Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fab 50

When you see a lot of movies, it’s incredibly easy to take some for granted.  And so it’s been my whole life with Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the Beatles’ best movie and one I’ve seen plenty of times.  It’s smart, funny, loose & limber, and supremely enjoyable.
But until last Sunday, I’d never seen it on the big screen.  For how many surprises can a film you’ve seen over and over yield just from a change of venue?  As I’m repeatedly reminded, plenty.
My impression walking out of the film I thought I knew so well (in theaters again for its 50th anniversary) was of astonishment.  Wow.  From that first legendary chord, to the whirling chaos of the pursuit in the train station, and then from one song or setpiece to another, the sheer energy of the film—propulsive, buoyant, irreverent—is impossible to fully appreciate on the small screen, where many of the tropes that Night pioneered (the flurried editing, the hand-held mockumentary lensing, the music video pacing) have become a natural part of the visual language of TV.
But in the theater, where the immersive insanity (and dry whimsy) of the film are writ large, it’s another experience altogether.  Which is why, in a very real sense, as much as I love channels like TCM and the availability of older or obscure films on DVD, I don’t really consider ever having seen a movie until I’ve seen it in a cinema, the way it was meant to be seen.  It’s not just Bigger = Better; it’s that watching a film the way it was meant to be seen often completely changes your relationship with the way a shot is composed, the way the sound is designed, the way your attention can’t afford to drift.  In the movie house, the death of Frank Poole in 2001 in the vast silence of space is terrifying; at home, it’s like you left the Mute button on.
I remember the first time I truly was hit by this sledgehammer of truth.  I wrote my senior thesis in college on the films of David Cronenberg (this was right after Naked Lunch was released).  This meant watching The Brood (1979) countless times on my VHS player at home, until I thought I knew this nervy, bizarre movie inside and out.  But not long after, the Pacific Film Archive decided to program it, and so I went.   
And it devastated me.  The full spectrum of emotion that sometimes felt campy at home was now in its full, rich, grandiose power.  And the same goes Cronenberg's mise en scene.  There’s one shot, with two of the brood walking the lead’s daughter through the snow, all three in their colorful jumpers, that seemed little more than transitional in my living room, but was one of the most heart-breaking shots I’d ever seen sitting there in the dark.
This is why I see far more films in the theater every year (shorts and features) than I ever do at home.  I rarely buy DVDs and despise watching anything on the internet.  For movies, the cinema is their home and I’m lucky I live somewhere where the selection of films I can see that way is boundless.  But as the glorious rawness of this 1964 classic reminds me, I still have a lot of catching up to do.

It’s worth noting that in addition to the marvelous characterizations of the Fab Four, the wonderfully visualized songs (particularly “Can’t Buy Me Love”) and the anarchic hijinks, the film has a couple of postage stamp references as well.
Hanging out in their hotel room, their manager Shake brings in a batch of fan mail for Paul, John, and George--but not Ringo.  His bandmates playfully take the piss on their drummer until Shake returns with a batch twice as big just for Ringo himself.

Shake: “Hey, here”
John: “Are those yours?”
Shake: “No, they’re for Ringo”
John: “It must’ve cost you a fortune in stamps, Ringo”

Later, the boys visit a TV studio where they'll be performing at a broadcast.  Some dancing girls are rehearsing to an elevator-music version of "I Only Want to Dance with You".  As the practice ends, the Beatles' other manager Norm goes over their schedule:

Norm: “Now, you’ve got about an hour but don’t leave the theatre. Where are you going, John?”
John (with blonde): “She’s going to show me her stamp collection.”
Paul (grabbing brunette's hand): “So is mine”
Dancing girl: “But I haven’t got any stamps...”

The Beatles stamp (Scott #3188o) is from the Celebrate the Century series, while the Ed Sullivan stamp (#4414j) is from the Early TV Memories issue.

Top 10 Favorite Films of 1964

1. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)
2. Onibaba (Shindo)
3. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
4. A Hard Day's Night (Lester)
5. I Am Cuba (Kalatozov)
6. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini)
7. The Naked Kiss (Fuller)
8. Man's Favorite Sport? (Hawks)
9. Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara)
10. The Train (Frankenheimer) 

Top 10 Favorite Beatles songs
(note: none of them are from my favorite Beatles album, Revolver)

1. "Strawberry Fields Forever" 
2. "Here Comes the Sun"
3. "I Saw Her Standing There" 
4. "She's Leaving Home"
5. "Ticket to Ride" 
6. "Things We Said Today"*
7. "Hey Jude"
8. "I Feel Fine"
9. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
10. "In My Life"

*This is actually on the album A Hard Day's Night, but sadly not included in the movie itself.