Friday, June 17, 2016

THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH: IN MEMORY OF THE BIJOU (1957) AND THE ALGER (1940-2015)



The delightful British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth headlines a great Saturday matinee offering from the UCLA Film and Television Archive on June 25 as their excellent series “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing” wraps up. So it seemed like a perfect time to resurrect my review of that movie, which celebrates the collective experience of seeing cinema in a darkened, and in this case dilapidated old auditorium, alongside my appreciation of my own hometown movie house, the Alger, which opened in 1940 and closed last year, one more victim of economics and the move toward digital distribution and exhibition.

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“You mean to tell me my uncle actually charged people to go in there? And people actually paid?” –Matt Spenser (Bill Travers) upon first seeing the condition of the Bijou Kinema, in The Smallest Show on Earth...

In Basil Dearden’s charming and wistful 1957 British comedy The Smallest Show on Earth (also known under the far-less evocative title Big Time Operators), a young couple, played by Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, inherit a small–town cinema, the Bijou Kinema-- known to the citizenry of Sloughborough as the Flea Pit-- and decide, in order to drive up the selling price to the local cinema magnate, who wants to tear it down and build a carpark, that against all odds and common sense they’ll reopen the doors and give the business a go. 

They also inherit three elderly employees who have long been part of the Bijou’s checkered history—Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), the cashier who was once also the cinema organist during the silent era; Mr. Quill (Peter Sellers), the projectionist with a more-than-slight penchant for Dewar’s White Label; and Old Tom (Bernard Miles), the janitor who only wants a uniform commensurate with his position and who dutifully provides a fiery solution when negotiations with the magnate hit a snag. These three comprise what passes for the barely beating heart of the Bijou, and if Dearden’s movie seems to end just as the third act is set to begin, it remains a sweet-tempered testament to the blinkered spirits of the Bijou staff, as well as to the fleeting pleasures of nostalgia and the long-lost palaces where past generations learned to love the movies. 

Some of the richest comic highlights of The Smallest Show on Earth come from all the technical foul-ups that come courtesy of the theater’s antiquated equipment—busted reels, focus failures, upside-down images and, of course, the image of sizzling celluloid from a frame on fire, these are as good as a cartoon and a newsreel, the expected bonuses when you buy a ticket at the Bijou. And audiences in 2016 who stumble upon this little beauty on DVD (or on Amazon Streaming Video, where it is currently available) will likely get huge laughs from the movie’s sly comment on the panicked movie industry’s attempt to stave off the deleterious effects of television through unabashed gimmickry.


Unable to afford upgrades to Cinemascope and stereophonic sound, the staff at the Bijou make do (albeit inadvertently) with the hardships imposed on them by the march of progress.  One of the factors of modernity contributing to the theater’s fall into disrepair is a railway which zooms directly past the outside of the auditorium, making the building shake from its faulty foundation to its rickety rafters. However, fortune smiles upon the Spensers as audiences react with wild abandon when the roar of the train outside is accidentally synched to a scene of a train robbery in the western on screen. The rumbling is so awful that poor Mr. Quill, recently having “taken the pledge,” is driven back to drink after throwing himself bodily on the projector to keep it from vibrating off its floor mounts. But the audience sees it as an “enhanced” experience, something they certainly couldn’t get from sitting at home in front of the tube.

Viewers taking in The Smallest Show on Earth 60 years later will think of everything from Sensurround to D-Box, technological gimmicks that, effective as they might be, still probably wouldn’t be as much fun as a well-timed passing locomotive threatening to literally bring the house down. The movie gently satirizes the raucous behavior of working-class audiences in the age of television while serving as a bridge between the rapidly changing landscape of modern entertainment and its own unapologetically nostalgic yearning for days past, when tastes were simpler and ornate palaces built to showcase flickering images of grandeur and adventure were commonplace. Whatever else you might say about them, the rowdy, television-spoiled audiences that (eventually) pack the Bijou are at least having fun, unlike their “sophisticated” modern-day counterparts, whose countenances, lit by cell phone screens, betray the desultory sense that, despite the fact that they’ve paid upwards of $17 to get in, they’d rather be anywhere else than in a theater watching a movie.


Of course, that appeal to nostalgia for days past rings slightly differently in 2016 than it did for the characters in Dearden’s film, who have seen change in the film industry, from silent to sound to color to wide-screen, but who mourn most especially for the days when the theater could be packed for every show, when the movies really were the best and only show in town. Audiences exposed to the movie today might first marvel that there were ever such huge, expansive, ornately designed, single-screen temples whose only purpose was to show movies. Modern multiplexes with 25 screens and a bounty of tentpole blockbusters to exhibit still find themselves appealing to Internet technology to stimulate ticket sales, booking live, high-definition video feeds of operas and other “special events,” and even appealing to organizations like churches to rent auditoriums, all in order to stay afloat in an age when entertainment choices are even more fragmented. Single-screen palaces for everyday exhibition really are, with a few exceptions like the historic Vista Theater in East Hollywood, things of the past. (You'll see the Vista on the big screen this summer as part of Woody Allen's vintage Hollywood-era comedy Cafe Society.)


For me, seeing The Smallest Show on Earth for the first time in 2014 provided its own sort of coincidence, like a train with the word “progress” spray-painted on its engine in in ironic quotation marks rumbling past, but without the pleasant afterglow of an enhanced experience. As I watched the efforts of the Spensers and their staff to raise the Bijou Kinema from the ashes, I couldn’t help but reflect on a couple of beloved movie palaces in my own life that are not now what they once were. In September 2014 it was announced that the New Beverly Cinema was being taken over by Oscar-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and that long-time owner-operator Michael Torgan was out. (Torgan took over daily operation of the theater when his father Sherman, who opened the theater as a repertory cinema in 1978, died unexpectedly in 2007.) Not much more is known now about the specifics of what transpired than when the coup was announced in August 2014, other than it seems to have been precipitated by Torgan’s purchase of a digital projector, to which his notoriously 35mm-or-nothing landlord took extreme exception. In solidarity with Michael, and out of indifference to the heavily grindhouse-tilted tenor of the programming since the theater reopened one month later in October, I ended up taking about a year off from attending the New Beverly.
 
