Wednesday, January 29, 2003

The Man Who Loved Movies

It started sometime in the late seventies on a visit to Minnesota, as I recall. I seem to remember making my impetuous pledge there. I had worked myself up to such a state extolling the cinema of Francois Truffaut that I vowed that wherever and whenever the next Truffaut retrospective was held, I would be there.

This was, you may remember or perhaps you'd read about this, before video cassettes of just about every movie ever made were lined up in concrete bunkers called video stores, available for rent at a dollar a night. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to find a theater where it was playing. There were many more theaters playing many more movies in your major cities, of course. Occasionally, foreign films would be shown on television, especially in certain cities. But to see the life's work of a director-18 films in this case, to that date---was a rare opportunity. You had to be in the right city at the right time, or get there.

In 1979 I happened on an article in Variety (the show biz paper I did not make a habit of reading at the time) announcing a major Truffaut retrospective in Los Angeles, with Francois Truffaut in attendance for at least part of the festival. Formidable!

Unfortunately, at the time I was living some 3,000 miles away, in western Pennsylvania.

On the other hand...I had friends in the LA area, mostly from my years in Boston, and mostly associated somehow with the Orson Welles Cinema, which was my second home for several years. At times, let's face it, my first home.

The Orson Welles was a unique kind of place. It started out as a one-screen cinema and a film school. The film school closed, and a restaurant-bar opened. Within a few years it was the Orson Welles Complex: three screen cinema, large café style restaurant with a smaller more intimate bar attached, and downstairs a real restaurant, serving dinners. I went there as a writer for the Boston Phoenix---among other things I wrote film features and the occasional movie review, when Janet Maslin (my boss) would let me. Later I went there as Managing Editor of the Arts half of the paper (when I was Janet Maslin's boss.) Still later, I went there as a refugee. For several years, I lived on movies,coffee, popcorn, licorice, brandy and the smiles of the most beautiful waitresses the world has ever seen.

People there, including me, breathed cinema. On a weekend there could be a couple of special screenings in the morning, then double features at each of the three screens for the rest of the day and night, with the choice of three midnight movies. One week I tried to see how many movies I actually could watch. I believe the number was 30, including a few on TV. I capped that week by seeing all of the Welles films in a weekend--11 or 12 movies. And then I was sick in bed for two weeks.

Anyway, the point is that several people from the Welles had moved out to LA to get into the other end of the movie business. Larry Jackson, the executive director of the complex and the cinema's creative programmer, was there. He would carve out a career as a studio exec and feature film producer for the next few decades. David Helpern, Jr. was there. He'd been at the Welles film school, a friend I spent a lot of time with at the Welles bar and cinema. I'd hung out with him and Nicholas Ray when that esteemed director came to town to help promote David's documentary on him, "I'm A Stranger Here Myself." I'd followed the making of David's second film, a documentary on the Hollywood Blacklist, "Hollywood On Trial" (not the recent version you may have seen on AMC or HBO, though) which was nominated for an Academy Award. More about that one at a later time.

But in 1979 David was putting the finishing touches on his first feature film, "Something Short of Paradise," written by our mutual friend, Fred Barron. I'm not sure if Fred was in L.A. yet. He did go there, I've heard, since he originated the Kate & Alley TV show, was executive producer of "Caroline in the City," and way too famous for any of his old friends to consider trying to get him on the phone. He got back into movies as a producer of something called "Moulin Rouge." (I went to a few movies at the Welles with Jon Landau, who soon hooked up with Bruce Springsteen as a producer then manager, and more recently co-produced some little art film called "Titanic." Don't think I'm on his speed dial either.)

Buffy Offner, one of the aforementioned waitresses, was there, working secretarial at William Morris. Later she became a sound editor; she worked on "The Woman in Red." And I know Terry Corey was there, because I stayed with him, at his second floor apartment on a corner facing the huge parking lot at the end of which was the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.
Terry worked for Robert Altman and his company for awhile, and has since become one of the most sought after sound system designers in the country for large events---he's done the national party conventions, for instance.

So I had places to stay-even a former Boston Phoenix photographer, Michael Dobo, who also shot several of Bonnie Raitt's album covers, was living down in Venice then, trying to be a drummer, trying to get over falling for Bonnie... But I still needed the money to get there.

