The Shadow Merchant by matthew c. hoffman

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“Progress isn’t always progress. Twenty-four hundred years of bookmaking have forfeited Codex for Kindle, and library for mail order. Massive advances in audio technology peaked with the acoustic LP only to find a near-universal acceptance of the $300 iPod with $2 earplugs. A century of cinematic exhibition took us from Radio City Music Hall to streaming laptops. In the pursuit of formerly communal entertainments and arts, we have peeled away from the mob, secluding ourselves as isolated spectators… Those who use their screens as monitors to watch movies, whether vintage or recently exhibited at the multiplex, and to surf the illusion of the whole webbed world are equally contented to be sheltered from the public square, relinquishing to memory and history the age of stately showplaces and the crowds that filled them.”  –Gary Giddins, Warning Shadows (2010)

I don’t just play the old films; I work over the new ones without kid gloves. This is what my audience comes to hear. I love classic films and I’m outspoken about championing them in the face of contemporary tastes.

I preserve the old movie traditions in spite of a high-tech world streaming past me. Regressing further and further into time, I go deeper into the well to retrieve the most obscure, neglected, and underappreciated that cinema has to offer. In my debut library film series in ’09, I played the film noir of the 1940s. This past spring, I showcased the pre-Code cinema of the 1930s. Next year, it will be the silents of the 1920s. At this rate, we’ll have the meeting room transformed into a nickleodeon by 2012. Regardless of the venue– be it a 300 seat theatre or a 75 seat meeting room– my revival of the silver and golden age continues. Though the movie shadows have grown dimmer in the collective consciousness, the stars within them shine brighter than ever before.

One of the films guaranteed to be shown next year is Buster Keaton’s The General. In his book on classic cinema entitled Warning Shadows, Gary Giddens stresses this film’s beauty– even over its superb comedy element. But he begins his essay with a cultural observation that has become all too familiar…

“Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when television was awash in classic movies… are aghast to find that our children are often reluctant to watch black and white films, let alone silent ones. Especially those deemed to be among the greatest ever made. The imprimatur of the experts turns pleasure into obligation, and suddenly the notion of sitting through a comedy that had for decades convulsed audiences takes on all the promise of reading The Merry Wives of Windsor… For anyone who has never seen a silent comedy or, worse, seen only speeded-up pie-throwing excerpts, an ideal introduction is… Buster Keaton’s 1926 epic The General.”

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An ideal introduction, but I will save the best for last…

It wasn’t until I discovered Sherlock, Jr. in my History of Cinema class (taught by Scott Marks at Columbia College Chicago) that I realized what I had been missing. What made an impression with me was how this old film had the ability to make me relate to it. Here was an 80-year-old movie about a projectionist who loves the movies so much that he dreams himself into being the titular hero of them. Throw in some ingenious cinematic inventiveness and comic precision and you have a brilliant film that isn’t even an hour long. (I’ve learned since that you really can’t go wrong with anything by Keaton. Even in the most dismal of projects he was involved in later in his career, there was always some redeeming feature about them.)

To think, however, that there are so many kids and teenagers out there who would rather live through their Playstation games or their Japanese Manga graphic novels or watch Transformers on their cell phones than check out these old movies is sad. It’s a dumbed down generation of the digital age–trained more by the product of television than by anything else. There’s nothing sadder than a dated pop culture reference. I cringe when people make “The Simpsons” their point of reference in everyday life.

People don’t remember the good things we had. Attention spans are shorter, and memories dimmer, clouded by the ephemera around us. Even the American Film Institute, whose members cling to a nostalgia for ’60s and ’70s cinema, had a tough time remembering our silent past when they came up with a “100 Greatest List” with only a handful of silents.

To blast the present makes you sound like an old curmudgeon shaking your walking stick at the cinematically-challenged youth of America. The truth is, even as a kid, I was drawn to older things because I knew they were better. I was inherently drawn more to a Preston Sturges or Leo McCarey comedy than to a stupid Naked Gun movie that might have been playing while I was growing up. As a kid, I saw greater value in them than in what was around me. These movies are now forgotten because who wants to remember some “old dead actor,” right? Who needs them when we have such comedy legends as Vince Vaughn and Zach Galifianakis entertaining the youth of America.

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In our digital culture, entertainment has to come to the viewer–be it on their phone or with a 12 inch computer screen or on the tv in the minivan mom is driving. With additional sources like Red Box, we consume entertainment like buying snacks out of a vending machine instead of allowing it to overpower us. Films were not meant to be seen or controlled this way. Too many people just look at them like diversions without really watching them and being involved. It’s a total disconnect from the experience you have in a theatre.

