Often, essayed recollections of what one did "back in college" has to do with an accountant revealing they were the percussive bass in an acapella group, or that they were "a militant [insert political belief group here]". I apologize for having been considerably less audacious and extreme. Very early in my freshman year at Florida State, I got involved in promoting, running, and building the campus screening series into a behemoth. One of my earliest firebrand crusades was programming Jules Dassin's Rififi as part of a week-long "French Film Festival". Nevermind that blacklisted director Jules Dassin was an American. The movie was in French and made in France, so it counted.
Oh, what a rebel I was. What a renegade.
Criterion's fully remastered and restored Blu-ray edition hit the street today in the US. In the first of a small series of bits reflecting on said lovely blu-grade, I offer a short story of success, failure, and ultimately...success with a side of crème brûlée.
By some stroke of luck, I was attending FSU on a scholarship that covered the majority of my undergraduate education as laid out on paper, plus a little more. The reality of higher education in this country is such that "on paper" and "in reality" are different by a quantum stretch of the imagination.
I chose to leverage the "plus a little", bit by bit, into providing myself with a film school worth of education to be found in special edition DVDs. I stretched my funds a bit more thanks to a discount card sold by the FSU Lacrosse team that offered a 10% discount at the Tallahassee Best Buy, even on reduced and sale items. Buying the then-new Criterion DVD of Rififi felt like an entirely legitimate (much smaller scale) diamond heist. I wasn't committing a crime, but I worked the system so hard in my own straitlaced way that I felt positively felonious.
Twelve years ago, watching a movie on a 27" Sony Trinitron TV was the closest thing to an absurd luxury that I had, and it's how I discovered hundreds of movies. For a 2001-vintage DVD, Rififi looked spectacular, particularly as compared to other five-decade-old black & white movies I'd seen. VHS copies of Chaplin classics and loads of others were dropping in price like crazy. Prior to the explosion of DVD, those tapes and Turner Classic Movies on cable were the only way I saw pre-color movies, and none were in another language that I recall.
Out of sheer serendipity, the week after I bought Rififi on DVD, we learned in our weekly programming meeting that we needed to program a French Film Fest. Amelie was available, and unanimously chosen as our centerpiece weekend movie over two nights. A new, goofy-looking Depardieu movie called The Closet was out (double entendre certainement intended). I thought it was a waste of an evening, but conceded and supported it for a one night only slot in exchange for getting Rififi booked as the first movie of the week, also for one night.
Rampant online piracy didn't exist at that point, nor did massive streaming network libraries. It was a microcosmic golden age in 35mm film exhibition. FSU had spent a ton of money the year before to build the 400-seat, stadium-format digital surround sound-enabled cinema. Previously, movies had screened in creaky, moldy old Moore Auditorium over in the Student Union. This was the most ambitious week of programming yet since the move to "SLB".
The big night for Rififi was sparsely attended relative to the size of the house, with maybe 70 or 80 people per show. Small an audience as each was, I sat in with them both. Their vocal reactions indicated the old movie still had it, from gasps in the still brilliant heist section to laughter and chuckling throughout. For those 150 or so people that night, they had discovered something. Qualitatively, it was a raging success, but attendance was king, and attendance had no clothes. I got bonus points from the boss because he really loved the film once he saw it, but the way he justified our budget to the university was butts in seats. Depardieu did a bit better than my "the hell is Ri-foo-foo?" movie, but not stellar. We expected they wouldn't fill the house, but a 20-25% full 400-seat cinema really feels underwhelming.
The truly amazing thing about working and and running that theatre in one aspect or another is overhearing what people say in the lobby. What I never expected, going into that week, was what I would overhear over the two nights of Amelie.
Everyone cooed and repeated lines upon exiting, or did bad jobs misremembering what a friend's friend told them about it while waiting to be let in for their screenings. This is what college kids did when trying to appear smart, attractive, or sophisticated (or all three) to their friends in the age before smartphones. What I didn't expect was that I would recognize so many people.
These undergrads weren't friends of mine or in my classes, but rather, repeat customers from the night we'd shown Rififi. Snippets of conversation I heard that weekend are still with me today:
"They had this really great movie on Wednesday, it was like, this Ocean's Eleven movie but like, way better and with less bullshit."
"This one was good, but I saw it already. I mean, it's ok, but the jewel thief one with the weird name wasn't all 'look at me, I'm so fuckin cute' and shit."
wearing a beret, red lipstick, and Audrey Hepburn pants: "Did you see [massive overpronounciation for effect] Rififi the other day? I love allll of [forced French accenting of an American's name] Jules Dass-enn's films, he's my favorite director"
I miss those days: evenings of screenings, sprockets, and loose conversation. Amelie's massive numbers made the whole week a screaming success in retrospect, and paved the way for crazy ideas I had with co-conspirators like counter-programming Iron Monkey on Valentine's Day.