Thursday, August 13, 2015

My Best Times at the Movie Theater

Some of my fondest memories are of the movies—going to them or watching them at the homes of friends.  It remains a communal experience unlike any other, and still relatively new in the history of the world, combining elements of theater, live music, communal religious experience and even vicarious emotional relevance.

To put it in a less high-falutin' way, it can be a shit-ton of fun to laugh along with fellow cineastes.  Even if the films aren't the best sometimes, they're the worst!—the inter-mutual participation in a common event like a film viewing is a rapidly decreasing phenomenon in the age of Netflix and social media, where every exigency is hyper-articulated to one's own solipsistic narrative.

I'm both extremely social and extremely self-secluded, but still, there's almost nothing like being in a raucous movie theater that has cast a spell—inadvertently or otherwise—upon the collective.  Here then now are some of my most incredible outings (and yes, for these purposes, it requires that I left the home) in my cinemagoing career.

(seen at the University Village 3, Los Angeles, California, spring 1997)

Anaconda, by even a liberal definition, is a terrible movie.  It is one of those films that tried so hard to be a quasi-Jaws ripoff but failed so spectacularly, on almost every level, that it achieved camp par excellence.


Two words: Jon Voight.  While the talented thespian is now known mostly for being the estranged dad of Angelina Jolie and belonging to a right-wing fringe group, there was a time when Voight was considered a serious actor, most notably in his amazing turn as a haunted Vietnam vet in Coming Home.

Wouldn't know it by the time the "script" for Anaconda landed on his desk, however.  Employing some kind of head-scratching accent that is part mumbly Marlon Brando, part Latin Lothario and major part WTF, Academy Award-winning Johnny V. chews up the scenery with a squinty-eyed creeper showcase as snake-hunter Paul Serone—not only growling at the titular serpents but also creeping on J.Lo, who apparently was out to prove that her performance as Selina wasn't a fluke or something.

I heard or read somewhere that no one sets out purposely to make a bad movie, and I believe that was true of Anaconda.  But that's why, on my elementary school report cards, there were grades for both results and effort.  I'm going to go out on a limb and bet that all of the established cast members of Anaconda—Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight—did it for the cash, while second fiddles Kari Wuhrer, pre-Frat Pack era Owen Wilson and Danny Trejo all likely did it for a free lunch.  They even snagged a halfway-decent director in Luis Llosa, fresh of the success of Stallone's The Specialist.

Which leads to my own entry into this miasma of ludicrocity (yes, I made up a word, sue me).  At the tender age of 18, in my freshman year at USC, I would pretty much go to see whatever was playing at the University Village 3 as it was right across Jefferson Ave. from the campus and, having no car in notoriously spread-out L.A., it was the only theater within walking distance.

Also it was cheap.

Also, it was a good place to get outside the college bubble and mingle with folks from "the neighborhood" (just so we're clear: that's code for the poor people, typically of color, who lived in the area surrounding the insanely wealthy private university to which I still owe thousands of dollars for my English degree, which was worth "every penny").

So on a Saturday afternoon, plunking down my 4 bucks, I laughed my way through Anaconda with an audience that was pretty much all in sync.  The film tried so damned hard to be scary, but succeeded only in repeatedly scraping the funny bone.  Owen Wilson gets a pretty decent onscreen demise, but what truly caps it is the ensuing scene showing his outline in the snake's belly.  Not horrifying, just stupid.

Then in the climax comes a scene of such pure poetry, words cannot describe it fairly. I will leave for you to watch what happens after Johnny V. falls victim to the main snake, only to then...well, just watch...

Needless to say, the entire theater went bananas at the gag-capper, applauding voraciously at the callback to Johnny V.'s having winked lasciviously at J.Lo the entire film prior.  It was one of those moments of unsullied communal joy that simply cannot be recreated at home.

