Quick Takes: New Orleans Rep Scene Report

I’ve hit a dry spell with new releases lately.  Now that last year’s Awards Season holdovers and January’s Dumping Season genre trash have fallen off local marquees, there just isn’t that much out there for me.  I’d be in much better shape if I kept up with the annual sequels to ongoing franchises like Shazam, Creed, and John Wick, but I resent the idea that I need to do prerequisite homework before going to the movies, so I’m okay just letting them pass me by.  During this ritualistic dry spell that crops up before “Summer Blockbuster” season gets rolling mid-Spring, I find myself thinking a lot about cities like Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Chicago, and Toronto that aren’t nearly as reliant on the new release calendar for their moviegoing options.  These are cities with robust, flourishing repertory scenes where audiences seemingly get to see an older “new-to-you” title projected on the big screen every day of the week.  The New Orleans rep scene is much smaller & more scattered, to the point where it isn’t actually an organized scene at all.  You have to scrounge local listings on a weekly basis to find a couple disparate repertory titles worth getting excited about, something I become sharply aware of every time the new release calendar gets this consistently dull.  New Orleans rep screenings are out there, though, and they are easily accessible if you know where to look.

So, here are a few quick short-form reviews of the repertory screenings I happened to catch around the city over the past month, along with notes on where I found them.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

You can find the usual suspects of broad-appeal crowdpleaser rep screenings on a near-monthly basis—namely, Rocky Horror & The Room—but for the really good stuff you have to wait for annual festivals.  For instance, the upcoming Overlook Film Festival is about to bring legacy screenings of titles like Joe Dante’s Matinee, William Castle’s The Tingler, and David Cronenberg’s Dead Zone to both locations of The Prytania for one killer rep-friendly weekend we won’t see again until next Overlook.  This is happening less than a month after the most recent New Orleans French Film Festival (also staged at The Prytania) included Agnès Varda’s French New Wave classic Cléo from 5 to 7 in collaboration with the host venue’s weekly Classic Movie series.  That was also no fluke.  In the past, I’ve gotten to see French classics like Breathless, Children of the Paradise, Beauty and the Beast, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Mr. Klein, and The Nun for the first time on the big screen thanks to French Film Fest, when I’d usually have to seek that kind of artsy-fartsy fare on the Criterion Channel at home.  I’ve particularly become spoiled when it comes to Varda’s work, of which I’ve seen most of her titles that I’m familiar with (including personal favorites The Gleaners & I and Le Bonheur) for the first time at that exact venue.  In all honesty, I should have sought out Cléo from 5 to 7 a lot sooner, as it’s arguably her most iconic work, but I was convinced it would eventually play at the festival if I was patient enough . . . and the gamble paid off.

The titular Cleopatra is a young chanteuse enjoying mild notoriety for her yé-yé pop tunes in early-60s Paris.  She’s also a superstitious, narcissistic hypochondriac who’s awaiting potentially devastating news from a doctor who recently screened her for cancer.  The movie follows Cléo’s attempts to distract herself for the final two hours before those test results arrive, explaining through an observational character study how, in her mind, the anticipation is far worse than any news her doctor could deliver.  Incidentally, the film also doubles as a real-time tour of 1960s Paris, as Varda’s handheld, ground-level camera commits brazen acts of people-watching while Cléo cabs & busses from cafe to art studio to couturier.  As Cléo muses about how modeling new clothes is intoxicating and her free-spirit bestie muses the same about nude modeling for art students, that cinematic voyeurism becomes the main thematic thrust of the picture.  The camera casually observes the people of Paris.  The people of Paris intensely observe the fashionable Cléo, who in turn even more intensely observes her own reflection.  Even though not much actually happens in the film, I was thrilled by how much of its screen space was overwhelmed by reflections in mirrors & windowpanes.  Not only did those reflections underline its themes of self-obsession & strange gazes, but it also just looked cool, affording Varda even more room to chop up & alter her images from infinite angles. And just as I was putting that thought together, the movie “overhears” a café discussion of Cubism as an artform.  As always with these Varda screenings at French Film Fest, Cléo was an immensely rewarding trip to the theater, one that made me fondly remember its newfound superiority over Breathless in the most recent Sight & Sound rankings.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Besides sporadic festival offerings, the most obvious, consistent venues for rep screenings are the only venues where you can watch any movies in New Orleans proper: The Broad and The Prytania, which among them account for the only three full-time cinemas within city limits.  Luckily, they’re both well balanced & adventurous in their programming, squeezing in as a many freak-show arthouse screenings as they can between the Top Gun & Avatar behemoths that pay the bills.  Since they recently acquired the Canal Place venue, The Prytania has had more screens to play with than The Broad, so they have more room for regular repertory programming like their aforementioned Classic Movie series and their weirder, wilder Wildwood series on Thursday nights.  I check both theatres’ listings every Tuesday afternoon to survey the next week of showtimes, though, and they’ve both come through with plenty of great repertory screenings in recent months – from new-to-me genre relics like Ghost in the Shell & Calvaire to very strange, one-of-a-kind presentations of The Mothman Prophecies and Antonioni’s Blow-Up.  Even though their rep offerings are less frequent, The Broad accounts for about half of the screenings I actually make it to (not least of all because they’re a much shorter bus ride away from my house), and I very much appreciate that they make room for older titles on the few screens they have to play with.  In particular, they’ve been on a John Carpenter kick lately, screening 4K restorations of his genre-defining classics that happened to get past me in my video store youth, which is how I recently got to see both The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time on the big screen.

