A film lover sets out to review fifty classic films 

Movies are the ultimate seduction. They are our dreams broken free from the capsule. As Pauline Kael put it, they are an escape from one’s responsibilities. So why not duck into the nearest theater when the cares of the world become too crushing? Sure, we can stay home and rifle through our Netflix queues, but there’s no substitute for the cloistral atmosphere of a cinema, with the churchly murmuring of the movie-parishioners, that moment of holy hush when the lights dim down, and the liturgical drone of the projector as sensuous images burst forth on the screen like Caravaggios in bloom.

It’s the possibility of the naughty, the opportunity to have congress with the outré, that makes watching movies such a singular pleasure. As the fresco artist says at the conclusion of Pasolini’s The Decameron, “Why create a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Pasolini, that masterful fringe painter of human frivolity, understood the pleasures of art about as much as he understood the perils. Movies can take us back in time and zoom us forward. Movies are collective memory. Movies are love.

My earliest memories are of the cinema. When I was a kid, my dad used to take my friends and I to the movies on my birthday. Those were the days when the ushers were far more interested in getting high and getting laid than they were in guarding the celluloid portals, so we’d get to watch two and sometimes even three films in one glorious afternoon. Eyeballs sprung from infusions of carbonated sugar, hands sticky with ersatz butter, belly loaded down with Butterfingers and nachos, I’d barely move from my seat, riveted by the action onscreen, whether it was Robocop shoving his finger-spike through a bad guy’s jugular or Rambo singlehandedly taking on the Vietcong.

One of my favorite cinemas was the now defunct State Theater in Jersey City, New Jersey—an old-fashioned movie palace that had long been acquiescing to a slow and beautiful decay by the time I’d stepped through its marbled entryway. My friends and I would hop the # 10 bus to Journal Square and spend the afternoon there with the junkies and the trannies, the street freaks and the brown-bag boogiemen, the sneak thieves and the outlandish prostitutes. We’d watch chop-suey extravaganzas, shoot-em-up ballets of blood, T & A comedies, and the occasional windy epic. If I was solo, I’d roam the massive halls with their ruined pillars and cracked-shell ceilings, run down the long winding staircases that furled like measuring tape, passing below the dusty chandeliers with their crowns of burst bulbs, the gothic torches and the musty tapestry on the mahogany walls straight out of a red-velvet Hammer Studios production, past the outsized candy-colored movie posters with their scored and gilded frames, displaying vintage freakout blow-ups of Blackenstein and Ghoulies, and I’d sneak behind the concessions stand to steal a few boxes of Reeses Pieces whenever the cashier left the glass case unguarded. I’d watch the wiry dudes ghost-bust near the fire exit, who then meandered and scraped across the funky carpeting to piss in the lavatory sink. The State Theater was dilapidated, as decayed as a Depression-era farmer’s front teeth, but I’d be damned if I didn’t love that place like it was the warmest-smelling quarter on the planet, my hearth and home, my education-nest, the place where my young heart had once beat loudest. Sure, the sound of the movies was usually fuzzy, the picture off-center, faces were out of focus, the reels weirdly spliced, and there were always the shouted warnings from one of the few audience members in attendance to “Get outta da away, Indy, he gonna shoot your ass!” or “Run, girl, he behind you, he BEE-HIND YOU!” but those lost afternoons are the sharpest in my memory, with the voices clapping out in the crumbling coliseum theater, flung popcorn tumbling slow and aerodynamic, and that fungal reek in the air that was like living inside of an old man’s shoe. All those movie-mad days and nights, acid-etched into my memory.

It is in remembrance of these experiences that I want to write about the cinema. There is no doubt that movies are the dominant art form of our times, so why not write about films that have meant so much not only to me, but to the world? If these directors and writers have given us the prime energy of their beings in order to provide us with the gifts of high art, I want to demonstrate why their expressions retain so much value and meaning in our own time and, in a few cases, why they fail to do so at all.

This brings me to the collection Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films: fifty classic films, many directed by luminaries familiar even to the uninitiated. Having been an eager disciple of serious cinema for over two decades, I will light candles to these celluloid saints, and showcase my own overweening passion for the craft. If I keep reverting to non-secular language, it is because I’m on holy business. Like talk show host Dick Cavett once said about television, I came to scoff, but I remained to pray. Criticism is a serious endeavor, but I hope that I will never bore you—that would be a sin. And don’t think that I will practice pure reverence, because there’s nothing that glazes the eyes and coats the brain more than unquestioning puppy love.

Every month I will approach one of these films with a critical eye, through a contemporary gaze, throwing in cultural matters, mix-mastering thoughts and ideas, making you go hmmm or making you go mad, forcing you to rise from your chair in the same pique of rage Pinocchio felt when he demolished that poor mouthy cricket in the Carlo Collodi novel. There is always much to talk about when it comes to genius, and in this muddling millennium, where the average is applauded as the ne plus ultra, we must take pains to bring the moonlight masterpiece into the dawning of the new day once again. As Ezra Pound wrote, “the history of an art is the history of masterwork, not of failures or mediocrity.”

We are living in virulent times, ruled by mediocrity, half-heartedness and plain fraudulence. Our most popular fictions are often thinly-veiled autobiographies, our stories ripped from the headlines, like episodes of Law and Order. Why is it that when a film or book is “based on a true story,” it is immediately thought to be more powerful? We are bastardizing our art forms, and we need to distinguish the great from the merely adequate. I’m put in mind of the infirm Salieri in Amadeus, wheeled down the madhouse corridor and sprinkling his benediction upon the lunatics: “Mediocrities, I absolve you. I absolve you. I absolve you.” There are no mediocrities in the Essential Art House Collection. There you will only find the dreams of giants.

Edwin Rivera is an instructor at SVA, and editor of The Match Factory.