The Film Architect: Part 2 by matthew c. hoffman
In our press material for the Screen Deco film series, there is an emphasis on the first-class lifestyle– what I call “finding your inner millionaire.” I was recently asked by a local reporter who has supported us over the years whether I had made a conscious attempt to make the series topical since there is so much talk of class warfare in today’s political scene. But this series was conceived when “Occupy Wall Street” was but a gleam in some unemployed student’s eye. The only politics I’m concerned with are the politics of cinema, and I’m more interested in the lasting work of art directors than politicians. These Art Deco films were geared for audiences who at that time admired the captains of industry and wanted to live that screen-inspired lifestyle of elegance.
Another recent question came from a library patron who asked me whether I had been inspired by The Artist. Now, again, this series was being developed long before The Artist captured the Academy’s heart with its silent film trappings. The Artist didn’t inspire Screen Deco, but the genuine artistry of D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau, Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, inspired this film historian. If anything, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo inspired me to one day return to the silent film medium.
I’ve operated on the fringe of cinema history, so I will always strive to put something original together. I have an appreciation for cinema that’s as wide as CinemaScope. It goes back to the days when I ran the LaSalle Bank revival house and designed offbeat programs like the William Dieterle retrospective. So it’s unlikely I would tap popular genres that are suggested to me. They call me a “film historian,” but what does that mean for me? I don’t know the trivia of who won Best Actress in 1963 or things like that. Trivia isn’t what makes you a good programmer. For me, being a film historian just means I have enough sense to recognize directors like Capra or Ford or Hawks… not the Spielbergs and Lucases of the world. If I ever did feature a theme or subject that was more contemporary– at least, compared to what I’ve done in the past– you can be assured that it will be explored in a new light.
Another patron made a suggestion that next year I profile Clooney. I was like ??? I realized she meant George Clooney. Normally when patrons make suggestions to me I will be polite and say I will consider requests even though I have no intention of showing Shirley Temple movies or B-Westerns. But this was an instance when I said outright, “Absolutely not.” The people who come to the programs I do are not coming to see George Clooney. You can Netflix George’s political thrillers instead. Even popular classic actors whom I love like Humphrey Bogart probably won’t get a retrospective. Being on the fringe means I’m more motivated to profile actors like Fredric March or Ronald Colman and others the general public has long since forgotten.
It’s important to me to keep alive the memory of stars who deserve it. In his preface to Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood (2011), author John Stangeland expresses what’s at the heart of my mission statement. Though he is writing of the great character actor Warren William, what he says could just as easily be applied to other stars we profile in my programs. Stangeland writes:
“It is only the curious interest of that fringe that now hosts the memory of his (Warren’s) fame, and moment by moment, other events, people and things are crowding in, vying for space. Fortunately, the ongoing digital media revolution will likely ensure that Warren’s films– along with other art great and obscure– will remain available to be viewed far into the future. But in that long-off era of cultural Alzheimer’s– when not just a hundred years, but thousands of years of recorded media compete for our attention– who will know that they ever existed? For those that come after us then, it is our duty to remember those things we love– whatever they may be– and pass on the history, the art, and the joy of rediscovery.”
Our Classic Film Series is a safe haven where we completely avoid pop culture’s stain. We avoid those temporary things that clog up our shelves, compete for the (general) public’s short attention span, and keep people from finding the films that should be re-discovered. We’re a refuge from Breaking Dawn, Jack and Jill, Arthur, Transformers, Abduction (because the world needs another Taylor Lautner movie), network and cable TV, and all the other popular ephemera that will be buried by the sands of time. I am fortunate to have the support of so many like-minded friends who recognize this. Additionally, I am honored to have gotten the attention of other groups who believe in what I am doing. In February I was invited to be a guest speaker at the Chicago Art Deco Society’s annual meeting at Roosevelt University. One of the nicest compliments I received came from CADS president Joe Loundy, who told me he wished he could’ve done Screen Deco. To receive such praise from a distinguished organization like CADS is indeed a high honor.
Chicago Art Deco Society president Joe Loundy with Matthew C. Hoffman
Our Screen Deco series begins in just under two weeks with Cleopatra (1934). Like the lasting tombs of the pharaohs, I will be taking audiences into the movie vault of the eternal. As well-publicized as it is (by the library), I had hoped to make the event even bigger. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to premiere the series right across the street from the library at the Art Deco Pickwick Theatre on March 15? But without sufficient 35mm projection equipment for an archival studio print, that idea did not come to pass. Of course, there is the option to “digitally project,” but the Film Historian doesn’t roll that way. I’ve never seen a classic film look good when digitally projected onto a theatre screen. Classic films were shot on film and so need to be seen on film if possible. I recently viewed a 35mm print of the W.C. Field’s silent comedy So’s Your Old Man (1926) projected at the Portage Theatre in Chicago. The image quality was amazing, and absolutely nothing can duplicate actual film stock. I applaud the Northwest Chicago Film Society for insisting on projecting actual film prints on Wednesday nights. Film is important to me, and if there was anything in The Artist that I could relate to, it was the image of actor George Valentin being dragged out of his burning apartment while clutching a can of film.
Perhaps then it’s fitting I would open the series with a filmmaker I’ve admired, C.B. DeMille– a showman who put together big extravaganzas for the public and was known for some sermonizing. In my case, the only sermonizing I do is preaching the need to view these films the way they were meant to be seen– with an audience. Not on your phone or computer… So I hope we get the media attention needed to make this the biggest epic yet at the Park Ridge Public Library.