Between Shadows and Dreams: Chronicles of a Double Feature, Take II
Where does it begin and where does it end? On my 21st birthday I received a book, an autobiography of Michael Powell from Johnny Pray. He worked (or still works) on Hollywood films, for the wardrobe department. We were at a tapas place on Beverly Blvd, off of Fairfax, Hollywood, CA. The place was dark and small, the night warm. Now, I couldn’t tell you if the place is still there because I don’t remember the name and I am not even sure who was in attendance. Sometimes in the attempt to drum up a vision from the past one fills in the blank with a face which seems appropriate. But I think my mother was there, along with with my cousin Ashley, my ex-GF, and...the book. A few things I do remember for sure: bring your own wine/beer; churros dipped in chocolate sauce; a feeling my life would change forever. This was many years ago. This was 2002.
The book (I still have it on my shelf) is 670 pages not including notes, bibliography, and still-shots. Much of the stories I remember in vague, broad brush strokes. But I do remember when the book changed hands, there was an electricity as if the passing of a cryptic tome from the hands of an initiate to a novice. These memories exist like a flicker not much different than the images of celluloid being projected on a blank canvas. At least these are the moments my memory allows me to remember from May 11th, 2002. Yet, what transpired that night seems inconsequential compared to the impact of the book itself in the months following. But also it isn’t the many specificities of Michael Powell’s story either. His films are great, brimming with imagination. His life story is an inspiring navigation through Britain in the 20th century. But this isn’t why I write about him. No, I write about him because there is one line which I have etched in my brain and though I have read the book once, I know the words are still there for me to find and quote at my convenience. But there is no need to allow the book to wake after so many years sleeping. The shelf serves as its mausoleum and the words are the body lying in state. How sacrilege it would be for me to disrupt the sacred repose of those words representing the life and death of Michael Powell, just as his film represents The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. So, out of all those words in all those pages with all those stories, the single most influential line (paraphrased because I choose not to find the exact quote) is and will always be: “Luis Bunuel is the greatest filmmaker.”
Before my 21st birthday I had no idea who Michael Powell was and I sure as shit didn’t know about Bunuel. Those days, living in Studio City, I mostly rode my book, read my bike, smoked some reefer, and watched movies of Hitchcock, Fellini, Chaplin, and Godard. After I received the book, it didn’t take me long to finish staring at it. Soon I grabbed it, ripped it open, and read it with the veracity of a suckling to the breast. This proved to be the journey before the journey. I never wondered why the book was given to me and still don’t. But I am curious to know if the giver of the book knew what impact the reader would eventually glean from the story. The impact is still as fresh and immediate today but Powell is only the impetus for the journey, not the destination, and I finished the book wondering “who the hell was Bunuel?” I would soon find out.
Double features are a lost art because the history of cinema is a forsaken brick in the building of our culture. While it could have been a brick to help build something special, it is now a plastic copy of the brick in the Lego simulation we have now become. The bastardization of our films now keep the viewers in the masterbating present, torn away from their nativity scene of the cinematheque and placed on an Iphone for anyone to sacrilege all over in between Candy Crush games. The instantaneousness leaves little to be desired and less to the imagination. If the imagination is tapped, it leaps away soon after to something else. All sanctity lasts as long as the attention span of the thumb. At this point, we are all trollops and tramps for cinema. The event lasts as long as the popcorn or the need for the variety of porn: sports, food, whatever. Only the few believers retaining the sacred light choose to hold vigil over the flames of film and celluloid, and the flicker of the projector remains the illumination into the collective dreamscape, as the stain glass window is for the cathedral, within the confines of the theater. Indeed cinema is the arena of the vile and the sacred, the power and the glory of humanity, along with its most base inclinations. It is where our battle for understanding takes place. Any night at the cinema is a representation of Armageddon. We leave the cinema in a state of rapture if we allow it to affect us in this manner. The double feature is lost but not completely. In certain corners of the world's greatest city, a resurgence is taking hold and the stalwarts are taking back films and putting them back in the cinema! Now, in the right place, a double feature can be used for artistic purposes, curated with sophistication. In this way, loose links of two films can broaden the appeal for each other. I remember my first double feature. Early 1995. Rucci and I went. Shawshank Redemption and Quiz Show. He was more Shawshank, I was more Quiz Show. Two films vying for the Oscar. Deep in the night the films ended. They will forever be tethered together in my memory. Intimate moments of growing up and cinema. Together, forever. I see one film, it is contrasted with the other. Dreams and nightmares of Americana, corruption, race, media, and finally, like all great lies, truth. Both films on the surface seem like they have nothing in common but upon time and reflection, it was an inspired choice for a double feature. None of this information was evident when it occurred but the resonance reveals itself as the writing goes deep into the night.
A few months after I finished Powell’s book I looked in the Los Angeles Weekly, as I did every week, for a good film. I found two. As one would expect from L.A., the cinemas are diverse and many. The projection of the film in my mind of those years is fragmented so I have no exact dates. But there is a place: New Beverly Cinema. It had to have been in the Fall of 2002. Maybe early 2003 at the latest. I wasn’t in Venice yet, so it wasn’t quite Spring. I had to take the bus from the valley down La Brea. Took 90 minutes. I remember a Starbucks across the street on Beverly Blvd. Is it coincidence that this took place a few blocks from where the book was given to me only a few months before? Why is it these connections are only revealed so many years later? The films were The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. The theater was old and the presentation crude. Like me there were only cinephiliacs in the crowd lonely on an escapade into the annals of cinema’s obscure past. The director of those films was, and still is, Bunuel.