When I returned, for a screening of an IB Tech print of Once Upon aTime in the West, I was delighted to see Michael there, looking happy in a new managerial role that seems to have at least afforded him the occasional night off to spend away from personally running the theater 24/7. I’ve only been back one time since that night—for a Smokey and the Bandit/Convoy combo, though I regret not being able to see their recent Robert Siodmak double bill of The Suspect and Phantom Lady. The theater’s vibe is most definitely Tarantini’s now—programs like that Siodmak pairing are in the minority, ceding to schedules that continue to lean not only on grindhouse and action fare but also on unremarkable artifacts from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (a double bill of the two Other Side of the Mountain movies were featured recently) that betray a video store geek’s zeal but far less of the well-rounded, well-schooled aura of the revival house as once defined by Sherman, and then Michael Torgan. The bottom line, however, remains that though, yes, the theater isn’t the same, at least the New Beverly is still showing films as one of several tantalizing daily options Los Angeles have at their disposal on the revival cinema scene.


More pointedly, however, 2014 was the year that the movie palace of my own childhood finally closed its doors for what looks like the last time. I saw my very first movie in a theater at the tender age of three. It was Gay Purr-ee (1963), the Abe Levitow-directed animated feature (co-written by Chuck Jones) about cats in the French countryside making their way to the big city, and I saw it at the Marius Theater in beautiful downtown Lakeview, Oregon. The Marius, built in the early 1930s, wasn’t the first movie theater in town—there was a tiny silent theater operating in the early 1900s that introduced the industrial age wonder of the movies to the Irish immigrants and cowpokes who first populated my hometown. (Writer Bob Barry commemorated the theater, whose name I can’t recall—the Rex, maybe?—in his book of local history From Shamrocks to Sagebrush.) But the Marius was my first. I don’t remember a thing about it, and without the help of some photographs I doubt I’d even be able to recall what the exterior looked like—it was closed and remodeled into an office building during the years in the mid-60's when my family briefly moved to California. By the time we returned in 1968, the Marius was gone-- though the remnants of the theater stage are still discernible in the basement of that remodeled building, known since the theater’s closing as the Marius Building, there's no other indication that a movie theater ever stood there.

By the time I returned to Lakeview in 1968, I’d been infected by the movie virus in a serious way. My parents took us to movies at the big theaters near the outskirts of Sacramento—the Tower and the Roseville in downtown Roseville, and the Citrus Heights Drive-in in the bedroom community of Citrus Heights, where we lived—and when we moved back to the rural splendor of Lakeview, I took as full advantage as I could of the opportunity to go to the movies by myself or with friends—something we weren’t allowed to do in the big city. And the Alger Theater, at the edge of downtown Lakeview, just a mile from my house, became my refuge, my oasis, my home away from home. Those were the days of double features, Saturday matinees (with reduced prices!), of driving into town and thrilling to see the lights of the marquee turned on before sundown, beckoning, promising a peek into a world well beyond the limits of what could be offered by my little burg. I dreamt of that place often, the yellow bulb lights dotting the undercarriage of the marquee, glowing and playing off the pale green trim of the theater frontage—it was glamorous, the only glamour my town had to offer, and it was irresistible.

My dad’s side of the family, the Italians, were dutiful Catholics, and as such were well acquainted with Bob and Norene Alger, visible participants in local Catholic culture who owned and operated the Alger Theater and the Circle JM Drive-in Theater on the north end of town—they had owned the Marius as well. Being the son (and grandson) of family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Alger always made me feel welcome. I can remember filing out of many matinees and evening shows and being greeted by Mrs. Alger with a hug, which many of my friends and peers thought was strange because she was rarely any more than standoffish—and sometimes downright cranky—to most of them. She also came down into the auditorium to personally check on me the night I first saw Blazing Saddles, apparently fearing from my relentless laughter that I was in danger of respiratory failure or full-on hysteria. And the very first review I ever wrote, at the tender age of 12, came at the behest of Mr. Alger, who offered me free admittance to the Saturday night showing of Young Winston (1972) if I would provide him a written review of it after mass the following morning. I have no idea why he wanted me to write about it, but when I delivered my little essay, he accepted it with that slightly inscrutable half-smile, which could be easily misinterpreted (or correctly interpreted, I suppose) as a frown and which rarely left his face. I never heard another word about the review, and he never asked me to do it again.    

Though they were overseers of one of the two primary communal entertainment options available to Lakeview back in the day, Bob and Norene felt no need to worry about competing with television. Which was a good thing, because the Algers were anything but show people. They ran the theater with an increasing sense of begrudging duty, and not without a sense— definitely noticed by the general populace— that they were too socially sophisticated for the audience they served. And they didn’t go in for gimmicks or promotions either. The only bonuses offered by the theater came on Christmas Eve (an annual canned food drive matinee which didn’t survive the early ‘70's-- see Dear Brigitte on the calendar to the left); Independence Day (a bare-bones fireworks show for which several pals, including the Algers' son David and I, comprised the mortar crew when I was a teenager); and, best of all, one-night horror shows for New Year’s Eve, Halloween and whenever a Friday the 13th would roll around. The Alger booked a terrific array of Hammer, Amicus and American-International titles for my formative years, allowing me to see films like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Rasputin the Mad Monk, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Green Slime, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The House That Dripped Blood, Count Yorga, Vampire and countless others that stand as favorites to this day, all projected to a crowd of very enthusiastic screamers.