I'd had a couple of over the transom pieces published in Rolling Stone but never an assignment. I don't remember why or how I hooked up with them but I did. I do remember that the woman I talked to allowed me to represent myself as Rolling Stone and she was interested in a story, but the magazine wouldn't pay expenses, and wouldn't pay much of a guarantee. The upshot was that if I was lucky enough to have my article accepted, I would just about break even.

Sounded like a deal to me. I went.

The negotiation however took so long that I barely had time to make reservations and arrangements. (It was in the course of making arrangements with the American Film Institute, co-sponsor of the festival, that I learned they'd already done the whole thing in Washington, D.C., which Variety neglected to mention. Washington was a four hour drive from where I was living in Pa.) The only flight to LA I could get arrived with just enough time for me to get to the Institute and then to the opening screening of the festival. No sooner had I made the final arrangements that I was on my way. To one disaster after another.

My plane out of Pittsburgh was late getting into Chicago. I missed my first connection. So the flight I finally got on was late getting into LAX. I think it was my first time flying into that particular airport---on other west coast trips, I'd generally started out in San Francisco and taken the train from Oakland to that wonderful old station in LA. Because my plane was late, my rental car reservation had been voided. They had to start the whole process from scratch. In the meantime, my luggage had been lost.

I had to call the American Film Institute and tell them I was going to be late. I was supposed to meet somebody there and go to the screening. Instead I'd barely have time to make the screening itself, so I got directions for that. But by the time I finally got a car and headed out onto the freeways, I was probably going to be late.

I'd driven the freeways before, but I hadn't been to where I was going before so I had to read my directions and carefully watch the signs as five lanes of traffic whizzed around me, not counting the high speed anarchy of my lane. That's when the storm hit.

It wasn't so bad on the freeway, except for seeing the signs. But I saw the right one, and just as I pulled onto the exit ramp, there was a tremendous crash of thunder, and I hit a wall of water that splashed off the hood. But that was all. Everything got very quiet, the rain stopped, but there was this eerie light for awhile.

I finally found where I was going, found the parking, reached for my wallet---and it wasn't there.

Here is where my traveling paranoia pays off. In those days, I never put all my eggs in one basket. I always kept the bulk of my cash plus at least one credit card in another pocket, secured somehow-buttoned, zipped tight-and I never touched it on the trip, except occasionally to make sure it was still there. I used my wallet for whatever transactions I did en route. Now my wallet, with cash and credit cards, but also driver's license etc., was gone, somewhere between the rental car counter and downtown Los Angeles. But I had the second stash. I used that credit card.

I got to the screening twenty minutes into the movie. It was Truffaut's most recent film, one of the few in the festival I hadn't actually seen once. I was too late to get a seat and the theatre was packed, so I stood in the back, and quivered with delayed shock.

When my heartbeat slowed sufficiently, I noticed that standing in front of me was a man with dark hair, slightly shorter than me. It looked like---but could it be? And then I saw the tip-off. He was wearing a scarf. This was L.A. It had to be a Frenchman. It had to be Truffaut.

It was. The upshot of all of that grief was that I watched Truffaut's latest movie, while I watched Truffaut watching it.

I also breathed a sigh of relief that the day was almost over. I was there without the promise of an interview with Truffaut, without which, my editor at Rolling Stone made clear, there would be no story, and hence no money. But I wasn't worried. It had been my experience that a trip that started badly would soon turn out well. And a trip that started with a day like this would have to be bliss for the next two weeks. You know what? It was.

When I awoke in Santa Monica the next morning, the sun was shining. A van arrived from the airport with my lost suitcase. And when I went to get something out of my car, I spied my wallet hiding in a previously dark corner of the trunk. I went out on the front porch with my coffee to look at the ocean. A woman rode by on her bicycle. She looked up and waved. It was Jane Fonda. She lived on this street, in a big tumbled house with Tom Hayden and children.

After a press conference with Truffaut I met Annette Insdorf, an American from New York who was then teaching film at Yale and was later the director of the film program at Columbia. She was finishing a book on Truffaut, and was serving as his translator. She agreed to ask Truffaut if he would give me an interview.

Truffaut was present for the programs that week, as the article that follows will describe. At some point Annette told me my request was granted, basically because one of Truffaut's daughters subscribed to Rolling Stone.

The interview was in Truffaut's suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I had my tape recorder but through Annette he said I couldn't use it---Truffaut had turned down all other interview requests; apparently he'd agreed to do the press conference instead. This was to be a "conversation." I could take notes, though. I guess that was the distinction.

