Extra Large Popcorn, Please: The Film Forum’s “Return of the Double Feature”

Originating as a practical means to ensure financial solvency, the “double feature” may now serve a more profound aesthetic purpose.

The Film Forum in New York City is hosting a festival dubbed “The Return of the Double Feature” from 19 August to 13 September. Many of the pairings are director based. The festival opens with two Hitchcock films, both starring James Stewart: Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954). It includes pairs of films by Godard, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Altman, Murnau, Buñuel, Malick, Chaplin, and Resnais. The festival also pairs certain films according to actor: Gene Tierney, Humphrey Bogart, Ruth Gordon, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, and Carey Grant all get pairs of films. Other pairings are based on genre or theme.

Like so many cultural innovations in the United States, the double feature was founded on the perfect mixture of necessity and greed at the nexus between the producers and the middlemen relaying the products to consumers. The necessity was experienced by the movie theater owners in the era of the Great Depression. It was the Hollywood studio system that exploited this desperate business tactic to further augment their coffers. But then, like many cultural innovations, what started as a business ploy opened up the possibility for a new aesthetic experience.

By the ‘20s, going to see a film in a movie theater was a full evening’s entertainment. There were often live acts prior to the whirring of the projector. Then there could be an animated short film, one or several comedic shorts, a newsreel, and sometimes a travelogue and/or a musical short, along with the feature film. All of this was at the discretion and the choosing of the cinema owner.

The Great Depression brought new pressures to bear on cinema owners. While to the modern imagination, the plethora of entertainment offered by the ‘20s movie-going experience is almost unimaginable, cultural outlets in general were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in the ‘30s. This was a particularly difficult time for theaters showing stage plays and operas. It was a boon for radio (a new and affordable mode of entertainment in that you pay once for the device but not at all for the content). Indeed, the radio program Amos ‘n’ Andy was so popular that department stores stopped all business for the fifteen minutes the program was on so they could pipe it in for customers.

Cinema owners needed new ways to entice customers to patronize their establishments and many of them turned to the double feature: two feature-length films for the price of one. Of course this shifted the entire model of the movie-going experience. It became far more common to show trailers to entice further patronage for later shows. The newsreel and cartoon remained. However, much of the rest of the entertainment was cut to leave room for the second feature. Generally, the shorter items were shown first, then the first film (the B film), then a short intermission, followed by the main feature (the A film).

Disappointingly what soon emerged as standard business practice was a removal of the particular approach to these entertainments by different cinema owners. The Hollywood studio machine took full control by selling “packages” complete with all of the components. This was known as “block booking”. The short comedic films greatly suffered. The bigger names in such comedies, like Laurel and Hardy, began making full-length feature films. Often, something precious got lost in the translation to the longer formats.

In 1948, block booking was deemed illegal by a Supreme Court decision in “United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.” Many smaller theaters and especially drive-in theaters maintained the practice, but it was on the wane. By the ‘60s the double feature was almost the sole province of the drive-in and even then owners were increasingly receiving complaints about the choices of the pairings and the lengths of the overall programs, leading some cinema owners to cut the films in egregious ways.

With the removal of the studio packages, those cinema owners still providing double features began exploring less arbitrary and more justified pairings of films. The double feature became a special element of movie houses concentrating on the presentation of classic and art films. And this is where an aesthetics of the double feature emerges.

Theodor Adorno wrote that “each artwork is the mortal enemy of the other” (Aesthetic Theory, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, 35) and I believe this applies to the best films as well (although Adorno once claimed that seeing films always left him less intelligent than he was before — I shudder to think what that says about me). A film, a good film, presents its own universe, with its own set of projected possibilities, its own frame of logic. (There is an exception to be made for sequels but that is another conversation — and one worth having.) To inhabit a good film (which is what films ask of us) is to disavow one’s connection with our world and with the worlds proffered by other films.

Moreover, as Adorno would have it, all artworks have a critical function: they carve out a space for themselves by critically engaging the artworks of the past. In Adorno’s memorable phrase each artwork sets out from the “scars” other artworks left behind for these are “the loci at which the preceding works misfired.” One can see this especially clearly when looking at a single artist’s oeuvre.