Sadly, University 3 is no longer there, as USC bought up the entire property in an expansion effort that also vanquished such stalwarts of my college years as the 32nd Street Market, my old video and DVD rental shop and the hilariously downmarket liquor store that warehoused hilariously named knockoff brands like Bad Frog and Howling Monkey.  This move will, in my un-humble opinion, further isolate future Trojans from the overwhelming poverty of nearby Los Angeles and keep them in that bubble of academia that promises so much with a degree in hand.

Oh, and those who don't have cars will now have one less place in which to take in their afternoon camp.  Just sayin', SC.

The Big Lebowski
(seen at Burbank 12, Burbank, CA, spring 1998)

All we knew was the Coen Bros. were coming out with their follow-up to Fargo.  Jeff Bridges and Coens regulars John Goodman and Steve Buscemi were in it.  It was about bowling.

What we got was a neo-noir about a stoner inadvertently thrust into a Raymond Chandler-esque L.A. detective thriller.  That and the single greatest cinematic treasure trove in modern times.

If you've never seen "The Big L," I won't even try to explain either its plot or its appeal.  For my purposes here, on that spring 1998 evening, it was about seeing something new.  Something different.  Something incredibly special.

Something no one had ever fucking seen before.

I've since seen "Big L" well over a hundred times, and it continues to get better with each repeated viewing and each new gag or subtlety uncovered, but the freshness of seeing it for the first time on a spring night in Los Angeles with Steve and my Men's Chorus buddy Ryan was a unique evening.

Of that outing two things stand out in my mind, with the first being the Dude trying to explain away his lies in a rambling soliloquy before the "Big Lebowski" that ended with the eponymous millionaire asking, echoing the audience's thoughts, "What in God's holy name are you blathering about?"

Sometimes moviegoing is as much, if not more, about enjoying your pals' reactions than it is about the movie itself.  Never was this more true than during the climactic parking lot brawl that pitted the Dude, Walter and Donny versus a trio of German nihilists.  When John Goodman bit off Peter Stormare's ear and spit it to the sky, Steve was laughing so hard that he slapped his knee, which was something I thought only happened in knock-knock jokes.

Lebowski-fever was a slow burn.  The film itself did rather poorly in theaters.  Steve and I first spread it to our circles, and it soon became "our movie," the little film that we thought people should know about.  Over the years it became like a secret handshake when you found someone to swap lines with out in public.  Getting onto a plane a few years back with my Big L shirt on, a guy sitting in the aisle seat tossed a line at me, which I gleefully volleyed back until I passed...just a little moment of joy between strangers in the secret Lebowski society.

Nowadays there's a fucking festival!   (Yes, I've gone...twice...on two coasts.)

I like to think that Steve, Ryan and I started the phenom ourselves, but truth is that almost certainly there were little pockets of acolytes just like us all over the country who, like a virus, spread the evangel of Lebowski to the world.

It's now as much a part of popular culture as the Beatles and the Kardashians.  But it had to start somewhere.  And I feel extremely fortunate to have been there on the ground floor in that darkened theater as a 19-year-old college, sophomore.

Grease (re-release)
(seen at Mann's Chinese Theater, spring 1998)

I'm a choir nerd, and in college I was that annoying subspecies of choir geek known as the a cappella dork.

Naturally, the choir geeks and I (mind you, this was a MEN'S chorus, so not a single breast amongst us) had to go out to see Grease when it was brought back for its 20th anniversary, and what better place to do so than the famous Mann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.  (For those of you unfamiliar with this Tinseltown landmark, it's the place with the hand- and footprints from famous people out front.)

I was there with two of my buddies from the USC Men's Chorus and our a cappella group, the Hangovers (what do you want, we were all 18-22 when this happened!) plus one of our number's boyfriend in the days when a great many were still closeted.

The event briskly became a theater-wide singalong and quotefest.  But what turned this outing into a transcendent memory was that during the movie's penultimate song, "You're the One That I Want,"
audience members congregated in the front of the house to dance and sing alonga party that continued through the finale, "We Go Together."