Actually it was a conversation. I know very little French. Truffaut liked to say he doesn't speak English but he understands it. So he spoke French, I spoke English, Annette translated. By the end of the conversation I swear I was understanding Truffaut's French, because we were talking back and forth before Annettee could translate. Then she gave up and just joined the conversation.

I remember that it got so informal that I told him about a scene in a play I wrote and directed in college, in which two gunslingers marched towards each other from opposite ends of the stage. "Truffaut!" said one. "Godard!" said the other. He thought that was pretty funny.

We had about an hour, because Truffaut was going to the American Film Institute banquet where Alfred Hitchcock would be presented with a lifetime achievement award. As we got close to the time he would need to leave, Truffaut didn't say anything or betray impatience. But with some subtlety he managed to pull his coat sleeve back and position his arm so I could see his wristwatch, as he continued to answer my question. I took it as a hint, and thanked him.

I stayed in LA for at least another week. Evenings I saw one or two Truffaut films as the festival went on. Daytimes I hung out with my friends. I went with David to meet the guy who was writing the music for his film. We watched a few scenes in a screening room as they talked. Buffy came by and she and I talked about writing a script together, based in part on something I'd written, and partly on her experience at the Orson Welles restaurant.

I'm not sure it was on this trip, but Buffy got me my first and only "lunch" with a Hollywood agent. A guy from William Morris took me to a Mexican restaurant and I pitched some ideas, which he seemed to like. Our waitress looked a lot like Gloria Swanson, only a good deal older. He said that she actually had been Gloria Swanson's stand-in. When she came back after the meal, I looked at her and smiled. She looked at my empty plate. "I guess you were hungry," she said. I went back to the Morris office with this agent and he gave me several agency envelopes to send him treatments and scripts. A few weeks after I got home, I talked to Buffy on the phone and she told me she showed up at work one Monday morning and he was gone.

I remember one night at a new bar and restaurant on the beach at Venice, a happening place. I was there with Terry and maybe Michael Dobo and friends of theirs, laughing it up at the bar. (Michael showed me the script he was trying to circulate, for an episode of the Jeffersons.) I looked over at the small dining area to see that one of the diners was distinctly annoyed. It was Lucille Ball.

I went to lunch with David and Larry and Terry (I'm pretty sure) at another happening bistro in west Los Angeles. We were sitting in our booth waiting for this chocolate dessert that was supposed to be amazing. In the booth behind us was Anthony Hopkins. He wasn't as well known then as now, but still a star. I still remembered a TV drama he'd done when he played a kind of Dylan Thomas poet. It's one of the few times I regret not interrupting somebody's privacy. He's a guy I would have liked to have a conversation with.

And then there was this early evening on Terry's porch. He had a few friends over. One was a cameraman on "Lou Grant," my favorite series at the time. It was a beautiful evening, sunset, and we were drinking wine. Then below us an ambulance appeared. An older man next door had a heart attack. As he was being put in the stretcher, an older woman waved frantically up at us from the street below. Terry was trying to explain with hand gestures that he was not the doctor who used to live there. Then a few minutes later she had a heart attack, and a second ambulance came. We watched all this in the Santa Monica sunset movie talk third glass of wine haze, like it was some bizarre TV program.

So I got back to Pennsylvania and I wrote the Rolling Stone piece. I sent it in, and I waited. And waited. When I had given up all hope, I finally heard from them. Well, the piece was too old now to run as an article about the festival, but maybe if I made it a more general piece about Truffaut.

So I rewrote the piece, though the changes didn't amount to much. The version that follows this typically longwinded introduction is a combination of the first version and the piece as it was published in Rolling Stone.

The Hitchcock banquet wasn't broadcast until many weeks later, so I watched it back in Pennsylvania, watched Truffaut make his little speech, realizing that barely an hour before this moment was taped, he and I had been in "conversation" in the Beverly Hills Hotel.

I sent a copy of the piece to Truffaut in Paris, together with a letter recounting my adventures, and an article I'd published in Washington Newsworks when I was editor there, and our film person was on vacation. It was on the aesthetics of the double feature, an even more arcane idea now. I sent it to Truffaut because the last part of it was about a double feature of his two of his films. (It was at another Truffaut double feature in Washington, I believe at that same theatre, a year or so later, that in the lobby between the two films I ran into a young woman I'd met once when I was at Newsworks and she acted in a local experimental theatre company. We saw the second film together, had a few drinks and lots of laughs at the bar next door. I volunteered to walk her home, not realizing that she lived a couple of miles away, but by giving each other piggy back rides along the way, we completed the journey. The next time I saw her was also at the movies, although she was about ten feet high that time. She was in the movie. Her name was, and I guess still is, Karen Allen.)