Examples proliferate but let’s take a favorite of mine. I would argue that Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), that beautiful, eviscerated torso (Welles’s full version was never screened, no copy survives) picks up from a “blind spot” in Citizen Kane (1941) and “corrects” it. Kane suffers because of his own grandiosity, his ego, his claim to power, his certitude that he is right beyond any social notion of good and evil. Yes, Kane falls, but he is the author of his own collapse.

The Magnificent Ambersons presents a very different view of hubris and its costs. George is spoiled, self-righteous, and imperturbably certain that his way is the only proper way to live. He is a callow version of Kane. But his character is laid low by a series of petty happenstances: a misplaced will, an ill-suited occupation (chosen out of financial exigence), an unfortunate accident. They aren’t petty to him, of course, but they are common enough occurrences. They happen to anyone.

Kane is monumental. The camera constantly reminds us of this as Kane towers over us even when his character suffers reversals: think of the marvelous post-election conversation between Kane and Jedediah (played by Joseph Cotton). The only time Kane is set in relief is in the famous mirror shot—but then he is dwarfed only by his own reflection.

Now think of George and the scene when his spinster Aunt (hauntingly portrayed by Agnes Moorehead) towers over him on the staircase, insisting that she leave his mother alone. She is the one that manipulated George into interfering with his mother’s love life in the first place. She stands on the landing above him looking down like a puppet master looks at a marionette. But she now regrets having pulled his strings. She reveals that she too was caught up in petty jealousy owing to petty circumstance.

The Magnificent Ambersons demonstrates, contrary to the worldview of Citizen Kane, that even outsized characters, figures larger than life (and certainly that’s what the Ambersons represent) are no Ancient Greek tragic heroes. They do not fall on their own swords. Life isn’t that simple; it isn’t that artificial. Life visits its paltry revenges on the proud and the humble alike. For all of the manufactured grace of the Ambersons and their world, the film shows that “comeuppance” does not arrive as the price of hubris, it arrives for us all as the wages of life itself. And it doesn’t manifest itself on the public stage in the ultimate sense, even if all the world is watching. We all experience our comeuppance quietly alone.

I think my favourite pairing of “The Return of the Double Feature” may be Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist The Bicycle Thief (1948) with Tim Burton’s bizarre Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)–talk about films that ought to be mortal enemies! And yet: there are obvious parallels. Both films explore the consequences of a stolen bicycle, a bicycle on which the protagonist depends for his livelihood or his sense of identity. Perhaps the parallels go deeper still. Perhaps what is revealed in both films is the absurdity of our reliance upon mechanical means of conveyance as an indicator of our value in society, the absurdity in binding our sense of self to what is essentially a rotary extension of our feet (the wink at McLuhan is intended). Perhaps the blatant, exuberant inanity of Pee Wee reveals the darker, existentialist absurdity of de Sica’s film. Perhaps.

Sometimes the mortal enmity might surprise you. For instance, I had a surprising experience in watching Kubrick’s films The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957) back to back. I love both films—especially the former. I still remember the first time I saw it and I have revisited it multiple times since. But seeing it in conjunction with Paths of Glory cast it in a slightly deleterious light. Both films have brilliant set pieces, unforgettable tableaux, and a sense of atmosphere that is difficult to articulate but leaves an indelible impression on the viewer. And yet The Killing, at least this time, next to Paths of Glory felt a bit tawdry, a bit trivial.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still enjoyed the film. In fact, I even enjoyed my questioning of a film I have never questioned but always merely enjoyed. That is the strange intellectual joy of the double feature, especially when they are both films you have seen before: you are in one sense simply viewing them again but in another, deeper sense you are seeing them anew. Each film becomes illuminated by the other—sometimes to the disadvantage (temporary, I’m sure) of one.

As one point of comparison, consider Timothy Carey, who plays relatively minor but vital roles in each film. Carey is an actor who always threatens to puncture the cohesion of a film, who seems willing to eradicate any semblance of a suspension of disbelief. Carey is the ultimate outlier. Sure, he was an advocate of “method” acting, but so were/are plenty of other actors and they don’t have the effect upon a film that he does. Carey almost always seems like he has wandered into a filmic universe via Mars. Somehow he always makes his characters work but they tear at the edges of a film narrative and threaten it with collapse. A good Carey performance reminds you that you are watching a construction (this is especially true in his Kubrick performances because those constructions are so keenly assembled) and that constructions can always fail.

