Moving Pictures
Jan 17, 2024, 06:29AM

Seat Warmers

Regulars and recent converts at the Charles Theater revival series.

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Yesterday, fellow Splice Today contributor Alex Lei wrote about Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House and The Charles Theater revival series in Baltimore: “The best Revivals are the niche ones, with maybe 20 percent of seats sold to a new restoration of something you wouldn’t have paid too much mind to if it weren’t in Theater 1. The larger crowds are usually a bad sign, packed to the brim with MICA undergrads who don’t get out much and the worst kinds of 35-45-year-olds. I don’t have great ground to stand on as an audience member—I laugh at inappropriate times in movies and have a rather projecting laugh. I shouldn’t blame others for enjoying themselves when I’m there to do the same. Last Thursday, however, I went to the most packed Revival I’ve ever seen at The Charles, and I was primed to be in aggressive opposition to the crowd.”

Me, too. I was there. The last time I saw House was in 2011, in the same exact theater; I’m not sure if it was the same print or a print at all 13 years ago, but because it was right after the Criterion Collection’s release of the film, it might’ve been digitally projected in the early days of DCP, when I was so ignorant about what we were about to lose. Alex gets nervous with big crowds at The Charles, but in my experience, they’re relatively well behaved—friends in Manhattan say the Metrograph is a miserable place to see a melodrama, or even Film Forum; Leigh Ann, my partner in The Servant and resident of Los Angeles, goes to the Academy Museum and the New Beverly all the time. She can’t stand people talking or quoting along but with inappropriate laughter, there’s little you can do when it’s all around you.

Not in Baltimore. I’ve seen many movies with Alex long before I met him—I knew the laugh before the man. Never inappropriate, and I’d say the same for Kate Ewald, another distinctive cinema laugher; they’re a bit of a duo in my mind, and they were both singing last Thursday! I got to the House screening before the crush and claimed my favorite spot—third or fourth row in front on the left aisle—when I saw former Orpheum Theater manager George Figgs in his favorite spot, just to the right in the third row. I moved over several seats to talk with him about the Orpheum, Obayashi, and the pristine reel of Koyaanisqatsi that revival programmer John Standiford was playing as pre-show material. The crush came, and I got locked into the middle, right next to George, watching House on a 35mm print from the 1980s with a brimming and feverish crowd.

House disappointed me in 2011 because I’d been looking forward to it for two or three years. Brian Weitz from Animal Collective, along with his bandmates, were major proponents of the film, which was unavailable in any decent form when Weitz started wearing that iconic orange t-shirt of the screaming cat. Obayashi’s movie is a great example of separating art and its audience. House isn’t its audience or their behavior, and their antics and ejaculations must never obscure what’s really there. House is an astonishing film, total cinema, and I sat there sun-kissed for all of its 88 minutes. Whispers of “pure cinema” were all George and I could muster when it was over. A great movie leaves you laughably inarticulate.

In the last five years, I can only think of one revival at the Charles that had an awful crowd: Jeanne Dielman last spring. Might’ve been my fault: I told Standiford that 2023 was the only year he’d ever get any kind of crowd for Chantal Akerman’s 1975 domestic epic, just then voted “the greatest film of all time” by Sight & Sound. I’m sure hundreds of people were there that had never heard of Akerman, slow cinema, or the avant-garde beyond Robert Altman or David Lynch—that’s great, and one of the benefits of lists and awards, people listen. But as I predicted in 2022, the crowd that came that night started resenting Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman for “making them” sit in a movie “this boring” for so long. The crowd turned on Dielman, laughing at her numerous small fuck-ups and behaving like boors, more like the johns she sees every afternoon than the typically respectful crowds at the Charles.

That was an anomaly. On Monday, I went out into the snow to see one of those relatively niche restorations that Alex wrote about: Emilio Fernández’s 1951 noir melodrama Victims of Sin. I was probably going to go as a matter of course, but Lee Gardner’s note about Fernández sealed the deal: this is the bad guy from The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia! Of course that was him as the villain in his own film, one I’d never heard of before the trailer started playing at the Charles a few weeks ago. I’d read a few books on Sam Peckinpah and it clicked that this guy was a renowned director in Mexico—and a murderer, a rapist, a criminal of all kinds…

And who cares? Fernández’s personal behavior doesn’t diminish his work as a director or actor, and just as with Obayashi and House, one must always remember that meta-narratives and fanbases are marginal next to the work itself and one’s own feelings toward it.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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