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Film historian: Big screen best way to see classic movies

Sunday, December 2, 2012
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Q and A


Film historian Audrey Kupferberg of Amsterdam holds two of the movies from her collection
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Film historian Audrey Kupferberg of Amsterdam holds two of the movies from her collection

Audrey Kupferberg knows Henry Frankenstein.

The Amsterdam resident also is familiar with Judah Ben-Hur, Virgil Tibbs and John Milner.

Kupferberg teaches courses in film history at the University at Albany and produces monthly segments on film commentary for WAMC, Northeast Public Radio.

She is happy to talk about movies, actors, characters and the continuing “Film 100: The American Film Institute Essentials” at Proctors in Schenectady. Over a two-year period, and only on Monday nights, the theater is presenting AFI’s top 100 films.

Henry Frankenstein and Ben-Hur were on screen earlier this autumn, in the 1931 horror classic “Frankenstein” and the 1959 epic “Ben-Hur,” respectively. Virgil Tibbs, the thoughtful police detective from 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” and cynical hot-rod driver Milner, who cruised movie screens in the 1973 “American Graffiti,” will be in town next spring.

Series schedule

The next 10 American Film Institute “Essentials” movies showing at Proctors are:

• “A Place In The Sun” (1951) GE, Dec. 3

• “Swing Time” (1936) GE, Dec. 31

• “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) GE, Jan. 7

• “Easy Rider” (1969) GE, Jan. 14

• “A Night at the Opera” (1935) Mainstage, Jan. 28

• “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) Mainstage, Feb. 4

• “Toy Story” (1995) GE, Feb. 18

• “Titanic” (1997) Mainstage, Feb. 25

• “Spartacus” (1960) Mainstage, March 4

• “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” (1927) Mainstage, March 11, with live organ by Avery Tunningley

Admission is $5 per film. For start times and the full list, visit www.proctors.org/events/film-100.

Q: Why is it important that classic films be shown in large theaters, on large screens?

A: It’s important for several reasons. Number one, it’s important that these movies be shown, period, because these are our pop cultural heritage. Some of them are actually higher culture, and these are films that mirror the times in which they were made. They’re examples of the best of Hollywood, the best of independent filmmaking.

They show us what the star system was all about. Just to have them shown any way is important, but showing them there [at Proctors] is extra important. And I have to give all the credit to Bob Warlock — he’s the guy who decided to put this together. What it is is showing it right.

I teach hundreds of students every semester . . . and I see the way they tend to see movies. A lot of them watch them on little tablets and some of them, believe it or not, watch them on iPods. They stop to eat a piece of pizza with a friend and then come back. It might be the middle of Marlon Brando’s famous scene from “On the Waterfront” with Rod Steiger, but it doesn’t matter. If an email comes in or it’s texting time, they’re going to walk away.

So seeing a film in a proper manner is a very different experience. Even though these are digital — they’re not 35-millimeter studio prints — they give us a representation of what it was like to go to the movies in 1960 or 1927 and sit down and watch the film.

Q: Can people tell the difference between digital and 35-millimeter versions?

A: I can, because my background is as a film archivist. You try to get yourself sharp enough so that you can tell different film stocks.

Q: How about the average movie fan. Can he or she tell the difference?

A: I don’t think so. The first night we saw “Ben-Hur” on the Mainstage and it was gorgeous, it was really impressive.

Q: How do you like the list of films assembled?

A: This is the American Film Institute’s Essentials list. This is a really fine cross-section of the best American films. And looking down the list, it’s the best American directors, it’s the best American film comics, it’s the best of the star system, it’s the best of certain genres.

“Frankenstein,” for instance, from 1931, Boris Karloff, that’s the best of the genre. And I see in January they’re doing “Easy Rider.” “Easy Rider” changed the face of a lot of motion pictures. Before “Easy Rider,” whenever a “hippie” was referred to in a movie, it was usually someone who was a stalker, a killer or some comic goofball. When “Easy Rider” came out and actually made a lot of profit, it proved to Hollywood that they had to take alternative lifestyles seriously.