I’ve spent a long time trying to create and then re-create the theatrical experience. At the LaSalle Bank Theatre (now called Bank of America Cinema) I was a showman first, historian second. Now, I am simply a lecturer encouraging cineliteracy, treating every program like it’s a four-credit college course. I want to entertain (because who wants to suck the fun out of a comedy series), but it’s important to educate as well so people understand some of the reasons why I’m playing these particular films and not those of, say, The Ritz Brothers. What we are presenting at the Park Ridge Public Library is something that can’t be duplicated at home on dvd– especially with silent comedy which thrives on a group setting.

As generations come and go, traditions are put to rest and names footnoted in history books. Library patrons of middle-America Park Ridge may know the name and image of Charlie Chaplin, but as for viewing his films? And who is this Harold Lloyd?… It’s not easy to re-direct young people away from the latest Saw movie at the cineplex, especially when gimmicks like 3-D offer a new way of viewing the same junk. Or the latest ‘sweet and raunchy’ sex comedy starring  20 year olds out of a Calvin Klein ad. In a competition to get younger audiences to experience the classic films as a group, low culture will win out.

Working in a library and seeing what the cinematically-displaced residents of Park Ridge check out every day I guess I could say I have my finger on the pulse of popular interest. The public library these days does not guide patrons as it should but merely caters to popular tastes. (Do we really need every American Pie spin-off in our dvd collection? Do we really need the first season of Cougar Town on dvd? Are people that starved for entertainment?) Slap a “Hot DVD” sticker on a rotten movie like Bounty Hunter and patrons are circling it like vultures. But why not stick that label on Chaplin’s Mutual shorts instead and make people reach for THAT? So what if it’s not “new.” How many people have actually seen these shorts? And if you haven’t seen it, it’s not really “old.” But there are too many dim bulbs in town who’ll ask, “That’s not in black and white, is it?”

But there is cinematic gold to be found down in our meeting room. It’ll be the people who walk out excited about rediscovering Sherlock Jr. who will be able to distance themselves from the  fads and mediocrity of popular culture. These are the patrons who are special. And they’re not all ready for assisted living either. One of the highlights of my last film series was seeing some college girls show up for one of my shows.

Just because audiences might not recognize these films or the players in them doesn’t necessarily mean the films are remote from our way of life. When I presented my pre-Code series last spring, a patron commented on how relevant the films are today, but then he quickly shot himself in the foot when he added that they were “great in a campy sort of way.” (I have never played a film that was “camp.” That is a term modern audiences use when they fail to understand a film’s context or can’t appreciate the time period in which it was made.)  Laughter is cross-cultural and universal and will be just as relevant as those pre-Codes because these films reflect aspects of the human condition. What audiences will discover (I hope) is that what was funny then is still funny now.

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There is something far deeper that touches the soul when one experiences the art of Chaplin or Keaton or Lloyd. Chaplin, especially, because here was an artist who found humor in the darker realities of life. In his films, audiences also see the mechanics of his art. Here, it is about the gag, not the joke– how the gag is set up and played out. Too often filmmakers make everything immediate, everything has to be now for instant satisfaction. We are a culture that suffers from excess in everything we do. Johnny Depp, who recreated Chaplin’s “dance of the bread rolls” in Benny and Joon, touched upon this in a Richard Schickel documentary on Chaplin about how we as viewers have no patience anymore. But in the Legends of Laughter series, you will see how the gag is executed– and how its anticipated release leads to a pay-off in laughter.

I’m sure there will be some naysayers questioning why I would show any silent films at the library. At the end of the last series I was given a lot of suggestions from patrons, but there is a lot of ‘classic’ Hollywood that is best relegated to home video. (Sorry, Shirley Temple fans.). I’m drawn to the silent pantomime. It’s an art I deeply admire for its poetry. The series also allows me the opportunity to make amends for having shown only a handful of comedies when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre. The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and Diplomaniacs with the unfairly-maligned Wheeler & Woolsey were two of them. [*See bottom for a complete listing of all the films I played when I operated this wonderful, neighborhood theatre.]

My goal is to preserve the tradition of physical comedy. Silent comedy needs an audience for the films to be fully appreciated. In addition, there are many stereotypes associated with these films that I wanted to dispel. They’re blurry… The film is  grainy and scratched… The contrast is high… There are all these titles and inter-titles you have to read… All the characters are running around at high speed… To show an example of how people imagine silent film, let’s take a popular, modern movie we are familiar with– assuming you don’t consider movies made before the year 2000 as “ancient”– and turn a scene from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) into what a typical viewer perceives a silent film to be. This is a silly video I found off YouTube which exaggerates those stereotypes and demonstrates a lack of understanding about silent movies. Notice the unnecessary intertitles used to convey the obvious. Also, many restored silent films exist in excellent dvd transfers and are as beautiful as anything you could find in your cineplex:

In an introduction to Peter Kobel’s book Silent Movies, film historian Kevin Brownlow wrote that “ineptly produced videos and DVDs still set back the reputation of silent films. The very word silent suggests that something is missing. But if you see a silent film as it was meant to be seen, with live music, you certainly will not feel it is in any way inferior to a talkie. (A crashing chord from a symphony orchestra outdoes even Dolby stereo!)”