Audiences at the Alger weren’t far removed from the hijinks of those rowdy delinquents inside the Spensers’ Bijou either. One of the apocryphal Bob Alger stories for me and my buddies came as a result of a Halloween night screening of Tales from the Crypt during which the audience, comprised mostly of high school kids like myself who, unlike myself, were there to do anything but watch the movie, got well out of control. The din started before the opening curtain and continued to increase. And when some sort of projectile flew out of the crowd and landed very close to the screen, it wasn’t long before Mr. Alger marched slowly, deliberately, to the front of the theater, the lights came up, the movie stopped and everyone went silent. “What I have before me, on the floor of the auditorium,” he intoned ominously, as fearsome as Sir Ralph Richardson's cryptkeeper, “is a fresh egg.” He berated the audience for their behavior and threatened to shut the screening down entirely, with no refunds, if decorum wasn’t restored immediately. He even yelled out at one poor bastard who was still cutting up during his speech—“You! In the balcony! I know it was you who threw it!” Even though I wasn’t causing trouble myself, I was terrified (I could only laugh about it later), but I was also secretly glad because, goddamn it, I couldn’t hear the movie, and the last thing I would have wanted was for the Algers to pull the plug on these horror holiday special shows, which I considered a major perk and a significant antidote to the doldrums of Lakeview citizenship.

I went to see everything I could at the Alger. I wanted to see everything I could. But for the general audiences, who during the early ‘70s came out to see just about anything the theater showed—I remember a half full house for Robert Altman’s box-office bomb Buffalo Bill and the Indians, for crying out loud, a phenomenon probably attributable to the cowboy community assuming they were in for a run-of-the-mill western—I don’t think the movies themselves mattered nearly as much as the chance to get out and do something, anything.

And when that movie was done, it was done—there was no going out and talking about it afterward, because movies were rarely seen as anything more than simple diversion. Sometimes the movie was done before it was done. One of the funniest moments in The Smallest Show on Earth comes as a B-western is beginning to wrap up. It’s the last scene in the movie, and the audience, sensing that the meat of the action has finished, jumps up and bolts for the exits before “The End” even has a chance to pop up and cue them that it’s time to leave. The audiences at the Alger were similarly inclined to get on with life rather than savor the cinematic experience they’d just had. I’ll never forget coming home from college and seeing Star Wars with the hometown crowd. As soon as the Death Star exploded, at least 40 people in the packed house grabbed their coats and scooted out of the theater.
 
For all its deficiencies—the inept projection, the frequently misspelled marquee (it was always “Pual” Newman in something or other, and I’ll never forget “Ward Bond 007” in The Man with the Golden Gun), the uncomfortable seats, the indifferent management—the Alger was where I really fell in love with the movies. That love would be deepened elsewhere, but the Alger's lights always seemed to be visible to me from the dark quiet of Southern Oregon nights long after I’d left the town, a glowing reminder of where it all began. 

The Algers closed the drive-in in 1981 after a winter storm ripped the screen in half like a piece of wet paper. They kept the indoor theater open for a couple years after that, but soon retired, and it sat dark for a few months during the early ‘80s, when local folks were finally getting into the swing of the VCR era. It eventually reopened under new ownership in the mid-80s, and competition to keep pace with an ever-shrinking window between theatrical release and home video debut forced the theater to begin picking up releases much more quickly than it ever did under the guidance of Bob Alger. In those days, it wasn’t unusual to have to wait 6-9 months after its national release for a movie to bow at the Alger—Jaws (1975) played at the Circle JM Drive-in during the summer… of 1976. But the video-age Alger was facing a much-changed exhibition landscape. I remember being completely shocked to open up the pages of the local weekly newspaper, the Lake County Examiner, 15 years ago and seeing a tiny ad for the week’s offering at the Alger, Scream 3, which was opening at the Alger the very same night it opened on 3,000 or so other screens across the nation, an unthinkable scenario even five years before then.
 


(These photos of the Alger Theater date from about one to two years after its opening. Above, Gene Autry in Sierra Sue and All-American Coed were both released in 1941, and despite the "1938" notation on the lower photo, given the release date of Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, the feature advertised on the marquee, the date of this photo is likely sometime after 1942.)

The theater, under new management now twice removed from Bob and Norene Alger, more or less limped into the digital age. Shows were now weekends only, and the theater, which opened in 1940 (see photos above), was beginning to show the effects of a lack of cosmetic upkeep. A ghastly stage had been installed in the mid ‘80s, ostensibly in a move to establish a community theater presence which never took hold, obliterating the first four or five rows of original seats. What seats remained were the original 1940 editions and as butt-numbing as ever; the marquee lights were spotty, every other bulb either burnt out or screwed into a socket that had long since failed to carry current; the fa├žade of the theater was tattered and badly in need of a paint job; and the marquee itself was warped, rickety and weather-beaten, its ability to hold up plastic letters routinely challenged by a stiff breeze. With the cost of keeping the theater open for just three days a week becoming increasingly indomitable, it seemed the writing was on the wall, and it probably had been for at least the first 10 years of the 21st century.  

