The Last Picture Shows

This is not a good time to be a cinemaphile. There are only 50 repertory theaters left in the United States and fewer old movies to see in them, since the tiny market leaves little incentive for the studios to strike new prints when old ones age and break. And college film societies can’t fill the gap, since 16-millimeter prints are slowly passing out of circulation and 35-millimeter prints are too expensive for students to rent. Where’s a film snob to go to see James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause in Cinemascope, rather than rudely cropped on video? The answer is nowhere. There isn’t a print to be had right now. Or Kurosawa, whose death would once have been commemorated by retrospectives around the country? “I would like to do a Kurosawa series right now but I can’t,” John Ewing, film coordinator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, told Culturebox. Why not? “Well, a lot of [the prints] are owned by Toho [a Japanese film company] and they don’t seem interested in museum exhibition anymore.”

The latest insult to cinemaphiles is partly the fault of the American Film Institute, the organization ostensibly charged with protecting our national film heritage. College and museum film programmers report that they can’t book any films on the AFI’s top-100-movies-of-all-time list. Why? Because many of the studios with movies on the list have been pulling them out of circulation before sending them out on national tour. This state of affairs is only expected to last through spring, but still. For the entire school year, imagine: no campus Scorsese retrospectives (Taxi Driver and Goodfellas were on the list); no Joan Crawford or Billy Wilder series (Mildred Pierce,Some Like It Hot); etc.

Culturebox would be glad to learn that American film-studies students would spend a year watching movies not on the AFI list (the videos, of course, are still available), were it possible for their professors to find them. But even the great bad movies seem to have vanished. Cleveland’s Ewing reports that last summer, when he tried to find John Carpenter’s original version of Halloween–the one with a young Jamie Lee Curtis–he discovered there were no prints to be had. In the end, he stumbled across a sale by a film collector and bought a print for $125. “Four out of its five reels were pretty good,” he reports.

Judith Shulevitz