Programmer Elliot Lavine’s two-fisted approach to classics on the big screen

What's old is bold: Lavine's screen series is bringing famous and obscure gems back to life.

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Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Gene Wilder, and Teri Garr in “Young Frankenstein.”

Savvy Portland filmgoers should recognize the name Elliot Lavine, even if they haven’t seen it much since the before times. After spending decades in the Bay Area, teaching film classes at Stanford and San Francisco State, and helping to program the venerable Roxie Theater, Lavine moved to Oregon in 2017 and immediately set about spreading his love for, and knowledge of, movie history up here. He taught a number of classes through Oregon State University, held at Cinema 21, and inaugurated a local edition of his annual film noir festival, “I Wake Up Dreaming.”

In March 2020, Lavine was about to launch a curated four-film festival called “The Future Is Now” at the Hollywood Theatre, and then, days after the first screening in the series—well, you-know-what happened. With theaters shut down throughout the next year, you might think Lavine was just twiddling his thumbs, but in fact, as the education world adapted to distance learning, he was busier than ever, teaching online classes to, now, global audiences. I asked him whether he thought this would be a “new normal” in the world of film studies, and he replied, “The short answer is ‘yes.’ The longer answer is ‘definitely, yes.’” Students, he says, quite enjoy watching the film under discussion up to a week in advance, and having access to essays and other information prior to the class discussion. The drawback, of course, is that they don’t get to see the films in a theatrical environment, but nonetheless the remote method has been “very highly effective,” according to Levine. “I wasn’t exactly thrilled whether this would work at all, but it did. It worked great.”

Now that both the Hollywood and Cinema 21 have returned to normal schedules (vaccinations required, of course), Lavine has emerged to finish what he started. He’s kicking off a regular monthly series of classic films at Cinema 21 with the seasonally apt Young Frankenstein on October 30. (“It was my wife’s idea,” confesses Lavine.) It’ll be followed by Philip Kaufman’s criminally underseen 1979 coming-of-age film The Wanderers in November, and the 1940 Barbara Stanwyck-Fred MacMurray classic Remember the Night, each of which is seasonally apt as well, for reasons that may not be apparent at first blush. The plan is, then, in 2022, to move toward a weekly schedule of gems presented in, one assumes, Cinema 21’s grand main auditorium.

Andy Griffith stars as a cynical entertainer-turned-politician in the totally irrelevant 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd.”

In addition, the Hollywood Theatre will host the belated resumption of “The Future Is Now,” which slathers Lavine’s lifelong love of noir with a thick veneer of topicality. “My own personal preference, with respect to movie-watching, lies in genre films. Before I was ever able to articulate that, as a kid, those were the movies I gravitated to.” Replacing The Manchurian Candidate in this re-do is the equally prescient political fable The Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith plays Donald Trump, sort of. Also on the agenda are the classic 1956 parable of either anti-Communism or anti-McCarthyism, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the revelatory 1966 Rock Hudson drama of hidden identities, Seconds, and 1951’s unheralded but fascinating Five, about the last five survivors of a nuclear holocaust.

“I first played Five at the Roxie, and it was a packed house because I played it on a double bill with Kiss Me Deadly,” the cult classic noir that “ends with a nuclear explosion. Five opens with a nuclear explosion.”

Despite the home-video and subsequent streaming “revolutions” in the way audiences consume cinematic content (I want to wash my hands after just typing that phrase), and the existential threat imposed on theaters by the pandemic, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the communal experience of watching classic films on the big screen. “It’s great to have this immediate access to things,” Lavine says, “but it became too easy for people to settle into their couch and not venture forth. That’s the trade-off. The whole idea of discovery is disappearing.”

But it’s not gone yet. Discussing Five, for instance, gets Lavine into evangelist mode: “I don’t know how much you know about [Five’s director] Arch Oboler, but he has a fascinating career, especially in radio. He did a series called Lights Out, sort of a radio version of The Twilight Zone. He made a handful of films, none of which are especially well-known, but Five is clearly the weirdest and the most unusual. Everything about it is crazy, but it’s impossible not to watch it.” Consider me sold.

In short, Lavine does not in the slightest regret his decision to relocate to the Pacific Northwest. “I feel doubly blessed to come to a city like Portland and have two theaters like Cinema 21 and the Hollywood to be involved with.” The feeling, it seems, is mutual.

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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