Friday, July 29, 2005

THE DENNIS AND EVAN FILM FESTIVAL Summer 2005 Movies (So Far) and a Week Spent with My Movie-Mad Nephew

Here it is, a full month since my nephew Evan arrived from McKinleyville, California, a town just north of Eureka, in the heart of Humboldt County, for a week of nonstop movie-going, balanced by a week of nonstop DVD-watching in the off hours, and I still don't feel like I've fully recovered. I haven't seen a movie in a theater since Friday, July 1.* I want to see Fantastic Four, but right now another blockbuster, after that week of almost nothing but summer blockbusters, just sounds exhausting (late appearances by some encouraging reviews and a first-person account from a friend have bolstered my hopes that it might be worth a look, however, despite all the conventional wisdom suggesting otherwise). I'm hoping that time won't run out on my opportunity to see Alice Wu's Saving Face, a romantic comedy starring Joan Chen, though it's down to one more week at a second-run house in Pasadena, and who knows if it'll be there next Friday. And I've also got designs on two very different documentaries, Murderball and The Aristocrats, Tim Burton's film of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Walter Salles' take on J-horror Dark Water, Miranda July's sleeper hit Me and You and Everyone We Know, March of the Penguins, perhaps Don Roos' Happy Endings and, in another instance of unexpectedly good reviews piquing my previous absolute lack of interest, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers (that moist sound you just heard was frequent reader Virgil Hilts indulging in the Spit Take to End All Spit Takes-- Virg, they promise me that there's only one cameo appearance in this one by another comic actor who routinely rotates inside the same sphere as Mssrs. Vaughn and Wilson, and it's not the short, obnoxious guy).


But before I start Summer Movie Indoctrination Phase Two, I really should talk a little bit about what Evan and I saw during that image-and-sound saturation bombardment that comprised our recent big movie week. The Dennis/Evan Film Festival actually started for me the afternoon before Evan arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Northern California. I took Emma and her best friend to an afternoon screening of what had been described to me by someone who had seen it before it was released as "the worst movie of the year." After a buildup like that, I'm somewhat relieved to report that Herbie Fully Loaded, while undeniably no great shakes when compared to, say, Tokyo Story, or Nashville, or Citizen Kane, or even this multi-character chamber drama, is pretty solidly situated within the Disney Herbie canon several notches below the original 1969 hit The Love Bug and several notches above either the abysmal Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo or the nearly unwatchable Herbie Goes Bananas. Yes, it's every bit as good as Herbie Rides Again (which, by the way has a far more entertaining title in Germany). Matt Dillon, as evil NASCAR champion Trip Murphy, is no David Tomlinson or Keenan Wynn, and Michael Keaton, as star Lindsay Lohan's down-on-his-luck racing father, often has a look on his face that looks less like character immersion and more like he's wondering how he took the long tumble from Beetlejuice to Beetle Dad. But the movie is reasonably well paced and doesn't ladle on as many bad pop-rock songs over action montage sequences as I expected it would, and the big NASCAR finale is, if clipped a little short, still entertaining enough for the undemanding Herbie fan in my household.

As for Lindsay Lohan, who longs to burst out of exactly these kinds of roles (she does have a featured role in Robert Altman's upcoming adaptation of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion), Ms. Tabloid does reasonably well coloring within the lines of her character here. There is an awful lot of Lohan stuffed into a parade of too-tiny T-shirts in scene after scene, which is one thing-- even Disney would have been unlikely to ask her to wear a loose-fitting burlap sack in order to avoid turning the cranks of lecherous dads who have tagged along to matinees with their kiddies. But, as my friend Andy rightly points out, things start getting a little uncomfortable when Lohan is poured into a low-cut mini-dress for a scene in which Dillon attempts to seduce her... into taking his NASCAR rocket for a ride. And as we sat through the end credits, I was very grateful for my toddler's uncomprehending ear as Lindsay crunched out some generic-sounding pop-rock twaddle in which she laid down the law to her boyfriend-- "I wanna come first!" Between this conspicuously inappropriate lyric and the whole digital breast reduction nonsense, the Disney marketing department has been, I suppose, relatively restrained in not coordinating some synergistic photo layout in ESPN magazine featuring Lohan languishing on top of Herbie's steaming hood, leisurely stripping off her racing gear. And that digital breast reduction float was just that-- nonsense. Seriously, if the x-and-o artistes did digitally diminish her curvaceosity to accentuate the girl-next-door-ishness of her character and she still fit into a T-shirt like that (at least at the time of shooting), then their tinkering has to rank as the most colossally over-hyped groundbreaking CGI wonder since Forrest Gump shook hands with John F. Kennedy. (I have since been told that the digital futzing was actually no more than a slight masking of the cleavage Lohan reveals in certain scenes to reduce the visuals, apparently, from lascivious to mildly arousing, news which makes the pre-release announcement even more of a tempest in a D-cup.)


Evan's flight from the north ended up running late, and by the time he and I made it home from the airport that night it was far too late to head out to a movie theater. So after we got the luxurious air mattress set up on the living room floor that would serve as his bed for the next six days, we cracked open a couple of Diet Pepsi Limes and he shook off his plane trip to the cackling rhythms of the Rube Goldberg death machine that is Final Destination 2. We both giggled and snorted and shivered in all the right places, and I went to bed happy that I'd converted another unsuspecting movie fan to this picture's ghastly pleasures, happy at the thought of spending a week watching movies with somebody who would actually want to stay up late with me after a evening flight to see somebody get spectacularly trisected by a airborne section of taut barbed wire.

Patty, Evan, the girls and I spent Sunday in Legoland, just north of San Diego, so no movies that day. And Monday I took him to the glorious Vista Theater for a screening of Batman Begins. He was duly impressed with the decor of the recently remodeled auditorium while the lights were still up, and extremely impressed when the lights went down and the Vista showed off what I still believe to be the best combination of picture and sound in Los Angeles. Just seeing a movie in a genuine old single-screen movie palace with a real sense of history was an unusual treat for this movie-mad child of multiplexes, VCRs and DVD players, and he was suitably appreciative enough to get excited when I told him we'd likely be coming back to the Vista later in the week for opening day of one of the biggest summer blockbusters of them all.


Tuesday night was drive-in night. One of the things that Evan’s mom insisted on before he came to visit was that I figure out a place to take him to see a drive-in movie—finally, a good excuse to get to get back out to one myself! The drive-in was a story in itself, and Evan, master of the deadpan reaction, was as enthusiastic about his new experience as I could have hoped. I too was thrilled about finding this little gem of a theater, considering that I had assumed all the good drive-ins in Southern California had dried up and blown away—hell, I assumed all of them, good and bad, had dried up and blown away. So I was, as the dark horse Oscar nominee inevitably says as he/she traipses up the red carpet, just happy to be there. And a good thing too, because the double feature we chose didn’t seem to hold much promise—when darkness finally fell, we would bear witness to Mr. and Mrs. Smith (not a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock screwball comedy starring Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard) and The Longest Yard (definitely a remake of Robert Aldrich’s brutal and astringent 1974 prison comedy).

That calm, level-headed, absolutely not a bit reactionary curmudgeon Armond White, in the first review of many bad reviews I read of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, led off his piece with this:

“You don't have to be Osama bin Laden to think that only a horrible culture would produce an ‘entertainment’ like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But when a bootleg of this facetious comedy does get satellite-projected to that crazy hermit in a Middle Eastern cave, he'll probably break into an ‘I told you so’ grin.”

