Some people style themselves “Film Buffs.” Speaking from a NYC perspective, now that The Paris on Central Park has closed its venerable doors, the serious film crowd have shot over to Lincoln Center Cinema, a cliff-dwelling of sorts hanging under the fortress of serious music. There’s “cinema” for you, used mostly to glam up theater titles.
Back in the nineties there was a short TV series on Saturday Night Live — via Second City – “Sprockets,” hosted by a fictional German film buff, “Dieter” (Mike Myers). but it was really a take-off on European affectations, not about America at all.
More than a decade before that, in 1976, when, along with a crew of like-minded idealists, I helped run a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, we hoped to screen a “film” or two (whatever we thought that was in those days); but we mostly never got around to it. Our audience were moviegoers through and through, meaning, I suppose, most of them wanted action and grit (Scorcese, Pacino) though they’d put up well enough with Mel Brooks and were mad for Carrie (1976) or The Exorcist (1973) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
So what makes a “film” a film, and a “movie” a movie? You would never call Tea for Two anything but a movie, and not much of one at that, but The Breaking Point which came out the same year, 1950, is nothing if not a film (film noir, at that). Ever notice you can call a film a movie, and mean no disrespect?
Americans are all about movement. So, we seem to trust the term that has the most forward thrust in it, “moving pictures,” “movies,” defined by the one-room Nickelodeons. But it was always film too, the dangerous (explosive) celluloid run at anywhere from sixteen to twenty-four frames a second, past a flame which sometimes ignited (the projector got it’s own room or booth, finally, to protect the audience).
Other defects in early projection began to define the new medium with its catchphrase, “flick” or “flicker,” whose origins are mysterious, but hover around 1926; early film projectors had a large advance time between frames, in which a shutter obstructs the light source, and of course the source of light was a flame.
I still say I’m going to a “flick,” but nothing, especially after the forced retirement of Carbon Arc projectors with their natural moving flames, can be said to flicker anymore (unless you know where to go).
So to define this mess of visual narrative, we have the movies. When you come down to it, even high tone film people in North America seem to trust the word “movie” more than anything else. The best of them know to be frugal with intellectual stardust, so Roger Ebert, a first-rate film buff if ever there was one, reflects on an old fave of mine:
Casablanca" is The Movie. There are greater movies. More profound movies. Movies of greater artistic vision or artistic originality or political significance. There are other titles we would put above it on our lists of the best films of all time. But when it comes right down to the movies we treasure the most, when we are — let us imagine — confiding the secrets of our heart to someone we think we may be able to trust, the conversation sooner or later comes around to the same words:
I really love 'Casablanca'.
Or as my former mentor, Hollis Frampton, a structuralist filmmaker from the seventies, used to say (a paraphrase, forgive me):
I know it’s a good movie if it makes me forget my toothache, the balance in my checkbook, or the love I just lost.
Notice the word “love” in both instances.
Whether you call it a movie or a film, I love:
Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Berman)
Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
The Dead (1987, John Huston)
and a host of other things; don’t get me started!