Now both of these Kubrick films feature a fascinating Carey performance. But The Killing emphasizes his outlier status. He speaks a demented argot, the kind of speech the terminally unhip imagine the hip to speak. He moves awkwardly, his thoughts seem to arrive a minute or two later than he expects them to arrive. We are meant to see him as the oddball hired to do an oddball job.

In Paths of Glory he is not merely an outlier. He is the demonstration that in the extreme circumstances of the filmic narrative (where three soldiers are to be executed through no fault of their own), being chosen as a representative of the group forces you into the position of the outlier. His flagrant overacting in certain famous scenes does not detract from the film’s veneer but rather it shows what must be sacrificed by the army to retain its veneer. The film’s security of design becomes an analogy for the smooth functioning of the army and Carey represents the sacrificial lamb (an objectionable, bothersome, grotesque lamb) that ensures the stability of the fabrication. The utter humanity of Paths of Glory (on this viewing) trumps the staider vulgarity (as much as I love it on its own) of The Killing.

It can work the other way as well. I have always been befuddled by the admiration shown Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). I understand and recognize the brilliance of the cinematography: the forced perspective, the illumination of the sets, the complicated backgrounds. But the story itself has always left me cold. (Go ahead and vilify me—this is confessional for me; I am not proud of it and am open to counseling).

It all seems so preposterous, particularly for a tale that claims, in the opening titles, to represent something that often happens between a man and wife. He tries to kill her so he can run off with another woman, changes his mind in the midst of the attempt, she (understandably) freaks out and runs, he somehow persuades her to let it go within an hour, and they have a second honeymoon in the city. I was married once and know a lot of married people: it doesn’t usually go this way.

But watching the film again in conjunction with Nosferatu (1922), a film that fascinates me on innumerable levels, somehow redeemed the tearjerker. There is a moment in Sunrise that I have always believed to be a failure on Murnau’s part, despite the film’s numerous defenders. Shortly after their improbable reconciliation, the man and woman walk arm in arm across a busy city street, wading ever more deeply into traffic blithely unawares, until they finally create a scene of utter chaos.

The point is, of course, to show that these two lovers (who only moments ago were at the point of murder) are now so enraptured with each another that they are negligent with respect to their basic safety and ignorant of the world around them. The shot is clearly superimposed (sort of an early version of the green screen technique). Unlike much of the rest of the film, the seams here are showing.

Watching this film against Nosferatu, however, forces me to confront the Sunrise scene, which I have always thought lacking, with a scene in the horror movie that has always enchanted me: the one in which the vampire’s coffin moves of its own accord. This scene too has seams that show, owing to the jerky, stop-action manner in which it was shot. But the surreality of the narrative justifies the awkwardness of the filmic moment. Indeed, the bareness of the technique serves to heighten the eerie nature of the scene.

Returning to the maligned (by me, anyway) moment from Sunrise, I now find (thanks to the timely reminder from Nosferatu) a justification for the film that never occurred to me before: it too is a surreal experience. Despite its claims to the contrary, Sunrise does not portray a “song of two humans” relatable to our experience of the world. It is a bizarre, surreal exploration of the extremes of love. The woman tempting the man away from his marriage is openly portrayed as a vampiric character—that much will probably not inspire argument even from the most devoted of the film’s admirers.

More surprising, and yet, I feel, more to the point, the prolonged “second honeymoon” is equally an exploration of the outré, the eccentric, the bizarre. Even if we are moved to tears by their reconciliation, I seriously doubt any rational person would want a love similar to that shared by the two protagonists. It is too mercurial, too unfounded on any sense of stability. If it can recover from attempted murder with such celerity, couldn’t it just as easily revert to barbarism? Perhaps that is the point, or so watching this film with Nosferatu suggests: this is not the depiction of a reasonable marriage or even a truly human world. This is what the surreal looks like when packaged within the vestiges of the familiar, and after all, that gets rather close to the very definition of the uncanny.

Originating as a practical means to ensure financial solvency, the “double feature” may now serve a more profound aesthetic purpose. If films are bad neighbors, if they insist on their own view, then watching two films together will bring out some of the meaning tucked away within the fissures and cracks that the films themselves attempt to obscure.