The American Society of Cinematographers

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On the time-honored tradition of going to the movies over the holidays.

 




A merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah to all!

This might be hard to believe, but every once in a while, I’m at a loss for a topic to shout about in this column. Writing it is never hard; the process usually takes 20 minutes at most. But after turning in close to 60 pieces over the years, choosing a subject has become a bit of a challenge. Film vs. digital … 4K, 8K, 16K … should we or shouldn’t we … what must we do or what have we failed to do …. Assuming you’re as tired of the weather-worn tropes as I am, you have to admit, it gets a little monotonous. Which is not to say that having an opinion and taking a strong position on the issues of our day aren’t important priorities. They are, and I assure you that’s foremost in the minds of all of us at the ASC.

While trolling for material, it suddenly dawned on me how important the yearly Christmas break from school was to the filmic education — some might say “indoctrination” — of so many people I know, especially those of us who matured during the last golden age of studio production, the 1970s.

You might think that growing up in New York City presented an endless array of opportunities to draw on for a kid’s cultural development, and it did. The problem was that in our particular Brooklyn neighborhood and social stratum, my friends and I never imagined taking full advantage of them. Instead of museums, theater or the ballet (oh, that would’ve gone over well), sports were our major concern. Party lines were drawn according to team and player preferences, and the intensity of some of the ensuing arguments — and, yes, occasional fistfights — stays with me to this day. That we took it all so seriously seems hilarious now, though I also believe our adherence to those convictions helped us develop worthy character traits for later in life.

Movies ran a tight second in our little world. Weather being what it is in the Northeast, there was a distinct uptick in our cinema-going habits as the year wore down and conditions on the ball fields and schoolyards deteriorated. The neighborhood flea pits — single-plexes all, with huge screens and many hundreds of (usually) empty seats — offered cheap and easy refuge from the cold and rain. There were quite a few within walking distance or just a short bus ride away, and what we saw onscreen was generally quite sophisticated, aimed at an adult sensibility, and completely atypical of what normally interested us.

When Christmas vacation rolled around, we were more than ready to cram as many movies into the break as we could, sometimes two or three per day. In other instances, we’d sit through several showings of the same picture. During that era, films premiered at first-run houses in Manhattan and could take weeks or months to reach the outer boroughs. We couldn’t bear waiting for the good ones and would often hop on the subway to quench our curiosity. Over time we became aware of a much different sort of material in the now-defunct revival houses: the British Kitchen Sink school, the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, even some great old studio films that never turned up on TV. Though our primary objective was to have fun, we were starting to grow, unknowingly, and this advancement was often reflected in a slightly higher grade of conversation on the way home. These were fabulous experiences, and the seeds planted then share a direct link to how I’ve come to write this column today.

Rather than limit myself to the huge stack of this year’s awards-season screeners sitting on the TV stand, I’ve resolved to see as many of these films as I can the way they were meant to be experienced: with an audience and on a big screen. They’ll be no match for those road-trip screenings at the Bleecker Street Cinema, the Carnegie Hall Cinema or the Thalia, but hey, what else are you supposed to do during the Christmas break? With any luck, the season’s new movies will present a raft of new topics to write about in 2016!

 

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