Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In Praise of Beautiful Film

I almost never see modern films I would consider "beautiful."  Let's face it, these days I'm pretty much stuck seeing movies because they either have Ewan McGregor or Walton Goggins in them, and that's about as beautiful as I get.  As I've noted before, going to the movies has become just something we all do, crammed into icebox cattle-car theaters, jamming salty snacks into our gaping maws as a means of escaping our pitiful, empty lives for two hours.

Which is why seeing Beginners at the Alamo Drafthouse was such a life-affirming experience.

We spent a week in Austin, TX with our good friend Sterling and he insisted that we go to the Alamo Drafthouse cinema.  I know you all think we picked this movie just went becaue Ewan McGregor was in it, but in fact, we only went because nothing else interesting was playing.  For starters, you order food at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Not crappy Applebees quality microwaved crap, but really good food for decent prices.  I had a steak sandwich with fries and green tea, with a Harry Potter-themed caramel apple cake for dessert.  Sterling got some sort of vegetarian sandwich and Ian got a pizza.  $6.50 got you unlimited popcorn with real butter.  They treat you like a human being, a real person, at this theater, not just some faceless consumer.  Kudos to the staff of the Alamo Drafthouse, and my only complaint is that you're not here in Upstate New York (and that you were showing The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai the day I left the state).

After our orders were placed, we were treated to the Alamo's famous Pre-Show, a series of short films, old ads and a crazy PSA about talking and txting in the theater.  Here's one of the shorts; watch and be terrified:

Simply put, it was the ultimate movie going experience.  But even if I had to sit in a tin box with no food, drink or AC (it averaged about 103 on the trip) it would have been worth it to see Beginners.  It's the most beautiful film I've ever seen.  Not just because of Ewan McGregor, with his quirky romance and his charmingly baggy sweaters, but because the visuals were so intense, the colors so vibrant and the images so carefully chosen that I wanted to cry from the beauty of it all. 

By Charles Bremer
There's one shot, a single shot of his father's white tea cup with a green caterpiller crawling on the saucer, all set on top of a red book, and it just struck me as this delicate, tender, wonderful thing.  As McGregor narrates the differences between 1950 and 2005, still-frame images of the night sky and photographs and objects, set against a stark black background (very reminiscent of Charlie Bremer paintings) appear.  It's a very unique way to set up a film, and a gamble as to not appear too quirky, but it worked. 

And when we all walked out of that theater, bellies full, into the hot still air of late-night Austin, we felt as though we'd been part of something.  That we'd seen a glimpse into the lives of real people . . . and for crying out loud, that's what cinema, what art, is supposed to be about.  It doesn't matter if those people are sitting in a cafe or are being attacked by robots or flying around in space.  We have to care about them, we have to see their lives, if we're going to want to spend all that time with them. 

I, for one, could have spent the rest of the night with those characters.  Even though the film opens with Christopher Plummer dying, I still got misty eyed when the hospice nurse shook Ewan McGregor awake at the table and said, "He's gone."  Because through visuals and clever writing and good acting, I was lead to believe that those people on the screen were real.  I cared about what became of them, how their lives turned out, whether or not they got what they wanted. 

And really, isn't that what makes cinema (and art) so wonderful?  Not special effects, not fart jokes or pop culture references or Steve Carell running around screaming, but the lives of people . . . people we know, people we love, people who may or may not be a part of us.  We like music because of how we can relate to it, how it makes us feel--isn't it time we start asking the same thing of our movies?

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