When it comes to watching movies, Richard Figge has certain rituals he likes to follow.
If he has a choice, he likes to see movies at The Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, Calif., or the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland. He arrives early enough to enjoy the previews. He usually chooses a seat pretty far back that allows a good view of both the screen and the audience, but if the theater has a balcony, he’d rather sit there. And, at the concession stand, he’s a popcorn-no-butter kind of guy.
“A whiff of fresh-popped popcorn, and I am transported to the Saturday matinees of my childhood in St. Paul, Minn.,” he says.
Figge, a retired Gingrich Professor of German at The College of Wooster, professional actor and member of the Screen Actors Guild, recently released “At Home in the Dark,” a collection of more than 160 movie reviews that he has written over the past 20 years. With the luxury of writing a column of movie reviews for the monthly newsletter at his church, St. James Episcopal, Figge watches numerous films and writes about the ones that he finds most interesting, delightful or challenging.
“I seem also to be drawn to the ones that receive mixed reviews, that elicit strong positive or negative opinions,” he says. “And writing the review is my own way of clarifying my own experience of the film.”
Although Figge enjoys all genres of movies, he says he tires quickly of films that are dominated by special effects, where real human emotions and stakes come up short. He loves versatile character actors and the directors Jean Renoir, Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson.
“In the age of DVDs and streaming, films are currently easy to view, and I wanted to share my enthusiasm for interesting films that are worth a second look or might have gone unnoticed by some on first release,” Figge says. “Readers have written to me that they copy out my reviews and save them as a guide so they can check the films out when they become available on DVD. Why not produce a useful guide?”
In addition to listing the movie’s principal credits (director, screenwriter, actors, cinematographer and editor), Figge’s reviews include some information about the plot to introduce themes and conflicts but they stop short of including spoilers.
“I don’t write (the movie reviews) by any particular formula but look instead for matters that intrigue me,” he says. “I often draw parallels to other films, directors and traditions where these might be interesting.
“These things, along with some background information, give readers a certain sense of ownership of the film and encourage them to enter into a discussion in which they make their own discoveries.”
Figge suggests that the best way to enjoy “At Home in the Dark” is to take a quick look at his review to see if the film looks interesting, and then make a closer examination once the film has been seen. “I am not thrusting my views on anyone,” he says. “I hope that my ideas may be a stimulus for further enjoyment and reflections.”
As for the title of the book, Figge says it was a long time coming.
“Nothing really clicked until I heard the phrase applied to film projectionists,” he says. “More important is the ambiguity of the title, since no one is quite sure of the future of film viewing. I am at home in the dark of the theater, but more and more viewing is being done at home via streaming and DVDs. If that becomes the norm, we will lose the collective and often revealing experience of movies in a theater.”
So what are Figge’s criteria for a good movie? He says a really good film takes him somewhere he hasn’t been before and makes new experiences or ways of looking at the world accessible.
“Great films crystallize and make memorable aspects of our experience as human beings,” he says. “And they provide unforgettable metaphors … Terrible and fateful decisions are forced on us, and we are compelled to act in ways that we would never choose.”
“At Home in the Dark” is published by The Wooster Book Company and can be ordered online at www.woosterbook.com. If you’d like to subscribe to Figge’s free email movie reviews, you can write to him at email@example.com.