It's hard to think of good things that have happened in the last year. Sure, there was the election of an animatronic robot to the governorship of California, George W. Bush single-handedly capturing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and the first manned mission to Yuma. Other than that, it's just been lots of bloodshed and corporate scandal and Jessica Lynch specials.
And yet, this anus horribilus also marks the extremely successful first year of the directorship of Peggy Johnson and Sande Zeig at The Loft Cinema, Arizona's premier art and classic film showplace. Taking over from long-time Tucson cinephile Joe Esposito, Peggy and Sande have continued in the Loft tradition of showing the best foreign and independent films, and have added classic cinema showcases, children's films that miraculously fail to suck and a series of "meet the filmmaker" talks and workshops that have brought the likes of Bob Odenkirk (Melvin Goes to Dinner, The Mr. Show), Gordy Hoffman (Love Liza) and Ismail Merchant (The Weeping Willows of Westminster) to town.
This weekend, the Loft furthers the celebration of its first year under new management with two films featuring the world-famous Alloy Orchestra. Roger Ebert said of the Orchestra that they were "the best in the world at accompanying silent films," and he would know, because he's a heavy-set man who watches a lot of movies. On Saturday, you can catch them as they bring music into the otherwise soundless world of Buster Keaton's reputedly comic Steamboat Bill Jr. and F.W. Murnau's classic vampire film Nosferatu.
While you may have heard orchestral accompaniments to silent films before, you've probably never heard anything like Alloy. Producing original scores for each of the films they accompany, the three-member Orchestra uses synthesizers and found objects to make some truly expansive and odd sounds. While some of what they do simply re-creates full symphonies or 20th-century musical styles, they also add an eerie sheen of noise through a bowed saw and a bizarre "rack of junk" that's played as percussion.
Though I haven't heard their score for Nosferatu, I'm sure that it's dead-on, since that film was basically tailor-made for their kind of treatment. In it, visionary director F.W. Murnau pretty much invents most of the visual tropes of the horror film, and actor Max Schrek creates a Dracula that's creepy, scary and far removed from the widow's peak-camp of Bela Lugosi. Plus, Murnau didn't pay for the rights to Dracula when he made his movie, so it's one of the great instances of piracy as art. Take that, RIAA.
It's just this kind of treat--a combo of classic, rarely seen cinema, experimental music and outlaw filmmaking--that make the new Loft such a boon to our dusty town. While busy adding programs like this, Peggy and Sande have also spent the last year hipifying the Loft's image. Though art film audiences tend to skew older, Peggy Johnson told me she was determined to make this kind of fare "cool" again by showing such edgier art films as the controversial Irreversible and the hipster-sanctified Cremaster series.
Of course, even the stodgy old stuff should be attracting the youth crowd. The problem is that a lot of people have only seen classic films on their crappy 96-inch plasma-screen Dolby 5.1 home theater systems. That's like watching a football game through a cardboard tube from outer space. As Peggy put it, "These films are made to be seen projected. They should be big. They should be loud. And they should be seen in the dark." You can insert your own joke about "big, loud and seen in the dark," but Peggy's right. Movies that were made as movies generally don't work on TV.
And having the opportunity to see them big, loud and in the dark sets Tucson apart from just about every other medium-sized city in the United States. While dedicated classic cinemas used to be common, they're now only found in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Tucson. That's right: Tucson is America's only city with both a classic cinema and a monsoon season.
As a result, we get an inside look at what's coming up in American film. Peggy Johnson noted that "one problem with American directors is that they get their start making really cutting-edge, risky films and then are often lured by big budgets into making films that are more mainstream." She said that the Loft's role was, in part, to "exhibit films from the new director whose first work will one day be as legendary as Stranger Than Paradise, Slackers or sex, lies and videotape."
That's exactly the kind of work the Loft has been doing in the last year, showing such favorites as Melvin Goes to Dinner, Love Liza and Spellbound. If you missed them, well, there's plenty more coming up. Next week, Gus Van Sant's amazing Elephant will be here, and the Cremaster cycle is returning by popular demand.
Further, the classic cinema showcase Peggy and Sande have dubbed Cinematheque continues with month-long themes, including the current Hitchcock series and an upcoming set of musicals. On Saturday, Nov. 22, Susan White, a Hitchcock scholar, will speak after the noon showing of The Birds, and on Monday, Nov. 24, at 10 a.m., there will be a free workshop with the Alloy Orchestra. This is an embarrassment of riches, frankly, and cinema fans from places like Portland and Piscataway and the secret meth lab under Karl Rove's kitchen should all move to Tucson just to be near this stuff.
If you're already in town, though, you just have to stop by the Loft to enjoy any of these benefits, and while you're there, you might consider joining as a member so as to help pay for what is now indisputably the cinematic center of the Sonora. Or at least stop by to see a film and wish Peggy and Sande a happy one-year anniversary in their quest to make Tucson the cultural capital of the Ninth Circuit.