And from the timber of the rest of what White has to say about this movie, underneath the subheading “Two Shallow Spies and Everything That’s Wrong With America,” who could be blamed for expecting the experience of the movie to be akin to washing down your popcorn with Jonestown Kool-aid or having the Charles Manson and company drop-in unexpectedly for late-evening coffee? Almost all of the other reviews I read in the wake of White’s diatribe were, if a little less sackcloth-and-ashes in their condemnation, then at least none-too-excited about the movie and far too eager to focus on the back story of the film’s torturous production and whether the alleged off-screen chemistry of stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie translated into on-screen fireworks, not exactly scintillating subjects for honest film criticism. As for White, since his initial review of the movie he has derided Bewitched as “after Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the second screwball catastrophe in a month,” and Don Roos’ Happy Endings as “2005’s most loathsome film so far (outstinking Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Crash).” (White is the writer who chided Americans for ignoring the pop pleasures of Torque by saying, among other hilarious things, “Only a humorless prig would be appalled by this.”) I can’t wait to find out how Wedding Crashers is so wretched as to justify not only bin Laden’s hatred of America but perhaps further action against its citizenry, and during his lecture White will surely find a way to bring up Mr. and Mrs. Smith yet again. This blockbuster comedy may no longer be the worst movie of 2005, but it remains, for White, a significant touchstone of evil.

Maybe it’s just my taste for touchstones of evil, but I settled in behind the wheel and almost immediately found Mr. and Mrs. Smith to be much less a laundry list of American (and Hollywood) decadence than a surprisingly deft, sharp satire of the middlebrow aftermath of romantic seduction housed inside a typically nonsensical Hollywood high concept. The film’s construct of personal observation inside oversized action holds up remarkably well, until the last third or so, when the explosive set pieces start to stretch out a bit too long and thin. The movie posits the absurd situation that John and Jane Smith, whose meet-cute relationship began under fire in a foreign country, are assassins for rival companies who have remained unaware of their spouses’ true vocation for six years. The calcification of their marriage into robotic routines and half-felt dialogues, and their attempts to solve the problem through counseling, coincides with the realization that each has been assigned to assassinate the other in the aftermath of a botched hit on an industrial spy. So Smith becomes a comedy of marital rebuff, struggle and reconciliation that plays itself out in literal/metaphorical gunfire and explosions, as the Smiths escalate the War of the Roses into total suburban apocalypse. Pitt and Jolie handle the subtler tensions of that flattened-out suburban existence, decorated at every turn by a fantastically imagined manse done up in fetishistic Crate and Barrel detail, tossing off the movie’s sometimes excessively loaded innuendo with panache and teasingly acrid humor. By the time the Smiths have decimated their house in trying to decimate each other, and then end up in an erotic clinch the likes of which they haven’t experienced since the early days of their courtship, the movie has made a believable connection between the playing out of aggressions and the reigniting of romantic passion within a relationship. It isn’t a therapeutic strategy you necessarily need to believe could be applied to real life, but within the screwball parameters the movie has set for itself, it works remarkably well, and the patterns of actual marital concerns are discernible amid the rubble and revving engines. The movie falls too much in love with Mr. and Mrs. Smith shooting themselves out from one sticky situation after another as the movie whizzes to its climax and unfortunately devolves into simple post-John Woo pyrotechnics. But until then Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with its perfectly beautiful stars (and Jolie really has never seemed so lustrously gorgeous on screen as she does here) standing in for Mr. and Mrs. Joe Married, works small wonders with a premise that at first glance seems tired and obvious at best, overbearing, snotty and sexist at worst. Osama bin Laden could probably care less, actually. Now, how do we get Armond White to calm down?

The less said about the evening’s second feature, the better. Adam Sandler has brought his laid-back (barely sentient) persona to bear on the remake of Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard, and the result is a reduction of the rating by a half-notch (R to PG-13), an escalation of homophobic humor, and a straight-across trade of the original movie’s nihilistic worldview for a cynical devaluation of just about all points of view, those derived from Tracy Keenan Wynn’s original screenplay, and those provided as thin padding in the “new” script by Sheldon Turner. All you really need to know about the new version of The Longest Yard is that the rough-and-tumble black prostitutes brought in to act as cheerleaders for Paul Crewe’s Mean Machine squad of inmate football players in the 1974 original have been replaced by black transvestite prisoners, objects of high comedy indeed, and all the better for our boys keeping a good, solid hold on that bar of soap in the shower. If that little bit of “updating” strikes you as riotously funny in itself, then by all means, don’t miss the new version of The Longest Yard, a movie singular in its ability to make me pine for that other Adam Sandler football movie. Rob (“You can doooooo eeet!”) Schneider shows up in the stands to get absolutely no laughs by recycling his peculiar catch phrase while cheering on the Mean Machine in this one too. And not only that, but we got to sit through a trailer for Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo. After it was all said and done, I’ll be damned if that grotesque-looking sequel didn’t still look like it’d be better than what Sandler hath wrought this summer.


We were back at the Vista the next day for the opening of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (H..G. Wells goes unmentioned above the title), munching on sandwiches from the Vons across the street while standing in line about an hour and 15 minutes ahead of show time. It was a good opportunity for Evan to peruse the celebrities immortalized in cement in front of this theater, a rather more specialized crowd than the more famous collection in front of the Grauman’s Chinese. Here you’ll see signatures, handprints, lip prints and whatever other body part might make an impression from the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog, in case you were wondering), Robert (Count Yorga) Quarry and the 30th-anniversary reunion of the cast of Night of Dark Shadows, the 1971 sequel to the first movie version of TV’s horror soap opera hit, House of Dark Shadows (1970). Handprint ceremonies are much more infrequent at the Vista than in front of the Chinese, where even Ryan Seacrest can rate a star or a wet block of concrete, but when they do happen it is cause for hollering and rejoicing in Genre Heaven, the epicenter of which, on those nights, could easily be mistaken for the Vista Theater.

As for hell, it is often joked that New Jersey is if not the underworld’s fair representation here on Earth, then at least a reasonable facsimile, a way station with plenty of ghastly offenses all its own with which to whet the terrors of the damned. But in War of the Worlds the vision of New Jersey as hell is realized as the world of the everyman under devastation by rampaging alien invaders whose deadly attack vehicles have laid buried under our major cities for centuries, awaiting the moment when their operators would beam down into them and bring them to fearsome life. There is the requisite calm before the storm: everyman protagonist Tom Cruise is a divorced father named Ray whose wife (Miranda Otto, consigned to bookend cameos), now pregnant and living in Boston with her new husband, drops off their two children, sullen teenaged boy Robbie (Justin Chatwin) who hates Ray for abandoning his family and his responsibilities, and precocious pre-teen Rachel (played by precocious pre-teen actress Dakota Fanning), for a weekend with Dad. The kids are exasperated to see Dad’s none-too-tidy apartment, but Rachel is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Robbie, however, makes a point to wear his Red Sox cap when Dad offers to play a friendly game of catch—Ray is, as it is implied everyone is in Jersey, a Yankees fan. (Have angry Mets fans have made a point of storming out of screenings in disgust during this scene?)

