”I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ... I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”
– Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, 1729
Citizens, I come here today not to suggest we eat our young. Neither did Jonathan Swift, actually, but given this country’s current anti-intellectual bent and distrust in some circles for anything beyond bubba-speak and homegrown mea culpas, satire is, more than ever before, what closes, and gets boarded shut with rusty nails, on Saturday night, is likely to get you burnt at the stake in the town square, or at the very least excoriated by the brainiac likes of Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin. Despite our tendency as loving parents or relatives to express our enthusiasm for our young in cannibalistic terms (“I could just eat you up!”), even posting a picture like the one below is probably just as likely to affirm certain beliefs and prejudices as it is to expose them as nonsensical. And there are still some who choose to believe that Starship Troopers was about the heady rush of killing giant bugs.
Therefore I choose to hold dear Swift’s mightily ironic Proposal on its own brilliant terms, to cherish it as an essential element of my personal library, along with other great inflammatory works of social commentary as Twain’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic—Updated” and to steal from it only its modest title and re-jigger a line or two in service to my own very modest proposal for how to take the blues out of holiday movie-going.
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through the malls and faceless shopping developments of this great country when they see the velvet-roped lines leading up to the box-offices of worn-out cracker-box cinemas of ancient design and multimillion-dollar multiplex facades alike crowded with filmgoers of the female sex, boyfriends in tow, being dragged to Twilight-New Moon or whatever Christmas-themed comedy or Robin Williams-John Travolta disaster for the umpteenth time. The only sight sadder than boys mooing in unison behind their girlfriends is the prospect of these same cud-chewers saving up their goodwill for having endured last week’s Date Night Chick Flick in anticipation of (what else?) making Jenny or Bobbie Sue turn around and line up for Avatar.
I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of ticket buyers willing to exercise little or no discrimination when it comes to the effect of being bombarded by TV advertising and babbling junket whores, in the arms or at the heels of their significant others but sometimes shuffling aimlessly, alone, toward their studio-predetermined destiny with becoming $8-12 less rich at the feet of the weekend’s anointed crap-tastic epic, is in the present deplorable state of the fiefdom a very great additional grievance. Therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of encouraging these moviegoers to become sound, useful members of the commonwealth in support of the distribution of alternative holiday film-going choices, including the investigation of the offerings made at whatever local repertory establishment might be available, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
It is not for myself or my own enshrinement that I would endeavor to propose such an unlikely occurrence as mass turning-away from the likes of Avatar or Did You Hear About the Morgans? or Nine or Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, however good, bad or indifferent they may each turn out to be. There is no way to stop the likely crush at box-offices showing films like these from people desperate to be separated from their hard-fought earnings. However, I would like to propose, given that there are four full weekends of big studio choices yet to be unloaded before the end of the year, that when determining which film to see perhaps at least one movie beside the big hype machine of the weekend should be considered, especially when such a choice is, if there are other family members involved, likely to run into the $60-80 range, when snacks, parking and/or baby-sitting fees are factored in.
I know that at first this sounds like some kind of sacrilege. But movie executives are not preachers guiding the flock to the most fulfilling experience possible, and I dare say if Christ himself came down off the cross and extolled the faithful to go see Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes he’d be less effective than the current studio-orchestrated ad campaign (what with those crucial Burger King tie-ins and all) which promises a more muscular, AVID-accelerated sleuthing experience. And it is entirely possible that a movie which may not immediately enrapture the senses with its hard-boiled, 25-words-or-less premise, or one without the ringing familiarity of a Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker romp or a weepy family drama starring Robert De Niro, could provide its own unexpected pleasures. (The key word being, of course, unexpected, for nothing, it seems, is such anathema to modern movie-going audiences as some element of a film they have not already be exposed to in the incessant trailers and TV ads rearing back and taking them by surprise, making them feel something other than the processed emotions they have taken as a guarantee with their ticket purchase price.)
Never heard of The Lovely Bones? Why not take advantage of the seemingly limitless sources on the Internet which can provide relatively bias-free information about the film’s themes, its content, or even the filmmakers who made it. Curious about odd-sounding titles like Invictus? There are already intelligent voices out there suggesting that Clint Eastwood’s movie might be an excellent alternative when those screenings of It’s Complicated are all sold out. The modest proposal of this piece, therefore, is to simply consider something other than one’s first choice when it comes to holiday movie-going adventures, to take a step away from the studio-certified-and-anointed offerings, to look closer at the tinier print ads in the overwhelming movie sections of the local newspaper. These are where movies like A Single Man can be found, and where some theaters in some cities may still be showing worthy leftovers from October and November such as A Serious Man, Fantastic Mr. Fox, An Education and The Maid.
