When I was a kid my incipient love of film history was fueled by the fact that local TV stations in the New York City area had hours of time to fill and stockpiles of old movies to do the job. One didn’t have to seek out a specialized channel like Turner Classic Movies: a flip of the dial revealed W.C. Fields or Humphrey Bogart on the morning movie or the late, late show.
A dear man named Samuel K. Rubin, a furniture dealer in Indiana, Pennsylvania (birthplace of James Stewart), had an abiding love for silent films but no one to share it with. That’s why he started a modest publication called The 8mm Collector (which is still being published today as Classic Images) and launched the Society of Cinephiles, which just held its latest Cinecon gathering last weekend.
Today, the blogosphere is home to fans, authors and authorities who hold forth on a wide variety of topics. I would have loved such a forum when I was starting out, but I chose the same path Sam Rubin did, and launched my own fanzine. (Sam also published an article I submitted to him, without revealing that I was 13 years old. He said he didn’t care and he meant it.) Seeing my byline in a magazine that I didn’t own was an early thrill.
Of course, Turner Classic Movies is heaven-sent for all of us, but I also spend time with FXM, the Fox Movie Channel, and Encore’s Westerns channel (where the warning acronym OCD stands for Outdated Cultural Depiction).
The Criterion Channel is the most elite streaming service imaginable. With access to the Janus Films library and the components of DVD and Blu-ray discs from the Criterion Collection, it offers an embarrassment of riches. Over the past few months the channel has acquired the services of Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt and celebrated special effects wizard Craig Barron, who have enlightened us about the oft-hidden or unappreciated visual and aural effects in classic films. Their programs at the TCM Classic Film Festival and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over the years have been memorable. Their new segments for Criterion are worth the price of admission all by themselves. If you’ve ever seen these two movie mavens reveal the tricks of the trade you know I’m not exaggerating. Under the title “Secrets of the Hollywood Archives” they pull back the curtain on such varied titles as Forbidden Planet, Action in the North Atlantic and 12:00 High.
Watching films at home is second nature to most of us by now, I daresay, but seeing them with an audience in a theater is still the purest and most rewarding way to dip into vintage cinema. That’s why I have such regard for Bruce Goldstein’s superior programming at New York’s Film Forum, and why I wish I lived closer to the Windy City to take advantage of the Chicago Film Society’s new Fall Season. The Society was founded in 2011 by Julian Antos, Becca Hill, and Kyle Westphal and takes advantage of 16mm and 35mm prints that are available from the nation’s leading film archives. Why more museums and theatrical outlets don’t make more use of these institutions I don’t know or understand. The Museum of Modern Art’s restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) kicked off this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, but that’s a once-a-year event. The rest of the year the newly minted 35mm print sits on a shelf in MoMA’s vault.
The Chicago Film Society casts a wide net and comes up with season after season of rarefied programming. Like William K. Everson, whose eclectic choices they seem to emulate, they believe in distributing program notes and doing live introductions. The current Fall calendar includes What Price Hollywood? (1932), Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Frederick Wiseman’s landmark documentary Hospital (1970), John Cassavetes’ Love Streams and Douglas Fairbanks’ silent Robin Hood (1922). Almost all screenings are in 35mm, and the silent films are accompanied by organist Dennis Scott. No one else I’m aware of can say that their current calendar ranges from Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry to Garson Kanin’s Ginger Rogers vehicle Bachelor Mother. What’s more, their program indicates which of their selections are unavailable to rent or purchase for home viewing. To learn more, go to www.chicagofilmsociety.org.