As a fan of the Crosby Street Hotel’s Sunday Night Film Club (a club in name only) I perked up when I discovered the hotel’s stylish basement screening room – orange leather chairs, state of the art equipment – had launched a new series. Planned for four Mondays sprinkled throughout 2011, “Under the Influence: Writers on Film” pairs celluloid with lit, featuring a movie chosen by a prominent writer followed by a discussion with said writer and screenwriter Michael Maren. A reception with wine and nibbles wraps things up.
It’s a 92nd Street Y, Film Forum, private screening mash-up, in other words. And it’s yours for $35 (they also toss in popcorn and Voss water). I couldn’t resist, especially upon learning the first installment teamed writer Paul Auster with The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s 1946 black-and-white Academy Award winner about three US servicemen readjusting to civilian life.
I wasn’t alone. Nearly every seat was taken when a friend and I arrived Monday evening for the series’ first installment. Fortunately, Crosby Street isn’t Imax; sitting in the front room doesn’t result in a distorted picture or neck cramps, we discovered.
Shortly after 6:30, Auster visited the stage, citing cinematographic details to watch for.
(The early scene of the three servicemen reflected in the taxi’s rear view mirror is terrific.) We settled in happily with popcorn and water for . . . two hours and forty minutes.
Yikes! I’d forgotten how long this movie was, especially on the big screen where you can’t fast forward excruciating scenes, like Frederic March’s addled banquet speech. Yet, parts of Best Years still pack an emotional wallop, like Dana Andrews’ catharsis amidst the junkyard airplanes. Like those around us, we applauded when the final credits rolled.
Moments later, two uniformed porters deposited a pair of handsome herringbone club chairs onto the stage, and Auster and Maren reappeared for the evening’s film studies portion. Auster knows the movie intimately; a character in Sunset Park, his latest novel, watches it obsessively. (A low-key book signing followed the screening.) And Maren’s questions were skilled prompts.
It was comforting, for example, to hear Auster admit elements of the movie “get on your nerves,” from the too-lush, often cloying score to its “softness and predictability.” Put in context, the film was intended as a healing epic for the nation and its war-devastated soldiers. Author James Agee reviewed the movie for The Nation when it came out, declaring it at once painfully exasperating and “pleasing, moving and encouraging,” particularly for a “studio-made American film.”
Auster, whose screenplays include Smoke and The Inner Life of Martin Frost, observed that the movie’s meandering style helped create extremely complex characters. Yes, we see Frederic March’s sergeant as a compulsive drinker, but we also watch him fighting for his daughter’s honor, giving a bank loan to a hardworking farmer, communicating awkwardly with his wife and dealing with his boss. “Characters in movies today tend to get flattened out, and you rarely see so many full-fledged characters,” he said.
What else did we learn? Auster is the last person in America who doesn’t have e-mail, or so he claims.
With that, it was time to eat and drink in the adjoining bar area, which quickly took on the trappings of a cocktail party. Among the guests, Auster’s statuesque wife, author Siri Hustvedt. (Is that also her in a cameo appearance on the Sunset Park book jacket?)
Like décor throughout the hotel, the surroundings were quirky and amusing. I love the bookcase shaped like a polar bear (a bear-shaped mirror hangs on the wall above). Tidbits, passed by uniformed staffers, proved surprisingly substantial – juicy beef sliders, tiny sirloin slices on brioche topped with tomato, mushroom cups, dates wrapped in bacon, macaroons for dessert. And wine glasses were quickly refilled.
Coming up: author Jim Shepard discusses Werner Herzog’s Aguire, the Wrath of God on April 11, Jenifer Egan talks about Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction on June 27 and Michael Cunningham dissects Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller on October 3. The series will continue into 2012.
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