Q: Serious and casual movie fans have heard of AFI listed films such as “Titanic” and “Spartacus,” but may have never heard about the silent film “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” from 1927. Why is this one on the list?

A: “Sunrise” is probably, to my mind, the greatest film ever to come out of the United States and it was made by a German filmmaker who was invited to the United States to make some prestige films at Fox. His name was F.W. Murnau. He actually was killed in a senseless auto accident in 1931. That’s why we don’t know his name today, he was knocked off in his prime.

But “Sunrise” is high culture, it’s a poetic film, very German expressionist in tone and visually — filled with shadows and nothing seems quite real; it’s interpretive. They actually built a downtown city set in the German style in California to accommodate this filmmaker and it’s just a story about love and infidelity and atonement.

Q: Has this film been forgotten?

A: I wouldn’t say it’s forgotten because it’s available on DVD and it’s taught in universities as an example of the great art of film. But I see Proctors is going to be showing it [March 11] with live organ accompaniment and that in itself is a standout way to see it. It’s so reliant on visuals that to see it on the big screen it could be the chance of a lifetime for a lot of people who would otherwise see it on a 42-inch [television]. You can’t compare.

Q: With television screens getting bigger and bigger and coming with outstanding picture quality, are they becoming more competition for the movie theater experience?

A: I think they are. It’s so much easier to stay at home. It’s also so much cheaper to stay at home, but you know you stay at home and it’s not a great habit. My husband [fellow film scholar Rob Edelman] and I at times just want to spend long weekends sitting at home watching marathons of films on the wide screen. That gets tired. You like to get out and see people.

The whole idea of the 20th century, the movie-going experience, is something I like to dwell on. There was a whole custom, a part of our culture going to the movies, and now that’s just not very exciting.

Q: To play devil’s advocate — maybe some people prefer to stay home and avoid the rude people who talk in theaters among themselves and into cellphones. What about these people?

A: Tell them to stay home and watch the movies on their TVs. I’m bothered by that. There is a rudeness, maybe they’re not even aware that it’s rude, but it’s definitely an inconsideration. This even goes on at film festivals nowadays, in press and industry screenings where phones go off and people take the phone calls and talk.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and she told me she went to see “Cloud Atlas” and the person on her left was talking and the person on her right was talking and as a result, she’s going back to see the film a second time. Isn’t that awful? At $12, $15 a pop, that’s pretty awful and, plus, it’s a waste of time.

Q: People can probably make a case that big, epic movies such as “Titanic” should be seen on the big screen. But what about movies like “American Graffiti” and “Forrest Gump?”

A: They were all made to be seen on the big screen. Just in loyalty to the format, I would say see them on the big screen. When these films were first transferred to television, which began in the late 1940s when packages of Hollywood films started to be sold to networks or to small stations, you would see how diminished these films were and are.

There isn’t a film on this list that isn’t outstanding in one way. But I think “Spartacus” should particularly be seen at Proctors for several reasons. One, it’s an epic, so the large screen will make it a proper viewing setting. And number two, it stars our very own Kirk Douglas, and he produced the film, too. It’s a very important milestone because it helped to end the Hollywood blacklist.

Q: Movies have seen the long and wide CinemaScope and Cinerama treatments and 3-D films are the current craze. Are we going to see more gimmicks in the future?

A: Probably yes. Technology is popular, and originally in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when wide-screen and 3-D and Cinerama were all developed and utilized, it was because there was competition with movie-going — obviously television — and now we’re at a point where there’s all kinds of reasons for the industry to want us to repurchase films. “You bought the DVD two years ago — well, we didn’t get enough money from you. Come this holiday season you can buy it on Blu-ray or you can get it in a 3-D television compatible format.” So I think yes we’re going to see a lot of that.

Q: Talking about “Sunrise,” a bit more — do you think there will ever be places people can watch silent films?

A: You can come to our house, because my life is silent films, I love silent films. Yes, there is a place for silent films, but it’s a specialized venue and most people don’t want to take it. That’s why I give Bob Warlock a lot of credit for putting these films together.

 
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