Your year long film festival is always here, at the Astor

Victoria has been dubbed (via number plates) “the garden state”, “on the move” and “the place to be”. The state as a whole is a pretty big place (larger than the entire UK if we’re talking physical land mass) and it’s difficult when you work in Melbourne and dwell only around its suburban fringes to know just how garden like, moving and ‘to be’ it really is elsewhere. That said, when I think specifically about Melbourne, one of the things that springs to mind is how very many festivals the city plays host to.

Speaking specifically about film, over the years, the Astor has housed far more than a handful of brilliant festivals including; MIFF, St Kilda, MIM (Made in Melbourne), Manhattan Short, Australia’s Silent, Yew TV, NZ Short, and many others. It’s always a pleasure to host the buzz that comes along with a designated event – but then, that’s no surprise seeing as it’s also what we do all year round!

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The Astor is known for many things – from its grand foyers, golden curtains and famous Choc-Ices to the unique style of programming we do, keeping cult and classic cinema alive with many a double bill on our awesome, toilet-door/refrigerator-adorning quarterly calendars – and it’s the unique style of diverse programming from recent releases to repertory titles that we pride ourselves upon most of all. The programming – which proprietor George Florence has crafted since 1982 (!) – offers a year long film festival with all manner of different strands for Melbourne cinephiles and movie-goers to enjoy.

We’re currently putting together the next one and we can already tell you that it’s a cracker! There’ll be so much to announce in the coming weeks (keep an eye on our social media for updates and announcements) but something we can tell you right now is that we are truly Melbourne’s (and Australia’s) home to the grand film print format known as 70mm.

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It’s incredibly rare to have the opportunity to see some of the brilliant things we regularly show, like Baraka (1992), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Vertigo (1958), Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), Aliens (1986), Hamlet (1996), The Master (2012) and, in the past, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Titanic (1997), Ben Hur (2003) and a number of blow-ups like Gremlins 2 (1990), The Mission (1986), The Right Stuff (1983) and The Last Starfighter (1984).

Now, not all of these films are available for us to screen – y’all know the Titanic story because we posted it about a week ago, and if you’ve been attending the theatre or following up online updates for a while you’ll also know what happened to Lawrence (short version: we loaned it to a film festival in Korea and they burnt Korean subtitles into the print) – but what we can still screen, you can bet we will. We’re always working on bringing you the very best year-long film festival in an environment abuzz with grandeur and great atmosphere!

Written by Tara Judah for the Astor Theatre.

Cinema Fiasco Presents… HERCULES!

Fresh from its triumphal tour of Tasmania, Cinema Fiasco returns to the Astor this Friday, July 25 at 8pm, for a presentation of the 1983 version of Hercules starring Lou Ferrigno.

Clearly the Hercules getting all the press right now is the soon-to-be-released version starring The Rock and, even though I haven’t seen that one yet, I can tell you categorically right now that Lou’s version is the one to see.

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Why? Well, first of all, Lou’s version doesn’t have a lot of expensive, fake-looking CGI. You want to create a startlingly realistic bear fight? Stick a stuntman in a bear suit, cut in some stock footage of a grumpy grizzly and there’s the job done and at half the price.

Secondly The Rock is too good an actor to play Hercules. Hercules doesn’t have to act. He just has to lift up heavy things and throw them into outer space. And when The Rock speaks you hear his real voice. Hercules is supposed to be dubbed. Lou is. Thank the gods!

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Thirdly, the costumes for the new version were not designed by a drag queen on acid.

Fourthly Lou has a bigger chest than The Rock.

Fifthly Lou’s co-star Sybil Danning has a chest almost as big as his.

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Finally, Friday night’s screening will have commentary by Geoff Wallis and Janet A. McLeod, whose appreciation of bad movie-making is matched only by their need to talk. It will be an epic experience in every sense of the word. Please note that Janet and Geoff will be talking all the way through Hercules. If you want to see it without commentary, please get some professional help.

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Written by  Geoff Wallis 2014

Cinema Fiasco Presents HERCULES screens Friday July 25th at 8pm.

Farewell Leo…

Even if you haven’t seen James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), you probably still know about it. And if you’ve been lucky enough to escape word of Kate & Leo’s ocean liner romance, then apologies for the “spoiler”, but Leo doesn’t make it (it is called Titanic.) Yep, Leo has an unfortunate iceberg incident. Much like the iceberg, this film is BIG. It also comes with all manner of movie manipulation – music cues and camera angles that could make a grown woman cry (or at least bring a moderately less callous teenage version of the grown woman penning this post to tears). Basically, it’s the kind of big screen cry-fest that if you want to see, you want to see in the Astor’s auditorium, presented in glorious 70mm.

