Saturday, February 24, 2007

Braving Madison's blizzard to not see Geraldine Chaplin at UW Cinematheque

I've been waiting forever for this once-in-a-lifetime oportunity to see Geraldine Chaplin star in a rare print of this "chilling conundrum," a French pirate movie, made in 1976 by a founding member of the New Wave, Jacques Rivette -- or if not forever, at least since I saw the schedule for the spring film series at UW Cinematheque. So T and I were not about to let a little thing like what our hyperexcited TV weather droids called an "unprecedented" winter storm stop us. From the emailed program notes about the object of my desire:
Nor'west (Noroît) (France, 1976, 135 min., 35mm, color) Dir. Jacques Rivette. Writ. Eduardo de Gregorio, Marilù Parolini, Jacques Rivette. Cast Geraldine Chaplin, Bernadette Lafont, Kika Markham, Humbert Balsan.

Rivette’s puzzling foray into mythology and the pirate genre is a loose adaptation of Cyril Tourneur’s play The Revenger’s Tragedy. Chaplin stars as a grieving woman intent on avenging her brother’s death at the hands of a band of female pirates, lead by Lafont. “The strangest by far of Rivette’s films… days or weeks after you see this chilling conundrum of a movie, sounds and images may come back to haunt you” -- Jonathan Rosenbaum. Imported print! In French with English subtitles.

A founding member of the French New Wave and a former critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, Jacques Rivette has enjoyed an incredibly prolific career for over five decades, making thoroughly challenging, multilayered, and playful films that blur the lines between art and life, fantasy and reality, and liberty and suppression. Most of his films, however, have been largely unavailable to North American audiences – only two of his twenty-two features are in theatrical distribution in this country. The Cinematheque’s seven-film retrospective (culled from a complete retrospective organized by the Museum of the Moving Image) samples Rivette’s oeuvre from several different periods in the auteur’s career. All films are in French with English subtitles. Series cosponsored by the Center for European Studies.
Undeterred by the dire warnings, we drove downtown, had dinner at Porta Bella, and then trudged through several blocks of driving snow to Vilas Hall at the corner of Park and University. The fact that the stairs were drifted over and there was only one set of footprints other than ours, already filling in, did not seem to bode well. Nevertheless, we held on to the railing and stumbled upward, toward the film I was sure would be screening (T had been skeptical all along, but humored me).

The Cinematheque was a warm refuge from the winter furies outside. I love that place, one of Madison's secret treasures, which conducts free showings for students and general public alike -- first come, first served -- of films almost impossible to see elsewhere, since most are not in DVD. The rare prints come in from all over the world and are screened Friday and Saturday evenings during the fall and spring semesters, and on other special occasions as well. All in a gem of a thoughtfully designed theater, with state of the art projection systems for 35mm, 16mm and video transfer, with excellent seats and perfect sight lines from anyplace in the room.

But there was no audience, and no film. We were met at the door by UW Cinematheque Programmer Tom Yoshikami, who was profiled by Kristian Knutsen in The Daily Page last fall.
Considering the legacy of film screenings at the UW, particularly in terms of the film societies in the '60s and '70s and the experiences of people like David Zucker and Mike Wilmington, where does the Cinematheque fit into this history?
The Cinematheque absolutely comes from that film society tradition. Madison has always had a great film-going scene with adventurous audiences. Although film societies scene may not be as flourishing today as they once were (perhaps because of video and DVD), people still want to venture out and watch films with an audience.

And the Cinematheque is able to give them that experience of films that they often wouldn't be able to see any other place. In addition to showing films in their original format (which is often beautiful 35mm), we can offer our audience a collective experience that watching films at home just can't replicate.

The Cinematheque screens films from nearly every decade in the 20th Century. Where do you think film series and programs dedicated to preservation and the art form of the feature film fit as visual entertainment moves online?
Watching films over the internet will never replace watching 35mm prints in real theaters. Seeing films online or even projected on video can suggest what a certain film may look like, but there's just no comparison between even a beautifully produced DVD and a solid 35mm print.

There is, however, no question that the move towards video-on-demand and online film culture has affected film-going. On the one hand, as films are made increasingly available online, some people argue that there's no reason to go out to a theater to watch a film when one can see that same thing at home. On the other hand, as online film culture proliferates and as people become more knowledgeable about film, they learn that the movie they're watching on their computer might resemble what the filmmaker intended them to see, but is very different from watching a 35mm print of the same film.
Tom reluctantly informed us that the city of Madison had canceled public transportation because of the snow, the Cinematheque's projectionist was not there, and they had to cancel the showing. The print would be on its way to a showing in Seattle on Wednesday, but Tom said he would rebook it sometime this spring, perhaps at the end of the Rivette series. They had sent out an email notice about an hour earlier, which probably stopped some people. A few others showed at the door after us. Nobody seemed particularly surprised or upset about the cancellation -- except one man who did seem kind of pissed off, maybe because he had driven all the way from Milwaukee.

I took a few pictures, including some of Tom. He said he shared my dislike of flash (I propped my camera up on a ledge and used the self timer, which makes for nice steady time exposures with a point-and-shoot.) Then we thanked him and headed back out into the night.

There was nothing to be done except slog back out the way we came.

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