Much like how the storm that destroyed the drive-in screen in 1981 had presented the Algers a convenient exeunt from the drive-in business, big studio threats to stop providing 35mm prints to theaters, thus forcing small-town operations like the Alger to upgrade to digital equipment in order to stay in business, were the rationale current management needed to call theatrical exhibition in Lakeview, Oregon a permanent day. After several attempts to communicate with the current owners and brainstorm ideas for keeping the theater alive—a theater in nearby Alturas, California, had successfully navigated a crowd-funding campaign to upgrade their theater and make it a community-operated business—I stopped receiving replies to my e-mails, and it became clear that, in response to deteriorating attendance, the owners weren’t really interested in rallying an effort to come up with the money to keep the doors open.

So, in March 2014 the reels of the Alger Theater’s 35mm platter projection system spun their last. The theater, much like Hollywood itself, had long since ceded any attempt to appeal to any other audience beyond the PG/PG-13 market, the only folks left in town who could be counted on to occasionally show up for a movie. It’s grimly appropriate that the last picture show would not be a landmark like Red River (the current Alger management likely being unaware of that movie, or The Last Picture Show, for that matter), or even an adult-oriented audience-pleaser like the recent Oscar-winner Argo. Instead, it was the generic animated movie The Nut Job, and a sadder, more ignominious finale for my beloved theater I couldn’t possibly imagine. According to a report filed by my niece, who was very upset about the theater closing and tried herself to generate some local interest in preserving it, the last show was just as nondescript and lacking in fanfare as one might expect. The end credits playing before an empty auditorium, what there was of the audience having already listlessly filed out, the marquee lights went dark over South F Street, the main drag on which the Alger held dominance for 74 years, and save for one special screening-- author Cheryl Strayed brought the movie version of Wild to town, Lakeview being one of the stops she walked through on her epic journey along the Pacific Crest Trail-- those marquee lights haven’t been back on since. It’s not clear as yet whether the township of Lakeview has even noticed.

Last year I got a message from a friend still living in Oregon who said she’d heard that the Alger was about to be purchased by a new owner, given a digital upgrade and a paint job, and reopened. Did I dream this? If it were true, it would be an unlikely deus ex machina, given the history of this theater, and given the economic straits in which the town is currently mired. It’s the sort of dream of the past and its familiar faces that I wake up from all the time. But no, I didn’t dream it. The message was real. And whether or not the resurrection of the Alger makes the transition from rumor to reality—and the town’s active interest in making it happen cannot be overemphasized-- is a story I have been following closely and will continue to keep my eye on.


Maybe the Alger Theater doesn’t mean the same thing to the current citizenry of Lakeview that it does to me. Maybe it never did. However the general population may have felt, it’s difficult for me to discount the importance such a tiny blip on American culture as the Alger had on the forming of my mind and my desire to see more than what could be offered on the dusty, muddy streets passing outside its doors. If they’re lucky, everyone reading this will have a place like it nestled in their memories, a place where love for what the movies could show us, could inspire in us, the emotions they could stir, was instilled and made foundation for the appreciation of what movies could be that we had yet to understand.

When I see the empty shell of that theater, standing abandoned and ignored at the edge of my hometown, I don’t feel like a piece of me is lost. No, I know right where that piece is at. It’s still inside those doors, in communion with the dusty old red curtain, the forever dimmed house lights running the edges of the auditorium at the ceiling level, the mysterious projection room, from whence all those amazing sights and sounds emerged, the tidy confines of the snack bar, watched over by the old Thornton’s Drug clock on the wall, its timekeeping partner, the one bearing the Lincecum Signs ad, still perched in the auditorium above the door to the back of the screen, stage left. Yep, I’m still in there, sitting in those worn-down seats, waiting for the next movie to start. By a great stroke of fortune, maybe someday it will.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA



In one of those strange confluences of life, death and documentary art, last week the world lost Muhammad Ali, humanitarian, devout Muslim and near inarguably the greatest boxer of all time (even if that assignation was initially self-proclaimed), just at the moment when the discussion about the life of yet another celebrity athlete, O.J. Simpson, is about to heat up yet again. Tonight ABC airs the first of the five-part documentary O.J.: Made in America, a seven-and-a-half hour undertaking commissioned for ESPN’s 30-For-30 series that truly fulfills the expansive definition of an epic, and filmmaker Ezra Edelman makes every one of his documentary’s 450 minutes count.

The first two hours of O.J.: Made in America are devoted not just to Simpson’s formative life in the San Francisco projects and his rise to football stardom at USC, but also to painting a vivid picture of African-American life in Los Angeles in the days leading up to the Watts Riots of 1965, a detailed, frustrating and often agonizing portrait of a racial history that provides one aspect of the vast context in which the persona of O.J. Simpson was shaped. Edelman illuminates a crucial contrast between Simpson, the popular USC running back living it up on a primarily white, moneyed campus, and the reality of the more typical African-American experience in Los Angeles in the 1960s which was taking place only a few blocks from where Simpson was being groomed for NFL stardom. Economic and racial prejudice, police brutality during the William H. Parker era of the Los Angeles Police Department, and the scramble simply to maintain a modicum of dignity in the face of a dominant white social structure which regularly, violently insisted that none was deserved, was the reality faced by those who couldn’t gracefully scramble down a field and rack up record yardage for a storied university football program. (One of the saddest threads that emerges early on in the film is in accounting the degree to which African-Americans eagerly moved from strife-plagued areas of the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s to Los Angeles in search of the sort of racial and economic equanimity that eluded them in their home states, and how quickly that optimism was snuffed out.)


Yet O.J. Simpson emerged from being surrounded by it all (and deftly protected from it all), early on largely achieving acceptance in the (white) world of celebrity. He was the first African-American advertising spokesman for a major company—Hertz rental cars—who was perceived as being effective not just with blacks but across the racial board. And he was liked by just about everybody he encountered, black or white, all of which was, of course, the underlying presumptive goal of his personal socio-philosophic mantra: “I’m not black, I’m not white. I’m O.J.” 

