Preview: Midtown Art revives Tuesday series that brings the classic films back to the big screen

Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Over the course of the past two years on Tuesday nights, the projectors at Landmark Theatres’ Midtown Art Cinema have become a beacon for movie fans in search of a place to gather for live and vital moviegoing experiences — the screenings are introduced by a moderator, and followed by an engaging conversation. 

I’ve been invited to speak a number of times and the experience is unlike anything in town. There is palpable joy in the room as everyone indulges in shared discovery. The experience is accessible, immediate and alive, fueled by a curiosity not always present in more academic or institutional settings. 

Series founder and content curator Josh Rosenfield, lead assistant manager at the Midtown Art Cinema, attributes its growing success to an audience’s desire to share their passion for movies. “I am filled with dread anytime I think about the fact that these titles are available on Blu-ray or airing on TCM, “ he confesses. “Anyone who wants to see these films can watch them at home.” 

Yet during the series this summer, showings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner proved so popular, he was forced to open a second theater to handle overflow seating for 2001 and he added reprise screenings of Blade Runner. Even deep-cuts like George Lucas’ THX 1138 and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville played to crowded houses.

After a seven-week layoff, the series returns tonight at 7 p.m. with another Kubrick, Ryan O’Neal as Barry Lyndon, the eponymous fictional 18th-century Irish adventurer who, against-the-odds, defies both class and climbs the aristocratic ranks. Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s comedy of manners, Kubrick’s treatment, which he fastidiously shot using natural light to capture the true look and feel of a pre-electrical world, dims the satire.

One highlight for the series is the return of 35mm projection for a few select shows, including Barry Lyndon, John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre on November 10, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on December 1 and Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire on December 8. 

Rosenfield embraces the opportunity to screen 35mm prints on the occasions when they are available. As the industry has converted almost exclusively to Digital Cinema Package (DCP) as the projection standard, fewer studio archives are maintaining their 35mm collections, and even fewer are circulating their prints to commercial theaters. “While digital projection is always pristine,” says Rosenfield, “film captures life.” That Kubrick developed special lenses to capture a specific lighting effect in Barry Lyndon makes the choice to show it on film “natural,” according to Rosenfield.

The Red Shoes has had a wide influence on contemporary film.
The Red Shoes has had a wide influence on contemporary film.

The series continues on Tuesday, October 27, with the expressionistic nightmare The Red Shoes, arguably the masterpiece of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 33-year collaboration. Haunting, lavish, complex and vividly colorful, The Red Shoes depicts a ballerina’s descent into madness as she becomes consumed by her art. The film’s influence is felt throughout Scorsese’s work, and served as the blueprint for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

Shifting from expressionism to neorealism on November 3, audiences visit post-World War II Italy for another Scorsese favorite, Umberto D., an underrated film that refines duo Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini’s neorealist principles they introduced in Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves. Filming on location using non-professional actors, the film is able to reflect honest depictions of everyday life — poverty, injustice and desperation faced by an impoverished pensioner (and his lovable dog, Flick) who has nowhere to turn when he is evicted from his apartment.

Treasure Of The Sierra Madre on November 10, a meditation on greed as three drifters embark on a fateful quest for gold, solidified John Huston’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s top filmmakers. To watch ignorant bandits scatter a bounty of gold dust, which they mistake for sand, becomes a transcendent experience on 35mm. “You can see the texture, the flicker and the dancing grain,” Rosenfield says, “It comes to life on screen.” The precariousness of everything is in a single shot.

In Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, on November 17, upstart Paul Newman’s “Fast” Eddie seeks to unseat Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats as billiards champion, but at what personal cost? Some historians read this film, which won multiple Oscars and earned Rossen Best Director recognition by the New York Critics Circle, as a mea culpa by Rossen for his cooperative HUAC testimony.

Given the long shadow Scorsese casts over this series (did we mention he directed The Color of Money, the 1986 sequel to The Hustler?), it is only appropriate that November 24 should showcase one of his most celebrated works, Raging Bull. A tour de force of style and gut-punching substance, Scorsese captures the frenetic adrenaline rush of a boxing match with the striking black-and-white tabloid immediacy of a Weegee crime scene photo. 

Jimmie Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.
Jimmie Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Tales of Robert De Niro’s physical transformation sometimes overshadow the blunt force impact of his performance. The affable Zen-like tranquility that defines De Niro’s late career roles is nowhere to be found in his brutal portrayal of a self-destructive and obsessive boxer, filled with rage and a sexual jealousy that rivals Othello’s, and likewise destroys his relationship with his wife and family.

The mysterious alchemy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which screens on December 1, cannot easily be explained. Like a perfect magic trick, nothing is as it appears, and Hitchcock perfectly picks the audience’s pocket by misleading them with all-day service of the MacGuffin. Every frame bristles with the uncanny as James Stewart’s Scottie tries to put his life back together after assessing his role in a series of ill-fated events.

As notable for Elia Kazan’s direction and Tennessee Williams’ socially observant adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, as it is for iconic performances by Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire concludes the series on December 8 by hammering home its subtle unifying theme: how one’s deep obsessions can descend into madness.  

There is something appropriate about a series like this, which so clearly depends on the desire of strangers to come together and share their love of film, to focus on obsession. Attending screenings like this could be the first symptom of an incurable case of cinephilia. 

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