Monday, January 2, 2012

The Cinema That Saw Me

I look back at my time at University as much through films as books. As a student in the 1980s at the University of Montana in Missoula, I took full advantage of the film history classes dissecting indelible films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Der Blaue Engel, and Battleship Potemkin. The wide-eyed programming on campus brought us edgy classics from John Waters (a naughty guest) and a full-blown controversy when Fassbender's Querelle shocked half the audience and deeply pleased the other half. The town was also blessed with a fantastic, well-attended film house called The Crystal Theatre, site of many a dark night lit by the flicker of the screen and spirits lifted by the crowd's delight in the decade's cinematic highlights -- Peter Greenaway's A Zed & Two Noughts, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, and Drowning by Numbers; Jane Campion's Sweetie and An Angel at My Table; Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho; Pedro Almodóvar's Spanish blooms; Talking Head's collaboration with Jonathan Demme in Stop Making Sense; Terry Gilliam's visionary Brazil.
The photograph seen here of The theatre was taken in 1988, most likely by its owner, Jace. He is the bearded man with arms crossed -- Jace Jorma Laakso -- and with him are the staff including Marcy Boltz, Ty Richardson, Susan Armstrong, and Joel Baird.
Around 1986, a pioneering Montana Gay & Lesbian Film Festival was established by two dear friends, Joel Baird and his partner at the time, Sean Dwyer. In the state of Montana, such cultural dabblings could bring serious consequences. An air of frisson seemed to hang above the proceedings making the act of attending such films at a public place feel like a revolutionary act. It helped that the films were chosen with such care and in retrospect tapped into an well of inspiration during a time when gay people were in dire need of it. I can reel off in my mind's eye still -- to name only a few -- Wesler East of the Wall, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Matador, Parting Glances, Edward II.
That last title is one by Derek Jarman. His films took a long time for me to digest. They were more like paintings and treatises than stories and pictures. I knew another world of ideas rumbled under the celluloid's surface but it has taken years for the sound to rise to a fury of sublimely crafted rage, which is just what the plague years called for.
I recently watched Caravaggio released in 1986. I can see now in my mid-40s why my 20 something self would have been impatient with it. It is studied, mannered, stylized, but also wicked and pagan. It is also one of the most closely observed showings of the sorrow and sublimity that drives great art and artists. It is a life as art, not becoming art. The film does what a great piece of art can do: forever change the thing always before our eyes that disappears unless it is stripped naked again. It was also the film debut, in fact only the second time before a camera, of Tilda Swinton whose penetrating stare would burn holes in the silver screen over the next decades.

Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman's Caravaggio

Like a coincidence that drives so much plot in cinema and just as I turned my full attention to Jarman lately, I happened on the day after I watched Caravaggio to come across this photograph in a magazine showing Derek Jarman at his seaside Kent home in England, 1989. Also, as I looked for a vintage 80s picture of The Crystal itself, I found one on its facebook fan page that so happens on its marquee to feature a 1988 Jarman adaptation of Benjamin Britten's, War Requiem. He continues long after his death to reach out to me, to teach me a way to see differently, to revisit, to re-invent, to re-invest fleeting or familiar images with the weight of centuries.

Derek Jarman at Home 1989

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