I don’t know when the idea first came up, or if it came to me in a passing hallucination or what. I do know that for years I’ve posed the question, “Why doesn’t Ashevile have a film society?” The response has always been the same: it won’t work, it’s been tried, it’s bound to end in tears, etc. Being stubborn by nature (my mother would call it “pig-headed”) I never quite bought that answer, but till now I was never able to do anything about disproving it.
The basic idea of an Asheville Film Society—in its most nebulous form—dates back some considerable time. It had always been brought down by scheduling and venue availability (which impacted scheduling). It took a somewhat more solid form when the Hollywood Regal 14 was bought by Bill Banowsky and transformed into the Carolina Asheville. Early on we talked about the prospect of a film society. The existence of the Cinema Lounge screening room answered the age-old venue question, but the idea kept getting put on, if not the back, then at least the side burner.
Then several things happened at once. First of all, my situation altered and most of my weeknights were free, which gave me the time to devote to and help host movie screenings. After that, the Thursday Horror Picture Show made its debut in the Cinema Lounge. I’m not even quite certain exactly how the THPS came about. (Justin Souther could probably straighten this out, but he’s watching MacGruber as I write this.) Nonetheless, it did and it immediately caught on—proving in my mind that there is an audience for this kind of thing. So I started badgering Bill Banowsky about going ahead with the Asheville Film Society.
Did we have things to iron out? Yes, and for that matter we still do. But rather than wait till absolutely everything was “perfect”—which was never going to happen anyway—it was decided to just push ahead and do it. So we did and we announced it two days ago—to what I can only say has been a gratifying response. But keep in mind that we are very much a work in progress and bear with us. It will be worth it in the end.
We’re trying to side-step some of the things that have derailed past attempts. I won’t say that egos have been checked at the door here, but an effort has been made. I do not see my role as artistic director of the AFS as something that makes this my film society. I want this to be Asheville’s film society. We want input and feedback from viewers. Will we show everything that’s suggested? No, probably not, though so far no one has suggested anything that isn’t being considered. (Basically, this means no one has suggested Little Man or Date Movie.)
Will we show things you’ve never heard of? Very likely, since there’s an educational component to this. That said, I’m not a big believer in “nasty medicine,” so it’s to be hoped that you’ll find the selections entertaining in the process of being educaional. The first set of titles (I’ll get to those in a moment) were most certainly chosen with both entertainment and quality in mind—as well as historical significance. There are lots of things that have historical significance, but if they have no entertainment value or prospect of entertainment value, I’m not interested in trying to make people slog through them. This is supposed to be a celebration of film, not an endurance test. There are enough things that have importance and are entertaining that you couldn’t get through them all in a lifetime of viewing.
So how does the AFS work? Well, the Tuesday night screenings work exactly the same way as the Thursday Horror Picture Show, which is to say that they are free to the public. Anyone who is so inclined can come watch these movies. A membership to the AFS is not a requirement. Of course, we hope people will join, but it’s most certainly not needed for access to the Tuesday movies. Memberships will be available at these screenings—and at the Thursday Horror Picture Show as well.
We’ve kept membership pricing to a bare minimum—$10. The idea is to make the AFS something that’s available to anyone who’s interested in being a part of it. Being a member helps to support the AFS—and generates some compensation for my time and effort (in theory at least). In addition it will offer benefits—news of special events, invitations to members screenings, etc. It will also afford a dollar off any movie at the Carolina Asheville and free popcorn refills. Other cardholder discounts and privileges are in the works.
The first AFS Tuesday night screening is the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) on May 25 at 8 p.m. There’s a bit on it in this week’s Xpress and in the online reviews. This, in part, was chosen to put viewers in the right frame of mind for Nash Edgerton’s The Square—a film that has gotten Nash and his actor-writer-co-producer brother Joel called “the next Coen Brothers.” Why is that frame of mind? Because The Square opens Friday and is also the AFS’ first special event movie. Time for The Square has not been set yet (I said, bear with us!), but there’ll be a small kick-off reception in the Cinema Lounge afterwards.
Since Blood Simple is written up in this week’s paper and online edition, and since my review of The Square—and an interview with its director—will appear in this week’s paper, let’s jump ahead and take a look at what’s on tap for the free Tuesday night showings in June.
Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson) June 1.
Wes Anderson’s Rushmore was chosen as one of our first films because Anderson has established himself as one of the most popular filmmakers with Asheville filmgoers. Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) played to Asheville audiences far longer than they did most places. When Life Aquatic had dropped to being in only 50 theaters in the entire country, it was still doing strong business here. With that in mind, it seemed only right that Anderson ought to be represented—and represented with a film that a lot of people have probably not seen with an audience.
For those unfamiliar with the film and its place in Anderson’s filmography, Rushmore is Anderson’s second feature. It also is much more clearly what we think of when we hear the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” than was his first effort, Bottle Rocket (1996). That’s not to say that Bottle Rocket isn’t Andersonian, but Rushmore is the film where Anderson’s style and distinctive tone of voice really came into focus.