But you already look there, don’t you, Dear Reader? It might be a fair criticism of this proposal to note that most of the people likely reading this are already of a certain cinephilic bent and therefore automatically inclined to eschew (or at least consider eschewing) the latest blockbuster based on advertising and glowing box-office standings. (Did a movie ever actually get better, or more attractive, simply because it was “The #1 Hit in the Country!”?) But cinephiles can betray a herd mentality too, Yours Truly included, and if we look closely enough we can challenge ourselves in the same way. If, for example, you are a Los Angeles film geek devoted to the monthly schedules of the New Beverly Cinema or the Cinefamily and you absolutely love and appreciate the off-the-beaten path cult cinema those two venues have thrived in offering over the last couple of years, you could challenge yourself by adding to your diet of Grindhouse Tuesdays or Midnight Fridays or HolyFuckingShit! Saturdays one of the many choices you might not automatically gravitate toward and expand your cinematic horizons in the process.
Right now, for example, if you're in Los Angeles this week you can treat yourself to a restored version of Jacques Tati's comic masterpiece M. Hulot's Holiday (1953). This restoration is touring the country and will likely be arriving at other Landmark Theaters locations across the country soon. The new Cinefamily calendar for December is not yet available at this writing, but on December 11 and 12 at the New Beverly, for example, you could take in a sublime Preston Sturges double feature, The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Sullivan Travels (1941), which will not only teach you everything you need to know about American movie comedy—and one of the most underrated of Hollywood film actors, Joel McCrea, who stars in both pictures—but will also without a doubt outshine anything opening at the multiplex that same weekend, and at close to half the price. Instead of staying at home and running Raging Bull on your home theaters system, you could venture out into the community and see rarely screened prints of John Huston’s highly-regarded Fat City (1972) and Ralph Nelson’s feature adaptation of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) instead, movies that paved the way for the grueling realism Scorsese brought to Raging Bull’s violence and its sweat-soaked milieu. The very next weekend, December 18 and 19, brings a double feature to the New Beverly screen that ought to be irresistible catnip to any self-respecting movie fan, a chance to see two of Billy Wilder’s least frequently exhibited features, Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter and Erich von Stroheim in Five Graves to Cairo (1943) doubled with Bing Crosby, Joan Fontaine and Richard Haydn in The Emperor’s Waltz (1948). Neither film may be considered a classic on par with Sunset Boulevard, but for completists and others concerned with tracking and understanding the career of one of Hollywood’s great writer-directors, they are both essential and enormously entertaining, and again a damn sight safer bet that anything on Big Hollywood’s docket for the weekend before Christmas.
Finally, the New Beverly ushers out the old year with a three-night engagement of a film that used to be a staple of its calendars in the days when Michael Torgan’s father Sherman was operating the theater. I like to think Michael is paying tribute not only to the wisdom of his potential audience but to the programming acumen of his dad in returning Marcel Carne’s stunning wartime classic Children of Paradise (1945) to the New Beverly. This is a rare opportunity to see a film many consider the greatest ever made, one which many of us have never seen projected properly. My own experience with it is restricted to one god-awful 16mm screening in college, and though yours may be slightly better—that old Criterion DVD, or a VHS transfer, perhaps—I’d wager you still need to jump on the chance to upgrade and see Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault enact their tragic love story the way movies were meant to be seen. Children of Paradise was not only a New Beverly staple, but a staple of exactly the kind of challenging, world-aware repertory cinema that was emblematic of the programming of repertory houses throughout the country in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when college film societies and revival houses thrived in concert with each other to service a younger, more risk-taking college-age crowd of cinema lovers. These audiences regularly gambled the $2 or $3 or $4 admission on names and faces and films they’d never heard of in the hopes of seeing not just a movie, but perhaps experiencing an epiphany, a sudden turn along the path that might lead them to explore other avenues of film, and art in general, that they might not ever have considered important or fascinating or germane to their existence before. The prices are a little higher these days, but still about half what you'd spend to enter a multiplex-- the New Beverly's admission is a shamefully low $7. And it is this sense of film history, these ties to the tradition of film-going as a living, breathing experience that programmers like Michael Torgan, Hadrian Belove at the Cinefamily, the crew at LACMA here in Los Angeles, and other venues as far flung as Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington, are striving to keep alive. By stepping outside your circle of taste, by trying something new, you’re casting a vote of confidence not only that these venues will be able to continue their mission in the face of mighty and near-overwhelming odds, but also in your own desire to stretch the boundaries of your own experience, to test uncharted waters, to give the movies an opportunity to touch you directly, unexpectedly, with passion and intimacy. My modest proposal is that you dedicate at least the price of one admission, whether it be to a local repertory cinema or in renting a classic which you've never seen, toward taking that kind of chance this holiday season.