Films of All Kinds - but Westerns
Otto Preminger made movies in every genre, yet he considered cowboy pictures dull
NEW YORK — IT seems that everyone who likes movies has a videocassette player nowadays, and nothing is easier than a trip to the local video store. Movies proliferate on television, too, amid promises that hundreds of cable channels will soon provide even more choices than we already have.
This sounds like paradise for movie buffs - except one thing is missing. Aside from the limited category of made-for-TV movies, films are meant to be viewed on wall-size screens with crisp, vivid images produced by high-powered projectors shining through clear strips of celluloid. Even the most sophisticated TV setup can't provide the clarity and sharpness that theatrical screenings offer as a matter of course.
This obviously limits the power of modern movies when shown on TV, since they suffer from the loss of wide-screen size and multispeaker sound. But it also hurts the effectiveness of movies from bygone periods - when production values were more modest, but films were still intended as eye-filling events with an impact that was truly larger than life.
Fortunately, the art of film presentation has not been entirely lost to TV and VCR technology. A scattered but sizable assortment of museums, cinema clubs, and libraries continue to show classic films as they were meant to be seen. And a small number of commercial theaters keep up the good fight, programming art movies and revivals as alternatives to new Hollywood fare.
Among the most imaginative of these theaters is Manhattan's trusty Film Forum, which often keeps at least one of its three screens busy with a revival or retrospective. Its latest such offering, called "Preminger," is one of the most ambitious in a long while: a series of 31 movies by Otto Preminger, whose career provides a strong reminder that neither courage nor controversy are monopolies of today's much-debated Hollywood scene.
Preminger broke all kinds of rules, barriers, and boundaries during his 33 years as a filmmaker. A prime example is his 1955 production "The Man With the Golden Arm," which broke Hollywood's taboo on showing narcotics addiction with its ferocious antidrug story of a would-be jazz musician (Frank Sinatra) backsliding into a heroin habit.
Bringing such material to the screen may sound like a dubious project today, when unpleasant or downright nasty subjects dominate all too many films. In the mid-'50s, however, such a breakthrough was needed to correct an unrealistic censorship code.
Not all Preminger's innovations were controversial on moral grounds. He raised a firestorm within the film industry, for instance, when he billed "The Man With the Golden Arm" as "a film by Otto Preminger," prompting the Hollywood screenwriters union to protest that mere directors had no right to claim authorship of their movies.
Again, the tide of history was on Preminger's side. After years of influence by "auteur" critics, today's directors are routinely recognized as the "authors" of their films, and "a film by..." is the most common of directorial credits.
More valuable for an understanding of Preminger's contribution to the art of cinema is an awareness of the special style he brought to his projects.
He prided himself on tackling every kind of story imaginable - except westerns, which he considered dull and repetitious - and once told an interviewer that "there's one thing I have educated myself to: never do the same thing twice." Still, he retained certain visual mannerisms in film after film, and these express a unique perspective on the relationship between cinema and human behavior.
In dialogue scenes, most Hollywood pictures try to liven up the action by cutting constantly between one face and another. By contrast, Preminger prefers to pull the camera back and show all the characters at once. This allows them equal time on the screen - reducing the director's ability to force value judgments on the audience - and more important, it allows the camera to capture all the nuances of interaction between characters, physical as well as verbal.
In an important essay on Preminger, film historian Andrew Sarris once called this technique "the stylistic expression of the eternal conflict, not between right and wrong, but between the right-wrong on one side and the right-wrong on the other, a representation of the right-wrong in all of us as our share of the human condition."
This eloquently states Preminger's ability to unite form and content into a unity that few other Hollywood directors surpassed.
The retrospective at Film Forum spans most of Preminger's career. Highlights include new 35-mm prints of films as different as "Laura," a classic film noir from 1944; "Carmen Jones," a sizzling all-black version of Bizet's opera made in 1954 with Harry Belafonte; "Saint Joan," with Jean Seberg in Graham Greene's 1957 adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play; and "Advise and Consent," filmed in 1962 and justly regarded as one of Hollywood's most intelligent political dramas.
Other offerings range from "Fallen Angel" and "Whirlpool" to "The Cardinal" and "Skidoo," some successful in their time but others ripe for reassessment.
Movie fans in Film Forum's area are in for a treat. And movie fans elsewhere will benefit in the long run, as this extensive series renews interest in Preminger's work and helps to sustain interest in the fine art of reviving classic films.