Some weeks later,I got a letter from Truffaut. Most of it was in French, in large typed black letters on white paper, thanking me for "le clips" and saying that undoubtedly we should meet again. There was a handwritten postscript referring to my comparison of "Day for Night" and "Adele H." It started out in French, but ended with the words in English: "is very accurate."

We never met again, and even more sadly, this was not to be the midpoint of his career as my article suggests. Truffaut made only three more films, including the classic, "The Last Metro." He died of a brain tumor in 1984.

In a film about Truffaut, one of his daughters says his public image was accurate but incomplete. That seems a fair and gallant way of saying it.

In that film, his boyhood friend, Robert Lauchenay recalled, "As the outside world was hostile to us, we used movies and books as a kind of shelter." We had that in common. Early in his career Truffaut proclaimed, "The film of the future will be shot by adventurers. The film of tomorrow will be an act of love."

rolling stone June 14, 1979

Though probably better known to American audiences as Lacombe, the French UFO investigator in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Francois Truffaut has twenty years of internationally acclaimed filmmaking to his credit, an opus honored recently in the first major domestic retrospective of his work in Los Angeles. It was a curious idea: appropriate for output and quality, but unusual for a director so comparatively young. As one critic recently wrote, "Francois Truffaut is 47 years old, has made eighteen feature films, and is probably no more than halfway through what adds up to one of the most fertile, impressive careers a director has ever had." In both formal question and answer sessions and informal conversation, Truffaut revealed that he feels his career is at a kind of midpoint---and what is ahead may be quite different from what we have seen so far.

The retrospective (co-sponsored by the American Film Institute and the L.A. County Museum of Art) began at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, a building rivaling Xanadu set amidst Rolls and Mercedes dealerships on Wilshire Boulevard. Truffaut, present for the first of the three week event, premiered his latest film, Love on the Run, to a packed crowd in the enormous Samuel Goldwyn Theater. (Truffaut's other unreleased film, The Green Door, a brooding drama based on a Henry James story, ended the retrospective.) It was a fitting choice to lead the program, being the latest (and last) in Truffaut's series centering on the Antoine Doinel, which began with his first feature, The 400 Blows (1959). Truffaut once described the character of Doinel as the synthesis of two people: himself and Jean-Pierre Leaud, the actor who plays Doinel in all five films and who has aged with the character from adolescence, something unprecedented in moviemaking.

In the new entry Doinel is 35, a divorced first novelist looking back on his relationships, and beginning a new romance. The film is built around clips from previous Doinels and replete with playful quotes and references to other Truffaut movies such as Day for Night, Soft Skin and The Man Who Loved Women, so it is a kind of retrospective in itself.

Truffaut told the audience that the clips in Love on the Run were first selected by one of its stars, Marie-France Pisier (co-star of Cousin, Cousine), working with an assistant director. They also wrote the first draft screenplay. Truffaut added Doinel's new love interest, "so the ending would not be so sad."

Truffaut felt a prisoner of the Doinel character in doing this film ("Because of things he'd done before I felt I didn't have a lot of choices") which perhaps is why he announced it will be the last in the series. Still, Antoine is a much beloved character. Speculating on the reasons, Truffaut said, "He has a certain sincerity even when he lies...He has valor. It's the word I used most often in directing Leaud in the role---'this scene needs more valor.'"

In their combination of comedy and seriousness, their elevation of ordinary humanity and their cinematic energy, the Doinel films are often considered Truffaut's most characteristic, rivaling the fame of Jules and Jim and the more recent Day for Night, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1973. The middle three ( Antoine and Collette (1962),a 23 minute contribution to an anthology called Love at Twenty; the classic Stolen Kisses (1968) and possibly the best of the series, Bed and Board (1970)) were shown together later in the program and proved a highlight of the retrospective. The audience especially appreciated the unity of the latter two, down to the same foreboding music accompanying a mysterious character, though in both cases he turned out to be benign.

After the first screening, Truffaut was asked why many of his male characters are romantic while his women are independent-a reversal of Hollywood stereotypes. "In love, women are professionals, men are amateurs," he said. "Women live their love stories doubly---they live love and reflect upon it at the same time. I show men who live their love stories not at a conscious level, and this is perhaps why I show women stronger than men."