Dad gets a chance to prove his mettle, though, when a very creepy electrical storm hits town and one of those alien vehicles comes charging right up from under a church—so much for religious institutions when it comes to standing up to interstellar threat—initiating the devastation that will compel Ray to find it within his callous heart to become the dad he’s failed to be up till now and to reunite his kids with their mother in Massachusetts. For the first two-thirds, War of the Worlds is very scary and unsettling, and it seems that Spielberg has got his mojo going pretty strong, creating imagery-- those tendrils of blood snaking out over the deadened landscape-- and individual sequences that comprise some of the best filmmaking he’s done in years—the opening storm sequence and the initial appearance of the alien force are both shot through with the kind of dread, and the subsequent explosion of fear, the director conjured in that rippling glass of water just before the T-Rex appeared in Jurassic Park, only this time on a much grander scale, and infused with references, both direct and indirect, to the horror of 9/11. And an onslaught of panicked citizens overrunning a ferry, with horrific results, is staged with such fury and clarity that, despite the difference in the scales of the vehicles, it makes James Cameron’s sinking of the Titanic look like bathtub play.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen War of the Worlds yet, or if you skipped that reading assignment back in junior high, be aware that for the rest of this review I will be assuming that you have or that you don’t care if key plot points are revealed to you ahead of time.)

Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp have gambled on the idea of revealing the invasion entirely from the point of view of Cruise’s character, hewing close to the original storytelling strategy of Wells’ narrative—which means never revealing more about the motives and methodology (beyond mass destruction) of the invaders than Ray himself ever discovers. This is a risky strategy, especially since Ray is a lower middle-class dockworker, not a scientist who could be used as a convenient device to create context for the alien presence or explain their ultimate failure. The movie generates much of its momentum from its episodic structure as Ray fights his way out of Jersey, trying to keep his son from running off to join up with the military to fight the aliens, trying to keep his daughter from being an eyewitness to too much horror, and trying to keep from being vaporized by or sucked inside one of the alien tripods.

Everything eventually settles down into an extended interlude in which Ray and Rachel take shelter in a basement along with a somewhat deranged survivalist type played by a wild-eyed Tim Robbins, who, it becomes clear, is as dangerous to their survival as the aliens themselves. It’s a scene that provides a much needed respite from the relentless action, but I also think that it’s here that the air starts leaking out of the movie and the weakness of Spielberg and Koepp’s storytelling tack begins to be revealed. Ray is eventually compelled to cover his daughter’s eyes and murder Robbins (behind a closed door) to keep him from pointlessly attacking the alien forces and revealing their whereabouts, but they are discovered nonetheless, and the movie, initially one man’s point of view of global apocalypse, becomes a movie about how global apocalypse affects one man. He couldn’t be bothered to provide them a decent meal before the horror began, and now he’s murdered to keep one of them from harm and will be forced into even more conventional heroics in order to reunite them with their mother in Boston. Unfortunately, Cruise is too much a look-at-me presence, so the movie’s shift in perspective is easily accommodated and encouraged not only by the movie’s refusal to elaborate on the events we’re witnessing, but also by the actor’s natural tendency toward narcissism. It’s hard to accept Cruise everyman-ness, no matter how much the movie insists on it, so it’s seems natural that we should be led to see the destruction of our planet as simply the impetus that gets Cruise to see the light re his familial responsibilities.

By choosing not to provide the scientific or military context more familiar from less ambitious science fiction epics, the movie can’t help but slide into this kind of narrative reductivism—it has nowhere else to go, and its adherence to Wells’ ending reinforces the reductivism too. Ray and Rachel finally do make it to a curiously undevastated Boston, where they are reunited with Ray’s ex-wife, her new husband and his parents (played distractingly by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the 1956 George Pal movie version of Wells’ book) in one of those fairy-tale conclusions Spielberg is often fond of imposing on stories and situations that warrant far grimmer results. Even more unexpectedly, Ray and family realize that the attacks have just suddenly stopped; the alien ships are crashing and burning for no discernible reason. The movie pulls up short and the characters are presumably left to wonder just what the hell happened, but fortunately we have Morgan Freeman’s narration to tell us what they may never find out—that exposure to the most insignificant microbes, the building blocks of life on our planet and the bacteria to which we have built up millions of years of resistance as a species, have somehow proven toxic to these creatures and in a matter of days devastated their immune systems in much the same way as they have laid waste to much of our civilization.

Ironic, yes, but not exactly the stuff of which satisfying movie climaxes are made, and the matter-of-fact biology of the events got me wondering about those aliens and their supposed intelligence. One might suppose that the alien warriors wouldn’t have gotten a taste of those microbes until they were deposited in those subterranean sleeper cell vehicles via the very specifically directed lightning bolts of the film’s opening storm sequence and then emerged from the ground to begin their assault. But what of the reconnaissance squad, the exploratory forces that determined our planet worth invading and harvesting to begin with? Would not the aliens that initially engineered the planting of those vehicles been exposed to the same fast-acting biological defenses that proved so fatal to the aliens we do see? And if so, one would think that the inability to sustain life on a planet crawling with single-celled killers would be information that might be comported rather quickly to the main forces supporting the attack on Earth, thus circumventing the destruction before it ever had a chance to begin. Spielberg’s filmmaking is strong enough that many might not be bothered by this inconsistency, but it’s a hole in logic that, in retrospect, conjures up too many comparisons to M. Night Shamaylan’s asinine Signs, in which an ostensibly advanced race of murderous aliens decide to invade a planet which is three-quarters covered in a substance (water) that—whoops!—turns out to be kinda fatal to them.

Some have accused Spielberg of pornographic misappropriation of the horrors of 9/11 to bolster the effectiveness of what is essentially a fantastical representation of an attack with no pointed political context—in other words, a boogeymen-from-outer-space schlockfest. Well, even though I think of the new War of the Worlds as only a partial success, I think it’s a mistake to condemn it on such grounds. Doing so negates a long history of science fiction film that engages in the paranoia and devastation of the day to inform its narratives and provide potent ways of dealing with those realities. I’ll admit to some initial trepidation over some of the film’s more overt references to what New Yorkers experienced in the aftermath of those ghastly attacks nearly four years ago—the ash settling on survivors of the first assault, posters pleading for information about missing loved ones posted on walls and fences, and Rachel’s terrified inquiry to her dad as to the identity of the attackers—“Is it the terrorists?” Obviously the wounds of the disaster of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center are still fresh even to those of us who had no proximity at all to the epicenters of the attacks, and those wounds are what I credit for the ache in my gut as some of the film’s sequences unfolded and were revealed to be treading some very familiar, very turbulent psychological waters, as well as the insistent ambiguousness of my response to them even weeks later. It was all very powerful, but in this context I wasn’t sure what it all meant. And then I started remembering that science fiction and horror (and this War of the Worlds is often as much a horror film as it is sci-fi) have always been genres that have lent themselves well to filmmakers, and audiences, projecting their fears and societal concerns onto the narratives and wrestling with national traumas. As David Edelstein points out in a response to a fellow Slate writer who has condemned Spielberg for crass exploitation of the 9/11 tragedy, sometimes it is the movies that are best suited to give those feelings, those points of view, those reactions a structure, a format for concrete expression, and manages to remind us of a couple of good examples:

“A respectable body of critics—myself among them—consider (the original Godzilla) a haunting depiction, by the Japanese themselves, of the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Farther afield, I can't think of a film that captures the social upheaval—racial and interfamilial—of the middle and late '60s as suggestively as Night of the Living Dead.”