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I was at the front desk in Circulation during my last series and a patron asked me about a film I was showing. “Is it any good?” Well, if it wasn’t I wouldn’t be playing it.  (These are the same patrons who would rather check out a dozen dvds like Cop Out, Hot Tub Time Machine, Date Night, Sex and the City 2 or the first season of Glee.) But the audiences who actually show up— the smartest residents in town, in my book– have a keen understanding of film history and they appreciate this art form in all its stages. Personally, I’d love to do a whole series honoring film pioneer D.W. Griffith, but I realize his films are too Victorian and old-fashioned for modern sensibilities. They probably wouldn’t attract much interest outside the core regulars. I don’t think I’d get too many young people showing up for A Romance of Happy Valley. If you want to get people interested in silent cinema (in the hope of preserving our cinema heritage for the next generation), you need to start at the top with a genre that has the greatest appeal. Hopefully, Legends of Laughter will trigger a desire to seek out and discover the gems I could not play. If asked again by a patron, “Is it any good?” I’ll tell ’em, “You have no idea how good.”

*NOTE: The following is the complete listing of all the films I programmed as director of the former LaSalle Bank Theatre revival house (4901 W. Irving Park Rd. Chicago). I have not included the “Hollywood Musical Series” which I projected but did not book. The number after the film is the attendance, NOT the year of release. The final series was a transition period and I had my two successors record the paid attendance of the patrons; those dates are left blank. Only a few shows afterward were recorded for my own files. When I originally got the job in 1999, the theatre averaged about 50-60 patrons on a good night, mostly the seniors who were regulars. That was about the average for my first series: “The Classic Hollywood Director Series: William Dieterle.” However, the turning point for the theatre was the following “Son of Noir” program. After that, attendance remained around the 100+ mark until I left at the end of 2003.

