Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Titanic Talents

By Louis Black

JANUARY 12, 1998:  One day at the start of the summer of 1968, my mother woke me, told me to get packed and get out, I was going to work that summer at Madison-Felicia, a camp for underprivileged kids in Peekskill, New York. My uncle was on the board of directors, some kid had dropped out, I was drafted. One week we worked as counselors in training and one week as staff, handling garbage, washing dishes, etc. It was an amazing camp (Whoopi Goldberg is an alumna); it was an amazing summer. Now, we had been in this camp all summer. We didn't watch TV, read the newspaper, or listen to the radio; we worked with kids and there is nothing like working with them. Some of these kids were pretty damaged goods, but almost without exception they opened up and flowered by the end of their session. Then they went home. Traveling through the weeks with our focus on the kids, we missed the summer of 1968, an amazing, event-filled time.

Our group was headed by Larry, a schoolteacher in his mid-twenties, who later on quit teaching, founded and ran the famous New York City folk club Focus, then married and later divorced Melissa Manchester, along the way becoming famous as a manager, discovering and working with people like Robin Williams. The camp was very left-wing with various politicos (including Columbia Student Strike leader Jeff Jones) coming up to address us. Toward the end of the summer, Larry took us to New York City.

2001: A Space Odyssey, a Stanley Kubrick film, had opened in April, so we all knew about it. The reviews had been mixed. But while we were busy telling stories to kids, wrestling with kids, and swimming with kids, we had missed the growing presence and importance of the film. Critics be damned -- though some had loved it -- the people found the movie and then they found it again and again.

We got into Larry's van, drove down to the city, parked -- being Sixties kids, we also stood around smoking some pot and hash -- then walked to and then sat down in about the fourth row of the Cinerama Theatre; with its wrap-around screen and sound, we thought we were going to watch a cool movie. We had no idea.

Home, alone, in my grand-mother's house in Lakewood, New Jersey, I'm nine, walking through her room which consists of a giant bed with fluffy covers, a huge TV, and a dresser with a record player on it. On the TV is Frank Capra's Lost Horizon. I'm stuck, in the middle of the room, watching it, frozen in space, gone into the world of the film. Eventually, during a commercial break, I climb up on the bed and finishing watching it amid the warmth of pillows and blankets. It is my first great film experience. In the van, driving back, we're more stunned than talkative. We would talk the movie to death over the next few days in the kind of group-encounter discussions which were a regular tool in our learning and growing experience that summer. The last 30 minutes of 2001, in Cinerama, was overwhelming. I had already begun to watch lots of experimental films, including the work of Jordan Belson, which influenced Kubrick, but those short films in no way prepared me for the force of 2001. (Interestingly, if you ask directors of one generation which film made them decide to be filmmakers, it's Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave classic Breathless, of the next it's Kubrick's 2001.) Over the years there would be other experiences where it didn't matter whether you liked the film or not, its cinematic power was so stunning you felt the film in every fiber in your body. Seeing Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch the first week it ran in NYC (before the nine minutes were cut) not by intent but by accident because we were home from college. Seeing Peter Weir's The Last Wave, alone, in an Austin shopping mall theatre in the middle of the afternoon, staggering out into a parking lot spiked by the sharp midday sun expecting a wall of water to descend on this world. Sitting in the ninth row of the Ziegfield Theatre in New York watching Apocalypse Now, during the very first weeks of the run where the film just started, no credits 'til the end. Imagine, the first time watching the helicopter sequence set to "Ride of the Valkyries," just coming at you, not knowing what you are going to see.

Over the years, my opinions of these films has emerged; at the time I was simply stunned. Lost Horizon is easily my least favorite of the great Capras, I've come to really dislike later Kubrick, finding it too cold and too hard (though The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Spartacus are all pretty great). There is still a narrative and tonal eloquence to 2001 (the rare film that understood how to use not just silence but the absence of noise), but it seems more and more dated. The Wild Bunch is a perennial, watched again and again, Apocalypse Now at least a regular, every two or three years. I don't remember watching The Last Wave except for that one time (who would want to wash away the saltwater taste dousing that hot, stricken, asphalt parking lot?). Apocalypse Now was the work that launched another generation of filmmakers.

All by way of saying that the most fun I've had in a while watching a movie for its sheer cinematic power, was seeing James Cameron's Titanic. What a thrilling trip, the most viscerally cinematic film since Pulp Fiction. You feel this film, you ride its elegance, its detail, its style, the sheer movement of the film is its greatest pleasure. It sweeps through the ship, through class and period detail. This is about the ship Titanic, about its crew, about its passengers. Sure, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, the thrill is the ride, the ripping trip through the ship that is an economic and social history. The story is thin; if it were thicker it would get in the way. This beautifully integrated work is not about a story, that is its excuse; it is about an event. I can understand the objections -- for a film so awesome it is very light and very pat. So what! What a thrill! As with Kubrick, Peckinpah, Weir, Coppola, and Tarantino, here is a master at the peak of his form. This is visionary filmmaking, but after many viewings, when the thrill of the ride dims, when the stylistic genius of the film is imitated everywhere, trickling down to TV commercials, what will we think of the film? See it at the theatre (and I heartily recommend the Gateway), this is not a film for video.

I should be talking about traffic, city planning, the city's future or annexation. (The anti-annexation faction has accused the city council of being Nazis and communists, totalitarian fascists and moronic city planners. Very pleasant, so far, and comprehensive.) I should offer some Top Tens, some thoughts, but I just wanted to talk about this movie. Talking of movies, the Texas Documentary Tour continues, with Alan Berliner presenting Nobody's Business. Annie and I came across it channel-flipping one night and were riveted. A brilliant portrait of the filmmaker's father, Oscar, who keeps pointedly telling Berliner that his life isn't interesting and he doesn't want to be the subject of a film. The film is amazing. UT RTF department production head Paul Stekler calls Berliner the rare documentary filmmaker who actually influences the way other documentary filmmakers make films. Doors open at 6:30pm, Wednesday, January 14 at the Alamo Draft House. The Tour is presented by the Austin Film Society, The University of Texas Department of Radio-Television-Film, The Austin Chronicle, and the South by Southwest Film Festival.


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