' ' Cinema Romantico: Seeing My Favorite Movie on The Big Screen

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Seeing My Favorite Movie on The Big Screen

As it happens, this week – today, in fact – marks 15 years since I attended the Minneapolis wedding of my friends Becky and Eric, one of the great contemporary marital celebrations, with a Unity Gong in place of a Unity Candle and pizza served at midnight to settle our stomachs, in a manner of speaking. The next morning, bright and early, I set off in my Honda Civic, down Highway 61 and through my dad’s hometown of Red Wing, MN, beginning a two-day trek across half the country, through Indiana, along the backroads of Kentucky, plunging into the Tennessee Valley and then climbing back up into the Great Smoky Mountains, ending in Asheville, North Carolina where I spent the next few days exploring the filming sites of my favorite movie, “Last of the Mohicans” (1992), a road trip I had been dreaming of since at least whenever it was in the summer of 1993 I rented the first of Michael Mann’s four magnum opuses and had my nascent experience, which I only realized many years later, of a movie connecting to my un/subconsciousness. This journey would not have even been possible for a directionally challenged idiot like me were it not for a book published by a pair of fellow “Mohican” devotees laying out in precise, helpful detail where to go and how to get there, a book I can recommend for the person in your life who last year mourned the passing of Colonel Munro

Last of the Mohicans: opening titles [credit: me]

Despite being a movie I loved so much I went to see where it was filmed, however, I had never seen it the way it was filmed – that is, on film, in a theater, projected up to a big screen. I was 15 and car-less when “Last of the Mohicans” was released, not quite as into movies as I was about to become, and though there are occasionally repertory screenings of it in New York, there had never one in a place where I lived, not even Chicago. Until Monday, that is, when the Chicago Film Society (its noble mission: to show shit on film) hosted its first indoor screening since early 2020 at the Music Box Theatre, a screening of “Last of the Mohicans.” And after too many years spent inappropriately watching Mann’s opus on my parents’ old Sanyo, or the 13-inch Samsung in my college dorm, or even my laptop last April during the Pandemic’s early days when My Beautiful, Perspicacious Wife was working in the dining room but I had the day off and wanted to get lost in my favorite movie, I bought my ticket and went straight to the front row so the screen could properly overwhelm me. 

The screening was of a 35mm print the Chicago Film Society purchased off Ebay specifically because, given Mann’s tendency to tinker with his own movies post-release, it was the original theatrical cut rather than the Director’s Expanded Cut or the Director’s Definitive Edition. I have always preferred the theatrical cut, perhaps because it’s the one I fell in love with, renting it, recording it off some ABC Sunday Night broadcast, buying my own VHS copy. But it’s also my preferred cut because it contains the wry Daniel Day-Lewis one-liners (“We just dropped in to see how you boys is doin’”) eliminated in other versions, which joyfully heighten his character as a Saturday Matinee Hero, as does Clannad’s “I Will Find You”, laid out over the late-movie pursuit by our intrepid Mohicans of the Huron Indians from the falls to their village in the theatrical cut but then excised at discretion of the director. Maybe retroactively Mann thought a New Age tune had become, paradoxically, outmoded, but I have always liked that song there, functioning as a Hero’s Theme for Hawkeye as he scales cliff faces, and one could argue New Age is just right for a movie that ends looking east to west, toward America’s new age, for better and for worse and all that entails. 

In the end, though, the cut didn’t get me as much as, well, the movie itself. It wasn’t so much previously unnoticed details, like the water dripping from Day-Lewis’s hair when Hawkeye is advising Colonel Munro of the Huron war party, or even finally getting to see those ravishing close-ups in their intended gargantuan screen-filling manner, as it was the immersive, intense nature of the theatrical experience. There’s that line Cora has toward the end about the whole world being on fire, which I genuinely know now is not just a line but the feeling Mann evokes, from the earth-shaking cannon blasts to the literal thunder of the waterfalls to the music, my God, the music. When the title card came up and the Main Theme hit those familiar, famous notes and RATTLED the speakers, ENSCONCED the theater...Lord, I felt that in my bones. Movies now tend to confuse Epic with narrative, wide-reaching and interlocking, not rendering the genuine sensation of an Epic. Up there, on the big screen, the level of the sound design, the scope of the photography, the way Mann uses the tools of the medium to wordlessly tell the story and to impart emotion...that is Epic. 

The movie industry was already in flux before the Pandemic, of course, what with streaming’s ascent and the theatrical experience on some sort of wane. The issues, like all of them, are more complex than the social media warriors lobbing verbal grenades over digital trenches would make it seem and I grasp the differing viewpoints. I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town that was only a 20-minute drive from movie theaters, so I always had access to the big screen experience. But that didn’t mean we got every movie, not in those days, and I knew plenty of people who had to drive hours to see anything of consequence in a theater at all. The theatrical experience is not always readily available outside urban centers; streaming is a good thing. But the movie theater, that’s a good thing too, a special thing. I could appreciate “Last of the Mohicans” on a small screen, that goes without saying, but even if I have watched it dozens and dozens and dozens of times, at the Music Box, on Monday night, during the ambush scene, when Hawkeye helped Cora up and together they spirited off into the haze as the music swelled, I was holding my breath before I even realized I was doing it. 

That 35mm print was so old it was all scratched up, with a green line running down one side of the screen for a little awhile, but it still felt brand new. 

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