Lawrence Toppman

The best Charlotte film series you’ve never heard of

An actor (Peter Dinklage, left) explains to his director that nobody ever sees dwarves in their dreams in “Living in Oblivion.”
An actor (Peter Dinklage, left) explains to his director that nobody ever sees dwarves in their dreams in “Living in Oblivion.” Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

As bulbs in the old projector dimmed, Sam Shapiro’s spirit never did. As sound in the speakers crackled and died, he made himself heard to loyal patrons of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library. And now, after a $25,000 system makeover, he’s giving filmgoers a better reason than ever to attend his free uptown movie series.

The latest, “Hollywood Shoots Itself,” kicks off July 9 at ImaginOn with “Sunset Boulevard,” a triple Oscar-winner about the ill-fated liaison between a hungry screenwriter and a deranged actress planning a comeback. It ends in February at the Main Library – where the makeover took place – with “Ed Wood,” starring Johnny Depp as a wildly untalented director who jump-starts his career by hiring Bela Lugosi (Oscar-winner Martin Landau in one of history’s great performances).

At last, you’ll see the movies the way they were meant to be seen. Shapiro, who has curated the library’s film series for 23 years, recently cued up “North By Northwest” for me on the new system and let me immerse myself in Technicolor glory.

Eva Marie Saint’s hair glittered like gold – a cliché we hear all the time, but it did shine like bullion. You could see the tiny pattern in Cary Grant’s blue suit, the striations in gray wallpaper. Mount Rushmore looked not like a monolithic block but like stone full of chips and cracks. Whispered dialogue became audible, and a gunshot snapped shockingly.

All of this means balm to the soul of the 56-year-old Shapiro, who puts together packages ranging from directors down under (“Wild Australia”) to classic humor from England (“Her Majesty’s Comedies”). Until this year, he put up with speakers that went in and out and an old-fashioned projector that supplied perhaps 50 percent of the light it should.

Fans, he says, remained loyal: He could count on 75 to 80 people to attend his events, which he introduces with history, bits of trivia and critical commentary. When he showed the Harold Lloyd silent comedy “Speedy,” with Ethan Uslan accompanying on piano, 120 people turned out. But Shapiro always knew what they were missing.

His competition isn’t the multiplex, which shows spectaculars on most screens: The library will never be the place to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” (You couldn’t, in any case. Although the Char-Meck system has a public performance agreement with virtually every studio, Twentieth Century Fox remains a holdout.)

Instead, he’s trying to overcome the inertia that keeps people at home when they could be seeing a “Singin’ in the Rain” or a “Day for Night” the way directors intended: not just on a larger screen than a home system has, but in a community sharing laughter or sighs.

(He realizes the renovation money wasn’t spent entirely or even mainly on his behalf: Groups regularly rent the auditorium for conferences, and they couldn’t do high-tech webinars or live internet presentations with the old equipment.)

Shapiro belongs to the generation that was in high school during the great wave of independent American filmmaking in the 1970s. He graduated from Garinger, then got a bachelor of arts in English from Hunter College in New York. He taught in that city for a couple of years, came back to Charlotte, joined the library and eventually earned a graduate degree in library science from the University of South Carolina.

To make sure library patrons get the richest experience, he buys new Blu-Rays or DVDs for his events; they go into the library’s catalog afterward. Sometimes he’s part of big projects; he’ll show the 1931 “Frankenstein” and Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” in October, to go along with the library’s countywide Community Read. (The book everyone will discuss? Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which differs from every movie version – including the 1994 film “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”)

Though Shapiro’s in his 30th year as a county employee, he has no plans to retire. Who then would program “The Godfather,” which inexplicably has never turned up in one of his library film series? Or Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”? Or the films of Ernst Lubitsch, wryly sophisticated writer-director of romantic triangles and quadrangles? Or Italian movies from “The Bicycle Thief” to “Amarcord”?

“There’s a lot of stuff left to show,” he says. “I have to keep finding reasons for people to get off the couch and into their cars to come down here.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Hollywood Shoots Itself’

All films are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays at ImaginOn (I), 300 E. Seventh St., or the Main Library (ML), 310 N. Tryon St. Get full details about the free series at cmlibrary.org. Here’s the roster:

“Sunset Boulevard,” July 9 (I) – Gloria Swanson stars as the reclusive former star who plans a comeback when screenwriter William Holden lands in her yard. Billy Wilder never made a creepier film.

“Day for Night,” July 23 (I) – Star-writer-director Francois Truffaut plays a filmmaker trying to finish his magnum opus while coping with financial, romantic and personal crises among his cast and crew.

“Sullivan’s Travels,” July 30 (I) – Preston Sturges wrote and directed this road comedy about a pretentious director who wants to see real life (Joel McCrea) and a hobo he falls for (Veronica Lake).

“Silent Movie,” Aug. 13 (I) – Mel Brooks, wrote, directed and starred with Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise. He plays a nutty director rehabbing his career by shooting the first silent film in four decades.

“Singin’ in the Rain,” Aug. 20 (I) – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds dance through this romp about actors trying to make the conversion from silent films to talkies in 1928.

“The Bad and the Beautiful,” Aug. 27 (ML) – Five Oscars went to this story about a ruthless producer (Kirk Douglas) who recalls his rise to the top – over the bodies of those who helped him.

“The Player,” Sept. 10 (ML) – Director Robert Altman centered this stingingly funny satire of his corrupt industry around a producer (Tim Robbins) who tries to cover up his murder of a screenwriter.

“The Stunt Man,” Nov. 12 (ML) – Peter O’Toole earned his Oscar nomination as a wild-eyed director; he’s filming a World War I epic and hires an escaped con (Steve Railsback) as a stunt man.

“Living in Oblivion,” Dec. 3 (ML) – Director Tom DiCillo savages the world of low-budget indies; a then-unknown cast includes Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Peter Dinklage and Dermot Mulroney.

“Bombshell,” Jan. 7 (ML) – This fast-moving comedy offers Jean Harlow at her snappy best, as a megastar fending off studio bosses, insane fans, family leeches and unscrupulous press agents.

“Ed Wood,” Feb. 4 (ML) – The talentless writer-director of the title (Johnny Depp) tries for glory with one last horror film, hiring decrepit but proud Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) to take a key role.

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