As to the charge that Antoine Doinel and other characteristic Truffaut males are perennial adolescents, shy but childishly demanding, Truffaut responded, "I am reproached because my men are not adults. But in my life I have not met many men who are adults." The audience applauded.

Truffaut's concern with human relationships (including children, family and society) has been his trademark among the directors who began the French New Wave movement in the 1950s, as an attempt to bring sincerity back to a stultified commercial cinema. His many films about men and women range from the playful Doinel films to the truly fiery love stories of Mississippi Mermaid (with Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo) and The Story of Adele H (which won an Oscar nomination for Isabelle Adjani.) Truffaut's secret in telling these more serious love stories is the tension between a character who sees love as temporary or accidental, and the other to whom love is definitive. The latter characters, Truffaut said, "are like mad people, but mad people who we like because we recognize their purity."

Truffaut's definitive passion for film itself is a long-standing one. He wrote in his recent book, The Films in My Life, "I saw my first two hundred films on the sly, playing hooky and slipping into the movie house without paying...I felt a tremendous need to enter into the films. I sat closer and closer to the screen so I could shut out the theatre. I passed up period films, war movies and westerns because they were more difficult to identify with. That left mysteries and love stories."

Later as a filmmaker, his natural mentors were the geniuses of these two genres, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. he states bluntly that his work is an attempted reconciliation of these two apparently opposite directors: the master of murder and the cinematic humanist.

Truffaut was in Los Angeles partly to participate in the American Film Institute presentation of its Life Achievement Award to Hitchcock. In the televised ceremony Truffaut observed, "In America you respect Hitchcock because he makes scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. In France we respect him for the scenes of murder that are like scenes of love."

Hitchcock's influence is weighted toward cinematic technique; Renoir's contribution is focused on the feeling that informs the film. Coincidentally, Renoir's death came just before the retrospective began; Truffaut spoke at a memorial program at USC. Renoir used "something like a trade secret---sympathy," Truffaut once wrote, which enabled him to make "the most alive films in the history of the cinema." Truffaut often quotes Renoir's words in The Rules of the Game: " You see, in this world, there is one terrible thing, and this that everyone has his reasons."

As part of his own retrospective, Truffaut screened Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. Characteristically his discussion afterwards was the longest and best of his three appearances. Truffaut clearly and enthusiastically acknowledges his debt to other filmmakers---his acceptance of the rules of the cinema makes him a classicist among the New Wave directors like Godard and Bresson, who attempt to reinvent film every time they start a camera.

"Godard is more of a romanticist and I am more of a classicist," Truffaut said. "The idea of being the first to do something doesn't interest me at all. I used to explain it this way: if Godard and I came upon a card game we didn't know, he would say, 'That's stupid! Let's play it another way.' But I would say, 'What are the rules? Teach me.'"

But it is this passionate scholarship and empathy with the filmmakers of the past that fuels Truffaut's own inventiveness---his knowledge of styles is so exact that he can effectively mix several within a single picture.

In person, Truffaut's affable seriousness and intelligent passion for how movies are made illuminated the post-screening sessions. As anyone who has been there can attest, it is impossible to have coffee in this part of L.A. without hearing a movie deal discussed. But in these hours something strangely rare occurred: the romance and reality of movies met as art, craft and experience.

Yet with all the technical fascination, Truffaut never lost sight of the people and emotion involved. Speaking about Hitchcock's uniqueness as a director he added, "I don't think Hitchcock feels comfortable in normal society." When the audience laughed Truffaut commented, "That isn't funny." It is this quality of caring that inspires the feeling often mentioned by his admirers---trust. Like the professor he portrays in The Wild Child, Truffaut plays shell games---but he doesn't cheat.

The retrospective went on after Truffaut returned to Paris. Ray Bradbury was on hand at the L.A. Museum (where all screenings but Love on the Run were held) to introduce a mint-condition Technicolor print of Farenheit 451, and told how he wrote the novel on which it is based by feeding dimes into a metered typewriter in the typing room of the UCLA Library. He praised the movie, especially the ending. "It's one of the greatest endings of any film ever. I've seen it twelve times and cried every time---and not because it's mine. Because it's Truffaut's."

