A call to revive a revival house

October 05, 2007|By Michael Sragow

Here's a proposal for Landmark Theaters before the national art-house chain opens the Harbor East cinemas Nov. 2: Make one of the seven screens a revival house.

In the days before home video and Turner Classic Movies, revival theaters were a mainstay of thriving movie markets. Their programmers offered casual fans and die-hard movie lovers alike the kinds of services that can't be found in mail-rental catalogs and video stores. And I don't just mean seeing movie classics where they belong, on the big screen - though that is a huge selling-point.

These days, computers try to figure out what customers like based on what they've previously bought or rented.

Revival calendars do something completely different.

As followers of the Charles Theatre's admirable thrice-weekly revival program know, they give audiences a chance to broaden their tastes and horizons (this fall highlights Soviet fantasy and science-fiction films). Revival houses guide viewers to movies they don't know they like until they follow the programmers' suggestions and plunk their money down at the box office.

In the heyday of the revival house (the 1950s to mid-'70s), adventurous programmers didn't merely schedule major-director or big-star retrospectives and special-interest festivals devoted to a national cinema or a theme. (The multifaceted AFI Silver does a great job at all that.)

They'd also counterprogram against mainstream theaters. When the Bond films were in their early heyday, revival houses might show Carol Reed's The Third Man to offer an entirely different take on international suspense.

Or they'd augment the new art-house openings with earlier, unfairly unknown fare.

The Charles continues to showcase the cream of contemporary documentary art with its opening of The Rape of Europa, a provocative and informative documentary about the Nazi looting of European culture.

But think how creative a revival theater could get programming older films around The Rape of Europa - double billing, say, John Frankenheimer's superb 1964 suspense film The Train, starring Burt Lancaster as a French Resistance fighter sabotaging German art theft, with Menno Meyjes' haunting 2002 "what-if?" film Max, starring John Cusack as a Jewish art dealer who befriends that young, aspiring artist Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor).

Into the Wild deserves to become a major art-house hit. But wouldn't it be wonderful if some theater took it as an opportunity to reintroduce the nature-celebrating works of Carroll (The Black Stallion) Ballard, such as Never Cry Wolf (1983) and Duma (2005)? And a couple of thematically related movies could benefit from Into the Wild's success, including Off the Map (2003), starring Joan Allen, and the documentary Off the Grid (2006).

Of course, it would take a leap of faith and a hip collegiate crowd to re-establish the revival-house tradition outside Los Angeles and New York. But somewhere, someday, in some midsize city, a canny entrepreneur will make a go of it - and why not Baltimore, which has repeatedly proved it has independent filmgoers ready to seek out the new and the old?

After all, stranger things have happened. The Western was supposed to be dead, but this year's Emmy-winning miniseries was Walter Hill's Broken Trail, and this fall's first prestige hit is James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma.

Phil Kaufman, writer-director of The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), once told a story about seeing a John Ford Western double-bill at the Beverly revival house in Los Angeles. In the middle of Stagecoach or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a rough biker group in the front got rowdy, catalyzing one fearless young man to go up front and impolitely shut it up. "This is a John Ford movie," he growled.

That man, Kaufman said, was Walter Hill, who soon would make The Warriors, The Long Riders and 48 HRS. Revival houses, clearly, are as crucial for budding filmmakers as they are for movie fans.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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