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We’ve screened this print a number of times over the years and, even with the yards of critical distance we’ve garnered over that time, it never fails to attract a crowd and leave a majority of our audience with tear-stained cheeks when the credits roll. But if that’s true, why does our calendar say “Final Screening Ever in 70mm”? I suppose the best way to explain it is simply: despite the Astor being pretty much the only place in Australia that still screens 70mm film prints (there are a small handful of other 70mm capable venues but, of them, none screen 70mm on a regular roster and most don’t screen it at all), this will be our last screening of Titanic in 70mm. At least as far as we are aware and as far as it’s fair to let you know in case you want to get along to see it before it disappears from our SuperScreen, the print will thereafter journey to Canberra where it will take up permanent residency in the archive (NFSA).

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It used to be that distributors stored their film prints at dispatch locations across the country. There was a very large one in Melbourne right up until late last year. But, with the studios’ ever-impending agenda to eradicate film prints from the market (stupid, enraging and astoundingly short-sighted) that facility down-sized and moved miles across Melbourne to a smaller (and no doubt more affordable) space that would only house DCPs. Some prints, due to the occasionally sensible studios who decid not to throw everything out, were moved elsewhere for safekeeping (much thanks here to Chapel Distribution) while others were junked (destroyed). A number of other studios deemed some prints important enough to keep but perhaps not necessary to continue to exhibit and so, as with Titanic on 70mm, and many other valued classic prints, these will soon to make their way to the NFSA for preservation.

The good news is that the print still exists. The bad news is that we aren’t necessarily in a position to freight film prints interstate and there’s also the question of archival criteria. One of the many stipulations for borrowing classic titles from archives now is that exhibitors must have archival status – or at least partial archival status (something we don’t have).

In short: we probably won’t ever screen Titanic in 70mm print format again. So, if you want to watch Leo die (and who wouldn’t?!) get yourself along to the Astor next Wednesday so that you can give him and the print the blubbering farewell they deserve.

Titanic screens Wednesday July 23rd at 7.30pm. Tickets $10

Companions in the Dark

Last week I wrote about going to the cinema alone so this week I thought I’d talk about cinema-going with friend(s). Though the experience of watching a film is mostly about engaging with what’s on the screen, is also about engaging with the other people in the auditorium, which is why choosing the right person(s) to accompany you is so important. The level of wanted engagement with someone else varies for us all, but even for the most solitary of souls, there is something powerful at play during those unspoken moments we share in the dark.

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The first thing that we need to take into consideration when choosing our cinema-going companion(s) is film selection; genre, format, style, tone, rating, duration, and all manner of other aspects that pertain to our individual tastes. For example, while I wouldn’t take my mother to tonight’s session of The Babadook (2014) and Patrick (2013) – because she doesn’t like horror films and finds it difficult to sit through a double bill – next Wednesday’s single session of Samsara (2011) would be a perfect choice for the two of us – not least because we both loved Baraka (1992) and agree that these are the kind of films that you just can’t see anywhere other than at the Astor. It’s important to make sure that the film(s) you choose will be something both (or all, if you’re gathering your “celluloid posse”) of you will enjoy. There’s no point dragging someone along to see something that you know they won’t like just because you want to see it – in these instances I tend to do what I wrote about last week and just go it alone.

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Once film(s) and friend(s) are selected and it’s actually time to attend the cinema, the degree of sharing starts to kick in. Now I know words are important (I use them here every week to tell you about some of our many cinema-going passions at the Astor), being sure that your cohort won’t overtake what’s going on in the film is a priority – I once went on a movie date where the other person kept leaning over to make mind numbing remarks about what was happening onscreen. Admittedly it was a not very engaging blockbuster, but suffice it to say that relationship never really “blossomed”. At the same time, however, having someone who is in tune with you and your responses can be incredibly comforting. I know that when I see a comedy it is definitely enhanced by the shared laughter in the room and if I’m watching a tear-jerker it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who’s subject to the magical manipulation of the movies!