One of the most unsettling accounts of Simpson’s perspective occurs early on in the film, recalled on camera by New York Times sports reporter Robert Lipsyte, who remembers Simpson, not yet 22 and waiting to sign his rookie pro contract after leaving USC, hanging out in a Manhattan bar waiting to meet up with one of its owners, Joe Namath, the hero of the most recent Super Bowl.  Lipsyte was one of a large entourage surrounding Simpson that night and talked to Simpson about his plans, including his negotiations with the Buffalo Bills, his upcoming entrance into the advertising world and his hopes for the TV and movie roles that would come as a result of his career as a football pro. At one point, in talking about the things he’d so far achieved in his young career, Simpson offered up with pride, “I was at a wedding, my wife and a few friends were the only Negroes there, and I overheard a lady say, ‘Look, there’s O.J. Simpson and some niggers.’” Lipsyte takes a breath on camera and says, “I knew right then he was fucked.”


The early sections of O.J.: Made in America make it clear just how separate Simpson intended to be from the black community which took such pride in his acceptance and achievements, and that separation went beyond securing a life of fame and riches with Hollywood always foremost in mind. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be conscripted into the Vietnam War, and the nimbly articulated reasoning he offered, which was grounded deeply in not only his racial but also his religious experience (“The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality”), provides an illuminating contrast to Simpson’s refusal to politicize his image. While Ali took his controversial stand, which resulted in his arrest and conviction for draft evasion, the rescinding of his Olympic gold medal, the stripping of the heavyweight title he won by defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 and a three-year ban from professional fighting, Simpson refused to join other black athletes such as Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown in public support of Ali’s decision. While he professed to understand the importance of Ali’s position and the need to provide support for everyone in the black community, Simpson continued to make it clear that their fight was not necessarily his fight: “What I’m doing is not for principles or for black people. I’m dealing first for O.J. Simpson, his wife and his baby.”

That, having heard such a philosophy expressed openly, blacks could have remained as supportive of O.J. Simpson as his life took an infamously surreal turn into ugly violence in Brentwood, California in June 1994, is one aspect of the mystery of O.J. Simpson upon which Edelman’s film, with its grounding in the racial inequity and violence at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, sheds plenty of welcome light. However obvious the evidence may have been against him, however bungled by prosecution the apparently slam-dunk case ended up being, the Simpson verdict was perceived by many blacks across the nation, according to the evidence and testimony accrued in Edelman’s film, as a huge emotional release, payback to a system that repeatedly failed to provide justice for the likes of Eula Love, Latasha Harlins and Rodney King.

And it’s to Edelman’s credit that a conclusion like that one has its place in the context of the larger conversation O.J.: Made in America engenders, neither summarily dismissed nor thoughtlessly endorsed but instead woven into the expressive, reverberating fabric of this unusually evocative, angering and enlightening work. If the movie never finds as much room for contextualizing Nicole Brown Simpson as someone other than a victim of an inevitable tide of domestic abuse in the way that Los Angeles’ racial history does for Simpson himself, then the humanizing empathy Edelman displays for her certainly suffices. (The awful finality of her fate and that of Ronald Goldman is displayed here in horrific crime scene photographs I’d spent 22 years avoiding.) O.J.: Made in America unfolds with masterful certainty and illuminating power, delineating the mind-boggling path toward a third act in the life of a man who many, even some of his staunchest supporters and friends, now believe must have commit those heinous murders, a third act which surreally nose-dives into Vegas decadence, petty crime and, yes, even perhaps one more dose of payback for crimes left unpunished.


Though it was conceived as a TV series, with the remaining four parts airing on ESPN after tonight’s bow on ABC, I think of O.J.: Made in America as a movie because that’s the way I saw it. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the very last theatrical screening of a week-long, Oscar-qualifying engagement in Santa Monica a couple of weeks ago, and seeing it that way was one of the great movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. The auditorium where I saw it, with a capacity of 27 people, was about half full, and during the film’s two intermissions there was a palpable need for us all—the 14 or so of us in attendance were pretty closely divided between black and white-- to turn to each other and discuss what it was we were absorbing. (By the end of the movie’s second section, that screening had begun to take on the quality of a very lively town hall meeting.)

Sometime during the first hour, immersed in the sort of rich detail and intelligent commentary that would be a hallmark of Edelman’s film, I felt energized, excited, relieved to be in the hands of a documentary so dedicated to taking its time and creating the proper context for understanding how the phenomenon, and then the tragedy of O.J. Simpson could have happened in the first place. Seeing it in one go in a theater was not unlike the way people now routinely binge-watch programming, documentary or otherwise, on Netflix or DVD in the media-saturated 21st century, only with fresh popcorn and the company of strangers, which definitely helped ameliorate the desperate sense of a hopelessly fragmented society that the film pointedly examines. If you can stand the wait and have the technology available, I recommend recording the entirety of the series over the next couple of weeks and saving it for a weekend afternoon when you can watch it all at once. But either taken all in one sitting or seen in segments, O.J.: Made in America is made to overwhelm you and invigorate you. It’s going to be hard to top this one for movie of the year, in whatever form it is seen.


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Friday, June 10, 2016

MARQUEE MOVIE: MATINEE (1993)



“We used to go to the movies.  Now we want the movies to come to us, on our televisions, tablets and phones, as streams running into an increasingly unnavigable ocean of media. The dispersal of movie watching across technologies and contexts follows the multiplexing of movie theaters, itself a fragmenting of the single screen theater where movie love was first concentrated and consecrated.  (But even in the “good old days,” movies were often only part of an evening’s entertainment that came complete with vaudeville acts and bank nights). For all this, moviegoing still means what it always meant, joining a community, forming an audience and participating in a collective dream.” 

