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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Nights At The New Bev

Just last week I was confessing that I didn't see "Jurassic Park" (1993) until a year after it was released - and that I finally saw it at the New Beverly Cinema. And this week, Sherman Torgan, owner & operator of the New Beverly died of a sudden heart attack during his regular bike ride in Santa Monica at the age of 63.

At first I thought it a noteworthy synchronicity, but then realized that I mention the New Beverly so frequently in talking about my Los Angeles past that, at any given time, mention of the theater is ever only a few blog posts away.

At the beginning of the month, I'd swing by the New Beverly to get a new schedule - usually parking illegally on Detroit - usually snatching up a couple extras just in case someone else I knew wanted one. Nobody ever did want one, but that never stopped me. Occasionally, the floor of my car would have a few months worth of old New Beverly schedules strewn among the empty cigarette packs and unpaid parking tickets - tickets probably received near the New Beverly.

It was always exciting reading the schedule, circling all the movies you were planning on seeing - ignoring the fact that you were likely to get to a bare handful of them. But it was great to know that you COULD see them, if you wanted to - or that, if not you, at least someone was seeing them.

One of the great joys of my life has been attending movies by myself. It hasn't always been voluntary. It's not as easy to get people to come out to a screening of "The Valley Of Gwangi" (1969) as you would think. I have spent many nights alone at the New Beverly, and can still recall that calm clear joy of leaving the theater anonymously, strolling through the dark to my car, probably parked on Detroit, driving home with my mind blown my some cinematic revelation.

So many times, the New Beverly gave me "the first time I saw..." The first time I saw "Jurassic Park", of course - let's not mention that again - and the first time I saw "The 400 Blows" (1959) and "Hard Boiled" (1992) and "Mystery Train" (1989) and "Cremaster 1 & 2" (1996 & 1997) and "Audition" and "Chungking Express" (1994) and "Until The End Of The World" (1991) and "Aguirre: The Wrath Of God" (1972) and "The Lady Eve" (1941) ... and, of course, and very appropriately too, the "Kill Bills" (2003 & 2004).

But one of the great treats the New Bev offered was seeing again, and again and again, all those movies that I loved, packing buttered popcorn and a diet coke on top of a belly full of El Coyote.

I once saw "Lawrence Of Arabia" (1962) at the New Beverly - which baffled my friends at the time. Why watch the quintessential widescreen movie in such an obviously inferior viewing space. Why? Because you have to jump at every opportunity to see "L of A" projected. And seeing "L of A" projected, even at the New Beverly, via a chewed-up print, was still an experience light years ahead of seeing it on my big screen tv.

I saw "Picnic At Hanging Rock" (1975), which bowled me over when I first saw it at school years previously - and was ecstatic to find that the movie was even better than I had remembered.

I saw "The Hunger" (1983) for like the thousandth time - which is, you know ... well, it is what it is. It's Tony Scott's best movie, you know.

I - with every other cineaste in Los Angeles - lamented the physical state of the New Beverly. There was that famous soft drink stain in the middle of the screen. And though I never actually saw a rat or a cockroach, I believed in them. I believed they were there - watching. Time and again, my friends and I would have the conversation: "A bunch of filmmakers should get together to renovate the New Beverly. As a service to the filmmaking and filmgoing community. A new screen and sound system and new projector or two? Why, it's chump change to some of these guys!", etc. And I certainly was not the only guy in Hollywood who imagined including the New Beverly in his Oscar acceptance gratitude list, or fantasized that he'd renovate it with money out of his own pocket with state of the art equipment and subsidize ticket sales too so that they were actually cheaper than their already ridiculously low $6 double feature.

Oh, well.

Most industry support seemed to fall in the direction of the Aero Theatre, because - let's face it - it was in Santa Monica. And though I do appreciate the Aero's helping to widen the net of the American Cinematheque, how many times a year can you really watch "Manhattan" and "Sunset Blvd"?

Sherman's family has closed the New Beverly Cinema until further notice. I've lived in London since last fall, and am likely to be here for some time, so the future state of the New Beverly won't affect my day-to-day experience much. But I hope Sherman Torgan's New Beverly will remain with us. It was his New Beverly, wasn't it?

I saw Sherman repeatedly on the other side of the glass, rarely said more than "One, please" to him. What a profound and long-lasting effect this man I never spoke to had on me and on virtually ever other serious filmmaker east of Sepulveda. I said it before, and I'll say it again, Sherman's death really is a significant landmark in L.A. cinema - and for, I would argue, cinema around the world.

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