by Patrick Preziosi
The last movie I saw screened theatrically was Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, on a 35mm print, March 9th, at New York City’s Film Forum. Something of a modest favorite, Hitchcock’s murder-tinged family drama is a contendor for my most-viewed of the director’s, a TCM-staple of my parents’, grandparents’ and other family members’ homes. Joseph Cotten’s misanthropic Uncle Charlie––who’s flushed with cash and jewels from strangling elderly widows––cut a newly domineering figure on celluloid, more vampire than human. There are innumerable films, both new and old, that I would’ve chosen over Shadow of a Doubt to be the last movie I’d see in a cinema, but it’s become a retroactively solid Last Movie, so assured was I of its suspenseful pleasures and mordant humor that enjoyment was guaranteed.
For the better part of 2019, and for the entirety of pre-pandemic 2020, I was lucky if I could make it to a movie once every two weeks, an unfortunate schedule bestowed upon me by a mostly night-shift barista job that had me traveling to Williamsburg daily, leaving me practically out of commission between the hours of 12 noon and 12 midnight (I’d be later laid-off in early March as New York City went into its first lockdown). I’d become entirely accustomed to home viewing, most of which would happen in the mornings before work (if I were feeling up to taking in something like Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly so early in the day), a set of circumstances which left me anxious about wasting my time, fomenting an overwhelmingly and regrettably selective decision process. Looking back on what I did manage to see in 2020, I only made it to two new releases (Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on 35 mm, a good few weeks after its premiere, and Angela Shanelec’s I Was At Home, But…), the rest 35 mm prints of older films (along with Shadow of a Doubt, there was Hal Hartley’s Trust, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise), as well as the odd DCP restoration (Elem Klimov’s Come and See and Horace Jenkin’s Cane River).
Perhaps because I made it to the movies far less often than I wanted to, I didn’t experience as disorienting a switch from theater to home viewing as others have reasonably cited. Still present is the innate understanding that, yes, something like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods or fellow Edward R. Murrow alum Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always would be better enjoyed on a larger screen than my TV offers (though I was still affected by both films, and count both among 2020’s best), and I still find myself in ruts––more than I ever have in my few years as a critic, I should say––that make movie watching feel like little more than a stopgap for days spent perpetually indoors, or worse, a chore laid at my feet when the intensity of my prevailing interest would ignore my own mood. But my own freed-up instincts have also indulged director obsessions hitherto impossible, with large chunks of Frederick Wiseman, Tsui Hark, John Carpenter, Phillipp Garrel, Budd Boetticher, Otto Preminger, Mikio Naruse and others’ rich and deep corpuses now checked off.
This December, I’ve been reacquainting myself with Éric Rohmer, a naturally occurring annual phase that I gladly welcome. Already resplendent with attractiveness of all kinds (beautiful youths, beautiful apartments, beautiful exterior locations and romantic and philosophical quandaries that are navigated with the verve of classic Hollywood melodrama and screwball), Rohmer’s films––like many directors’ filmographies––now impart an even more melancholic longing for the current impossibility of their spontaneous circumstances. Suffused with a sense of rapturous chance, everything from the disarmingly farcical Pauline At the Beach to even the quietly devastating Full Moon in Paris present environments that are wholly predicated on the kinds of encounters and relationships that are inconceivable from one’s couch during a global pandemic.
Conversely, the communion with the natural world that Rohmer repeatedly depicted has come to situate itself at least somewhat adjacently to my at-home viewing. The Green Ray and Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (both from the director’s superlative Comedies et Proverbes cycle) both feature characters attempting to witness sought-after anomalies of nature: the sliver of green that momentarily presents itself at sunset in the former, and the blue hour in the latter, a time of night that’s plunged into total silence as the nightbirds go quiet and the daybirds have yet to start their own song.
I’ve always been relatively reticent at accepting “it’s about filmmaking!” readings of certain movies, but the two aforementioned Rohmer films are casually variegated enough that those instances of fulfillment––the blue hour and the titular green ray, respectively––remind me of those random intervals in which the immediate world outside my window unspokenly reflects the sentiment of whatever’s on my TV screen. The glare of a midday summer sun is maddening, but I’d be remiss to not cite success in experiencing my own Blue Hour, such as a resoundingly quiet evening at the early onset of winter cold when I watched Shadi Abdel Salaam’s stately and tragic The Night of Counting the Years. Or, just something as simple as coincidentally rewatching Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam early in the summer (before we’d gotten our air conditioner).
Shadow of a Doubt was something of a Blue Hour itself, a prolonged and now-cherished period of communal quiet and understanding within some dark room on Houston Street. Nothing will replace theatregoing for me (and hopefully, nothing will come to externally replace it either), but there’s been a self-sustaining satisfaction in bearing the fruits of my own curatorial decisions, that’s made every bum night spent with something like Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler forgivable. That garden-variety cinephile maxim about traveling through the movies is a tired and saccharine one, but maybe there’s something to be said for complementary environments outside of the standard theater, and how the experience can be elevated via one’s personal resolve.