Similarly, the three separate versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers-- Don Siegel’s 1956 version and the 1978 and 1994 remakes, courtesy of Philip Kaufman and Abel Ferrara—wrung fear of communism (or its inverse, fear of McCarthyism, depending on who you believe and, of course, your own political point of view), fear of the numbing pop psychological trends of the Me Decade, and fear of rampant militarism all out of the same basic story outline. And one could go on a long time pointing out examples of trepidation and distrust of what lay ahead on the new frontiers of science in any number of science fiction and horror films of the ‘50s, ‘60s and even into the ‘70s. If Edelstein’s article had shown up a little earlier than today, it might have been useful in helping me sort out the scramble of emotions that the imagery in Spielberg’s film churned up in my heart and mind. But it’s valuable also as a reminder that, whether you find the film a masterpiece, as Edelstein does, a brilliantly realized but honorably flawed experiment in narrative, as do I, or “the worst movie I’ve ever seen” (as one man muttered to my nephew and I upon bolting from the movie midway and encountering us as we entered another auditorium that same day), one thing seems unalterably true: Spielberg is not a carnival barker exploiting real-life misery by grafting it onto some candied sideshow of Hollywood-ized atrocities, and to accuse Spielberg of being a pornographer just seems reactionary and misguidedly moralistic. War of the Worlds is a sincere attempt to carry on in a way that science fiction has carried on almost since its beginnings. Whether it succeeds or fails as a work of art, it should be recognized as a seriously intended product of a nation’s fears, perhaps even of the dangers of a government, like a race of alien attackers, concocting rationales for invasion before all the deadly facts have been assembled— that is, a product of the times in which it was made.

(Amusingly, and somewhat convincingly, Andrew Sarris, writing in the New York Observer, posits a theory about Spielberg’s movie that, curiously, everyone else seems to have missed. Sarris writes:

”Ray barely has time to order take-out pizza for his boisterous brood before all hell breaks loose in the heavens and below the earth’s surface. And there, staring me in the face, was a glaring subtext that had been missed in all the reviews I’d read: While Rachel was a little darling (at least until she begins screaming like a banshee nonstop), Robbie was a pain in the neck from the word go. He seems to hate Ray for having left his two children behind after he got the divorce. The usually symbolic evidence is clear: While Ray is complacently wearing a New York Yankees cap, Robbie stands head-to-head with his father and defiantly sports a Boston Red Sox cap. So that’s what this updated version of War of the Worlds is at least partly about: the hard feelings that have lingered long after the Red Sox ended their ancient curse of futility by sweeping the Yankees out of the American League Championship (and a shot at the World Series) after the Yanks had won the first three games of the series and were leading late into the decisive fourth. If this proposed subtext seems more than a little farfetched, let us consider the literally laughable last shots of the movie. After much of New Jersey, Staten Island and upstate New York has been pulverized by the aliens, Ray and Rachel find their way to Boston, which apparently has been completely untouched by the invasion. Indeed, Boston seems to serve as a spiritual Shangri-La for Ray, his children and all the other survivors from the devastated domains of Yankee fandom.”)


Far more tantalizing, for me, than witnessing Spielberg’s destruction fest (9/11 and baseball subtexts or no), was the unveiling of the first full-length trailer for his upcoming remake of King Kong. Predictably, fan boy sites began deciding as soon as they saw the trailer what to think of the movie, even though Jackson himself said that it was full of CGI shots that were not fully completed, and even though it’s patently absurd to decide on your opinion of a movie a full six months ahead of its release. It is one thing to get bad vibes about a movie based on what you see in a preview (after all, those vibes could end up being caused by the way the trailer itself is assembled, and the movie could either feel different or reveal other aspects that the trailer overlooked which might sway an opinion to the positive). It’s quite another develop ossified opinions about the work itself based on two minutes of clips. And it is quite another to have high hopes again about another spectacular Peter Jackson offering after having seen this trailer, which I now most definitely do have. The movie itself could turn out to be the year’s biggest disappointment—anything’s possible. But the effects and the grandeur and the atmosphere are all there in the trailer we saw, and I would be surprised if it wasn’t at least as good as the underrated (though admittedly tacky) 1976 version. I was also surprised, while watching the preview, to find myself reacting just as positively to the offbeat casting—Jack Black in the Robert Armstrong role, Adrian Brody as Bruce Cabot, and Naomi Watts in spot-on (though Panavision and full-color) recreations of familiar poses from 1933 in the part stamped forever by the gossamer presence of Fay Wray. Jackson has the ability, the passion and the love for the original that makes him the only person who could possibly bring off such a tricky project. The question that remains to be answered, that can only adequately be answered not in endless Internet diary excerpts and interviews, but by the film itself is, what compelled him to want to do it in the first place? Perhaps more so than any of the multitude of other remakes that have been unveiled or have yet to be unveiled in 2005, I expect that Jackson’s answer will itself be compelling and heartfelt, and just may translate into another transporting visual/aural amazement to add to his filmography, and to our benefit as moviegoers in search of an Event at last worthy of all of the hype.


I’ve admitted to the heresy before, and here is as good a place to admit to it again as any— While I count myself among those who recognize 1968’s Night of the Living Dead as a landmark work of social horror and one of the scariest films ever made, I think George A. Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, is an overlong, clunky and flabby pile-up of obvious alle-gory that gets driven into the ground and pulverized by its writer-director during the movie’s near two-and-a-half hour running time. The movie’s narrative metaphors and punk visual strategies get worked over and worked over until the meaning is just so much pulp, shredded like the innards of those bikers unfortunate enough to stumble upon that overrun shopping mall and think, for even a second, that their chrome and hot leather aggression could stand against the rampaging, flesh-eating horde. That shopping mall metaphor (“They’re drawn to it; it was a place that meant something in their lives”) is a good jumping-off point, but Romero hauls it out of the barn out early and rides it until it’s way wet, revealing few other tricks beyond numbing repetition in his bag—Boom! Get it? Boom boom! Get it? Boom boom boom! Get it??!! (Conversely, in last year’s stunning remake of Dawn, the shopping-mall-as-social center observation is just that—the place from which Zach Snyder’s far-superior movie spins off.) Romero’s Day of the Dead was, I thought, a big improvement, charting the profoundly frightening waters of the zombies’ further evolution from untethered force of evil toward domestication, or at least applied militarization (an idea also flirted with in the devastatingly funny conclusion of Shaun of the Dead). Romero was denied the budget to bring his movie to its obvious conclusion—zombie-fried apocalyptic war—but the movie still had a potency that its wildly overpraised predecessor lacked. Well, it’s taken 20 years and a Romero-less zombie revivification in the cinema made up of the likes of 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and that 2004 Dawn remake (all films that are head and shoulders above Romero’s second zombie movie) to get Romero back out onto the playing field again, and what’s he’s come up with, Land of the Dead, finds the director continuing to mine his zombie horde for all the metaphorical weight it can bear, with the vein finally starting to come up empty.

