BY LAURA EMERICK firstname.lastname@example.org August 15, 2012 8:50PM
Crowds line up for "To Kill a Mockingbird" during the 2012 Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas. (C)DeluxePhotography2012 / Diane Sierra
Updated: August 15, 2012 8:50PM
EL PASO, Texas — Out in this west Texas town every summer, a movie paradise materializes under the desert sun.
That happens each August, when the Plaza Classic Film Festival, the world’s biggest festival dedicated to classic cinema, returns to the landmark 1930 theater once billed as “The Showplace of the Southwest.”
Though the annual Tur*n*er Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood might be better known, it’s hard to imagine a better place than the Plaza to watch films as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen, with an audience of movie lovers.
With more than 80 titles, record attendance and Hollywood legends such as Eva Marie Saint, Tippi Hedren, Mary Badham and Al Pacino, the Plaza Classic Film Festival just wrapped its fifth annual run by living up to the Texas credo of bigger and better.
Presented by the El Paso Community Foundation and programmed by artistic director Charles Horak, the festival featured titles from all genres and eras: golden-age greats “Casablanca” (1942) and “An American in Paris” (1951); the silents “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and “Wings” (1927); foreign classics “Alexander Nevsky” (1938) and “Playtime” (1967); cult faves “Santa Sangre” (1989) and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975); documentaries “Wattstax” (1973) and “The Endless Summer” (1966), and more contemporary titles such as “E.T.” (1982) and “Donnie Darko” (2001).
Perahps the biggest attraction is the Plaza Theatre itself, a 2,050-seat Atmospheric-style movie palace saved from the wrecking ball in 1987 by local activists and the El Paso Community Foundation. In 2006, it underwent a $40 million restoration as a performing arts center. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it truly comes alive during the annual festival, when you can feel presence of the greats of the past. “A big part of the draw is not just the films themselves but the venue they’re shown in,” Horak said. “It’s like going back in time and feeling the special ambience of these movie palaces. It’s a premium experience at an non-premium price.”
This year, the festival celebrated the centennials of Universal Pictures and Paramount by programming scores of titles from those two studios. It also continued to expand its footprint by adding venues and ancillary activities, such as the Plaza Classic Film Club, devoted to budding cinephiles of high-school age. Festival organizers also partnered again with the nearby El Paso Museum of Art to present two related exhibits: “Designing Woman: Edith Head at Paramount,” devoted to the costumes of the eight-time Oscar winner, and “Reel Glamour: Jewelry from the Paramount Archive.”
“On all fronts, this was our best festival by any measure,” Horak said. “The level of enthusiasm never waned over the festival’s 11 days. Every day, people came back in droves, beginning with Eva Marie Saint on opening night and building to the festival’s conclusion with with Tippi Hedren.”
Between the two Hitchcock blondes, another star attraction lit up the Plaza: Al Pacino, who appeared in his “One Night Only” bill as a fund-raiser for the theater.
“Pacino certainly offered an experience we had never had before,” said Horak of the event, which marked the first-ever benefit scheduled during the fest’s run. “It brought in people who had never attended the festival before, and Pacino offered a lot of insight into his acting approach to film and theater work. It was a big night, but it was one of many.”
Precisely. Among the festival’s many highlights, these ranked right up there with the Al Experience:
“North by Northwest” (1959) and “On the Waterfront” (1954) with Eva Marie Saint: The Oscar winner regaled the crowd during pre-screening talks with tales of working with greats such as Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Marlon Brando. But she saved her greatest praise for the Plaza itself. “You are so lucky to have this beautiful theater,” Saint told the opening-night crowd. “I really have been around a lot. But you have the most beautiful theater.”
“The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie” (1964) with Tippi Hedren: While Saint recalled mostly happy memories of Hitchcock, Hedren reflected on the dark side of the Master of Suspense. “He did ruin my career,” she said of the director’s retaliation when she rebuffed his advances. “But he didn’t ruin my life.”
“Perdida” (2009): This documentary by Viviana Garcia-Besne drew a pack*ed house in part due to its El Paso connection. It celebrates the legacy of the Calderon family, largely responsible for the golden and silver ages of Mexican cinema. The Calderons also owned and operated a chain of Spanish-language movie theaters, including the Colon in El Paso (and the first in the city to desegregate).