Born in Spain on February 22, 1900, Bunuel was a, if not the, seminal figure in the surrealist movement in his Parisian days. His early experimental films, made with Salvador Dali, caused riots in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. Soon after, he went back to Spain to make social films of suffering and poverty in Spain’s forgotten corners. Surrealism with a social context would be a trait he would continue to develop over his long career. During the Spanish Civil War he fled Franco’s regime as the Left fell and the Right rose to power. He landed in New York, Hollywood, then Mexico. He never stopped working and making films. His chances and efforts kept him compiling an abundant body of work. Yet by the time he made it back to Europe, returning from decades of exile, many years had passed for someone trying to start their career anew, again. For all intents and purposes it would seem his creative prime had exhausted itself but this is not the case by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, in his final years, while he was in his 60’s and 70’s, he made his greatest films. His final film That Obscure Object of Desire, made in 1977 at the age of 77, was his most sublime and experimental. But the story is simple. An older gentleman, a lawyer or something from France played by the eternally great Fernando Rey, meets a poor Spanish girl. He tries to woo her and keeps throwing money at her in hopes she will succumb. The genius of the film is the woman is played by two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, who have completely different characteristics and demeanor. Bouquet is slender and elegant while Molina is vivacious and voluptuous. Yet Bunuel causes no attention to the gimmick. The story is played straight. The payoff is bitter and honest. We are given no chaser in this inventive comedy. Then there is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, one of the greatest films of all time.
All these years later, I still can’t live without it. The story is even more simple and preposterous as the former film I just wrote about but the only reason it makes sense is because the dream logic employed by Bunuel and his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere is not convoluted with artistry. It is deadpan, absurd, but direct in the storytelling. To put it simply a group of upper-middle class folks in France try to sit down for a meal but the outside problems of the world always rain on their soiree. This is Bunuel’s arsenic-laced love letter to the consuming class. The difference between Godard and Bunuel, though they are often attempting to say the same thing, is that Bunuel does it with love and happiness. There is a genuine glee in his craft but that doesn't mean his bite doesn't hurt, even at the age when most people would lose their teeth. Perhaps it was his survivalist journey which gave him his radical, age-defying approach. Never being settled and not knowing if you are here today or gone tomorrow can have an impact on how one chooses to accept life. After being exiled from his homeland for decades, Bunuel finally returned to Spain with even more vitriolic humor and his film Viridiana is ample proof of his disdain for institutional hypocrisy. But this comeback was thwarted by a ban from the Spanish government and Bunuel would then head back to France for what would be the most incredible final act in cinema's short but colorful history. Thankful from his trials and tribulations, to be renowned as one of the greatest filmmakers of all, Bunuel never lost his sense of humor. Godard, as the years go on even in his productive old age, became more bitter in his cynicism but the joie de vivre was lacking. This makes me appreciate Bunuel even more and and think, perhaps, if it wasn’t for Michael Powell would I have discovered his films? Possibly, but with the mysticism attached to these events I am reminded with this story the meaning and connectedness behind seemingly random circumstances.
Eventually I would buy the Criterion Collection DVD’s of Bunuel at Amoeba Records, then I would break up with my girlfriend, flee the Valley, and move to Venice, California. For reasons which I choose not to disclose all my DVD’s were stolen from me a few months later. It was a miniature tragedy for me. But despite this, (or in spite of it) the flame of Bunuel seemed to burn brighter with each passing year. I became more consumed by his films, especially from his late period. Belle Du Jour, The Milky Way, The Phantom of Liberty, Simon of the Desert, and The Exterminating Angel. I don’t have the time, patience, or skill to translate these films for the reader. They should be watched and enjoyed, especially Discreet and That Obscure. But this is not where the story ends.
Like cheese, I aged and moved to Seattle, to New York, back to Los Angeles, then to Seattle again, and finally where I am now...New York. Ups and downs, strikes and gutters, bachelor to husband; through it all Bunuel and his sensibility had stayed with me. So has Michael Powell’s autobiography. Many possessions, both physical and emotional, have come and gone. But these remain. In the years between I picked up Bunuel’s autobiography, My Last Sigh, and this added to my admiration and respect for him. His conflict with his religious upbringing bore the fruit of his films and also his contradictory wit. His quote “Thank God I am an atheist,” sums up his reverence for the irreverent. With all of this being said, it was with my extreme pleasure on August 30th of 2016 I was on Houston and Varick, passing the great place of pilgrimage for a cinephile, the Film Forum! Since I had been back in NYC I had been there once or twice, but I was a bad practicing cinephile. Perhaps I had taken the redemptive quality of my religion for granted, but I seemed to always find a reason to not go to these hallowed places. I even stopped reading Film Comment, our religion's sermon on the interpretation of the continuing gospel of world cinema. But there I was, alone. It was as if my past came back and I stood looking up before the humble cathedral of shadows and light. It was a warm day but goosebumps ran over my body. My mouth went dry and my stomach fluttered. It was a moment where a flood breaks the levees and a profound remembrance rushes over you, drowning you in a wave of emotion. Before I could even think, I took out my wallet with shaking hands and bought a ticket for what was advertised as “The Return of the Double Feature.” So much can change in fourteen years but one thing is certain, watching The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire at the Film Forum in NYC, so many years after seeing them at The New Beverly, gave me hope that the torchbearers of cinema will be remembered. This wasn’t only a double feature of two films repeated, it was a chance for me to repeat moments of my past and be mindful of what I have in the present so that my future can be a lineage of what had come before. So the question remains, if on May 11th, 2002, I never received that book, would anything have happened the way it did leading up to today? The answer is maybe, maybe not. But it did happen and that is the important thing to remember. It is also important to remember that arbitrary connection of age, creativity, and productivity. If one chooses to accept these rules, you will die by them. If you make your own rules, you will live by those and never look back and think “what if…”