I went to the Ransom Center last night to see their “Making Movies” exhibit and see a screening of North by Northwest. The collection they have is great, and I spent so much time looking at every single thing that I only got through part of the exhibit. I’ll have to go back, but one of my favorite things was a series of notes on a Robert Altman film listing changes that would have to be made for the movie to be “decent” enough to be released. Cutting out swear words and things like that, and the letter had notes scribbled on them by Altman himself occasionally asking an indignant looking “REALLY?” or “So, we can’t show nipples or penis? Got it.” I love it because I think I’d probably have a similar reaction: Okay, okay, fine, I figured that wouldn’t fly…wait, really? THIS you have a problem with?!? (Shakes head)
Part of the reason that I had to leave before I’d finished reading about all the controversy over the writing credits for Top Gun was so that I could grab a seat for North by Northwest. I’d never seen it before, but I’ve been attempting to watch more classic movies, and I’ve loved Hitchcock films in particular since college, where Psycho scared the bejeezus out of me. Since I started watching more classic films a few years ago, I’ve noticed something weird. There was a time when you watched movies in a more or less chronological order. Before DVD players and VCRs, you watched what was on when it was on because you might not get a second chance, but now, we can watch movies in any order we want, and I often see a movie that was made much later than another film. So, sometimes watching an older film reminds me of a newer film that didn’t even exist when the classic was released. In other words, watching a gas tanker explode in North by Northwest feels like Hitchcock’s Jerry Bruckheimer moment that just happened to come thirteen years before Bruckheimer produced his first movie.
Going to see a classic movie in the theater underscores the weirdness because walking in, I saw three rows of people playing with their cell phones (hopefully preparing to turn them off so that none of us are the obnoxious asshole with the ringing cell for the next few hours). This being Austin, it’s no surprise that there are probably a lot of film students, hipsters, and hipster film students turning out for a free movie at the corner of campus. Meanwhile I sat in front of a row of people who look like they could have seen this movie the first time it played theaters. This meant that I got to hear some delightfully curmudgeonly grumbling, like the guy behind me who got restless waiting for the film to start. “There aren’t any seats left. Why not just start the darn movie already? If anyone else comes, they’ll just have to turn them away anyway.” There was also an excited whisper when the film started of “That’s James Mason!” (To be fair, she wasn’t wrong…)
I also overheard a lady spoil a twist (explaining that *spoiler* Cary Grant wasn’t really shot. They just needed to make it look real!) It’s a pretty simple twist. One that’s easy to pick up on if you’ve watched a lot of movies, but still, why not wait ten seconds for the twist to be revealed and then we’ll all be on the same page?
Normally, this sort of thing is the reason I’d rather watch movies at home. The theater was small and the movie was long, so halfway through, I kept trying to readjust in my narrow aisle to find a comfortable way to arrange my legs so my knees weren’t pressing into the row ahead of me. That doesn’t happen on my couch. Also at home, no one is making fun of the (admittedly) fake looking trees, and I can snack. I have access to my thermostat at home.
But there was something really nice about watching this movie with an audience. The movie is funny enough that we laughed together. There was a nice mix of knowing chuckles from those who were familiar with the movie, and spontaneous laughs from those of us discovering it for the first time. There were moments when we shook our heads together, like at the use of Mt. Rushmore as an action prop, and many of us were delighted by Eve Kendall’s suggestive flirting (although the fact that I kept thinking her name was spelled Kindle, like the eBook reader is another testament to how our reactions to old movies can be infused with elements of our modern lives). I liked the subtlety of the following exchange:
Eve Kendall: It’s going to be a long night.
Roger Thornhill: True.
Eve Kendall: And I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started.
Roger Thornhill: Ah.
Eve Kendall: You know what I mean?
Roger Thornhill: Ah, let me think. Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
But while this was a movie I could easily have watched in the comfort of my home, seeing with all these people made it feel a bit like a communal experience. Like those who’d seen it before were eager and maybe even a little amused to share it with those of us who hadn’t. While the lights were off, we were sharing the same experience, and I don’t know why that’s different from watching Jackass with a theater full of strangers, but I’m pretty sure it is.
When the lights came back up, more people whipped out their cell phones, and I’ll admit I dug through my purse for mine as well. The older gentleman behind me chirped, “They’re all checking their tweets!” as if we were the cutest most ridiculous things in the world. And with that, the spell was broken, and we were broken up into different demographics again.