Much is made of the zombie’s emerging intelligence, their empathy (for each other, that is—they still don’t much care that their meals don’t really care to be eaten), and their rudimentary ability to communicate—all signs that the director lights up like cheap neon in Vegas, the better not to miss. The zombies are just like us! Leaden line after leaden line drives the point home as we see the games human survivors play in order to perpetuate a financially (and ethnically) segregated, zombie-free society behind the glass walls of a high-rise community for the rich—a lame retread of the shopping mall motif in Dawn that gets little chance for its own satirical deconstruction—while the poor live down on the street and have to fight off the occasional zombie onslaught at the gates. Romero’s budget is probably the biggest he’s ever had, and the movie looks good, if not just a little too much like Escape from New York, with all that super-saturated blue standing in for night light. But the story’s wheels do nothing but spin right from the start, and what little momentum the narrative has is routinely dragged down by the actors—Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper, relatively restrained but still not very interesting as the corrupt Trump-esque owner of the high-rise—and Romero’s own adherence to the rules of the genre he created—the splatter must run on time, no matter the situation. Romero has largely failed to find vivid new uses for the up-to-the-minute CGI-enhanced gore techniques at his fingertips and, the occasional detached jaw notwithstanding, ends up creating the first zombie movie to flirt with genuine boredom. For the first time, the genre feels like a straitjacket for Romero rather than a freeing canvas on which to develop the kinds of ideas that can so easily blossom under such stringent narrative guidelines. So little is going on that the mind begins to wander to places it ought not go, such as, who keeps stocking the zombie-overrun supermarket shelves with fresh product for Hopper’s mercenaries to raid? If this is a society in collapse, obviously nobody told Procter & Gamble, Heinz, Nabisco or the truckers’ unions.

Land of the Dead is a serious movie—that is, it doesn’t let its roots in B-movie schlock deter it from trying to engage in some honest discourse with its audience about the state of the world (in the movie and outside the doors of the cineplex). But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s much good. Romero talks a much better movie, in the avalanche of interviews and feature stories written about this movie in the weeks before its release, than he has directed one this time around. I just hope that this movie’s artistic (and apparent financial) disappointment won’t end up meaning that we’re in for Romero making another protracted absence from filmmaking. On the other hand, when he does return, it might just be better if the director moved on and left the zombies where they are at the end of Land of the Dead-- lurching off over a city bridge into an uncertain future, the better for us to imagine our own next chapter to his increasingly depleted series.


Evan and I ended our week together with a screening of Hayao Miyazaki head-spinningly beautiful Howl’s Moving Castle, which finds the director musing about age and ageism, sacrifice and, of course, the juggernaut of war (the movie was adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’ novel and conceived in the early days of George W.’s second “engagement” with Iraq). The movie is stuffed with imaginative flights, brilliantly semi-organic design (that castle is like a city all gummed up in a gigantic ball, held together with bailing wire, organs, piping and prayers, and made mobile by what look like gigantic chicken legs) and daring narrative leaps, parries and asides. Yet everything you need to follow the somewhat elliptical narrative (especially as regards the fate of the young prince whose disappearance has sparked the conflict) is there woven into Miyazaki’s heady design—you just have to have ears to hear it and eyes to see it. As mesmerizing as it all is, though, there’s nothing in Howl to equal that train ride with the masked spirit in Spirited Away, or the lovely cadences, spectacular vistas and telling observations of Kiki’s Delivery Service, or that midnight ride on the cat bus, or the treetop meeting with the titular My Neighbor Totoro. If anything, Howl’s narrative is only slightly disappointing in its straightforwardness—coming after the giddily free-associative Spirited Away, almost anything might seem so. It’s still the biggest visual treat you’ll see this year, but this time Miyazaki’s imagination is, if not grounded, then at least not soaring quite so high. It’s an unusually high standard that’s been set in order to consider a movie as wonderful as Howl’s Moving Castle a slight disappointment, but a small wonder that disappointment can still be so exciting.

The night before Evan flew back to McKinleyville, we decided to unwrap a DVD I picked up over the course of the week, that long-anticipated Anchor Bay edition of Race with the Devil. I sold it to him by breathlessly describing it as a movie about two vacationing couples who witness a satanic murder and spend the rest of the picture running from the killers, who now want to slice them up as well. What kid wouldn’t bite on that concept? (I certainly did when I saw it at age 15, the same age Evan is right now.) So we cranked up the DVD and settled in. The movie is every bit as clunky and fun as I remembered it, although it’s really amusing to see how age and nostalgia and faded memories end up embellishing favorite moments to the point where the ethereal reimagining of those moments almost always far surpasses the real thing. Seeing Race with the Devil again was a 90-minute exercise in reshuffling my memories back to reality—- not an unpleasant exercise, to be sure, and it’s certainly not like I’d inflated the movie to some sort of rarified status since last having seen it some 30 years ago. But it was refreshing, in the shadow of the many steroid-driven summer action movies we’d experienced that past week alone, to watch an unpretentious, small-scale drive-in classic, a movie unconcerned with blowing you away but fully engaged in the not-so-fine art of the cheaply budgeted cheap thrill. And with those cheap thrills Race with the Devil is loaded. By the time the movie sped, and lurched, to its trendily grim denouement, things had grown awfully quiet on Evan’s end of the couch. The ring of fire surrounded the ill-fated Winnebago containing our quartet of whining witnesses for the last time, and the very brief credit sequence rolled, unimpressed by the cackling Satanists who have apparently reigned triumphant. There was a moment of silence after the final frame, and then Evan turned to me and said, “Is that it?”

Yep, that was it. The curtain on our week of summer cinema madness had wrung down on a note of a gulf in generational experience that would probably never be spanned. How could a low-rent thriller like Race with the Devil ever compete for the attention of a movie-going generation for whom apparently even Michael Bay’s The Island, if early box-office receipts are any indication, is not even enough of a sensory-overload temptation? But this is a question best left to the academics. The bottom line is, it was a lot of fun having my movie-mad nephew around for a week to show the old fart what movie madness really looks like. Evan, I love you. It was wonderful to have you visit. Our floor and air mattress is yours any time you want it.

(* Evan has returned to the relative calm of Northern California, and I have, since I started writing this article two weeks ago, been lucky enough to see three movies in the theater, all of them terrific, two of them masterpieces, one of them one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and none of them a THX-enhanced 6.1 Surround Sound spectacle of aural and visual bombardment. I will write, briefly, or perhaps not so briefly-- stop giggling out there; you know who you are-- on all of them in the coming week. Movie madness is fine, but the kind of emotion these three movies generate is more like the real thing—- it’s movie love.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

MR. BLUE Edward Bunker 1933 - 2005

Edward Bunker, the writer, actor and ex-convict who penned the crime novel No Beast So Fierce (filmed by director Ulu Grosbard as Straight Time starring Dustin Hoffman) as well as three others, and who appeared as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and this summer in his final film, the remake of The Longest Yard, has died. Bunker was a fascinating character, and some of the facts of his life available on IMDb prove that out. A more personal remembrance can be found at writer Rodger Jacobs' blog 8763Wonderland, where Jacobs recalls his being introduced to Bunker, "the first in-the-flesh writer I ever met."


I’ve been writing on this blog for about eight months now, and it’s gotten to be a real addiction. The biggest challenge that I face is making sure that what I write to feed that addiction isn’t just verbiage for verbiage’s sake, but intelligent thoughts about whatever it is I’m writing about written in an intelligent style (whatever forms that thought and style ends up taking). Honestly, I started writing this thing for an audience of one—me—as a way of flexing my muscles and creating a sense of discipline for myself regarding the craft, not simply as an online journal, and I had no reasonable expectation that anyone outside of my wife and my best friend would have any interest in reading it, and reading it regularly. But one of the unexpected bonuses of writing SLIFR has been not only developing a small but fairly regular readership, but also connecting with people who I didn’t even know existed eight months ago. It’s been a real pleasure writing back and forth with some of those people, not only on this blog, but on ones written by these new friends and others. One of those new friends, Preacher Beege, a cheerfully profane and delightful writer whose blog on motherhood and ministry could go a long way toward changing any preconceived notions you may have about being a mommy or a pastor, has posted five questions for me, which I promised I would answer on my site. So, Beege, thank you for the inquiry, and here I go:

1)Your blog is titled Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I like it, but have no idea what in the hell it means. What in the hell does it mean?

