Like so many others, the exhaustive weight of living and working in a pandemic has really been running me down, especially now that we’re close to the one-year mark of this tragic, seemingly endless moment in time. One of the most important pieces of advice that’s been said during this past year, however, is that in addition to taking care of each other, we need to take care of ourselves by focusing on our mental health and finding restorative, joyful things to help us keep pushing on. For me, those things are usually related to — surprise, surprise — film. Movies have always been a lifesaver for me, but it’s been particularly true these last 11 months (despite the IU Cinema-sized hole in my heart that I’ll continue to have while our doors remain closed).
While my tastes may be different than yours, I thought I’d share a handful of the most recent film-related things that have been making my life a little brighter lately in the hopes that they’ll bring a smile to your face, too — or at least encourage you to step away from reality for a minute and find something that makes you feel as good as this list makes me feel.
I’ll say it: I’m an idiot to have waited so long to dive into the filmography of Elaine May. I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t done so before. I’ve been an admirer of hers ever since I first saw clips of her and Mike Nichols’ comedy routines when Nichols passed away in 2014; I was further impressed when she promptly stole all her scenes with Walter Matthau in the anthology-like film California Suite. After watching her beguiling turn as a vampish actress in Carl Reiner’s directorial debut Enter Laughing last month, I rented May’s own directorial debut, A New Leaf, a cynical yet oddly sweet black comedy that further proved to me her underrated talent. After A New Leaf, I finally checked out my DVD copy of Luv, an eccentric 1967 movie that features May, Peter Falk, and Jack Lemmon as three miserable people who get tangled up in a screwy love triangle.
Although her filmography is painfully brief, I’ve still got a lot I need to see and I cannot wait to make 2021 the Year of Elaine May.
Burt Reynolds’ Conversations with…
The YouTube gods were smiling on me the day I randomly found episodes of Burt Reynolds’ Conversations with…, a TV program that only aired four episodes between 1991 and 1992. It’s a shame the show wasn’t more prolific because the two episodes I’ve seen were so endearing that they brought happy tears to my eyes. (Which is also probably indicative of the mental state I’m in, but still.) I knew from watching old clips of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that Burt Reynolds was a good interviewer, but Conversations with… warmly illustrates how close he was to so many stars from old Hollywood, as well as his obvious admiration for them.
The interview that really got me was the one with Jane Powell, June Allyson, Ginger Rogers, and, my personal queen, Esther Williams. There is nothing more precious than watching Allyson tear up as she tells Rogers how much she has always idolized her, and I can’t tell you how fun it was to hear the women jokingly chide Esther when Reynolds challenges her to give one-word responses to a list of names and chatty, opinionated Esther can’t help but say more than she’s supposed to.
Classic Disney animation and The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt
Reading for fun isn’t something I’ve been able to do for the longest time, but this year I’m determined to make my way through my numerous shelves of unread books, starting with one I just got for Christmas, Nathalia Holt’s The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History. Uncovering the labor, heartbreak, and triumphs of the women who helped change the studio into what it is today, Holt’s book is a must-have for any fan of Disney, animation, or film history in general. It’s been so eye-opening to discover how these generations of women struggled, adapted, and survived in a system that rarely gave them the credit they deserved.
I’ve also loved finishing a chapter and then rewatching the films that were discussed as I try to memorize all of the vital contributions that people like Mary Blair (Walt’s favorite artist), Retta Scott (the studio’s first female animator), Grace Huntington (who also set flying records in her spare time), and so many others made. None of the Disney films we know and love would be the same without these women and it’s high time we give them their due.
Movies that are 90 minutes or less
I don’t know about you, but these days, my brain can’t handle the film lengths it used to pre-pandemic, a fact that became all too horrifyingly real when I found myself fidgeting the other day while watching The Philadelphia Story. THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. A film I’ve loved for half of my life, a film that stars my holy trinity of Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart!
Because of my newly shortened attention span, movies that are less than an hour and a half have been a true blessing. One of the best things about the Golden Age of Hollywood is its embrace of short runtimes, which means I’ve been able to watch twice the amount of films I usually do without getting burnt out halfway through them. I’m also just a huge fan of economical storytelling and the wild plots that kind of storytelling often leads to, as exemplified by films like The Penguin Pool Murder (a new favorite of mine from 1932), Ernst Lubitsch confections like The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), the delightfully screwball I Married a Witch (1942), and the entirety of Mae West’s filmography (by the way, check out her collection on Criterion before it’s gone at the end of this month!).
Zoom fatigue is a very real thing, I know. But I’ve also found that virtual events have encouraged me to see films or conversations that I wouldn’t have attended in person. UCLA, for example, has had some interesting programs that I never could’ve checked out unless they were virtual, such as their recent Anna May Wong event where they screened The Toll of the Sea (1922) and some other materials in addition to a discussion with Wong’s niece, Anna Wong, and Michelle Krusiec, who played the groundbreaking actress in Ryan Murphy’s series Hollywood. Columbia University, meanwhile, will be holding their annual Kit Noir Festival online this March, which sounds so cool to a nerd like me. If film restoration is more your thing, check out Ohio State’s Cinema Revival: A Festival of Film Restoration, which will include a talk with IU’s Black Film Center/Archive director Terri Francis plus a discussion between Terri and former IU Cinema guest Ja’Tovia Gary.
There have also been IU Cinema events that I’ve taken chances on that I might not have if they were in-person, like Isabel Sandoval’s wonderful Jorgensen Program or Karyn Kusama and Alexandre O. Philippe’s fascinating conversation about Come and See (a film I have to admit I still haven’t watched — I just wanted to hear Kusama and Philippe talk and it was so worth it). Virtual programs are just a nice, low-stakes way to learn about new films or hear from unfamiliar filmmakers without leaving your house — and, especially in the case of IU Cinema, they’re often free! I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes because this is coming from an IU Cinema employee, but I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed all of the events that I’ve attended so far. The world won’t be right until I can sit in our theater again, but in the meantime I get to sit on my couch with a hot cup of coffee, watch compelling movies (I still think about Dead frequently), and listen to great people talk about their passion for film, all while still feeling connected to a community that I dearly miss.
You can look at our website to see what events are coming up in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room. If you’re even remotely curious about something, just go for it. I’m personally looking forward to The Donut King on March 25 and Mayor on April 27!
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.