Film Fatale

The death of the cinephile prompts a resurrection

After the success of the ninth St. Louis International Film Festival, with around 10,000 venturing into, for the most part, unfamiliar celluloid territory, Susan Sontag's lamentation over the death of the cinephile, which she pronounced a few years ago, comes back to haunt. As pleasurable as this festival was, are those 10 days in autumn and the Webster Film Series the extent to which a St. Louis film lover's desires can be met?

Or, as Sontag and others -- most notably Phillip Lopate -- have written, is the golden age of cinema dead and gone? During that time, roughly the mid-1950s to the late '70s, college campuses and art houses projected Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Bresson, Kurosawa, Ozu and Truffaut, along with re-discovered American greats -- re-envisioned primarily through those foreign eyes who told us of the artistic value of Ford, Hawks, Sturges, Hitchcock and stars such as Bogart and Davis.

"Young people used to think that film was cool," Dan Reich observes. "Now there's a lot of other cool media." Reich programmed a film series for the St. Louis Art Museum until poor attendance figures led to its demise. "More people stayed home with their VCRs."

The coolness of film, as well as the intelligence of film, has declined as a result of a number of mass-media innovations over the last 40 years. With the advent of television, then video, then the computer screen and, most recently, the DVD and the Palm Pilot, with megamillion-dollar blockbusters filling the cineplexes, is there room even at the margins for the cinephile? Or is the last refuge of intellect in cinema, as Lopate has wondered, to be found in "the Mad Bomber character" in a Die Hard movie?

Vicki Woods, who runs the one essential film series in town, at Webster University, graphs the fate of the cinephile from the 1960s, "when there were all of these foreign films that were quite popular -- part of that was because Hollywood was still recovering from the '50s, when they lost all that money to TV. Hollywood was dying at that point." Filling the cinematic void were foreign films with adult themes and sexy stars (Mastroianni, Deneuve) and sex. "Those films were different," Woods continues. "They crossed boundaries that American cinema wasn't really doing, until you get to the late '60s and the advent of Bonnie and Clyde in 1968 and you see the big usherance of violence.

"In the late '50s, you could only get this teenager crap in American films," says Woods. But by the '70s, with the Hayes Code of censorship dropped and with the advent of the rating system, "you see violence enter American cinema, and once violence and sex entered American cinema, Americans were getting what they needed at home."

With the phenomenal successes of Jaws and Star Wars in the 1970s, the American film industry discovered it could make money as it had never imagined, "so they made really dumbed-down, stupid, watered-down films," says Woods. "So what's left for the thinking adult audience to see? Not much."

Through the '80s and '90s, more and more screens at the expanding cineplexes showed fewer and fewer movies -- Titanic on four screens every half-hour. The American independent film gained an audience in the '80s, which led to, Woods says, films not unlike the foreign films popular in the '50s and '60s, with adult topics, "but today in the year 2000, people who go to see Kevin (Dogma, Chasing Amy) Smith's films believe they're seeing cutting-edge stuff. So what we're seeing is the death of Americans' liking foreign cinema."

Anyone who proposes to friends an evening of a film with subtitles is liable to meet with a look of disgust. "I hear people all the time say, "I don't want to read a film,'" says Woods. How did subtitles become so onerous? Woods figures that American independents give audiences "quirky and weird" in their own language. The St. Louis Film Festival's Chris Clark agrees with this assessment: "If an American independent is Felliniesque, why bother to go see Fellini?"

Woods, however, succeeds in showing such contemporary works as L'Humanité and Orfeu or revivals of Ran and Sorrow and the Pity, in part because her series is not-for-profit and subsidized. The Tivoli -- which, along with the Plaza Frontenac, is operated by the Landmark theater chain -- doesn't have that luxury. The Tivoli must turn a profit, and Laura Resnick, involved in managing and marketing the Loop art-house jewel, is well aware that audiences think reading subtitles "feels too much like work." Yet the Tivoli is proceeding with a weekend series of foreign-film classics -- The 400 Blows, Viridiana, M, Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring -- and is bringing in the 1950s French-noir thriller Rififi. Can the Tivoli make money on the supposedly dead cinephile?

"The answer is "Yeah, barely,'" quips Tivoli house manager Dale Sweet. He presents the sobering variables that must be in place for the risk to be worth taking: "If it's marketed well enough and the maximum number of people hear about it with the least amount of advertising costs, and if you put it on in the non-prime-time time of day," as with the noon classics series -- or, he adds, if it's run before the holiday-movie glut, as with Rififi.

In some cities -- Seattle, Berkeley, San Diego -- Landmark has revived the repertory format so popular in the bygone days of the cinephile, when film lovers could be recognized for the monthly art-house calendar magneted to the refrigerator. "There still is life there," says Sweet, but it's a tenuous life. Landmark looks at St. Louis' sprawling population, the film series at Webster, the recent Wehrenberg screen closures and the film festival and surmises, according to Sweet, that "the repertory approach is less viable in St. Louis."

The movie theater competes with other types of cinematic experience as well. Sweet mentions cable channels such as Bravo, Independent Film Channel and Encore. Even though St. Louis' two alternative-video shops have closed, the cinephile can find an amazing variety of movies on the Internet, be it on video or DVD. But a cinephile is by nature an aesthete, whose desires can only be fulfilled in the darkened theater. Bernardo Bertolucci, whose 1900 mesmerized audiences at the Tivoli some 15 years ago, has said that cinema provides people the opportunity to experience a communal dream. Or, as Sontag writes, to be "kidnapped" by a film, "you have to have a movie theater, seated in the dark among strangers."

Even if there is more to see than ever before, to the cinephile it seems like less. For all that Woods brings to Webster, she says, "I have so many films to pick from that I can't decide which ones to do." Patricia Brooke and John Hodge brought a series of films dealing with religion to Fontbonne College this fall (including Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Rossellini's Messiah), with plans for a Seijun Suzuki series this spring, but they are surprised that the only serious film series on a St. Louis campus is at Webster.

The St. Louis Art Museum is starting to rebuild its film program, says Stephanie Sigala, who works in education and adult programming. Concurrent with the coming blockbuster Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard, the museum will be open on Friday evenings and will be showing mostly French films, including Round Midnight, Camille Claudel, Celine and Julie Go Boating and Delicatessen. Sigala says the museum is looking to "see what the market for film is here" but thinks "avant-garde would be our niche if we were to start a series."

The museum still has no curator in film, and a series such as the "Celluloid Couch," or running films that somehow relate to a major exhibition (what My Fair Lady is doing in the French series is anybody's guess -- the Pygmalion myth, maybe?) appears more as a novelty act. But that the museum is at least considering film seriously is a hopeful sign. If any local institution has an obligation to preserve the great 20th-century art form and to educate people about it, it's the art museum. Otherwise, in St. Louis and elsewhere, film's legacy could too easily dissolve and fade to black.

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