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Saturday, September 07, 2013

Return to the Museum of the Moving Image: From "The Sopranos" to "Breaking Bad" (by way of "Rear Window")




                              G. B.

by Ken

Maybe if I'd had any idea it was there, I wouldn't have been so taken aback. But suddenly there I was, standing in front of the glass case, with a pair of headphones on listening to the audio of one of the exhibit video displays, and it slowly dawned on me that I was looking at The Book!

Tell me these things don't all fit together! It was just last week in TV Watch that I wrote about the book -- the fateful copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass inscribed so affectionately to Walter White by the late Gale Boetticher! For a while I thought it was just some sort of mockup or something. But I kept looking and gradually grasped that no, this was the actual book. Okay, it's possible that the Breaking Bad props department cooked up more than one copy to cover themselves when the book was shot in Walt's bathroom, where it produced one of the series' more dramatic moments. So maybe there was another copy, and perhaps even another, on display in other museums. But there was no doubt that this was the real thing.

And then the museum guard was tapping on the glass, signaling that there was only five minutes to closing. I hadn't really left myself much time for browsing. Mostly on Thursday I had just wanted to actually get out to Astoria (Queens), taking advantage of my Rosh Hashanah PTO day (God will just have to understand) to present my about-to-expire Groupon voucher for membership in the Museum of the Moving Image, comfortably situated in part of the old Kaufman-Astoria Studios complex (part of which has for some years once again been a working studio, probably New York City's premier TV and film production studio, where shows like Cosby and Seinfeld have been filmed).

The young woman at the desk cheerfully attended to the paperwork, and when I asked if I could make a reservation for Friday evening's screening of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, which I don't think I'd ever seen on a big screen, she did me one better: She produced an actual ticket, so when I made the return trip to Astoria from work last night, I could head straight to the theater.

I had meant to make the first trip on Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, when I could also have availed myself of the opportunity to see two of the last films in the summer series Fun City: New York in the Movies 1967-75,: Milos Forman's first American film, Taking Off (1971), and from the same year his countryman Ivan Passer's Born to Win. I don't think I'd ever seen Born to Win, but I sure had seen Taking Off, when it first came out, and as best I recall hated it. The museum description calls it "the sweetest of generation gap movies," but I remembered it as the hamfistedest of pseudo-parodies of '60s-'70s counterculture. But I didn't remember it as an especially New York movie, but the blurb recalled that it "was shot in and around New York during the summer of 1970," and that "the director discovered his 16-year-old star in Central Park hanging with the hippies around Bethesda Fountain." For all that New York-itude alone it might be worth another look.

Well, I didn't make it. And Sunday, when the series concluded with the classic Panic in Needle Park (also 1971) and Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975, which I remembered more fondly, I wasn't available. I had a walking tour in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge scheduled, which I wound up missing. The trip from Washington Heights took me an hour and three-quarters (complicated by weekend transit changes, which I thought I'd worked around cleverly, but turned out to be not so clever), and while I'd planned to allow a full two hours, I wound up compressing that to an hour and 35-40 minutes -- close but no cigar. My time management lately has sucked. Add the hour-and-three-quarters return trip, and it was one of my longer trips to nowhere.

So my Rosh Hashanah trek to Astoria represented a comeback of sorts. I hadn't left myself a lot of time to wander around the museum, though, which is how I wound up being caught short when I stumbled across the exhibit "From Mr. Chips to Scarface: Walter White's Transformation in Breaking Bad." That "startling transformation," the museum description says, "with costumes, props, selected scenes from the series, and behind-the-scenes footage." The costumes and props were on loan from Sony Pictures Television -- including, of course, The Book. The exhibit runs through October 27, so I will definitely have to get back. I see that I missed an evening with series creator and mastermind Vince Gilligan when the exhibit opened in late July. I would gladly have forked over the $12 member price.

Then again, the interviewing was done by Charlie Rose, and that I could live without. By coincidence, in my quick wandering through the museum, the first thing I encountered, which I watched for a while before finding out what the heck it was, was an exhibition called "Cut Up" (running through October 14): "From supercuts to mashups to remixes, Cut Up celebrates the practice of re-editing popular media to create new work, presenting contemporary videos by self-taught editors and emerging artists alongside landmarks of historic and genre-defining reappropriation." I had just sat down and watched for a while, and while most of the "cut-ups" I saw seemed to me more facile than clever, there was a hilariously surreal several minutes, called either "Charlie Rose, by Samuel Beckett" or vice versa and featuring Charlie Rose interviewing Charlie Rose, with interviewer Charlie asking pompously incoherent questions and interviewee Charlie providing mostly mute but even more incoherent replies. The short was credited to Charlie Rose as executive producer, but I had a feeling that was part of the cut-up piece.

Although nothing about the joint looked even vaguely familiar, this wasn't my first membership stint at the Museum of the Moving Image. I had joined way back when, when the museum screened the first two seasons of The Sopranos, which at the time was all there was, with Season 3 still in the works -- I'm guessing it was the summer of 2000. The schedule was intense: eight episodes a weekend, two in the morning and two in the afternoon both days. And since at the time I didn't have cable, let alone HBO, this was my first direct exposure to the series, which of course I'd been hearing about endlessly. And it played simply incredibly on the big screen. Since Seasons 1 and 2 of The Sopranos comprised 13 episodes each, the series must have filled three eight-episode weekends and overlapped into a fourth. It was one of my all-time great viewing experiences, and it was a great relief to me that I was able to rearrange my life circumstances so that I was able to watch Season 3 (and subsequent seasons), albeit on a mere 31-inch conventional CRT TV.

But again, these things come around. As I believe I also mentioned last week, I just replaced my Sopranos Season 1-3 VHS tapes and Season 4 DVDs with the complete-series DVDs, which I've just begin watching on my first-ever HDTV, bought shortly after my knee-replacement surgery in April -- as a reward of sorts for my old bedroom TV having conked out just a week or two before the surgery, so that I had no TV in the bedroom in the early weeks of convalescence. (Well, it sure got me out of bed! Like I can live without a TV.) It's not quite re-creating the experience of those first two seasons, but as I've written here frequently, every time I dip into The Sopranos, whether for a bloc of episodes or an isolated one or two, the show just keeps playing better. And on DVD on the 42-inch HDTV, it looks pretty darned fine too.

Oh yes, I had a swell time at Rear Window last night. The 35mm print looked kind of grainy to me, but it was a pleasure to be able to watch the unfolding of the ongoing minidramas staged in all the "rear windows" the Jimmy Stewart character is reduced to watching all day and most of the night during his confinement to a wheelchair with a broken leg. And memory impairment can be a blessing. It can't be that long since I watched the picture on DVD, but I mercifully remembered the later plot unfoldings sketchily enough that I was able to be caught up deliciously in the final build-up.

Ah yes, Miss Torso -- the most scenic of the "rear window" vistas viewed compulsively by shut-in photographer "Jeff" Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

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