Ryan, who had come along to The Big Lebowski not long before, and who was due to transfer back to Ohio at the end of the semester, said as we drove back to campus, "That was the most fun I've had since I came here."  Interestingly enough, just the other day I had lunch with Ryan and his wife, our first meeting since that spring 17 years ago!

There's Something About Mary
(seen at the Bridgewater Commons Mall, Bridgewater, New Jersey, summer 1998)

While home from school in the summer of 1998, I was working two jobs to have spending cash, get some experience in the film biz as an intern at the New Jersey Film Commission, and also to keep my mind off some unpleasantness going in my the final months of my teenagerhood.  At the time I often worked overnights on Thursdays, so on Fridays, after a nap, my buddies and I would typically check out the new films, including such turkeys as Lethal Weapon 4 (don't even get me started).  

One particular Friday, we planned a "hop" for a double feature of The Mask of Zorro and There's Something About Mary.  For those of you uninitiated, a hop is where you pay for one movie but then, slyly or otherwise, walk from one screening to another without paying for the second (or third) movie.  I'm pretty sure God couldn't have foreseen such a modern version of thievery when he handed Moses those "commitments," but it's been quite a while since I was in Sunday school, so...

Anyway, having barely slept the night before, I dosed off several times during Zorro (not that I missed much), and it being an early Friday afternoon, there was little need for subterfuge as we walked down the hall for Mary.

And then...holy fucking shit!!!!

I must interject here that I am not one for the subgenre of gross-out comedies.  For one, they require little to no sophistication and, to be frank, almost no virtuosity with humor.  They aim low, for the scatological, for the most base laughs possible.  I couldn't get through the Farrelly Bros.' breakthrough hit, Dumb and Dumber, stopping off when the cop drank pee from the soda bottle, and thus my expectations for Mary were rather bleak.  However, just days earlier, my buddy and current film producing partner Dave called me and said, "Let me tell you, it earned that R-rating."

You can't just leave a 19-year-old with a tease like that.

Now, There's Something About Mary is far from a perfect comedy.  In fact, in perhaps the greatest bit of irony, the film procures three of the biggest laughs in cinematic history interspersed with lengthy passages where almost nothing funny happens.  But man oh man, are those three gags epic!

Mind you, this was waaaaaay before social media, back in the days when you could still reasonably catch a flick after opening weekend without having the entire plot or the best gags entirely spoiled for you...except of course, be it for those loud-mouthed "friends" who liked to tell you ahead of time that the DeLorean gets smashed at the end of Back to the Future Part III (thanks, Jason, haha, love ya, man!).  We knew going in only that the Farrellys enjoyed their fart and piss humor, not how it might be applied in their latest effort.

In the first act of Mary is the "zipper gag," wherein Ben Stiller gets his junk caught in his fly, which the Farrellys take to the next level, with ever more humiliation foisted upon hapless Benjamin as more and more townsfolk attempt to help out.  What could have been a one-line joke is stretched out over multiple minutes, with the tension, and the laughter, ratcheting up quickly.

Need I say much about "the hair gel scene" that hasn't already been said?  Well, for one, there was a time when absolutely no one knew about it...nor was expecting it!  It wasn't enough that Stiller masturbate while gawking at the women's clothing section of the classified ads, which in and of itself is chuckle-worthy; it wasn't enough that his jizz "vanished" into thin air; it wasn't enough that it be revealed it's on his ear when Cameron Diaz shows up at his door for the door.  Nope, she then takes it from his ear and, thinking it's gel, runs it through her pate.

This is comedy brilliance, layering and layering upon a gag until you're feeling beyond uncomfortable just for beholding it.

But my god, what laughter!  It's almost difficult to relate the horrified guffawing of a roomful of grown adults enjoying an unexpected semen gag, particularly in the days before Seth MacFarlane made any and all bodily functions fair game for comedy.  The shocked laughter took several minutes to wear off, which is just as well as almost nothing funny happened again until the end of the film.