From the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s programming notes for its current series, “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing”

Currently under way at the Billy Wilder Theater inside the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood, the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s far-reaching and fascinating series “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing” takes sharp aim at an overview of how the movies themselves have portrayed the act of going out to see movies during these years of seismic change in the way we see them. What’s best about the collection of films curated for the series is its scope, which sweeps along from the anything-goes exhibition of the silent era, on through an examination of the opulent era of grandiose movie palaces and post-war audience predilection for exploitation pictures, and straight into an era—ours—of a certain nostalgia for the ways we used to exclusively gather in dark places to watch visions jump out at us from the big screen. (That nostalgia, as it turns out, is often colored by a rear-view perspective on the times which contextualizes it and sometimes gives it a bitter tinge.) As the program notes for the Marquee Movies series puts it, whether you’re an American moviegoer or one from France, Italy, Argentina or Taiwan, “the current sense of loss at the passing of an exhibition era takes its place in the ongoing history of cultural and industrial transformation reflected in these films.”


The series took its inaugural bow last Friday night with a rare 35mm screening of Matinee (1993), director Joe Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas’s vividly imagined tribute to movie love during a time in US history which lazy writers frequently like to describe as “the point when America lost its innocence” or some other such silliness. For Americans, and for a whole lot of other people the world over, those days in 1962 during what would come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis felt more like days when something a whole lot more tangible than “innocence” was about to be lost, what with the US and Russia being on the brink of nuclear confrontation and all. The movie lays down this undercurrent of fear and uncertainty as the foundation which tints its main action, that of the arrival of exploitation movie impresario Laurence Woolsey (John Goodman, channeling producer and gimmick maestro William Castle) to Key West, Florida, to promote his latest shock show, Mant!, on the very weekend that American troops set to sea, ready to fire on Russian missile installments a mere 90 miles away in Cuba.

Woolsey’s hardly worried that his potential audience will be distracted the specter of annihilation; in fact, he’s energized by it, convinced that the free-floating anxiety will translate into box office dollars contributed by nervous kids and adults looking for a safe and scary good time, a disposal cinematic depository for all their worst fears. And it certainly doesn’t matter that Woolsey’s movie is a corny sci-fi absurdity-- all the better for his particular brand of enhancements. Mant!, a lovingly sculpted mash-up of 1950s hits like The Fly and Them!, benefits from “Atomo-vision,” which incorporates variants of Castle innovations like Emergo and Percepto, as well as “Rumble-rama,” a very crude precursor to Universal’s Oscar-winning Sensurround system. The movie’s Saturday afternoon screening is where Dante and Haas really let loose their tickled and twisted imaginations, with the help of Woolsey’s theatrical enhancements.


Leading up to the fearful and farcical unleashing of Mant!, Dante stages a beautifully understated sequence that moved me to tears when I saw it with my daughters last Friday night at the Billy Wilder Theater. Matinee is seen primarily through the eyes of young Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a military kid whose dad is among those waiting it out on nuclear-armed boats pointed in the direction of Cuba. Gene is a monster-movie nerd (and a clear stand-in for Dante, Haas and just about anybody—like me—whose primary biblical text was provided not by that fella in the burning bush but instead by Forrest J. Ackerman within the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland), and he manages to worm his way into Woolsey’s good graces as the producer prepares the local theater to show his picture. At one point he walks down the street in the company of the larger-than-life producer, who starts talking about his inspirations and why he makes the sort of movies he does:



“A zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave,” Woolsey expounds. “He goes out one day—Bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now, he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great.”

Gene, eager to believe but also to understand, responds quizzically-- “Well, yeah, ‘cause he’s still living.”

“Yeah, but he knows he is, and he feels it,” Woolsey counters. “So he goes home, back to the cave. First thing he does, he does a drawing of a mammoth.” (At this point the brick wall which the two of them are passing becomes a blank screen onto which Woolsey conjures an animated behemoth that entrances Gene and us.) Woolsey continues:

“He thinks, ‘People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long and the eyes real mean.’ Boom! The first monster movie. That’s probably why I still do it. You make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up,” Woolsey concludes, ending his illustrative fantasy with a sigh.


But that’s not all, folks. At this point, Dante cuts to a Steadicam shot as it moves into the lobby hall of that Key West theater, past posters of Hatari!, Lonely are the Brave, Six Black Horses and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. The tracking shot continues up the stairs, letting us get a really close look at the worn, perhaps pungent carpet, most likely the same rug that was laid down when the theater opened 30 or so years earlier, into the snack bar area, then glides over to the closed swinging doors leading into the auditorium, while Woolsey continues:

“You see, the people come into your cave with the 200-year-old carpet, the guy tears your ticket in half—it’s too late to turn back now. The water fountain’s all booby-trapped and ready, the stuff laid out on the candy counter. Then you come over here to where it’s dark-- there could be anything in there—and you say, ‘Here I am. What have you got for me?’”

Forget nostalgia for a style of moviegoing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more compact, evocative and heartfelt tribute to the space in which we used to see movies than those couple of minutes in Matinee. The shot and the narration work so vividly together that I swear I could whiff the must underlying that carpet, papered over lovingly with the smell of popcorn wafting through the confined space of that tiny snack bar, just as if I was a kid again myself, wandering into the friendly confines of the Alger Theater in Lakeview, Oregon (More on that place next week.)

Dante’s movie is a romp, no doubt, but its nostalgia is a heartier variety than what we usually get, and it leaves us with an undercurrent of uneasiness that is unusual for a genre most often content enough to look back through amber. Woolsey’s words resonate for every youngster who has searched for reasons to explain their attraction to the scary side of cinema and memories of the places where those images were first encountered, but in Matinee there’s another terror with which to contend, one not so easily held at bay.


