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Classic films harken back to Buffalo’s first art theaters

No. Orson Welles didn’t stop making films after “Citizen Kane.” Thanks to a promise the new management of the North Park Theatre is keeping, one of his best ever – “Chimes at Midnight” – is currently playing.

So consider the terrific book “My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles.”

In Peter Biskind’s introduction, we learn that according to Jaglom, Welles would eat a perfectly civilized piece of Los Angeles fish accompanied by a bottle of Perrier at lunch.

And then, according to Jaglom, by the middle of the night, “he was going back to the hotel, waking up the chef and ordering four steaks and seven baked potatoes.”

That was in the early ’80s, toward the end of his life. By the mid-1960s, Welles hadn’t quite yet “ballooned to the size of a baby elephant” in Biskind’s words, but he was still huge. A hunger for steaks and baked potatoes, after all, was hardly a new development in his life.

Hungers of many sorts, along with genius, were Welles’ life companions.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Shakespeare’s Falstaff – one of the greatest roles in English theater – didn’t have to be chosen for performance by Welles when the role so clearly chose him. You might say it would have been a crime against all theater – art itself – if he had never played Falstaff.

He did in the Welles movie some Wellesians actually think his greatest film – his greatest after “Citzen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” (“Touch of Evil” is a complex discussion for another time.)

The movie is generally called “Chimes at Midnight.” To David Thomson, it is “a masterpiece in which some of his modern carelessness – sound issues, continuity and so on – are easily eclipsed by emotional intensity. … Orson is Falstaff. He is the fat boozy magician who has lost his touch.”

Pauline Kael was characteristically blunt about audience problems with the film shortly after it came out, but revered it anyway: “One of Orson Welles’ best and least seen movies. It is damaged by technical problems resulting from lack of funds, and during the first 20 minutes viewers may want to walk out, because although Shakespeare’s words on the soundtrack are intelligible, the sound doesn’t match the images, and often we can’t be sure who is supposed to be talking. But then despite everything … the movie begins to be great.”

It was Welles’ way of melding the Shakespeare plays where Falstaff appears – Henry IV, Henry V, Richard II, the Merry Wives of Windsor.

“A near-masterpiece,” Kael called it. Its battle scene is “the most brutally somber battle scene ever filmed.”

When it first came out, Kael’s sometime nemesis Andrew Sarris quoted an unknown wag to the effect that the film’s way of dubbing Shakespearian declamations into the mouths of European actors like Marina Vlady, deserved to have it nicknamed “Singin’ in the Reign.”

That was all decades ago.

The reputation of “Chimes at Midnight” has, if anything, risen over the years. It is now huge. It is playing at the North Park through Thursday along with the film “High-Rise.”

That is something a little new in the Buffalo art film landscape – genuinely classic films that are shown in weeklong matinees. It was something the new management always promised to bring back, and so they have to a wonderful degree.

Last week, the theater showed David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” for an entire week.

Said Ray Barker, who programs the theater: “We enjoy bringing films from the world’s greatest directors to Buffalo. ‘Blue Velvet’ came because we love David Lynch. ‘Contempt’ came last August because we love Jean-Luc Godard.”

To be shown Monday will also be Jacque Demy’s “The Young Girls of Rochefort.” That comes to the North Park for one night under the auspices of the wonderful new presenting group, the Cultivate Cinema Circle. That group also will bring to Buffalo single showings of Mark Cousins’ experimental nuclear documentary for the BBC, “Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise” (that will be at Burning Books Wednesday) and Werner Herzog’s documentary on the internet (yes, you read that right) “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” (back at the North Park on June 13.)

The circle’s committed and creative film programming is going to expand to the Amherst Theatre in July, said the Circle’s Jordan Smith.

Those films from the Cultivate Cinema Circle, though, are one-night stands, which had been the best way to see such unusual and classic repertory films – as in Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian’s series at the Amherst.

Showing truly classic films, though, in weeklong engagements is something new in Buffalo’s film-viewing life, which depended on the 21st-century renovation and revival of the North Park.

It’s so new, in fact, that it’s very old – so much so that it goes back to Buffalo’s first art theaters, the Cinema Theater on Main Street, Fred Keller’s Circle Art Theaters on Connecticut Street and Kensington Avenue and the original Amherst with its one screen in the University Plaza where three screens are now.

That is where I saw Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” when it first came out in 1957.

How great is it to live in a city where some of the best film programming in town is happening in the same places where some of the first art film programming happened?

And now, in addition, another independent theater is so dedicated to the art of film that it will bring masterpieces by Orson Welles and David Lynch for a week?

My view?