“The film covers 80 years of history, but there were so many stories that we couldn’t fit in,” said Garcia-Besne, a Calderon descendant, after the screening, which received a prolonged standing ovation. “After our reception here, I feel the film belongs to you.”
“The Big Lebowski” (1998): Some might argue that the Coen brothers’ send-up of film-noir lore and conventions hardly classifies as a cinema classic — and they would be wrong. In any case, the fest offered a rare chance to watch the film free from the usual incessant chatter of Lebowskites (collateral damage of the Lebowski Fest phenomenon). A lone cry of “Don’t f--- with the Jesus!” — the signature line of John Turturro’s character — wafted up from the main floor before the film rolled. And that was blessedly it. The Dude would abide.
“A Place in the Sun” (1951): As film critic Sam Adams noted in his introduction, director George Stevens and his screenwriters turned Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel into an astute commentary on postwar America. For the more superficial among us, including me, it’s a chance to luxuriate in the presence of two of the most beautiful stars ever, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.
It was pure bliss to witness on the big screen the film’s famous swooning close*up when Monty, who fears he can’t convey how much he loves her, is implored by Liz: “Tell mama ... tell mama all.” Try to top that, you Netflix streamers.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971): A festival favorite, this musical provided a bittersweet moment, since its screening came just hours after its director, Mel Stuart, died Aug. 9 at age 83.
Over the last year, Horak had spoken with Stuart about attending the festival (where it played for a sold-out crowd in 2010). But Stuart had been diagnosed with cancer in recent months, and despite his vows (“I’m a fighter,” he told Horak over the phone. “I’ll make it to El Paso somehow!”), he was too ill to atttend.
Horak related several great anecdotes from Stuart, including one about the director’s gruff insistence that screenwriter David Seltzer, whom he had tracked down to a remote location in Maine, change the script’s final line of “Yippee!” (which follows the book). “That’s it?” Stuart insisted over a trans-Atlantic call to Seltzer. “We can’t end the movie like that!”
Though he was primarily a documentary filmmaker, Stuart considered “Wonka” one of his favorite projects and even carried around replica Golden Tickets to give away to the film’s many fans, Horak noted. He added, “That’s the way I’ll always remember him.”
“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976): The jury’s still out on this underappreciated gem from the godfather of independent film, John Cassavetes. Film scholar Phillip Lopate writes in his Criterion Collection essay: “It seems a model of narrative clarity and lucidity. Either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes, or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style.”
For others, however, it remains the thorniest of character studies, even by Cassavetes’ take-no-prisoners standards. Film critic and director Gerald Peary led a spirited discussion afterward that probably resulted in several converts — and most certainly had Cassavetes smiling from the Great Beyond.
“Manos, The Hands of Fate” (1966): Made in El Paso and now rediscovered in El Paso, this cult favorite drew one of the festival’s most appreciative audiences. They’re in good company: uber-auteur Quentin Tarantino claims “Manos” is his “favorite ‘comedy’ of all time.”
The screening, which was moved offsite, marked the the film’s world premiere restoration, spearheaded by cinematographer Ben Solovey, who found the original 16mm work print last year via an eBay auction. (The low-budget “Manos” — made for $16,000 on a bet — played the drive-in circuit on its original release and then largely disappeared.) Tarantino notwithstanding, “Manos,” a horror tale about lost vacationers menaced by the satyr-like Torgo and his brides of goatenstein, “takes itself very seriously,” noted Solovey in a post-screening talk. After raising $25,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, Solovey is working on a Blu-ray transfer. For more details, check out manosinhd.com.
“Wings” (1927): With its stunning aerial footage, supervised by director “Wild Bill” Wellman, the first winner of the best picture Oscar remains an amazing achievement 85 years later.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961): It was never lovelier. I’ve never been a huckleberry fan of this sanitized version of Truman Capote’s novella (the script by the usually gritty George Axelrod glosses over the book’s gender-bending, and what about that Mickey Rooney performance as Mr. Yunioshi?). But seeing it on a giant screen, with hundreds of Holly Golightly devotees, was like opening a beautiful blue Tiffany gift box.
Next up: Pearls from Pacino’s “One Night Only” stand.