slightly embarrassing) influence. Not nearly as macho or tough as other action stars of the Reagan-Bush years (Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson), Willis derived much of his allure from his regular-guy-ness and quick wittedness. To be like Bruce, you didn’t need to spend hours in the gym or survive Vietnam; you just needed to have a shit-eating grin and a clever turn of phrase. For Willis’s enduring influence on a whole generation of boy-men, just see any episode of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” in which Andy Sandberg’s jokey cop delights in references to “Die Hard” (“Yippie Kayak, Other Buckets!”) But Willis’s seemingly innocuous presence as a celebrity icon — and one who appears on the surface far less threatening than former Governor Schwarzenegger — masks a collection of potentially more insidious trappings than those famous hard-bodied men of Conservative America. So what might appear in Willis to be a possibly more sensitive, overly ironic, and even potentially progressive action-hero disguises the problematic ideological work his persona must exercise in order to thrive. Indeed, at the heart of Willis is a right-wing reactionary politics that has now bubbled up to the surface and swelled with age. But it wasn’t always so obvious. Ever since the ’80s, Willis has been a weaselly figure and hard to pin down — a Janus-faced star whose very celebrity has been erected on a foundation of duplicity. In the first episode of CBS’s 1985 “The Twilight Zone” reboot, Willis, in one of his first starring roles, played a man divided in two. The episode, called “Shatterday” and directed by Wes Craven, features Willis in a dual role, as an upper middle class white guy in crisis named Peter Jay Novins, and as his own mirror image, a second Peter who sabotages and subjugates the first one. “Who are you? You’re not real,” the first Peter asks, speaking into a payphone. The other Peter, a cooler, more upstanding version of himself who sits comfortably in his apartment, responds, “What do you want me to say to that? I know I’m me. What are you?” It’s a good question to ask of Willis himself. Who is the second-rate actor and how and why has he endured for so many years as a male icon? Reflecting much of his career, “The Twilight Zone” episode positioned Willis as a decidedly bifurcated man. Think also of “Looper,” another example of Willis’s double nature made manifest, in which his character is trying to survive being killed by a younger version of himself. Much of Willis’s success, in fact, comes from his uniquely slippery ability to portray an archetypical male hero, and all the baggage that come along with it, and empty it of meaning at the same time.

5. On Douglas Sirk’s “Sleep, My Love” (1948).
In the last few weeks, Film Comment has expanded their digital footprint, adding a wonderful podcast and two brand new columns. In her latest installment, Farran Smith Nehme writes about Douglas Sirk’s “Sleep, My Love” about Hollywood’s love affair with madness in the 1940’s.

In the 1940s, Hollywood became interested in psychology and mental illness, and with that interest came an odd little flurry of films where “he’s driving me crazy” was not a joke, but a plotline. It goes like this: someone is either trying to drive a young woman crazy (“Rebecca,” “Gaslight,” “My Name Is Julia Ross”), or implicate her in a crime that makes her feel crazy (“Whirlpool,” late entries “Cause for Alarm!” and “Dial M for Murder”). The plotter is often a trusted man, a husband or lover. And love is hypnotism in a sense, so hypnotism can play a part, as can drugs. The fight is always for the woman’s reality to be recognized, by the world or by herself. The 1948 thriller “Sleep, My Love,” directed by Douglas Sirk, fits the pattern. Rich, childless Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) has an enviable life: a lavish Sutton Place mansion, a debonair husband (Don Ameche). Except…strange things are happening to Alison. She wakes up in a sleeping car of a train without knowing how she got there, and the daffy little old lady (Queenie Smith) who barges in to help finds a tiny gun in Alison’s purse. Back home, Dick (for such is hubby’s name) is telling a cop (Raymond Burr) that he doesn’t understand his wife’s behavior. As Dick begs the cop to find his wife before she comes to any harm, he winces gently from an arm injury that he oh-so-reluctantly admits Alison had something to do with. Swiftly we’re shown that the old lady was a plant, Alison was drugged, and Dick is trying to get rid of his wife by doping and hypnotizing her into doing a wide variety of insane things, in hopes of driving her to suicide. Helping the nefarious Dick in his engagingly implausible scheme is the old lady’s husband, Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), and providing one heck of a motive is Daphne (Hazel Brooks), the photographer’s model who wants to become the new Mrs. Courtland, but quick. Attempting to help Alison is dashing Bruce Elcott (Bob Cummings), who meets her through a chatterbox, man-hungry friend (Rita Johnson). Bruce deems Alison not only sane, but pretty cute.The great Universal melodramas of the 1950s are usually considered Sirk’s high point. But earlier he had an excellent run, starting with the splendid Chekhov adaptation “Summer Storm” in 1944, then “A Scandal in Paris” (46), “Lured” (47), then “Sleep, My Love.” With Joseph Valentine as cinematographer, this one looks fantastic from the first glimpse of that hurtling train. Sirk brings many themes in the script (written by St. Clair McKelway and Leo Rosten, from Rosten’s novel) right up to the visual surface. Lights, glass, veils: “Sleep, My Love” presents a succession of things that both conceal, and urge Alison to see what’s going on. Alison first awakens to a sleeping-car light in her face, then looks out the window and screams in terror at the headlight of a passing train. Later, when Dick has hypnotized Alison and is luring her to a bedroom balcony in hopes she’ll hurl herself off, it’s the beam of Bruce’s flashlight from the garden below that wakes her up. That Sutton Place house has a conservatory off the drawing room, and Sirk and Valentine use it to create a jungle-like motif, Alison frequently found emerging from or retreating to the riot of plants. She’s a literal babe in the woods. During a mid-movie encounter between Bruce and Dick, there is an impeccable shot of them both looking at Alison, Bob Cummings’s stalwart face positioned behind Ameche’s phony one. There are even some tart visual jokes. When Alison runs screaming out of her train compartment, she’s accosted by the conductor in front of a poster showing a husband-like man who’s shaving, under a tagline that says, “Me?”

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