The film focuses on 15-year-old prep school student Max Fischer (played by then-18-year-old Jason Schwartzman). Max is a precocious academic underachiever with endless extracuricular activities, grandiose ideas and a fantasticated notion of himself—the last is partly an attempt to mask his social status, which is hardly that of his fellow students. In the course of the film, Max gets bounced out of school, falls in love with an elementary schoolteacher (Olivia Williams), becomes friends with jaded industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray), wages a full-scale war with Blume when the older man becomes his rival for the teacher, and puts his particular stamp on everything. It’s a film that was unlike any other in 1998 (though a case could be made that Anderson is heir to Richard Lester in some respects) and isn’t really like much of anything now—other than Wes Anderson movies.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, Rob Epstein) June 8.
Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk was chosen partly because June is Gay Pride Month and we wanted to include something to honor that fact. But it just happens that it’s also a wholly remarkable documentary—one that manages to be informative, funny, incredibly moving and is even capable of generating righteous anger. On a few occasions, it does all those things at one time, which is pretty incredible. I’m generally not a big fan of documentaries and very few of them are films I have ever felt the need to see more than once. The Times of Harvey Milk is something else again. I’ve seen it at least half-a-dozen times—and I’ve yet to get through it dry-eyed. It’s the perfect complement to Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk (2008). In some ways, I like it even better than Milk—and that’s saying a lot.
Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen) June 15
Woody Allen’s Manhattan is not one of the filmmaker’s favorites of his own films. I don’t know why, nor do I much care. Artists are very often not the best judges of their own work. Too many extraneous factors can enter into the reasoning—not to mention that the filmmaker is the only one who really knows how short the film falls from the image in his mind. As a result, a filmmaker can be harder on his own achievement than others might be.
I’m not saying that it’s Allen’s best film—though I’m not sure I can name a better one—but I will say that it’s probably his most personally stylish film. By that I mean is it’s a visually striking work that doesn’t owe very much—apart from its final shot—to anyone else’s movies. Manhattan looks like no one else’s film. Allen’s use of his all-Gershwin soundtrack is quite remarkable. The “Rhapsody in Blue” opening is one of the marvels of moviemaking. His view of New York City has never been better or more evocative of his personal vision of the town. The scene where he recounts the things that make life worthy living is charming—and pretty dead-on, too (at least in Allen terms). Plus, his finale—with its evocation of Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) before returning to the approach of the opening—is absolutely perfect.
Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks) June 22
Yeah, I know—older old movies are a tough sell to people who aren’t used to them, but Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century is one I’ve never seen fail to win over an audience. Don’t be thrown off by the title. It simply refers to the Chicago to New York train that was called the Twentieth Century Ltd. (it’s in Hitchock’s North by Northwest , too), and on which a lot of the action takes place. The film itself is about an egomaniacal—and very eccentric and flamboyant—theatrical producer named Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) and his volatile relationship with the woman he transformed from underwear nodel Mildred Plotke into Broadway star Lily Garland (Carole Lombard).
The film that Hawks and writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur made from that idea is not only comic gold, but it reinvented the romantic comedy, creating instead film’s first fully-formed screwball comedy. The big difference in tone is that the romantic leads are themselves the comics—and the speed and ferocity with which it all moves is unlike any previous film of its type. The film starts at a deliberate pace that allows for the establishment of the characters and atmosphere, but it’s not long—commencing when Jaffe takes over the direction of the play being rehearsed—before it’s at full headlong pitch as it charts the overblown antics of two characters who can’t help but live their lives as if they were playing scenes in a play. The results are hysterically funny.
Much of the film’s success is due to John Barrymore. This is simply the finest work of his film career. As film historian John Baxter once wrote, “with this one performance Barrymore justifies his immense reputation.” But more than that, it was Barrymore who taught Carole Lombard how to let go and be truly funny. Prior to this Lombard had been largely wasted in bland roles in generally indifferent movies. After this, she would be the most popular comedic actress in movies until her death in 1942 when a war bond drive ended in a plane crash. One legend justifies his legend and creates another—and all in 84 minutes of pure joyous fun.
Tetro (2009, Francis Ford Coppola) June 29.
When I first settled in to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro last year, I didn’t know what to expect, but I really wasn’t expecting much. When the call came that there’d be a critic screening of it, I didn’t even know what it was. A couple hours later, I was absolutely pole-axed by the experience of watching the film. Even if I hadn’t responded to the film’s story, I would have been awed by the sheer cinematic artistry of this visionary work. But I did respond to the story, even though its plot twist seemed fairly obvious early on. But a plot twist can’t make a movie and that hardly mattered given the intensity and complexity of the emotions portrayed in the film.
This is easily the best film Coppola has made since Apocalypse Now (1979). It may well be the most beautiful looking film he has ever made. Some people have a problem with the story and the resolution, but that misses the basic concept that Coppola has made the film as if it was grand opera. Understand that and the film is a masterpiece, I think. This played here last year, but a lot of film savvy moviegoers seem to have missed it, which is why it was decided to give them one more chance to catch it with this screening.
That’s the layout for June—and I’m pretty happy with it. I’m certainly excited about it and about this project overall. Other things—some of which are very exciting—are in the works. It’s now possible to sign up for an e-mail list at http://www.ashevillefilm.org/ So sign up and information will be sent you as it happens. In any case, whether you join the AFS or not, I hope to see you for Tuesday night screenings.