I'm back from the Film Critic Institute sponsored by the New York Times Foundation and the Museum of the Moving Image. It was five days packed with panels, screenings, discussions, and homework. Every single bit of it was enthralling, thrilling, dazzling, and inspiring. I feel like I've been plugged into plugged into a super-duper recharger and at the same time being given a powerful new pair of glasses while someone has floored my gas pedal. Everyone -- presenters, organizers, and participants were all so smart and honorable and knowledgeable and dedicated. I felt like Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham" talking about his time in "the Show" where all the practice balls are white and all the women have long legs and money.
Just to give you an idea, our last day included a presentation by Mark Urman of ThinkFilm (very funny, very smart, very honest) and two hours with Martin Scorsese, prompting one of the participants to say, "If movies are our religion, we just met the pope."
It wasn't because he was a celebrity or even because he is a great director. It was because we had just spent two hours with perhaps the greatest and most knowledgeable lover of movies who has ever lived. I am quite certain he would happily still be talking to us if we had not somehow found the fortitude to let him go. He talked to us with great passion about movies he loves, from the very first films he saw ("Forbidden Planet" got only two stars!) to his grail-like search for the definitive prints of "Tales of Hoffman" and "Once Upon a Time in the West." And the experience of showing "Charlotte's Web" at his seven-year old's birthday party. (She has recently moved beyond her affection for "High School Musical," he was relieved to report.) His office is filled with Italian movie posters (the Italian posters for American movies are stunning) and he has beautiful, leather-bound volumes with the names of his movies, I imagine his annotated scripts. The two posters behind his desk are from movies about Hollywood -- "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Sunset Boulevard." He has a photo of the big four -- himself with Lucas, Spielberg, and Coppola -- the night he won the Oscar. He talked about some of his movies and how he approached them and some of what went into making them. One of the problems created by computer editing is that the old-fashioned way, with physical cutting and pasting -- gave him time to walk around and think between edits. He almost made a movie based on the real-life story behind "Moby Dick," but then he said, "Me, on a boat? I can't do that!" Now he is working on documentaries about British film and about the Rolling Stones. And he said that when he is in the office he has Turner Classic Movies on all the time and will constantly interrupt whatever he's doing to have everyone watch, "This movie isn't very good, but this one shot is incredible. You have to come see it!"
Just outside his office is where his long-time editor and close collaborator, three-time Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker, has all of her equipment. We sat in her office and she showed us some of the scenes she worked on (the famous no-edits entrance into the Copa in "Goodfellas," the plane crash in "The Aviator," several of the boxing matches in "Raging Bull") and talked us through the choices. There are elephant sounds in those boxing scenes! One of the other Institute participants told her how he had seen her late husband, the great British director Michael Powell, at one of his last appearances, at a screening of "Peeping Tom," and she told us she was there and how much it meant to him to see how enthusiastically the film was received by the audience.
We were all a little gobsmacked. So I don't think we were able to get the most out of our last stop, an art gallery with an exhibit drawing a connection between early cubism and early movies, though we did love the installation, which included a small screening space designed to look like a tiny Parisian theater from around 1906. Then some of us went to a rehearsal of "Passio," a beautiful choral piece by Arvo Part accompanying a film assemblage, clips from very old medical footage (some quite disturbing) and other oddities.