I would never place a Western-inspired prison siege movie above Carpenter’s supernatural horror classics as the director’s absolute best, but Assault on Precinct 13 does have a strong case as Carpenter’s absolute coolest.  Set in the vaguely defined war zone of “a Los Angeles ghetto”, this punk-era cops vs. gangsters shootout recalls much later, grimier genre pictures like Tenement, The Warriors, and Streets of Fire than it does the gruff, traditionalist John Wayne heroics that inspired it.  That said, Darwin Joston is doing a straight-up John Wayne impersonation as the laidback Death Row inmate Napoleon Wilson, who’s temporarily set free by his jailers to fire back at the ghoulish gangsters who relentlessly invade the titular police station where he is held captive.  His uneasy, sardonic friendship & romance with the officers he fights beside make Precinct a kind of unlikely hangout film in the tradition of the similarly violent-but-laidback Rio Bravo.  It’s Carpenter’s overbearing directorial style that makes it a classic in its own right, though, especially in the way he portrays the invading gangsters as no less mysterious & otherworldly than the ghosts that emerge from The Fog.  His halfway-closed police station setting is an eerie liminal space, and the morality of who’s in “the right” in the plot’s pigs vs. civilians warfare is just as unsettled.  I’ve gotten to see a lot of John Carpenter classics for the first time theatrically (including his actual career-best, The Thing, at The Prytania), and two things are always consistent among those screenings: his signature synth scores are electrifying in that full surround-sound environment, and no matter how great the movies are I always struggle to stay awake for their entirety.  In a perfect world, I’d love for the city’s somewhat regular John Carpenter rep screenings to play as matinees instead of cult-classic Midnighters, but as is I’ve gotten used to seeing them in my own liminal halfway dream state, re-running key scenes on Tubi as soon as I get home to make sure I didn’t actually sleep through something vital.  Given its real-world setting & premise, I didn’t expect Assault on Precinct 13 to fit so well into that eerie supernatural mold, but that’s apparently the John Carpenter touch.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

When things get really desperate, you can always leave the city for the suburbs, where there are multiple AMC Theaters waiting to dazzle you with “$5 Fan Favorite” rep screenings of crowd-pleasers like E.T., Jurassic Park, The Goonies and, presumably, even a few movies not produced by Steven Spielberg.  I happened to catch AMC at an opportune moment in recent weeks, when the Awards Season afterglow of the Oscars allowed for more variety on their schedule than usual.  In particular, AMC Elmwood included Ang Lee’s international wuxia hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on its recent Fan Favorites schedule, presumably inspired by Michele Yeoh’s Oscars Moment as the lead of the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once.  Movies like Crouching Tiger returning to the big screen for their victory laps (or, often enough, getting funded in the first place) are the major reason I consider the exhausting Oscars ritual an overall net good. They’re more of a useful marketing tool than they are a signifier of artistic quality, but they are useful.  Until now, I’ve only ever experienced Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an on-the-couch Blockbuster VHS rental, and it was wonderful to see its fantastic fight choreography play out on a larger canvas for the first time.

To my taste, the classy, buttoned-up version of martial arts cinema in Crouching Tiger is not nearly as exciting as the more playful, over-the-top actioners Michele Yeoh was making in her Hong Kong heyday.  Since The Heroic Trio is unlikely to ever make its way back to the suburban multiplex, however (despite a recent co-sign from The Criterion Collection, an actual signifier of good taste), I was ecstatic to watch Yeoh clang swords & hop rooftops in this Oscars-certified historical drama.  I can’t say that the will-they-won’t-they love story Yeoh shares with Chow Yun-Fat ever landed much emotional impact with me in the few times I’ve seen this film, nor do I pay much attention to the quiet nobility of their mission to find a rightful home for a 400-year-old sword.  I’m the kind of dipshit who prefers Pearl Chang’s low-rent, goofball version of wuxia acrobatics to the headier, classier oeuvre of King Hu, though, so it’s probably best that my personal taste is not dictating what gets screened around the city.  At its best, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a visual spectacle about the beauty of tactile fight choreography and wire work, and no matter how restrained the drama is between those fights (nor how mundane a theatrical venue the AMC can be), it’s impossible to deny the power of seeing those images big & loud for the first time.

-Brandon Ledet

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