Moviegoing Then and Now

May 10, 2021

This article appeared in the May 6 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.

Carnival Of Souls (Herk Harney, 1962)

It’s probably too soon to try and measure the psychological cost of COVID-19 where moviegoing is concerned—or the adaptive measures we’ve developed as compensation. Will it become a way of life, like wearing masks in public, waiting for the next variant? Will the baby steps we’re taking into theaters extend to bolder strides and full houses? The pandemic carved a void in an already altered cinematic landscape. Communally, we were denied the pleasure of going to theaters even as theaters themselves had started to become moribund.

But we’ve been writing obituaries for movie theaters almost as long as we’ve been mourning the death of cinema… and of cinephiles. The latter two are alive and well, and yes, we miss the physicality of theaters and audiences, but perhaps we should think of this not as a zero-sum loss but as a transmogrification, a metamorphosis: the where and how not as important as the what, the thing itself, an explosive new expansion of our ways of watching that in its amplitude seems to match the staggering number of films that have become available—international films, esoteric films, rediscovered masterpieces and curios, not to mention the great TV series that have come to represent the craft and ingenuity of storytelling no longer offered by Hollywood. (And that manage to touch off communal conversations in ways that movies once did.) The ’60s  and ’70s, that glory period of moviegoing and appreciation, seems downright parochial by comparison. Hardly any mainstream women directors or Black filmmakers, and international cinema restricted mostly to Europeans.

My life stretches back to when we casually went “to the movies,” walked in at any point, stayed through the coming attractions, possibly a second feature, and left where we “came in.” The palatial Loews in downtown Richmond, Virginia, in the ’50s and ’60s, where we watched Eddie Weaver’s organ rise (our first dirty joke). The Byrd Theatre on Cary Street, and next to it the “New York Delicatessen” where I ate “switzer cheese and pastrami sandwiches” (not kosher but what did I know?) and longed to come to New York. When I did, I lost myself in independent theaters, 16mm in people’s living rooms, MoMA of course, and revival houses. And let me say, before I sound as saccharine as a character in Cinema Paradiso: some of these were endured, even suffered. I remember going to the Thalia, and yes, the New Yorker, like a hiker prepared for a trek into hostile territory. This would be daytime in a virtually empty theater, but it was amazing how quickly (and furtively) libidinous patrons would materialize. My strategy was to settle my large handbag on the seat to my right, and a bag of something (brought for the purpose) on the left, thus creating a protective moat from wandering hands.

It was that heady moment when movies had become cinema and were being recognized as art, with fierce critical battles underway. In New York, critics suddenly had disputes and followings, while serious film books and even collections of reviews were coming out from trade publishers. Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema landed in 1968 with what Kent Jones described as the “timeless authority of an originary text—it does not appear to have been written as much as handed down from above and received by mankind.”

Andrew’s argument that a great many Hollywood studio films were created by artists and deserved comparable attention (a notion now so thoroughly absorbed into the culture as to appear unremarkable) may have struck with the force of a revelation on campuses and among film buffs, but was met with hostility elsewhere—with Pauline Kael leading the opposition—as if Andrew were trying to take the fun out of movies. It was, as Andrew himself understood, a violation of the early moviegoing experience which was without the “stink of culture.”

There was a religious, crusading fervor to the arguments. Susan Sontag noted that it was a fanaticism unique to moviegoers “born of a conviction that cinema was an art unlike another: quintessentially modern, distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral . . . for cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything.” It was the moment when, as French director Olivier Assayas described it in the film Hitchcock/Truffaut, “cinema became conscious of itself. Cinema is an art and we are artists.”

This was a proposition that not everybody was prepared to accept, especially when applied to American cinema. At parties, people would argue about films and reviews not as they would over a book or play but fiercely, possessively, as if in a battle for spiritual custody. Andrew wrote: “There were no courses in the subject, no obligations and no imperatives. The voluptuous passivity with which we viewed movies took an ever-increasing toll of cultural guilt.” And so began the delirious and difficult road as “the gap began to widen not so much between what we thought and what we felt as between what we really liked and what we dared admit we liked.”

In an anthology in 1973 called Favorite Movies, a number of critics wrote essays on their chosen films, many of them prefacing their essays with a distinction (implicit in the title) between “favorite movies” and “greatest films.” All of this speaks to the concept of “guilty pleasures”—B-movies, westerns, women’s pictures, thrillers with low-rent casts, the frisson of shame protected and embraced by a feature in Film Comment wherein directors and writers would list their secret, disreputable loves. But the concept of guilt itself has receded, and such subversive tastes, like vampires who receive a blood substitute and lead honest lives, have emerged into the daylight of the acceptable. Today’s equivalent would be The Crown or The Undoing (or, God forbid, Downton Abbey).

Of course I miss theaters: the panache of the remastered Lawrence of Arabia, director’s cut, at the Ziegfeld in 1989. And all the others: I miss the “dream palaces” where, in Geoffrey O’Brien’s words, “movies were themselves the drug that permitted the most profound escape from world and self.” Viewing is different now. We stop and start, we don’t surrender, but that was already beginning to happen with generations raised on a steady diet of images.

For me, as theaters closed, age and virus anxiety reinforced a reclusiveness that was already underway. But I hardly feel isolated: there are not enough hours in the day to make a dent in my ever-lengthening watchlist. I pursue whims and passions as I never could have done 20 years ago: I went through a Georges Simenon phase, and watched superb adaptations of some of his very dark (non-Maigret) romans durs: Melville’s Magnet of Doom, a surprisingly moving American road trip with Belmondo and Charles Vanel; Julien Duvivier’s superb postwar Panique with Michel Simon; and Bertrand Tavernier’s L’Horloger de St. Paul, filmed in his native Lyons. Tavernier’s death led me to his other films; Jean-Claude Carriere’s to Buñuel’s twisty surrealist That Obscure Object of Desire.

At the start of the pandemic, I went through a zombie phase with Train to Busan and several of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s genre films. I had somehow never seen Carnival of Souls—it blew my mind. I discovered two stunning films (restored and streamed by MoMA) by the totally unknown French director Louis Valray. I commune with fellow movie lovers with tips and reactions: one recommends Andre de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw, on YouTube; another, George Cukor’s The Model and the Marriage Broker; still another, Japanese noir on Criterion. I have stacks of unread film books and magazines which I’m finally delving into.

We all have favorite movie years or decades, often having less to do with the quality of the movies than with our own age and susceptibility, who we were and were about to be, at the time. For someone who formed an early addiction to transactions between grown-up men and women, my favorite theaters will always be the tiny (often underground) boxes on Paris’s Left Bank where my cinema education and my adulthood really began—screens that, in retrospect, seem both smaller and larger than the one in my living room. On the latter I watched all or most of the films of 2020. And I began to think about the idea of spectacle being as much in the beholder’s eye as on the screen. Certainly I felt transported by the ending of Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, when the sorrow and awkwardness of four Danish teachers’ lives is momentarily forgotten and, among the throngs of a crowded dock, Mads Mikkelsen launches into a delirious, gravity defying dance. I would trade those few minutes of human-size euphoria for all the CGI wizardry of Christopher Nolan.

Molly Haskell has written for many publications, including The Village Voice, The New York Times, Ms., Saturday Review, and Vogue. She is the author of Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films and From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.

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