Which brings me to the dog attack.  Left alone with a roomful of cocaine, Mary's roommate Magda and her terrier, Puffy, get a little too much booger sugar up their nostrils, leading to Magda engaging in a herculean cleanathon and Puffy losing his dog-mind and going to town on Stiller's genitals.  Now even though the gag was alluded to in the preview, the buildup it to was masterfulas the camera dollies in toward a closed door, Puffy's pounding upon it from the inside in rhythmic doom becomes a laugh in and of itself.  

You know what's about to happen, but it still has to happen anyway...and you're absolutely helpless to turn away.

Then Puffy attacks.

The Farrellys don't even try to disguise the fact Stiller is so obviously wrestling a phony dog, but he does it with such gusto in that way only Ben Stiller can be humiliated (his crotch once again a target) that it unleashes a hurricane of laughter then amplified to 11 with a Three Stooges joke in which Stiller's attempt to poke Puffy in the eyes is countermanded by the dog's finger-block.

I have never, before or since, laughed that hard in a movie theater.  Honestly, I somewhat hope to never do so again, such is the joy of the memory.

It was a special, special day.  And for a few fleeting moments, I forgot about the teenage angst I was feeling toward the world...and, naturally, toward a few select females whom I felt had "wronged" me.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
(seen at Cinema Plaza, Flemington, NJ, summer 1998)

How many times can Michael Myers (the serial masked murderer, not the recently spotlight-eschewing comedian) die and be resurrected for another killer spree?  Well, by 1998, the magic number had been six, but for the original Halloween's 20th anniversary, the filmmakers figured it was time for one "final" go-round with the silent slasher and brought back Jamie Lee Curtis for the occasion.

(Didn't quite work given Halloween: Resurrection in 2002, again with Jamie Lee Curtis, and then Rob Zombie's reboot of the franchise in the aughts.)

There was really no way this was going to be any why did my group of four decide to go and see it?  Boredom?  To laugh at it?  Maybe a combination of the two.  Whatever the case, me, Chris, Steve and Don started talking at normal conversational volume as soon as the opening credits rolled...and never stopped.

Funny thing was, nobody ever yelled at us, shusshed us or even asked us to stop.  Most likely because they too realized this was a piece of shit and that the best way to get through it was to chuckle.

I mean, c'mon, within the first few minutes a big title card comes up that says "October 31..." [dramatic pause] "...Halloween."

Never mind that LL Cool J somehow got shoehorned into this sad exercise in franchise-milking.  Or that twentysomething stars of the day Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett and pre-in-every-other-movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt winds up on the wrong end of a butcher knife.

But then, ho ho, Janet Leigh—yes, mother of Jamie Lee Curtis—shows up for a cameo with her daughter and offers the wink-wink line "If I might be maternal for a moment..."

See, that's funny because...

Thirty-eight years after getting slashed to bits in Psycho, one of Hitchcock's most famous starlets is reduced to self-parody in a vehicle exploiting her own progeny's nostalgic retread of a 20-year-old low-budget horror classic.

Hooooooollllllyyyy sheeeeiiitttt!!!!

Oh, and just for shits and giggles, here's a fun tidbit courtesy of the IMDB:

"Halloween: H20" is the seventh film in the series. H20 is the chemical symbol for water which has a pH balance of 7.0."

As Wayne Campbell proudly proclaims when Alice Cooper tells him the history behind the city name of Milwaukee, "I did not know that."

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later is pretty dreadful, not only as an attempt to reignite a rather decent late-'70s slasher classic but also as a too-knowing exercise in the era of self-referential horror fare like Scream (whose writer, Kevin Williamson, was initially tapped to pen H20).  It went wrong on almost every level, but in an honest way in which you could tell the filmmakers really, really thought they had something, if not good, at least halfway decent on their hands for the popcorn crowd.

So drop a quartet of Jersey boys into the mix, talking at full volume, and you have the recipe for a rather fine evening.  Wouldn't trade it for a "good" movie given the chance, I assure you.

(On a side note, the Flemington movie theater has also gone the way of the dodo, closed forever in 2011.  It was the site of many, many high school and college-era moviegoing experiences, and it was the only place I ever paid less than $4 to see a movie.  Now the town where I went to high school has not a single movie theater, providing one less venue for local teensand the young at heart—upon which to exercise and exorcise their energies.  What is this world coming to...?)

