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Movie Houses of Worship: NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image

By  · Published on July 7th, 2013

Movie Houses of Worship: NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, we have an entry suggestion from filmmaker Justin K. Staley. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

Museum of the Moving Image

Location: 35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, Queens, New York City

Opened: September 10, 1988

No. of screens: 2 (not including wall space used during exhibitions and installations)

Current first-run titles: none, but there is a preview screening and discussion of Fruitvale Station this Thursday

Repertory programming: Being a museum dedicated to the history of the moving image, obviously repertory programming is one of its priorities and main attractions. They are also really into the idea of seeing classics as they’re meant to be seen, on the big screen. This month’s “See It Big!” series focuses on The American Epic and includes today’s selections of The Grapes of Wrath and El Norte (in a couple weeks they’re showing Nashville, which I saw for the first time here years ago). There’s also a Wong Kar-Wai retrospective that kicks off this Friday with Chungking Express. The director will appear in person on August 10 for a screening of his latest, The Grandmaster. Next month they’ve got a J. Hoberman curation on New York in Film (one of my favorite areas of film studies), specifically from 1967 to 1975. That series begins August 10 (what a big day) with Francis Ford Coppola’s 1966 feature You’re a Big Boy Now and later includes a special showing of Superfly featuring an appearance from actress Sheila Frazier.

Special Events: As you can see in the above entry, many of the repertory screenings are events, as are special previews of brand new works. Filmmaker appearances are pretty standard at MoMI, or at least some sort of Q&A discussion with a curator, critic, performer, etc. Additionally the museum is home to such occasions as the Cinema Eye Honors, which is an annual award ceremony for the best in documentary film, and next month’s Rural Route Film Festival, a series devoted to “unique people and places outside of the bustle of the city.” There are other festivals held here (Justin reminded me of the Queens World Film Festival, which holds its opening night at the museum; he won the Best Narrative Short award for his movie Wyldflower in its first year) and, of course, since it’s a film museum there are tons of other film-related events and exhibitions and installations. And many are pretty hip, like the current “Cut Up” exhibition, which highlights such concepts as the supercut and the mash-up. This week is the start of a new exhibition called “Persol Magnificent Obsessions,” which looks at meticulous workmanship of individuals for specific films, like Johnny Depp’s research for his role as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka’s creations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Why I worship here: When I still lived in Brooklyn I tried to get up to MoMI as often as I could for any number of exhibitions and screenings, though it was a bit of a trek from where I resided. If only I’d had the convenience Justin has: “I’m born and raised in Queens and went to high school in Astoria (St. John’s Prep) only a few minutes away from where the Museum is located, so it’s a really special place for me. I currently work in post production as a dailies colorist and worked out of Kaufman Astoria Studios across the street from the Museum on a show called Next Caller (failed NBC pilot) a little over a year ago. The Museum screening and exhibits definitely gave me a refuge after a hard day’s work.”

Recent screening of note: Not recent, but the most important reason I ever had to visit MoMI was for 2011’s exhibition “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” which showcased his old shorts and artwork and props from Muppets and other Henson films and TV series. And I purposefully went on the day they were showing my favorite Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper (you get free admission to films with entry into the museum, though obviously some events’ tickets need to be reserved in advance). By the way, the museum recently announced they’re building a whole Henson gallery featuring a large donation of puppets, costumes and artifacts, which will open late next year. Justin, meanwhile, brought up to me a great series last month called “Coming of Age Comedies: The Summer Edition.” That included The Goonies, The Sandlot and Meatballs and was tied to a special preview of The Way, Way Back featuring a Q&A with directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and stars Liam James and Sam Rockwell.

Devotion to the concessions: If it’s still as it was when I was last there, no food or beverages are allowed in the screening spaces or main exhibition areas. There is a cafe, however, and some events have catered aspects. There is a new courtyard attached, which Justin says is good for “socializing before and after screenings,” maybe with a beer and snack.

Last word: It’s not noted enough above because those sections are devoted to film exhibition, but I have to stress that the Museum of the Moving Image is a must visit for any movie fans living in or traveling to the New York area. Aside from being a place to watch movies, it’s also a place to learn about film and TV history, production, arts and sciences, etc. They’ve got tons of costumes, props, memorabilia, toys, tools and equipment and a gift shop where you’ll want to buy way too many things. And as Justin noted, it’s located across from the current Kaufman Astoria Studios, where many movie and TV shows are filmed today, but it also occupies one of the studio’s former buildings from when it was a huge complex. Kaufman Astoria is a landmark site, having been first built by Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount) in 1920 and is especially remembered for being where the Marx Brothers shot Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts. With all this history, the Museum of the Moving Image is even more than just a place for movie worship. It’s a kind of religious mecca and spiritual shrine for cinephiles.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.