Thursday, March 04, 2010

Film Forum's Victor Fleming Fest Opens Friday

Film Forum launches the Victor Fleming Film Festival tomorrow (Friday, March 5), providing the opportunity to see Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, among other classics, on the big screen -- or at least, as big as it gets at Film Forum.

The two-week fest (March 5-18) kicks off with a double-feature of Red Dust and Bombshell, both starring Jean Harlow (Friday-Saturday). The The Wizard of Oz screens in a double with Captains Corageous March 7-8. GWTW is scheduled for four days, March 13-16; for a separate admission, you can make that a double-feature with The Wizard of Oz on the 13th and 14th. In all, the festival features 22 of the director's films starring the likes of Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Henry Fonda, and the list goes on. Check out the full schedule here.

I love these retro film fests at Film Forum. When I first moved to New York, in the early 80s, you could catch retro films at half a dozen or more indie theaters. You could camp out in the mezzanine seats, and smoke and drink, settle in, immerse yourself in four hours of consciously curated double bills. Sadly, most of those theaters are gone now; the few that survive have largely been reincarnated in another form.

The Metro, 100th & Broadway
Now empty and forlorn, but not demolished, the Metro of the 80s showed a mix of second-run and retro films. My friend Louis and I went to a devastating double-feature of Shoot the Moon and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Afterward we walked south on Broadway, and I vowed never to marry; just then, we saw Mariel Hemingway eating at a table-side window in a Chinese restaurant. Both of us being a little star-struck in those days, plus fans of Manhattan, the sighting saved us from a big, fat post-mortem pity-fest.

Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place
Rumors of a complete shutdown of this Jazz Age space surfaced last spring and, happily, proved wrong. The Otway family, which has owned it since 1965, recently re-opened it as a digital projection movie theater after leasing it to the Pearl Theatre Company for 15 years. Prior to that, Theatre 80 had booked great double-bills of classic films, rear-projected in 16mm. This was where I learned the pleasures of going to the movies alone, when I ventured out solo one cold Saturday for a double feature of Mildred Pierce and Double Indeminity.

St. Marks Cinema, 133 Second Ave.
A great place for a contact high, the St. Marks dated back to around 1914 (or earlier?), when it was the Astor Theatre. It was an East Village mainstay in the 80s, with great late-night, double-feature picture shows. Over the New Year's holiday in 1985, my friend Steve and I loaded up on midnight snacks for a double of Diva and Stop Making Sense, during which we both enjoyed and, no doubt contributed to, the second-hand schmoke. Not long after, that grand old theater was replaced by a Gap store, which presaged the ongoing ruin of St. Mark's Place. Today it's a luxury condo building.

Other retro houses of note included:
  • Cinema Village (22 East 12th St.), which survives with the proud distinction of being the oldest continuously operated theaters in the Village and one of the oldest in the city. It was built in 1963 and, for about 30 years, featured double bills of classic and cult films. It was one of my favorites, partly for the smoking-allowed balcony seats, partly for its convenient location across the street from my office in the old Fairchild Publications building; you'd get a burger and a pint around the corner at the Cedar Tavern (yes, also gone), catch a double feature, then return to the Cedar to discuss. Balcony and location aside, it's line-up made it a standout. In the early 90s Cinema Village avoided the fate of its brethren by switching from a repertory format to a focus on contemporary indies, and it remains a standout.

  • The original Thalia (95th & Broadway), a classic retro theater that felt a bit like a basement screening room -- you had to get there early so you didn't end up in one of the aisle seats behind the gigantic columns. It closed in 1987, then reopened as the Leonard Nimoy Thalia within the performing arts center Symphony Space; it showcases independent films.

  • Bleecker Street Cinema (144 Bleecker St.), a Village landmark for cinephiles that fell prey to high rent and neighborhood politics in 1990.

  • The 8th Street Playhouse (52 West 8th St.), best remembered for making Rocky Horror Picture Show a midnight-movie cult classic. It also curated classic and cult fests before closing down in the early 90s.

The non-profit Film Forum has successfully navigated the ever-changing terrain, the ever-shifting priorities of New York development, and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The present Houston Street location is its fourth since it opened in 1970. My first visit to Film Forum was at the third incarnation, on Watts Street. I don't remember what movie I saw, but I do recall drinking coffee with my friends in the old, chrome, streetcar-style Moondance Diner afterward; the evening fulfilled my 20-something-Southern-girl expectations of a classic New York night, lifted from Woody Allen movies, and fermented my enthusiasm for making the city my home.

The Film Forum's film fests evoke that New York for me and that, as much as the movies themselves, may be why I'm drawn to Houston and Varick to sit in the dark for four hours and watch films I could see on DVD or Turner Classic Movies. It's mac-and-cheese, two eggs with bacon on a toasted roll, chicken pot pie... comfort food as satiating as any the Moondance served.

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