Annette Insdorf, a Yale film professor and author of a new book, Francois Truffaut, who had also served as Truffaut's translator for his public appearances, introduced a quartet of films including Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim with an apt interpretation of Truffaut's thematic and technical message: "Life repeats itself and there's nothing you can do about it." A later audience was mesmerized by the start and classical narrative of The Wild Child combined with the vibrantly colorful picaresque Small Change-a combination of films about childhood that Truffaut himself devised. He in fact selected all the pairings and groupings of his films for the retrospective.

Although he granted no formal interviews in Los Angeles, Truffaut agreed to a conversation in his Beverly Hills Hotel suite at the end of his stay (partly because one of his daughters is a Rolling Stone subscriber.) Annette Insdorf was also present to translate. Although he speaks considerable English and understands more, Truffaut takes pains to be precise. Onece when Insdorf translated his description of the protagonist of The Man Who Loved Women as a "playboy," Truffaut corrected her in French, and she amended it to "skirt-chaser."

While rumors were rife that Truffaut is being wooed by Hollywood producers---and despite the phone calls and the open copy of Howard Hughes: The Hidden Years---there appears to be no American period for Truffaut in the near future. "Presently I am in a lull," he said. "but there are four or five projections in preparation in France." The Hollywood star system and its attendant problems do not seem to encourage him. He pointed out that if he had made The 400 Blows in the traditional way even in France, he would have had to use a star to play Antoine's father, and because of that the part of the father would have to be expanded, distorting the whole idea of the film.

In America the star system is the economic underpinning of the industry. "They needed Brando to get the money to make Superman," he said, "but when Brando was on the screen you just waited for him to get off so you could see the man who flies."

Truffaut has used stars (including Jeanne Moreau, Julie Christie and Jacqueline Bisset) but it was a matter of choice. "If a director here can get Nicholson or Pacino and doesn't want him, he's considered an idiot. In France, Small Change was released in the normal way but here it would have been a "B" film unless I used big stars." You have to have stars to get bookings, I suggested. "Booking!" Truffaut boomed, breaking into precise Hollywood English. "Booking is King!"

Truffaut's own filmmaking career is at a juncture. He feels Love on the Run represents doors that have closed. He spoke of writers who do five or six novels and then move on to other kinds of books (books and writing are major themes in his work---Truffaut is the movies' most conspicuous champion of literature and its enterprise.) "As one gets older one loses the sense of fiction," he said. "Fiction is something linked to youth."

But Truffaut is hardly at the end of his career. "Films made by old people are generally misunderstood," he mused. "They're more theoretical, less physical." But it also takes time for audiences to accept the style of a young filmmaker, he added. "The best contact with audiences is made when the filmmaker is around 45 or 50." Annette and I both laughed. Truffaut smiled. "I should take advantage of this period," he said.

We discussed his appearance in Close Encounters, his first as an actor outside his own pictures. ("I tried to be the most cooperative actor on the set. Every director does.") The role was ironic, considering a statement I'd heard attributed to him to the effect that he was interested only in film, children and the relationships between men and women; if a flying saucer landed he wouldn't cross the street to investigate.

I asked him if this was true. "Yes," he smiled. "When people talk about UFOs, I tune out. It's the same when they discuss food---I think about something work."

Despite his own lack of interest in the subject, those who know Truffaut's work attach a special significance to his presence at the end of Close Encounters. There are few people we would rather have representing humanity to an alien culture than Francois Truffaut.

The irony of the following article now, of course, is that the "big city revival and sub-run houses" mentioned in the lead are also virtually obsolete. But this was before the VCR, let alone the DVD. Read this, and program your own double feature today!

The Aesthetics of the Double Feature

Like the weekly serials and the Saturday afternoon cartoon shows, the double feature has become a relic of a bygone era. As shopping center cinemettes showing the latest first-run films in separate pre-fab compartments all over the country replace the old movie palaces, the double bill remains a staple only in big city revival and sub-run houses. But there it has also found a new kind of life---the double feature has become, in the hands of creative programmers, a kind of art form in itself.

Seen in a certain way, double features have unique effects. Besides feeling less ripped-off by the admission price, the moviegoer feels somehow more adventuresome at the prospect of seeing more than one film. Two films seen together naturally feed back on one another. The first film colors the experience of the second, and the second, since it was seen more recently, colors the memory of the first. If the films are matched particularly well, each may draw out aspects of the other that the view might not ordinarily catch.