In November of 2005, I decided to try my hand at writing a blog and wanted it to somehow combine regular passages on baseball and the Dodgers, a relatively new obsession of mine (born, ironically enough, during the players’ strike of 1994 through exposure to Ken Burns’ massive historical documentary Baseball), with my lifelong love for the movies (and writing about them). So I sought to come up with a title that adequately conveyed both interests in an appealing and eye/ear-catching way. The first title that came off the top of my head was The Good, the Bad and the Dodgers, which rather uneloquently combined the title of one of my favorite movies with the name of my favorite team. But, as I kept turning it over in my head, a couple of things began nagging at me. Is the reference to the spaghetti western classic overt enough? Perhaps too overt? And when combined with “the Dodgers,” does it sound like I’m implying that the Dodgers themselves occupy some space located between “good” and “bad”? (The land of mediocrity being one many folks have already proclaimed for this team). Finally, by using simply “the Dodgers” to represent the baseball aspect of the site, was that in some way too limiting? What if I wanted to write about other teams, other aspects of the game? Would I be violating my own protocol? And perhaps most importantly, was I overthinking this whole thing? (What are the odds, huh?)
So I scrapped that title and my wife and I began trying to think of different combinations, and the best one we came up with was the title of the blog as it is today—Sergio Leone being one of my favorite directors (the man who directed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and “the infield fly rule,” a not-so-direct reference to baseball that sounded good combined with “Sergio Leone.” (FYI, the infield rule is the one that states that a batter who hits an infield fly, as called by the umpire, is automatically out if there are less than two outs and runners are on first and second base, or the bases are loaded. It serves to prevent an infielder from dropping the ball on purpose to create a double play.)

2) What was the best movie you've ever seen, and what made it the best? Was it the company, the location, the movie itself, some aspect of the film's production, the smell of stale popcorn in the air, or the way your feet stuck to the floor?

I like the way your question evokes the atmosphere of the movie theater, which is, I think, always been an underrated, or overlooked, aspect of film appreciation. There’s a whole article to be written (and God knows, I’m feeling logorrheic enough these days to give it a shot) about the best movie theaters of my moviegoing life, and the attendant smells, the feel of the wrecked-up seats, the sense that you get from a single-screen palace, one you don’t get in a stadium-seat multiplex (at least in the same way), of something special, almost mystical in the making. One of my most vivid memories of seeing movies when I was a kid was the stark terror I would be thrown into every time the lights would start to go down and the projectionist started the cartoon before the curtain opened. The Warner Brothers logo would be thrown onto that flowing, tattered red velvet, which gave the image a surreal, unstable, sinister quality and made me think, in my twisted child’s imagination, that something terrible and wonderful was about to be unleashed, that the curtains would draw back and Porky Pig would come raging off the screen and, I don’t know, stutter at me real loud until I went mad or something. It’s an indelible memory of seeing movies as a kid and being overwhelmed by the oversized grandeur that even our run-down old hometown movie house could lend to everything from The Greatest Story Ever Told to the cheesy blue-screen dynamism of the Elvis Presley race-car musical Speedway. How could I not end up a film freak?

That said, I don’t know if I could ever say what the best movie I’ve ever seen actually is. One of the great things about movies is that, despite their being set in celluloid for all time (if we’re lucky), they are remarkably fluid objets d’art. That is, our responses to them are. The degrees to which those responses can vary because of the circumstances of the viewing (was the AC in the theater functioning properly?), the viewer’s mood going in, or the simple passage of time that allows a viewer the necessary experience to be open to a movie that was closed down to them before, can make a single movie seem like a completely different entity depending on any or all of those conditions. Such fluidity makes absolutism in qualifying bests in cinema (or in any art form) a squirrely proposition at best, which is why year-end best lists or all-Time 100 lists should be taken with a grain of salt and a spirit of fun, and not as some inroad to true film scholarship or appreciation.

I can tell you about my experience with the movie I’ve considered my personal favorite since about 1981, however. I was probably not yet 16 years old when I first saw Robert Altman’s Nashville at my hometown theater in Lakeview, Oregon, and my friends and I couldn’t have hated it more. It was everything that we didn’t want from a movie—we found its rambling structure maddening and its attempts to simulate the textures of life pointless. Why would anyone want to see a scene of Ronee Blakely cutting her toenails, or of Keith Carradine disaffectedly bedding woman after woman with no dramatic payoff? And of course a 16-year-old kid from a one-horse town in Southeastern Oregon is probably not going to have too much to bring to Altman’s party anyway (I disccovered later that you do have to bring something)—my friends and I were flush from the thrills of Jaws and were still pretty sure that if Forrest J. Ackerman didn’t talk about a movie within the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, why, then it just wasn’t worth discussing.

But back then, in the days before VCRs, revival theaters were still in full swing, and seeing old and new films on the University of Oregon campus was no difficult task—Eugene had one dedicated revival theater, two or three art houses and several campus organization-sponsored screenings every weekend. So, my voracious viewing habits being turned loose on a new and fertile environment, I saw as much as my brain (and my feeble checking account) would permit me to see, and eventually my best friend Bruce encouraged me to go check out Nashville with him. In that tiny little revival house (50 seats at the most) on the third floor of a tiny shopping atrium, I saw Nashville for the second time, and the auditorium was small enough that I’m sure others in attendance could hear something in my brain go “click.” All of the sudden I could understand that there was something going on here that was worth digging into, that it wasn’t just random fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, that there was a design, a purpose, an intelligence (both political and artistic) dwelling within its frames. That screening was as much of a cinematic revelation to me as any I ever had in my college days, and it spurred me on to investigate Altman’s films further.

Of course, in the course of the following year, this director, who inspired much eye-rolling on my part, especially when fellow film students would insist on referring to something as “Altmanesque,” became one of my favorites as well. So much so that by the time my senior year rolled around and the head of the film department offered a comprehensive semester on Altman, somehow, around halfway though the course, my mania for the director had gotten back to my professor, who ended up dubbing me some sort of Altman expert, a point of view bolstered by his enthusiasm for my papers on the subject of the films, and a distinction I wore proudly. (If only he knew how much I disdained Altman a mere two years previous!) When the class got around to Nashville, I made sure I saw all three screenings available to the students on the day it was presented—7:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and the main screening for the whole class at 7:00 p.m. I’d never before, and have never since, seen one movie three times in one day, particularly one as dense and detailed as Nashville, and by the time I got home that night I was exhausted, but buzzing with all the connections that were firing in my head as a result. Needless to say, I got a very good grade that semester.

I’ve seen the movie probably another 10 or so times since then, and it remains, depending on what day you catch me, either at the top, or within the top two or three, on my favorites list. And when the Nashville DVD was finally released in the year 2000, it was a special day for me not only because I could finally have a widescreen copy of the movie in my library, but also because I created the closed-caption and the English-language subtitles for that DVD. Doing that job was a mixture of pure pleasure and agony for me, because the film’s much-noted multi-layered dialogue soundtrack made discerning what dialogue was important and following a through-line that could make sense to deaf viewers, as well as those who wanted to partake in the option of following the dialogue in English in order to better catch important lines that were casually tossed into the mix, a particular challenge. But I lobbied for the job when the project came through our office and ended up doing the entire two and a half-hour movie by myself. It was a grueling, thrilling assignment to view the movie again in probably more detail than I ever had before. It was also especially gratifying when the subtitles were actually mentioned in Premiere magazine’s review of the DVD, which said that one of the best reasons to buy the DVD were the subtitles, which cast a new light and clarity on Altman’s famous overlapping dialogue.