Of course the real world monster of the movie— the bomb— was also, during that weekend in 1962 and in Matinee’s representation of the missile crisis, “killed off,” making “everything okay.” But Dante makes us understand that while calm has been momentarily restored, something deeper has been forever disturbed. The movie acknowledges the societal disarray which was already under way in Vietnam, and the American South, and only months away from spilling out from Dallas and onto the greater American landscape in a way so much less containable than even the radiative effects of a single cataclysmic event. That awareness leaves Matinee with a sorrowful aftertaste that is hard to shake. The movie’s last images, of our two main characters gathered on the beach, greeting helicopters that are flying home from having hovered at the precipice of nuclear destruction, is one of relief for familial unity restored—Gene is, after all, getting his dad back. But it’s also one of foreboding. Dante leaves us with an extreme close-up of a copter looming into frame, absent even the context of the sky, bearing down on us like a real-life mutant creature, an eerie bellwether of political and societal chaos yet to come as a stout companion to the movie’s general air of celebratory remembrance.

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The “Marquee Movies” series has already seen Matinee (last Friday night), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) paired with Polish director Wojciech Marczewski’s 1990 Escape from Liberty Island (last Saturday night), and Ettore Scola’s masterful Splendor (1989), which screened last Sunday night.


But there’s plenty more to come. Sunday, June 12, the archive series unveils a double bill of Lloyd Bacon’s Footlight Parade (1933) with the less well-known This Way, Please (1937), a terrific tale of a star-struck movie theater usherette with dreams of singing and dancing just like the stars she idolizes, starring Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Betty Grable, Jim Jordan, Marian Jordan and the brilliantly grizzled Ned Sparks.

Wednesday, June 15, you can see Uruguay’s A Useful Life (2010), in which a movie theater manager in Montevideo faces up the fact that the days of his beloved movie theater are numbered, paired up with Luc Moullet’s droll account of the feud between the French film journals Cahiers du Cinema and Positif, entitled The Seats of the Alcazar (1989).


One of my favorites, Tsai Ming-liang’s haunting Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) gets a rare projection at the Wilder on Sunday, June 19, along with Lisandsro Alonzo’s Fantasma (2006), described by the archive as “a hypnotic commentary on cinematic rituals and presence.”

Friday, June 24, you can see, if you dare, Lamberto Bava’s gory meta-horror film Demons (1985) and then stay for Bigas Luna’s similarly twisted treatise on the movies and voyeurism, 1987’s Anguish.

Saturday afternoon, June 25, “Marquee Movies” presents a rare screening of Gregory La Cava’s hilarious slapstick spoof of rural moviegoing, His Nibs (1921), paired up with what I consider, alongside Matinee and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one of the real jewels of the series, Basil Dearden’s marvelously funny The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), all about what happens when a newlywed couple inherits a rundown cinema populated by a staff of eccentrics that include Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers. (More on that one next week.)



And the series concludes on Sunday, June 26, with a screening of the original 174-minute director’s cut of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988).

(Each program also features a variety of moviegoing-oriented shorts, trailers and other surprises. Click the individual links for details and show times.)

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(Next week: My review of The Smallest Show on Earth and a remembrance of my own hometown movie theater, which closed in 2015.)


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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

SNUB-NOSED STYLE: THE OUTFIT (1974)



John Flynn's The Outfit (1974), a brutally efficient bit of business based glancingly on Richard Stark’s procedurally inquisitive and poetic crime novel of the same name, is a movie that feels like it’s never heard of a rounded corner; it’s blunt like a 1970 Dodge Monaco pinning a couple of killers against a Dumpster and a brick wall. I say “glancingly” because the movie, as Glenn Kenny observed upon The Outfit’s 2011 DVD release from the Warner Archives, is based less on the chronologically unconcerned novel than an idea taken from it. On the page Stark's protagonist, the unflappable Parker, his face altered by plastic surgery to the degree that past associates often take a fatal beat too long to realize to whom it is they are speaking, assumes the detached perspective of a bruised deity, undertaking the orchestration of a series of robberies administered to Mob-run businesses too arrogant to believe they could ever be so victimized. The bulk of the book is given over to microscopically precise accounts of these robberies, which occur with Parker’s approval and input but largely outside his presence. Parker is in many ways a ghostly figure floating through the criminal scenarios of his own devising.

  
The movie, however, through a mixture of Flynn’s no-frills approach and probable budgetary constraints (The Outfit was made for MGM during the austere reign of James Aubrey, who was far more interested in the burgeoning casino business than he was in making movies), is engagingly reductive. Robert Duvall is ostensibly the man Stark called Parker, here renamed Earl Macklin, who is released from prison and driven to a seedy motel by his girlfriend Bett (Karen Black in a functional role found in the opening passages of the book and here largely the creation of scenarist Flynn). Bett reveals to Macklin what we have already seen—his brother has been executed by two pistol-bearing Outfit thugs—and that she’s been strong-armed into setting Macklin up for similarly fatal treatment. Macklin gets the best of his would-be assassin, who reveals that Macklin is marked for death because the Wichita bank he and his brother robbed a few years prior, with the help of Macklin’s partner Cody (Joe Don Baker), was an Outfit operation. But rather than go into hiding, Macklin and Cody begin a series of knocks on similarly unprotected Mob fronts, robberies meant to collect the $250,000 Macklin figures he’s owed for his (and his brother’s) troubles, and shake the very foundations of the organization. Substituting headlong, arrogant force for the mapped-out strategies detailed in the book, Flynn pile-drives forward just like his protagonist, setting up one cast-iron set piece after another in clean, broad strokes, an approach as cinematically equivalent to Stark’s lean, unfussy prose as one could imagine being without the director galloping forward into insufferable self-consciousness.


