Moving pictures

It already seems like an Asheville institution, but little more than a year ago the Cinema in the Park series was nothing more than a glimmer in Rupa Vickers’ mind. “One night, I was just thinking: Wouldn’t it be great to go over to Pritchard Park in that amphitheater and watch movies?” Vickers originally told Xpress last fall.

With the help of Kim MacQueen of the Asheville Downtown Association (who helped coordinate the event) and support from downtown business owners, Vickers was able to bring her vision to fruition. City residents have already enjoyed two seasons of movies — fall 2001 and spring 2002 — and with the fall 2002 edition already under way, Cinema in the Park is more popular than ever.

When the series first started, no one really knew whether a modern audience would have any interest in silent movies — even outdoors and for free. They needn’t have worried. The very first show drew more than 300 people. And this season’s September 7 showing of Chaplin’s The Kid — which was dedicated to late Cinema in the Park committee member “Hutch” Hutchinson — packed in an amazing 700+ viewers. “Can you believe that?” asks Vickers. “It was a wonderful crowd. And the reason I bring it up is because you watch these films at home and it’s just not the same thing. You miss those grandiose days of being outdoors at a drive-in movie theater, of just being there with all these people out under the stars watching the movies.”

In fact, the major obstacle to getting people to try these films, says Vickers, hasn’t been their age or the fact that the movies don’t have sound. “Our mayor made the comment in the Citizen Times report about how he wasn’t necessarily one of those ‘classy silent-film types,’ and there is this impression that the movies are for an elitist group.” And while most of the films in the series are recognized classics that certainly deserve the “art” label, there is no room for snobbery here. Even classic movies are and always have been very much a populist art form. Movies began as cheap entertainment for the masses and have never really strayed from that basic concept.

For Vickers, much of the delight of the Saturday series is the overall experience — the setting, the movies, the live musical accompaniment, the audience. This season, that experience has been broadened to include live entertainment before the screenings. The upcoming showing of Peter Pan, for example, will be preceded by a juggling act. In addition, the films are now being introduced by knowledgeable film enthusiasts such as Chip Kaufman (the series’ movie coordinator) and Cinema in the Park board member Kelly Boler, who provide some historical context.

MacQueen, the ADA’s vice president, brings a slightly different perspective to the project. “For me, the beauty of Cinema in the Park is that it’s about the whole idea of community, and just being able to have people come together in the park in an urban setting is such a great thing. It’s something that people are enjoying in growing numbers. The amazing thing is not only the number of people attending, but also the diversity of the crowds.” The movies have drawn people from every walk of Asheville life — families, older folks from the Vanderbilt and Battery Park apartments, downtown residents, teenagers, and even non-English-speaking viewers. “The films are silent, and language isn’t really a barrier,” explains MacQueen. “Last year, we had a group of Japanese tourists come through and stay for the film. You wouldn’t necessarily think a silent film would attract such a diverse group of people — and if it was showing in a theater, it might not — but the whole ambience of the event comes together to make something unique.”

Others in the downtown scene obviously share MacQueen’s vision. One of the series’ financial supporters is Fine Arts Theatre owner John Cram. At first glance, it might seem odd that he would want to help fund an event that could be seen as competing with his business. “I was hesitant to ask him for money because of this,” confesses MacQueen. “But I think John sees it as a way of helping to create reasons for people to come downtown, and he’s been such a supporter of downtown Asheville for so many years.”

Although the films are free to the public, “These showings are surprisingly not cheap to put on,” reports MacQueen, adding, “We’ve been really, really happy with the level of financial support that we’ve received.” Before the first series, she remembers, “Rupa and I literally went door to door on Haywood Street and asked every merchant for $100, and that’s how we put that first event on. In the middle of that first season, we had people coming up to us saying, ‘I want to be a sponsor next time.’ And then we were thrilled this year to get a grant from the Community Foundation.”

Support for the series hasn’t ended there. “I put together some fliers that we handed out that had some levels of support if people wanted to donate. The top level was $500 for a ‘producer,’ and after the spring show, someone circled that and sent us in a $500 check — and $500 goes a long, long way,” MacQueen reveals. Not all the assistance has been strictly financial, either. “We’d been renting our projector — it was costing $1,500 a season — and Richard Ford, an architect for a firm called PBC&L, came up to us after the show and offered us the use of his firm’s projector gratis. He had just thought it was such a great evening that he wanted to help out.”

