Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ninotchka in New York

'Ninotchka' was on tv the other night. I first saw the Ernst Lubitsch film 'Ninotchka' during my first summer in New York, the summer of 1992. I was a student in Pratt Institute's MFA program, and as such, I enjoyed the benefits of membership to the Museum of Modern Art, the chief benefit being free admission whenever the museum was open.

So on hot summer days it was great, one of the cheapest ways to enjoy air conditioning -- the price of a couple subway tokens and a slice for lunch. Besides the Matisses, Pollocks, de Koonings, Cezannes, Seurats, Picassos, Mondrians, and the rest, The Modern also has movies. Free movies for money-challenged grad student. An even better way to escape the summer heat.

I found myself at the Modern one afternoon when 'Ninotchka' was playing. I knew nothing about it. I'd heard of Greta Garbo, at least, but had never seen one of her movies. The blurb in the museum guide said this was the one where 'Garbo laughs!' Good enough for me. I found a seat in the auditorium, which was filling with a mix of older movie fans and young students like me.

First things first, I loved the movie for the same reasons everybody does -- funny, sophisticated, satirical, elegant, sparkling. And then there's Garbo. What I really remember most clearly about watching it that first time, was not the movie, but the reaction of the moviegoers when Garbo came on screen for the first time. The three Soviet envoys are at the train station in Paris looking for the new emissary from the USSR. They expect a man. But it is Greta Garbo. She stands stiffly, in drab Soviet clothes, with a plain hat, but of course the camera holds on her for a couple beats, a shot of her stern but luminous face. And the New York crowd applauds. Long and hard, the crowd applauds. For an actress in a movie! An actress who's dead! (An actress, it must be said, who was a New Yorker herself.) And the crowd applauds as if this is the Zeigfeld Theatre and we have Garbo up on stage alive and in the flesh and doing a buck and wing. Well, I've never forgotten that moment to this day. New York is a lot of things, one of which is a pretty damn serious movie town.

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