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Though I’m a big advocate for staring directly at the screen, some of my favourite movie memories involve an awareness of my fellow movie-goers. Seeing my two nephews discover the big screen for the first time in their seats next to me, singing loudly along (and wildly out of tune) with friends to the well known songs from Grease (1978) and having toast fall at my feet while watching The Blues Brothers (1980) are all memories I truly cherish. Holding hands in the cinema with a loved one, sharing a bag of jaffas with my mother and just seeing the joy, shock, horror, excitement and surprise on a friend’s face as I snuck a sidewards glance the first time they saw one of my favourite John Waters’ movies, Female Trouble (1974), are all experiences I’ll remember as much as the movies themselves.

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When we sit collectively in the dark we also give our experience to the room and it’s absorbed and intensified by those around us. The 70mm film print of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) has the most incredible six-track magnetic sound that allows you to hear every breath Dave takes. When surrounded by friends as well as strangers suddenly there’s hundreds of other breaths that inhale, exhale, stop, slow and quicken at precise moments that make the entire experience so much more affecting.

I guess what I’m saying today is that the reason we all want to see movies on the big screen is not just because it’s big. It’s about immersion. And it ignites all of our senses; from seeing and hearing what the filmmakers have crafted to inhaling the intoxicating smell of freshly popped corn, and crunching down on a home made Astor choc-ice while the tactile feelings of those around you comes alive. It is a truly embodied experience, and that’s what makes going to the movies so marvelous.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.

Going it Alone Part 2: Big Screen Romance

On Sunday night I went along to the Astor (yes, again, and yes, by myself) to see The Philadelphia Story (1940). Before the session commenced I bumped into a couple I know and it occurred to me that I had met them, a few years before, in this very foyer at the Astor. I’m not sure exactly how this particular couple first met or where that was, but I do know that over the years I’ve seen them attend many sessions here and it makes me reflect on how lovely it is to share something you love with someone you love.

DSC_3243ER1I know a lot of people have met their partners in our foyers, used our auditorium as a first date backdrop and shared choc-tops with loved ones of many years. I’ve personally fielded phone calls from nervous individuals wondering if a Fellini double is too much for a first date (naturally, my advice was that it would be perfect! Surely if the person you’re dating doesn’t want to sit through two Fellini films then you have to wonder if they’re worth dating?), I’ve helped orchestrate getting a marriage proposal up on the big screen, witnessed countless weddings (ceremony and celebration), played my part in a proposal treasure hunt and even received thanks from my local barista, gushing over how perfect a combination Sergio Leone and popcorn is for burgeoning romance (and I quite agree!)

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For my own part, I’ve enjoyed films with friends, family, and at least four boyfriends that I can recall; everything from The Red Shoes (1948)to Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Lion King (1994, a film I don’t even like!) and Taxi Driver (1976, not that I think it’s a romantic movie, exactly) have served up romantic atmosphere. But, even on those lonely, cold weekends where I decide to go see films by myself, I still feel the romance. There’s so much love at the Astor, it positively pulses inside the opulent art deco surrounds. I can always feel it, perhaps especially on those evenings when I want most of all to be alone, and that’s because it’s filled with a community of film-goers who bring their love for films and the theatre with them. This theatre is grand, and in its seventy-eight years it’s absorbed a helluva lot of love.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.

Going it Alone Part 1: The Celluloid Posse

On Saturday night I went to see the Jacques Tati double of Trafic (1971) and Parade (1974), solo. Given that I usually go to the movies alone this isn’t really much of an announcement. But, during intermission, when I ran into Mark (who also contributes reviews to this here blog and sometimes attends movies solo too) I was struck by his question, “Where’s your celluloid posse?”

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If I did have a celluloid posse, I would definitely want this guy as a member.

My first response was one of mild panic because I’ve recently hit an age/level of social extraction where I don’t always “get” the references people make. This basically means that every time I hear something new or unfamiliar I assume my lack of understanding is an indicator of an intensely embarrassing socio-cultural misstep on my part. Worse still, if it’s film related I positively freak out, because if you can’t comprehend the only thing you do…

Well, as it so turns out, the term “celluloid posse” refers to a group of friends one attends movies with. The assumption, in this instance, was based upon previous cinema sightings where I imagine I was chatting to other audience members in attendance. As someone who almost always goes along to the movies solo, it occurred to me that what Mark assumed was my “celluloid posse” was in fact the fruits of a very healthy film-going community, cultivated here at the Astor.

One of the greatest things about being a regular rep house attendee is that you’re never really alone – even if you always turn up solo. After several years of such attendance you tend to notice the same faces shrouded by the dark, eyes fixed on the big screen. Despite being social awkward (as many of us have a tendency towards) we also tends to make an acquaintance or two along the way. The rep house is a safe space. It’s somewhere where film lovers can amass and, should we so desire it, share our enthusiasm over old movies and a mobile-phone free auditorium.