Another new twist this season is the addition of edibles. “We were approached by a couple of restaurants — the Golden Horn and Gold Hill Espresso and … an ice cream cart — who wanted to set up food. They all set up the first night this season, and they all said they did good business and that they’d be back.”

But at the heart of the series, of course, are the movies themselves, and that’s where Kaufman comes into the picture. He’s in charge of providing the films for the shows (along with a committee that votes on the final selections) and is also one of the pre-film speakers. For the upcoming (Saturday, Sept. 28) showing of the 1920 Maurice Tourneur-Clarence Brown film The Last of the Mohicans, Kaufman will give the background and serve as host for the event. “That will be the one night that Rupa is off. I’ll be speaking between 7 and 7:30, and then we have live entertainment that goes till 8, when the film gets under way,” he explains.

Preceding Mohicans will be a showing of the 1913 Thomas H. Ince short film The Drummer of the Eighth. If Ince’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because his mysterious death in 1923 aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht was the subject of the recent Peter Bogdanovich film The Cat’s Meow. Though largely forgotten today, movie pioneer Ince was once considered to be in the same league as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille. “It’s a 20-minute short — set during the Civil War — with a very strong anti-war message,” Kaufman reveals. “Young boy, dreaming of glory, runs away from home and joins the Union Army and gets to see the carnage of war up front. What makes this so interesting is that around that time, it was the 50th anniversary of the Civil War, so they made a lot of films with Civil War subjects, and one of the things that Ince was criticized for in his day was his downbeat tone. Many of his films — like this one — do not have a happy ending, unlike the Griffith films where everything sort of works out well in the end. Ince didn’t do that. His films, in one sense, are more realistic. It’s really a very forward-looking film that shows that all silent films aren’t just corny melodramas.”

The Last of the Mohicans is also a more realistic and downbeat offering than might be expected — especially for viewers coming to it with memories of the recent Daniel Day-Lewis movie shot in the Asheville area. Whereas that film played fast and loose with the James Fenimore Cooper novel — including sidestepping the book’s unhappy ending — this version by director Maurice Tourneur and his protege Clarence Brown (who finished the film after Tourneur suffered an accident) follows the novel fairly closely. Tourneur was an exponent of a style of filmmaking known as pictorialism — a somewhat painterly approach to movies that was also favored by another great (and often overlooked) silent director, Rex Ingram. Because this approach relies heavily on composition and an exact look, many such films have fallen into disrepute — due not to their own limitations but to years of being known only through bad dupe copies. This presentation of The Last of the Mohicans is fully restored and offers a rare chance to view this pictorialist masterpiece the way its creator intended.

The following week (Saturday, Oct. 5), Cinema in the Park serves up the 1924 classic fantasy film Peter Pan, starring Betty Bronson in her most famous role. What might not be generally known is that Bronson lived in Asheville for a number of years. “She was a big star in the silent era, but she got married in the early ’30s and she and her husband moved to Asheville — where she was active in the Asheville Junior League — and was here for five or six years before they moved back to the West Coast. Later, she went back into films as an older woman playing character parts and was working as late as Marcus Welby, M.D.,” reports Kaufman. For those who associate Peter Pan only with Mary Martin or an animated Disney film, Bronson (author J.M. Barrie’s personal choice) and Herbert Brenon’s 1924 version will be a delightful eye-opener.

Wrapping things up for this season (Saturday, Oct. 12) will be the Lon Chaney horror thriller The Phantom of the Opera, one of the key works in the genre. It may not be the greatest filmmaking ever seen — director Rupert Julian was never an inspired filmmaker, and Chaney was so frustrated with him that he handled some of the scenes himself — but it’s a spectacular production with Chaney at his finest in his most famous role. Universal Pictures spared no expense on the film, even including a sequence in the early two-color Technicolor process. The amazing Paris Opera House set stands to this day, but triumphing over everything is Chaney’s magnificent performance.

The challenge with silent movies today is simply getting people to try them. “Once you get people to see them — and see them under correct circumstances — it’s … totally different … [and] pretty cool,” notes Kaufman. “Through the entire silent era … [people] could put the whole thing together in their heads. … You’re experiencing it on your own, but you’re also experiencing with other people. … People just went in there and literally projected themselves up on the screen.”

So if you’re looking for a delightfully unique entertainment experience — complete with movies, live music, live entertainment, a lecture and even food — why not give the free silent films at Cinema in the Park a try?

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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