It’s easy to wonder if those probable budgetary restrictions had anything to do with Flynn’s scrapping of the idea to film The Outfit as a full-on noir period piece set in the postwar ‘40s. Personally, I think what we’ve got works just fine, probably better than any attempt to predate even the novel and recreate a shadowy atmosphere which would likely only call attention to its artificiality. As is, The Outfit, set in 1973, is only 10 years removed from the cars, the styles, the guns, the diners and the entire milieu of Stark’s novel, which was published in 1963. Not much in the way of adaptation in terms of production design was really needed to stay true to the cynicism-soaked atmosphere originating from Stark’s typewriter.

The one conceit that seems held over from that plan is the casting of several icons of film noir in various roles, both of the central and cameo varieties. In addition to its terrific main cast (Duvall, Baker and Black), The Outfit gives a good role (one of his last) to Robert Ryan, veteran of scores of great appearances in noirs as varied as Act of Violence and The Set-up. But also be on the lookout for appearances by Elisha Cook Jr. (Stranger on the Third Floor, The Maltese Falcon, Born to Kill), Roy Roberts (Force of Evil, He Walked by Night), Marie Windsor (The Narrow Margin, Force of Evil, The Killing) and the great Jane Greer (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). The presence of these faces, aged but recognizable and very welcome, is an exceedingly nice touch, a tip of the fedora to the kinds of movies to which The Outfit is inextricably connected which never becomes either an oversized distraction or an embarrassing gesture of self-congratulation.
  

Flynn’s is the kind of adaptation that often ruffles the feathers of those who are too concerned with absolute fidelity to the source material, yet it maintains a tonal consistency with Stark, even as it parts ways with his methods, that honors the spirit of what this great crime writer was up to. If I’m not mistaken, there’s only one scene from Stark’s book that retains its shape and structure in translation to the movie, and it’s a corker. On the page, Parker heads out to a farm to trade his car, shot up and made by gangsters while burning rubber away from a hit on an Outfit money-laundering operation, for a less conspicuous model. There he encounters the mechanic who will negotiate the trade, the mechanic's brother and that brother’s wife, who falsely accuses Parker of rape in order to rile the anger of her husband, whom she hopes Parker will kill. The set piece works in the book as a welcome yet conventional bit of action, a break from the stylistic consideration of the mechanics of criminal behavior, and to keep Parker, the first-person narrator, from becoming too solitary a character, to slow down his positioning as the narrative’s fully detached yet omnipresent overseer. 

But Flynn rejiggers the scene slightly, bringing Macklin (Parker) onto the scene with Cody, and he’s cast the scene for maximum juice—Richard Jaeckel is the hard-assed but honorable mechanic, Bill McKinney in yet another of his dangerous backwoods psycho characterizations as the mechanic’s too-volatile brother, and the peerlessly voluptuous Sheree North, first in a knockout black turtleneck sweater and then in a clingy, pointedly thin bathrobe, as the brother’s shrewish, accusatory wife. It’s a terrific scene—she propositions Cody instead of Macklin (Parker) here, but the result is the same, a deep-woods driveway version of a Mexican standoff that functions as an opportunity to stage a bit of fisticuffs, gun play and sultry sexuality with actors who are more than game for a good time, even if it only lasts one scene.
  

The Outfit is a movie that could possibly be mistaken as almost tossed off, so inconspicuous is Flynn’s directorial hand. It’s true that Flynn favors a blunt-edged camera style which borders on no style at all, but the movie is artfully assembled nonetheless. The images, shot by Bruce Surtees, have a brisk purity in their utilization of found urban environments; conversely, the movie’s use of the rural disarray surrounding Macklin’s dead brother’s home, offset by foreboding overcast skies, is simple yet evocative. The movie sets up a contrast between the sunlit grit of criminal streets and the grey skies overseeing the boondock landscapes of the have-nots that is expressive without ever being obvious. And it’s all put together with a slam-bang absence of ostentation by Oscar-winning film editor Ralph E. Winters (Ben-Hur), who knows his way around conveying the weight of vehicles and the heavy metal .45-caliber pop of a scrubbed handgun. The result is a snub-nosed picture with the kind of style that heats up without making a show of cranking the temperature. It belongs to the film noir tradition as a movie lacking the very self-conscious moves which might insist upon its placement within that tradition. But The Outfit also feels like a movie of its time, tough, nasty, amoral, of a piece with the best of Don Siegel’s early ‘70s crime films, just as the films noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s, great and not-so-great, were anchored in theirs. There’s honor in temporal certitude like that, in this tale of bad guys taking it out on guys who are even worse, even as the film looks over its shoulder every once in a while to cast a glance at the great, ambiguously dark shadows of the past.

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NOIR ICONS THEN AND NOW


Timothy Carey, The Killing (1956), The Outfit (1974)


Elisha Cook Jr., The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Outfit (1974)


Jane Greer, Out of the Past (1947), The Outfit (1974)


Roy Roberts (left), Force of Evil (1951), The Outfit (1974)
  

Robert Ryan, Act of Violence (1948),  The Outfit (1974)
  

Marie Windsor, The Narrow Margin (1952), The Outfit (1974)  

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The Outfit is available on DVD from Warner Archives and makes an occasional appearance on Turner Classic Movies, as it did last month for the channel’s month-long tribute to Robert Ryan. It was that showing which prompted the posting of this article, only slightly revised here from the original version published at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on February 21, 2011.

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