Few double bills are paired randomly; putting two films together is frequently the only creative thing a programmer gets to do. Some are paired rather obviously by subject and style, as with several upcoming twin bills: animal nastiness in Rattlers and The Frogs at the Senator; violent steel and posturing in Super Weapons and Lightning Sword of Death at the Trivoli; classic foot-tapping sweetness in Top Hat and Swingtime at the Inner Circle. Some are combined for an actor (the Key's recent Bogart festival) or director (two Truffauts at the Biograph.)

But there are more subtle pairings, too. The Capitol Hill II puts together two films with a common theme---politics and corruption---but with very different approaches emanating from different areas: Advise and Consent, a pot-boiling anti-heroic drama from the 60s, and Born Yesterday, a comedy-romance with a heroic message from the 40s. A similar approach---common theme and different style---but using two films from the same era of disaffection occurs in the Circle's twinning of The Graduate and Paper Chase.

Some double bills seem to make very little sense, but suddenly each film illuminates the other in a new way. A few years ago I saw two movies that seemed to have little in common except they were both ostensibly minor British films of the trendy 60s: Karl Reisz's Morgan! and Charlie Bubbles, Albert Finney's first and so far only film as a director as well as star. Though I'd seen them both separately before (sometimes that makes seeing films together even better) I hadn't noticed, nor felt, the depth to which each dealt with an artist who came from a working class family and politics, into upper-class situations and money---and the confusing effects the artists had on the people in their lives who were quite comfortable in their class niche, or at least were unable to transcend it.

Each main character struggles to join together these aspects of their lives---Morgan in a more fantastic, yet more political way (he was perhaps the world's first back-to-nature Trotskyite, who revered Marx and gorillas equally)---Charlie Bubbles in a more mundane and identifiably real context. Both characters achieved some sort of half-tragic transcendence---Morgan through madness and Charlie in such a pure sense of transcendence that I hesitate to give the ending away even now, it so moved me the first time I saw it.

Each of these films yielded new insights into the other not likely to occur if each is seen alone. If one views films, cares about films, beyond the surface gore and giggles allowed by the canons of 70s apocalyptic hedonism, the experience can be enlightening and exciting.

Another pleasure of discovery occurs when a double bill gives you a new feeling for the common themes that link disparate films by the same director. For example, the Biograph's recent pairing of Francois Truffaut's two most recent American releases, The Story of Adele H. and Day for Night.

Seeing them separately with months between, they seem entirely dissimilar: the tragedy of a young 19th century woman whose obsessive love for a shallow soldier drives her mad; and a comedy about the making of a not especially good contemporary movie. But together it becomes clear that they are not dissimilar---they are opposite sides of the same theme; the same guiding obsession of the same director.

Adele H's obsession isn't simply with a resistant lover but with her own identity, her passionate need to separate herself from over-identification with her famous father (Victor Hugo) and older sister. To do this she must perform some extraordinary, heroic act-to, in her words, "walk across the sea to join her lover in a new world---this I will accomplish."

Adele's obsessions only refer to the outside world but don't respond to it---primarily they are responses to her inner world, her anguish, her courage, her struggle---above all, her gamble: the romantic gamble of self-realization, of making something new of one's life and another's through vision and love.

Adele H. ends with Victor Hugo's dying words, "I see a black light," and a repetition of Adele's vow. Her failure to accomplish it-the gamble lost---is her tragedy.

What can this have to do with Day for Night? Simply that Adele's obsessions have been applied to a generally more successful way of dealing with the dark, helpless interior struggles. The solution is classic: the inner struggle is externalized, the emotions of the inner darkness are acted out in the light through the making of art, in this case the social art of films-and the exchange is literally day for night.

Clearly, the world of film is what allows the characters in Day for Night, including the director Truffaut himself plays, to deal with themselves in the given world. Truffaut says as much to the character played by (and very much based on) Jean-Pierre Leaud: "We are no good at life, we are only happy in our work."

Adele spends much of her time feverishly writing in her diary; in dark rooms, she constructs her inner-directed dramas alone. There will be no audience until she is dead. The moviemakers are shown in constant relationship to each other, and the most private moments are transformed (in one case, literally overnight) into the acted out, public form of film.

There are other common threads between these two movies; seen together, they form a unique presentation of Truffaut's wisdom and compassion. It is a pairing of films as subtle and wonderful as an ideal marriage between two people, sensitively, wisely and lovingly attuned. But like such a marriage, the wonder is only potential until the two are brought together, in the right place, at the right time.