"Classic American entertainmentBig films return to the big screen, in the Classic American Film Festival."
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:40 PM
"Just one word: Plastics.Those four words from the 1967 film The Graduate, define a generation of alienated youth.The Graduate and three other films that influenced an era - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rebel Without a Cause and The Truman Show - were selected by islanders in an online poll for the humanities inquiry Classic American Film Festival, March 12-15. Although all of the films can be rented and viewed on videotape, John Ellis, one of several islanders noted for polling eloquence, makes the case for the big screen.In seeing film as film, Ellis said, you are seeing an image that has kissed the celluloid, the negative run through the camera on the set. When that's projected, you have a direct relationship you don't get with video. New York Times Film critic Richard T. Jameson, who will discuss movie influence on American culture before The Truman Show screening, agrees with Ellis. Jameson points out that Rebel Without a Cause, an early rendition of disaffected youth and the first Cinemascope film - movies shown on dollar bill-shaped screens - contains scenes that literally cannot be viewed as video. In what Jameson characterizes as one of the most compelling sequences filmed in the 1950s, James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo are questioned by police simultaneously, in a split screen effect.When you see the movie, Jameson said, the scene is so dynamic it looks like the film is almost tearing itself apart, but as video it's just about incoherent.Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which depicts the clash of an idealistic junior senator and corrupt politicians, is a Jameson favorite. Jameson describes the picture as an action film, citing dynamic plot, visual effects and acting pace. He calls the often-underestimated film Capra's best and Capra, himself, underrated.People think of him as the Reader's Digest filmmaker, but he was a director of great talent and power, Jameson said.Capra often worked counter to film convention, according to Jameson.He points out a typical Capra move: actor Claude Rains' glasses glint with reflected light. Most directors would have removed them, but Capra let the spectacles become part of the vitality of the film, a small slice of reality. Capra, who discouraged the use of makeup to begin with, would not pause for repairs. After two or three takes, the mussed-up, sweaty actors would behave and look like real people. Jameson calls Capra the only 1930s filmmaker to openly acknowledge body function; in Capra films, people use the bathroom.Both Jameson and Ellis note that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, nearly suppressed for the focus on political cynicism some feared would be used by Nazi propagandists, ultimately became a symbol of freedom's triumph over oppression. In occupied France, one theater showed the film for 30 days straight - until the Nazis banned it. Although none of Ellis' poll movie choices made the festival, he approves the selections. Picking best movies is an almost impossible task - there are so many good ones, he said. If I think about it, 'Chinatown' comes to mind. But then, when I think again, it might be 'Seven Samurai,' or 'Women in Love.' And I'm a huge fan of the silent era. Buster Keaton is my god. Ellis goes to the movies once or twice a week. God bless the Lynwood Theater, Ellis said, for bringing us films that can transport us. The only way to get that is to sit in a dark room, and let the movie carry us away.* * * * *The Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council Humanities Inquiry Classic American Film Festival will run 7:30 p.m. March 12-15 at the Historic Lynwood Theater. Film critic Richard T. Jameson will introduce The Truman Show and lead discussion 7 p.m. March 15. $20/series; $6/door. Call 842-7901. "