3) Are you drawn to more big-budget studio films, or do you prefer the smaller independent films?

As Bill Murray said in that quintessential independent film from 1979, it just doesn’t matter. I’m drawn to films, whatever their size, budget or point of origin. A fair portion of the worst movies ever made are cynical Hollywood blockbusters and high-gloss Oscar bait, but, at the same time, I don’t think anyone could convince me that Jaws isn’t among the very best thrillers ever made, and you can’t get much more Hollywood blockbuster than that. Nor could you get away with describing Jaws as cynical, even though it was financed and made by a Hollywood studio that, at the time of its production, wasn’t exactly renowned for its commitment to the art of cinema.

On the other hand, the American independent film movement has not exactly panned out as a pure phenomenon sparked solely by creativity. While independent film has produced some significant works in the past 20 years, like Do the Right Thing, Reservoir Dogs, Fargo and Down by Law (and movies I think far more highly of, such as The Big Lebowski, Donnie Darko, 25th Hour and Jackie Brown), it has also given birth to its own set of cliches. These usually involve overly moist coming-of-age stories (see the career of Sundance Film Festival prize-winner Edward Burns) or stories of familial reconciliation garnished with hipster signifiers and ungainly quirkiness (Pieces of April, et al.), endless cannibalization of what has come before (including, but not limited to, excessive bowing at the altar of Quentin Tarantino, quite the fine young cannibal himself), fatal self-awareness (see the career of self-made Sundance legend Robert Rodriguez) and the birth of the Miramax monster.

If Sundance ever stood for the opportunity for a filmmaker’s self-expression, it stands twice as much now simply as a high profile event at which Young Hollywood falls all over itself to be seen, as well as for that old standard, a springboard to a high-paying career in which nine out of 10 “winners” subsume whatever unique voice they and their work had in the beginning in order to get the chance to work in Hollywood and churn out the same kind of crap they ostensibly were resisting by participating in Sundance in the first place. And judging by a large percentage of recent Sundance offerings, the independent sensibility and the Hollywood sensibility aren’t that far removed from each other anymore anyway.

The best movies I’ve seen so far this year have been a three-hour documentary shot on video and comprised entirely of a narrator speaking over movie clips dubbed off of VHS tapes of highly varying quality, a thrillingly elastic action comedy that serves as a raucous Cuisinart-style summing-up of a popular genre, another low-budget video documentary that has a lot to say about greed and self-interest in American sports and pop culture. Yet the mainstream comedy Wedding Crashers and the none-too-inexpensive Batman Begins are both likely to be near the top of my list too, come end of the year. I don’t see how I could take film and film appreciation seriously and not have interests that were all over the map. Imagine learning to read and then deciding to limit yourself to Barbara Cartland novels, or Tolstoy, or Emeril Lagasse cookbooks, or Betty and Veronica; imagine honing your craft as an fisherman and throwing back everything that wasn’t a 30-pound steelhead. Pauline Kael once wrote that a varied background of interests served seeing, really seeing films well, because that varied background inevitably reflected and informed the very nature of film itself as a conglomeration and intensification of all the popular arts—literature, performance, painting, photography, even journalism. So I cherish the fact that as I get older my fields of interest in film, writing, sports, seem to be expanding, both forward toward the new (lots of Asian and Middle Eastern cinema that I have yet to really plow into) and back into the past (Turner Classic Movies on cable TV, and the Criterion Collection and Warner Home Video DVD box sets from their classics library have been a constantly renewing film school and have helped me fill in a lot of the holes in my ever-evolving film education).

4) Oscars: good judge of Hollywood's talent, or just a night to sit and make fun of people's clothes?

Every year at my house a small group of friends get together to follow the Academy Awards and tabulate the office Oscar pool, which I coordinate. After 18 years of getting this contest together, I finally won it myself last year, a sweet victory for me in a rare year when my own pick for best picture of the year, Million Dollar Baby, happily coincided with Oscar’s. But the Academy’s track record as an indicator of good taste and lasting quality in films and performances is pretty shoddy—not too many film buffs, critics, or everyday viewers will tell you that they hold up films like Gandhi, Braveheart or Ordinary People as enduring classics or even movies that have the power to remain close to their hearts. However, some of the movies those titles bested for the Oscar crown—Steven Spielberg’s E.T.- The Extra-terrestrial, George Miller’s transcendent Babe, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (a movie I’m not exactly in love with) and David Lynch’s powerful adaptation of The Elephant Man-- are exactly the kinds of films that audiences and critics have turned into classics.

The Oscars, no matter how much they scream and shout otherwise, are a popular election, and as we’ve seen in recent years popular elections are no guarantor that the quality will rise to the top. Actors and directors routinely win awards for political reasons, or because they’ve amassed a body of work that truly was award-worthy and the voting body, to make up for lost opportunities, eventually coalesces and awards them for late-career performances (see Paul Newman and Al Pacino) that aren’t a sliver as good as the good stuff. And the Academy doesn’t even release the numbers on the actual voting, so it’s entirely possible that Sir Richard Attenborough’s terrifically dull biography of the great advocate of nonviolent resistance could have won the award for Best Picture because one more vote was cast for facile consciousness-raising rather than support for a universally admired, and hugely popular, sentimental science fiction story about a little lost alien and the boy who finds him. At least we know that it really only takes about 30% of eligible voters in this country to elect a president.

There’s so much wrong with thinking about Oscar as an arbiter of taste that it’s embarrassing on those not-so-rare occasions when I find myself getting caught up in the drama and suspense and the righteous indignation over a favorite movie’s losses. Oscar night is loads of fun, though, as a people-watching exercise, and the past two years have highlighted some stunning appearances by Kate Winslet, Sophie Okonedo, Sandra Oh and Shoreh Aghdashloo that have kept the males at our party riveted. And it’s also fascinating to listen to Joan Rivers botch simple facts about the people she’s interviewing on the red carpet, and sometimes even admit that she has no idea who they are or what they’re there for. These are the sideshows that make Oscar night as much of a rich tradition in my house as anything else. But I don’t take Oscar’s word for anything when it comes to whether or not a movie is really any good.

5) When you are feeling just all depleted and wiped out, where do you go to renew and refresh and recreate yourself?

I feel depleted and wiped out a lot these days— being a working husband and father of two daughters, ages five and three, has taxed my energies, physical, creative and emphathetic, in ways that I find amazing with the passing of each new day. But therein also lies my renewal. I’ve been really running myself out on a very thin string over the last few months, especially as I try to take advantage of the creative spark this blog has provided and keep up on the heavy workload at the place where I actually get paid to type. So keeping myself fresh and alive and engaged for my girls (all three of them) is a very important goal for me. And my oldest, once very Daddy-centric, has in the past year or so shifted very emphatically to the Mom side of the equation, a development that has affected me more than I ever thought it would. So it really surprised me when the five-year-old asked if she could go grocery shopping with me this past Saturday. Of course I said yes, and for two hours we roamed the aisles, laughed, talked in ways that I’ve always dreamed of talking with a child of mine, and she gladly helped me in any way she could, pulling items off the shelves and putting them in our cart, and offering helpful suggestions regarding potential purchases (most of which she was very understanding about when I politely declined). I realized about halfway through our chore that I was having the most unexpected good time with her at Vons, of all places, and I was so impressed with how helpful she was being that I finally just stopped the cart, picked her up in my arms and told her very sincerely how I’d always wanted to be able to speak to my child and know that she was really hearing me, that she had something to offer in return, and that she really wanted to be with me. There I was, in the frozen pizza aisle, getting all blubbery with my beautiful daughter, and all of the sudden I felt that rush of renewal, of energy that I could be turned right back around and given to her and her sister in ways which I might not even be aware. I finally collected myself and we resumed our shopping. And as we rounded the corner and headed toward Dairy, my little girl walked up beside me, casually put her arm around my waist and continued walking, silently taking in the bounty of cottage cheese and eggs and 2% milk. If there could ever be a claim for heaven in a supermarket, I found it that day. That’s the best kind of rejuvenation for me, knowing that I’m doing the best I can and that somehow it seems to be working for those I love the most.