(seen at Burbank AMC Town Center 6, Burbank, CA, Jan. 27, 2008)

Nineteen years since John Rambo had graced the silver screen.  Honestly, what were we expecting?

In a few words: not this.

I grew up on the '80s action genre, but let's be frank: Attempts to revive and/or reinvigorate the formula had largely failed in the late-'90s onward, thanks not only to the aging of its heyday stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but also due to increasingly tired, cliched rehashes of old revenge formulas and "I'm too old for this shit," self-aware audience winking that forgot the crucial fact that action movies could be both fun and gruesome.

So along comes the curiously misnomered Rambo, the 4th film in the First Blood franchise.  (Never mind that the third film, in 1989, was called Rambo III.)  The lone-wolf former Green Beret-turned-reluctant warrior had been shelved for the better part of two decades, left behind as the Reagan-era Cold War mythos that had given him ascendancy faded ever more in the rear-view.  Russians as bad guys had long since become beyond passe as villains (Russian mobsters, on the other hand...), leaving Rambo without a clear enemy to bring him out of retirement.

And plus, Stallone was 61 by the time of Rambo's Jan. 2008 release, well past retirement age for any cinematic avenging angel not played by Clint Eastwood. was Rambo, and Stallone had done a fairly decent job with reviving another of his classic characters in the self-written and -directed Rocky Balboa in aught-6.  Could it work?

Well, the first positive sign was the R-rated trailer that began churning up bloodthirsty appetites on the web a few months out.

What was gleaned from the trailer was that, if nothing else, Rambo (then still titled John Rambo) promised to pull no punches and, most importantly—and this is key—to play it without irony or self-reflexivity.

The deal was absolutely sealed when someone took the time and the imagination to make a Rambo "kill chart," detailing not only the body count in each of the four films, but the average kills per minute and number of bad guys killed with Rambo's shirt off.

This gem I forwarded on to my buddies, and...

...that was it.  Game the fuck on!

So me, Steve and Chris, old chums from New Jersey (and who also had been with me at both There's Something About Mary and Halloween H20) made the pilgrimage to downtown Burbank on a Sunday night, flasks of contraband hidden in our jackets (because, yes, it does get chilly in Southern California in wintertime).

It was clear from the first minute that the audience, though sparse, was all entirely on the same page.  A rice paddy full of innocents is slaughtered in the first 3 minutes, followed immediately by the title card in blood-soaked red—met with thunderous applause.

It is a special, rare magic when an entire theater is immediately in sync, especially on the unlikely evening of Sunday.

For a good hour-plus we sat in joy at the carnage, but then came the film's final battle, a gorefest drenched in unabashedly overblown violence that I can only describe as pure cinematic ecstasy. Despite some incredibly awful low-back pains (long story) I was jumping up and down in my seat as limbs were severed, heads exploded and mofos eviscerated with recently smelt knives.

To put it another way, it was, as Steve put it, "pure bliss."

After it was over, the only thing to do was retire to the nearby BJ's for a beer and a chat.

"Fellas," Steve said over the first round, "I know the year is only a few weeks old, but I'm calling it: best film of 2008.  I can't imagine having more fun at the movies this year."

What made Rambo so special was its complete lack of cheese.  Stallone, for all of his perceived and/or real lack of acting chops, played it with a straight face.  And as director and writer, he went completely for broke and so over-the-top as to verge on grisly camp.

For whatever reason, it worked.

I couldn't put it any better than how Steve summed it up:

"They're finally making movies for us again!"

Although Rambo failed to usher in an era of neo-action films, it did provide for likely the most fantastic evening at the movies of my life with great friends who grew up with me watching those same types of films on Friday and Saturday nights in darkened living rooms while drinking Gatorade and eating chocolate bars.  Its replay value on DVD remains undiminished.

Sly, wherever you are, bravo and thank you!