As the buzzer rang after intermission to remind us to take up our seats once again, Mark and I went our separate ways. As I returned to the dress circle and he disappeared into the stalls it occurred to me just how lucky I am. Here I was, on a Saturday night, going along to the movies by myself and, without any prior arrangement, here was a friend; someone I’d met in the foyer some three or four years ago. The auditorium might be where the movie magic happens, but our foyers are very special spaces in their own right, too.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.

What’s happening to the NFSA.

I’ve decided to write about what’s happening to the NFSA. Not because we screen a lot of prints from their archive – actually we don’t – but because what’s happening right now, behind closed doors, excluding the public from the conversation, is how we continually lose what’s culturally important in our society. There are already so few places still showing, preserving, protecting and fighting for film. Reducing it further is just one more step towards the obliteration of screen culture in this country.

On April 11th, this brief article, by Sally Pryor, appeared in the online Canberra Times, ‘NFSA sheds 28 staff, cuts Canberra film screenings’. First, it made me angry. Then I got worried. It was this line especially that left me incredulous; “Mr Loebenstein admitted that the arrival on the market of Palace Cinemas in the New Acton precinct had made it harder to justify spending taxpayer funds on importing international films and securing quality prints to screen to the public.”

As someone who has only been to Canberra once many years ago and (sadly) has never visited the Arc Cinema at the NFSA, but is aware of their programming, I have to say that this is a most bat-shit crazy conclusion to draw. Just because The Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) are showing at the local multiplex doesn’t mean that rare, original film prints and brand new restorations, imported from all over the world, marking significant moments and movements in film history, such as the upcoming Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu retrospectives, are redundant. How does the new option to go see Grace of Monaco (2014) replace the demand for a screening of the 35mm film print of Fantastic Voyage (1966)?

It is  moronic for anyone who has any interest, knowledge or even vague awareness of film history and its significance to suggest that the two are comparable or that one could replace the other. It’s like suggesting that you no longer need a sushi bar in a food court because now there’s a McDonalds.

But, as with any corporate decision that refuses to take into consideration the opinions and expertise of the people working in the industry or their public when making large scale decisions that irrevocably alter the landscape of screen culture in Australia, perhaps the most concerning aspect of this whole fiasco is how the decision makers have responded to the appeal from NFSA staff who – despite being treated so poorly – are still trying to fight for the archive, hoping to retain some truth to the organisation’s slogan: “Australia’s living archive”.

A letter, co-signed by some 140 people, seeking to restrain the current management of the NFSA from carrying out their proposed course of action, failed to have the effect they hoped for. They asked for a public release of the Loebenstein NFSA Business Review and asked for a publicly open forum to discuss the matters and propose changes, with opportunity for the Board to publicly defend and explain their proposal. What has happened is this: some possibility of input into the proposed structure for the future of the organisation. Head here to read more and to comment via email if you cannot attend the few and brief public presentations they are holding.

The sacking of 28 members of staff from the NFSA is going ahead. Back in 2011 I had the great pleasure of working with one of Australia’s greatest cinema curators, Cynthia Piromalli, when we ran a John Waters retrospective – something that simply wouldn’t have been possible without her. Not everyone is aware, but often in Australia, due to geographic and financial constraints, cinemas/galleries/festivals often share freight costs and are able to negotiate better clearances if the films are screening across a number of venues/locations. The John Waters screenings were not just the product of hard work from us here at the Astor Theatre, but were made possible through our collaborative hard work with the Arc Cinema and the Adelaide Film Festival. This collaboration is no longer possible.

Finally, there’s been very little discussion concerning the archive’s collection. As I mentioned at the outset, it’s not a resource that we regularly draw upon – as a commercial entity we don’t have the archival status that is required for many archival prints and we have, as a small business without public or state funding, a smaller budget than archival screenings often incur – but that doesn’t mean that we don’t care about what happens to the collection. Having a vested interest in something isn’t only about exercising an option to use it. We are passionate about screen culture in Australia, we are dedicated to the protection and exhibition of film and the preservation of the cinema going experience. This means that we get angry when it is attacked and we get worried when its future is placed in jeopardy. Personally, I’ve had enough of funding cuts and corporate types telling those of us who know a thing or two about screen culture how to manage our industry. Archives need experts. Films need auditoriums. And audiences need options.

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.