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7/8/00: The Last Flight (49); 7/15: Her Majesty, Love (60); 7/22: Man Wanted (56); 7/29: Grand Slam (51); 8/5: Female (54); 8/12: Fog Over Frisco (85); 8/19: Madame DuBarry (66); 8/26: The Firebird (56); 9/2: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (85); 9/9: Doctor Socrates (50); 9/16: The Story of Louis Pasteur (55); 9/23: The White Angel (41); 9/30: Satan Met A Lady (47); 10/7: Another Dawn (42); 10/14: The Life of Emile Zola (41); 10/21: Juarez (80); 10/28: White Zombie & I Walked With a Zombie (156); 11/4: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (68); 11/11: Since You Went Away (61); 11/18: Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (60); 11/25: A Dispatch From Reuters (40); 12/2: All That Money Can Buy (95); 12/9: Love Letters (58); 12/16: Elephant Walk (25); 12/23: The Unholy Three (51); 12/30: Just Imagine (83). 1/6/01: High Sierra (160); 1/13: This Gun For Hire (120); 1/20: Journey Into Fear (101); 1/27: Bluebeard (125); 2/3: Phantom Lady (116); 2/10: Portrait of Jennie (91); 2/17: Murder, My Sweet (144); 2/24: The Spiral Staircase (100); 3/3: Hangover Square (120); 3/10: Mildred Pierce (174); 3/17: Scarlet Street (140); 3/24: The House On 92nd Street (117); 3/31: The Big Clock (138); 4/7: Nightmare Alley (165); 4/14: Desperate (107); 4/21: Desert Fury (113); 4/28: Call Northside 777 (115); 5/5: Road House (121); 5/12: The Fallen Idol (95); 5/19: The Black Book (105); 5/26: White Heat (150); 6/2: The Set-Up (110); 6/9: The Big Steal (106); 6/16: Thieves’ Highway (160); 6/23: The Narrow Margin (128); 6/30: Clash By Night (180); 7/7: Intolerance (130); 7/14: The Avenging Conscience (60); 7/21: Way Down East (84); 7/28: Abraham Lincoln (89): 8/4 Safe in Hell (150); 8/11: Wonder Bar & High Pressure (145); 8/18: Zoo in Budapest (115); 8/25: Murder At The Vanities (153); 9/1: Death Takes a Holiday (131); 9/8: The Mystery of Edwin Drood (99); 9/15: Dante’s Inferno (125); 9/22: Clive of India (90); 9/29: Steamboat Round the Bend (93); 10/6: The Great Garrick (169); 10/13: If I Were King (68); 10/20: On Borrowed Time (79); 10/27: It Came From Outer Space (200); 11/3: Grass & Nanook of the North (70); 11/10: Tell It To The Marines (135); 11/17: He Who Gets Slapped (112); 11/24: The King of Kings (60); 12/1: Horse Feathers (168); 12/8: Diplomaniacs & Duck Soup (131); 12/15: Hold That Ghost (75); 12/22: Babes in Toyland (82); 12/29: Stars In My Crown (149). 1/5/02: She (130); 1/12: The Four Feathers (90); 1/19 Five Star Final (97); 1/26: The Big Broadcast (103); 2/2: Kongo (115); 2/9: Trouble in Paradise (285); 2/16: The Mask of Fu Manchu (203); 2/23: Air Mail (83); 3/2: The Narrow Corner (66); 3/9: The Kiss Before the Mirror (125); 3/16: Gold Diggers of 1933 (201); 3/23: Heat Lightning (116), 3/30: The President Vanishes (135); 4/6 The Crusades (138); 4/13: The Passionate Plumber & The Man on the Flying Trapeze (160); 4/20: Tarzan Escapes (100); 4/27: The Invisible Ray (105); 5/4: Night Must Fall (101); 5/11: The Prisoner of Zenda (145); 5/18: Angels With Dirty Faces (150); 5/25: Gunga Din (110); 6/1: Strange Cargo (108); 6/8: Action in the North Atlantic (94); 6/15: Palm Beach Story (165); 6/22: Shane (127); 6/29: Goldfinger (107); 7/6: Operation Crossbow (92); 7/13: Alibi Ike & Sons of the Desert (116); 7/20: Where East Is East (94); 7/27: The Maltese Falcon 1931 (120); 8/3: The Maltese Falcon (110); 8/10: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (153); 8/17: The Beast of the City (140); 8/24: The Most Dangerous Game (109); 8/31: Pilgrimage (93); 9/7: Penthouse (245); 9/14: Les Miserables (111); 9/21: Mad Love (135); 9/28: Swing Time (141); 10/5: Lost Horizon (227); 10/12: The Green Light (113); 10/19: Marie Antoinette (118); 10/26: The Walking Dead & Son of Frankenstein (166); 11/2: Brother Orchid & Dillinger (152); 11/9: The Cross of Lorraine (110); 11/16: Somewhere in the Night (112); 11/23 The Fountainhead (121); 11/30 The Bullfighter and the Lady (93); 12/7: The Man From Laramie (108); 12/14: The Horse Soldiers (81); 12/21 A Tale of Two Cities (119); 12/28: Ride the High Country (126). 1/4/03: Remember Last Night? (165); 1/11: Winners of the Wilderness (58); 1/18: Star Witness & College Coach (99); 1/25: It’s Tough To Be Famous (103); 2/1: Freaks & West of Zanzibar (122); 2/8: The Affairs of Cellini (119); 2/15: Mandalay (120); 2/22: The Scoundrel (122); 3/1: The Prisoner of Shark Island (95); 3/8: Professor Beware & The Old-Fashioned Way (130); 3/15: Cluny Brown (128); 3/22: The Woman in White (131); 3/29: Colorado Territory (107); 4/5: The Beginning Or the End (print didn’t arrive, screened The Sign of the Cross (80); 4/12: The Day the Earth Stood Still (180); 4/19: Above And Beyond; 4/26: Kiss Me Deadly; 5/3: The Magnetic Monster & THEM!; 5/10: On the Beach; 5/17: The Mouse That Roared; 5/24: Dr. Strangelove; 5/31: Fail-Safe; 6/7: The Bedford Incident; 6/14: Planet of the Apes; 6/21: Colossus: The Forbin Project; 6/28: The Road Warrior; 7/5: The Night of the Hunter (197); 7/12 The Sorrows of Satan (108); 7/19: Chang & The Son of Kong (95); 7/26: Applause; 8/2: Moby Dick; 8/9: The Millionaire & The Finger Points (93); 8/16: The Miracle Woman (119); 8/23: Flesh: 8/30: Murders in the Zoo; 9/6: International House; 9/13: Cleopatra; 9/20: The Big Broadcast of 1937; 9/27: Midnight; 10/4: The Light That Failed; 10/11: Buck Benny Rides Again (140+); 10/18: One Foot In Heaven (111); 10/25: The Black Cat & Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (222); 11/1: Who Done It?; 11/8: Sahara; 11/15: Random Harvest; 11/22: Road to Morocco; 11/29: Champagne For Caesar; 12/6: Wichita; 12/13: The Cheaters; 12/20: It’s A Wonderful Life; 12/27: Shall We Dance

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One Response to “The Shadow Merchant by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is great blog. A fantastic read. I will certainly be back.

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