(seen at the New Beverly Cinema, Beverly Hills, CA, March 2014)

Spring 2014, and a good portion of the old Jersey crew reunited in L.A. for a long weekend of drinks and movies and burritos and In n' Out burgers.  Ryan hadn't been back to California since moving away in summer '99, and I'd move back east in fall 2011 and was, at that time, living in the Midwest.  The three of us probably hadn't hung out together in over a decade.

Going to a midnight movie was never in question, but WHAT?  And, this being L.A., WHERE?

Incredibly, during my 15 years as an Angeleno, I had never been to the New Beverly.  It was saved from the scrapheap thanks to one Quentin Tarantino, who also serves as the artistic director and programmer.  Little doubt, then, that that foremost consumer and purveyor of "junk culture" would exhibit a midnight show like Pieces.

Pieces is perhaps the zenith of the '70s and '80s Spanish splatorama cinema.  Directed by Juan Piquer Simon, it is a cheaply made, poorly acted exercise in "splatter porn" more than two decades before the term was ever coined, involving a serial killer who murdered his mother as a child and now is making mincemeat out of unsuspecting college personnel and students at a thankfully unnamed Boston university.  It's terrible exploitation cinema made without any aspirations toward artistry whatsoever.

It is also unquestionably watchable with the right mindset.  And the right friends by your side.

Here is how it begins.  Mind you, this is the very...first...scene!

This is the type of bad film that was made to be enjoyed with a crowd of irony-conscious cinemaphiles—an exercise in movie-making that is so far beyond redemption as to be laughable for even daring to be made.  It fails so utterly and consistently as to become a ne plus ultra example of how camp cinema can actually nourish the soul as much as "legit" film.

Exhibit A: At about the halfway mark the "main" character and the lead female have just discovered a horribly severed human body...which is pretty much the most awful sight one could ever hope to not encounter.  So how does actress Lynda Day George play a scene requiring the character to express such revulsion?

Rather than try to put it into words, I'll show you:

Going to see Pieces at midnight in Beverly Hills with my childhood buddies, all of us now in our mid-thirties, was a holy outing that I doubt will ever be topped.


The English Patient
(seen at Bound Brook Cinema, Bound Brook, NJ, Dec. 1996)
Bound Brook was an old single-screen cinema where I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark as a kid (and screamed my head off when the spirits came out of the ark), Rocky Horror at midnight and also where Dave and I went to see The English Patient one very, very cold winter's afternoon in 1996.  The staff warned us as we entered that the heat was Dave and I sat through a three-hour epic in our coats and hats shivering like a couple of washed-up winos. Fortunately, Dave had some old ratty blankets in his car under which we warmed ourselves like we were at a 1980s Times Square porno theater or something.

The Brook, like so many other classic theaters, is gone now, having been in a state of perpetual disrepair for years and now used only sporadically for "special events."  The last time I was there, entire sections of seats were roped off and the roof leaked.

And did I mention the heat didn't work?


All of these instances are now astern. In a way, maybe that's a good thing.  My buddies and I still love to talk movies, and we love our camp (I'm looking at you, Death Wish 3!) like nobody's business.  But there's something to be said for acting like buffoons in a movie theater while you're young.  I'm no longer quite so young, and most of my cinemagoing buddies are spread out in multiple cities and time zones, and we seldom get together anymore.  We all have "real" jobs and careers.  Most of them are married now.  Middle age ain't far off.

It's really the memories of being there in those darkened theaters with good friends that made these seven moviegoing outings—combined with our youthful exuberance and approaching film with the precise elixir of irony and excitation that increased severalfold the enjoyment of collective experience and the distaste for often-ludicrous filmmaking—so memorable, so fun, so irreplaceable.

Of their times and places.  Other locations and in the past.

I sure hope we can enjoy more like this.  For it truly reminded me of why it is we go to the movies in the first place, for not only the taking in of art (or flotsam) but its digestion and regurgitation with fellow cinemagoers.

In the end, that's really what it's all about.