Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘UC Theater

Goodbye, cinephilia

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Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

For as long as I can remember, the movies have been a huge part of my life. Growing up, I raided my parents’ videocassette collection on a regular basis, and may have been the only eleven-year-old in my fifth grade class whose favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. In high school, I was lucky enough to live only a short train ride away from the wonderful UC Theater in Berkeley, and spent many a wonderful weekend there taking in a double feature. (The only time I ever cut class on purpose was to catch an afternoon screening of Last Tango in Paris.) I continued this tradition in college, with countless visits to the Brattle and the Harvard Film Archive, and in New York I had an embarrassment of riches at the Film Forum, Lincoln Center, Landmark Sunshine, the Ziegfeld, and even the Angelika, despite its awful seats, screens, and location above a rumbling subway line. Chicago, meanwhile, offered the Music Box, Landmark Century, and many others. As a result, for the past fifteen years, I’ve probably averaged a movie a week, and sometimes more.

And although I’ve tried to make my mark in a different sort of art form, I’ve learned a tremendous amount as a storyteller from the movies, to the point where I sometimes feel, to misquote Ishmael, that the local movie theater was my Yale College and my Harvard. Part of the reason is that the movies allow us to experience a wide range of styles and subjects more quickly than a lifetime of reading: I can watch most of the movies on the Sight & Sound poll in the time it takes me to read War and Peace. The movies have omnivorously stolen whatever useful tricks were available from the other arts, and have raided the literary corpus for stories, often transforming them in fascinating ways. Of course, there’s some danger in taking the lessons of cinema too literally: a novel isn’t a movie, and both forms are capable of effects that can’t be achieved in the other. As a novelist, I have far more control over the finished product than I would as a director or screenwriter. But there’s no doubt that the play of my imagination on the page has been deeply shaped by my love of such filmmakers as Kubrick and the Archers, to the point where I can only echo John Irving: “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”

Life of Pi

Which is why one of the hardest adjustments I’ve had to make as the father of a newborn baby centers on the fact that I’ll no longer be able to go to the movies as often as I’d like. For someone who has long been used to seeing the latest releases on opening weekend, and plenty of art house and revival movies on a regular basis, this is a real shock. The last movie I saw on the big screen was The Hobbit, and I’m not sure when I’ll have the chance to catch another. This wouldn’t be as big of a deal if Beatrix had happened to arrive, say, in early February, when there isn’t much worth seeing in any case. But as luck would have it, she was born at the height of Oscar season, which means I haven’t been able to see a wide range of movies that I otherwise would have caught on opening day: I haven’t seen Django Unchained or Silver Linings Playbook or Zero Dark Thirty or Amour or Les Misérables or even This is 40. I owe Christopher McQuarrie a personal apology for failing to at least check out Jack Reacher. And in a year that was already shaping up to be one of the best for popular filmmaking in a long time, it’s a loss that I feel deeply.

Nevertheless, beginning tomorrow, I’ll be counting down my ten favorite movies of the year, as I’ve done every year since starting this blog, despite the fact that the list will contain a number of startling omissions. At first, I was tempted to skip this year’s ranking, or to hold off on the outside chance that I’d at least see a couple of the movies mentioned above before Oscar night. At the moment, this doesn’t seem likely, so I’m going ahead with what can only be seen as an incomplete pool of contenders. Yet even if you arbitrarily cut the movie year off in the middle of December, as I’ve effectively done, you’re still left with an extraordinary year for cinema, and especially for big popular movies—a better year, in some ways, than either of the two I’ve covered here in the past. As such, it was perhaps the best year imaginable for me to say goodbye to cinema, at least for now: I’ve missed a lot, but I feel blessed to have seen the movies I did. The ones I’ve been forced to omit will still be waiting for me when the time comes, even if I end up watching them months from now, at home, with a baby in my arms. And when I put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad at all.

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2013 at 9:50 am

Berkeley on my mind

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I was born in Castro Valley, California, a pleasant but nondescript part of the Bay Area whose greatest attraction to me, at least in my teenage years, was that it was only a forty minute BART ride away from downtown Berkeley. Growing up, I assumed that I would attend college there, and although my education took me a bit farther afield, I still spent many of the weekend and summer afternoons of my adolescence exploring the areas around Telegraph and Shattuck. And though I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for more than a decade now, I’ve been shaped by Berkeley in ways I’m only now beginning to realize, not so much the Berkeley of my own childhood as a version in my imagination, which reached its ideal shape—at least in the story that I like to tell myself—in the ten years or so before I was born.

The landmark that connected my imaginary Berkeley with the one I explored as a teenager was the old UC Theater. This was the theater where Werner Herzog ate his shoe, where an ongoing festival of Hong Kong movies ran every Thursday for years, and where The Rocky Horror Picture Show played at midnight (never seen, alas, by me). It’s also where I had many of my favorite movie memories: I saw the complete Indiana Jones trilogy here, and Judy Garland in A Star is Born, and Lawrence of Arabia, and Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival. I can remember John Waters’s anti-smoking announcement nearly word for word. And the theater’s closing ten years ago remains one of the small, indelible tragedies of my life. If Berkeley can’t sustain a place like this, I asked myself, then how are art house revival theaters supposed to survive anywhere? (The similar struggles of the Brattle in Cambridge have only increased my pessimism.)

So what else resides in the Berkeley of my imagination? There’s Chez Panisse, of course, where Alice Waters helped Herzog cook his shoe (slowly, in garlic and duck fat). There’s the Whole Earth Catalog, which was rooted in Sausalito but whose heart belongs in Berkeley. There’s the epic Plan of St. Gall project of Walter Horn and Ernest Born, which evolved concurrently with Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—the best, most essential book of the last fifty years, and one utterly saturated by its time and place. There’s Robert Anton Wilson, in his house in the hills above the Berkeley campus. And, not incidentally, there are also my parents, who would have been around my own age—or even somewhat younger—at the time I’m talking about.

Like I said, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area in a long time. And the Berkeley I’m describing may never have existed, except in my own mind. But as I look back at my life, which has taken me to some extraordinary places—Harvard, New York, Chicago, and beyond—I feel as if my philosophy, such as it is, was really shaped here. Calling it a “philosophy” might be taking it too far: it’s really nothing more than an interest in whole systems, an inclination toward voluntary simplicity (in life, not in thought), and a nose for the weird, esoteric, and neglected. It’s an instinct that sends me regularly to used bookstores, always trying to recreate my first experience of Moe’s. And whatever it is, it has outlasted all kinds of other, passing infatuations, so that I still carry a bit of Berkeley with me wherever I go.

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