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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

I am a part-time projectionist at the Pickford Film Center—it’s likely you know that already. I mention it often enough. I’ve been at it a long time—in fact, as I type this, it is my 19th anniversary, not of my first day there, but of my second, which also happens to be the most infamous day of my Pickford tenure.

The movie was Sexy Beast, a gangster flick staring Ben Kingsley at his finest. Or so I’m told. I can’t bring myself to watch it after what happened.

I was manning the Pickford’s ticket booth when I heard a litany of swearing from my manager in the tiny projection booth behind me. This was before the days of digital when we still ran 35mm on a Century projector that was, in fact, nearly 100 years old (as its name suggests). The projector was not the problem—despite its advanced age, that thing was a workhorse. Instead something had gone wrong, terribly wrong, with the motor of the platter system we used to feed the film through the projector and when I entered the booth to see what had prompted the profanity, I was greeted with a most unusual sight: The entire film, all 88 minutes of it (plus trailers), was on the floor in a tangled mess of celluloid.

Needless to say, that’s not supposed to happen.

What comes next is fairly boring. For the next six hours, that manager and I, along with another projectionist that was called in, sat in the cramped, booth as the temperature soared to 80-plus degrees, and carefully hand-wound literal miles of film as quickly as we could manage without doing damage to the delicate celluloid. Because we could not reach the CD player to change the music without stepping on a length of film, the same Beatles album played over and over, forever tarnishing my feelings about the Fab Four.

It was a mishap so strange and dramatic it has become the benchmark against which all other mishaps have been measured for nearly 20 years.

Until now, that is. It’s safe to say the Great Sexy Beast Calamity of 2001 has been surpassed by the Great COVID-19 Calamity of 2020. It has been five months since I’ve been inside the Pickford, much less fired up projectors, popped popcorn, chatted with patrons or joked with volunteers. For a theater that’s been open more than two decades and a staff conditioned to work 365 days a year, five months of inaction is a very long haul.

But we’re committed to seeing it through and coming out the other side changed, but intact.

More importantly, we’re still showing movies, albeit virtually.

I’ve written about the Pickford’s virtual cinema before, and for those of you who are 1. bored and spending a lot of time at home and 2. looking for a means by which to continue your support of independent cinema and the theaters that give it a home, it may interest you to know that half of the proceeds from virtual cinema rentals go toward keeping us alive until our triumphant Phase 3 return.

Of course, the Pickford isn’t the only excellent nonprofit indie theater around. Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Theatre is also in an identical situation, so the following movie selections are for films that can be found in both virtual screening rooms. Support the Pickford tonight, support the Lincoln tomorrow—feel free to spread your love around.

Take a break from the 20-ring circus that is national politics in a presidential election year to focus on contests on a more grassroots local level with Represent, a documentary that follows three races on both sides of the aisle in three different areas of the Midwest. The one thing all the races have in common: the first-time candidates are all women in a political system in which gender parity is a pipe dream at every level. Watch as they engage with their communities, navigate the entrenched political machines in their regions, and encounter obstacles unique to women in politics.

I became a card-carrying member of the ACLU the day after the 2016 presidential election (the same day I also subscribed to the New York Times and set up monthly donations to both Planned Parenthood and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in what was quite possibly the most prescient moment of my life) and, as such, have keen interest in the Kerry Washington-produced The Fight. The documentary details four cases in which the ACLU takes on the Trump administration in the areas of immigrant rights, bodily autonomy, citizenship and the census, and transgender rights in the military. Not just a piece of boosterism for the nation’s foremost protector of civil liberties, it’s a nuanced look at how the ACLU chooses and builds cases—complete with a real-time reveal of a Supreme Court decision in which the buildup of suspense rivals that of any fictional court thriller.

Perhaps you are well and truly sick of politics as a whole—no one blames you for wanting to escape our long national nightmare, if only for a movie’s runtime. In my wholly biased opinion, the best way to do so (other than a Coen Brothers film, which is my ultimate form of cinematic escape) is with music docs. Luckily, both virtual screening rooms offer a trio of them on a range of highly entertaining subjects.

When the Pickford booked Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind for the 2019 iteration of its annual documentary film festival Doctober, I knew little about the Canadian singer/songwriter other than the beginning of the doc’s title song. Sold-out crowds of devoted Lightfoot fans convinced me there was more to the musician than just his status in my mind as an easy-listening crooner, and this hugely entertaining film only reinforced that. The movie’s directors enjoyed unprecedented access to the singer, tracing his life from Christian choirboy to his substance-fueled 1970s peak to the present day, with commentary from such musical luminaries as Randy Bachman and Steve Earle to round things out.

If it’s a concert film you’re after, I’ve got one for you—and it’s the coolest throwback jam ever. Jazz on a Summer’s Day dates back to the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and if your brain is now frantically conjuring up the names of jazz greats from that area, rest assured they’re all accounted for here. Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Chuck Berry (also the subject of a forthcoming documentary that will begin screening in September), Dinah Washington, and more all performed at the historic event before the inimitable Mahalia Jackson brought down the house with her rendition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Lastly, it wouldn’t be a roundup of music docs without things getting a bit messy. And for that we turn to Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine. The title pretty well says it all—and yet barely scratches the surface at the same time. The scrappy-zine-turned-cultural-powerhouse coined the term “punk rock,” helped launch the careers of everyone from David Bowie and Blondie to Iggy Pop and Parliament-Funkadelic and will forever be remembered as the vehicle by which “America’s Greatest Rock Critic” Lester Bangs became music writing’s enfant terrible. The documentary features a host of rock royalty paying homage to the magazine that makes Rolling Stone look like an establishment rag.

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