On perhaps a more superficial level, I find that arriving a couple hours early for an evening baseball game at Dodger Stadium and just drinking in the atmosphere does wonders for my spirit. (It doesn’t hurt if the Dodgers win either). I commented earlier this season to a friend who was with me at one such game that I felt, at moments like this, Dodger Stadium was maybe the best place on Earth. He laughed, but I wasn’t kidding.

And I can always find the comfort, challenge and stimulation, both intellectual and emotional, that I need by watching a really good movie, either in a theater or, more frequently these days, on DVD. Movies, sometimes even ones that aren’t necessarily all that good, can be transportive for me in ways that are clear and obvious, but also sometimes intangible and difficult to articulate. There is still mystery in them to me, and navigating within the mystery, and excitement and wonder, and frustration and contradictory emotions, of those images and sounds all butted up together in fascinating and often revealing ways is a way of relaxing and “shutting down” for me that, if all works well, really isn’t shutting down at all. It’s a form of reengaging when I might feel like doing the exact opposite. I feel lucky that movies can do that for me.


Beege, thanks for the great questions. I’m so sorry for not being concise and economical in my answers, but that’s usually not my style anyway, as much as some have suggested that it should be. I only hope that I didn’t drive you or anyone else to boredom, or distraction, or to a video game or a porn site, anything that’s more interesting than listening to me blather on, and I thank you for the opportunity to engage the subjects and, in the process, find something worth writing about. Here’s another question for you, a movie question for the self–confessed Entertainment Weekly subscriber (I am too, and I’m not too happy about it— but that’s another longwinded story):

What have you seen lately? Anything really good?

Friday, July 22, 2005


Just a reminder that the Gene Autry Museum of the American West's exhibit "Once Upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone" opens next week, July 30. The festivities kick off this Saturday night, July 23, at the Alex Theater in Glendale with a screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and continue throughout the rest of the year with screenings, special events and a collection of props, scripts and other items of interest to those of us with a heightened interest in Leone's spaghetti westerns. You can get up to date on all the details in my article "Gene Autry's Summer of Sergio Leone".

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


“Most of my pictures, I'm sorry to say, are about nothing. Because I'm a whore. I work for money. It's the American way."

“The situation of working at a major studio is so hopeless that if you don't make a game of it, you'd go crazy. I just try to do something better than they want me to do."

”I once told Godard that he had something I wanted - freedom. He said: 'You have something I want - money'."

-Don Siegel

Don Siegel was, as Patrick Goldstein’s tribute in the Los Angeles Times suggested, a director working in relative obscurity in the Hollywood system for the majority of his career whose thematic concerns—solitary men living by their own codes of behavior, suspicious, even contemptuous, of a system overflowing in red tape and cynical bureaucrats out to pad their pockets and cushion their reputations— would seem as out of date to most moviegoers as his rock-solid craftsmanship and brilliantly, subtly propulsive editing would to most modern, hyperventilated action filmmakers. His profile was raised considerably by his collaboration over five films (Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Dirty Harry, The Beguiled and Escape from Alcatraz) with Clint Eastwood, but he would never, as Eastwood would upon becoming a director himself, be showered with awards or praise for his masterful style. But those whose tastes run toward hard-boiled noir (both black-and white and Technicolor varieties) and protagonists of ambiguous morality have routinely found what they were looking for and more in Siegel’s oeuvre ever since the man gave up his career as a studio editor at Warner Brothers to become a director.

That oeuvre is the focus of a film series beginning at UCLA Film and Television Archive tonight and running through August 7, a three week-long retrospective look at the career of a director whose fans include the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Peckinpah, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, Eastwood, who dedicated his Oscar-winning Unforgiven to Siegel and Sergio Leone. Tonight’s Academy Salute to Don Siegel, hosted by writer-director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), will feature Clint Eastwood introducing and discussing Siegel’s classic science fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and other programs throughout the series will feature several sequences cut by Siegel during his tenure at Warner Brothers, and the features Riot in Cell Block 11, Baby Face Nelson, Night Unto Night, Hell is for Heroes and Madigan, and some of my personal favorites like Escape from Alcatraz, Dirty Harry, The Killers

and Robert Mitchum and the luscious Jane Greer straight Out of the Past and into the riveting noir gem The Big Steal.

(For a look at the complete schedule, as well as ticket prices and how to get to the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA Campus, click HERE.)

UPDATE 7/21/2005: Scott Foundas has a well-observed
on Don Siegel and the UCLA Film and Television Archive tribute in today's L.A. Weekly, as well as a collection of remembrances of the director from some of those who worked with him and knew him well.

Monday, July 18, 2005

PROF. WAGSTAFF'S SUMMER OF 42 (questions, that is) MOVIE QUIZ

I don't know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I'm against it!
No matter what it is or who commenced it
I'm against it!

Your proposition may be good
But let's have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I'm against it!
And even when you've changed it or condensed it
I'm against it!


Last Semester, Mr. Hand held a pop movie quiz that was generally regarded by most who submitted to its rigorous demands as a pretty good time, as far as pop quizzes go, that is, even if some of the questions were more difficult than anticipated. Well, Mr. Hand has given way to the esteemed Professor Wagstaff, and while the good professor's questions may or may not require the demise of as many brain cells, there are, at least, a few more questions than were offered in March by the pizza-loathing history teacher. But, just like Mr. Hand's Spring 2005 Pop Movie Pop Quiz, the object here is not comprehensiveness, propriety, solid arguments or even common sense, but simply to have a good time thinking of your answers and an even better time reading everyone else's as they post, or when they eventually get compiled by yours truly. This time around, if we're really lucky, we may even have a few participants who are new to our academic exercise, some regular visitors to Sergio Leone that weren't around last time. To Benaiah, Beege, Mojavi, Chris U., and anyone else I may regrettably be forgetting, and especially to those who have heretofore only lurked on this site, come on in-- the water's fine! And to faithful readers Thom McG, Virgil Hilts, PSaga, Alison, Sharon, Loxjet, Murray, Stoogeking, Cruzbomb, Machine Gun McCain, Peet, Twosctrjns, Caption Jockey, the Mysterious Adrian Betamax, Jonas and anyone else my enfeebled mind is preventing me from recalling, I say don't hold back! The last session was so enjoyable, I can't wait to see those answers come rolling in. Naturally, feel free to skip any you might not feel excited about or that don't apply to your interests or experience. And of course, I'll use this occasion to officially welcome back to these pages faithful reader/poster Blaaagh, freshly returned from a hopefully rejuvenating vacation in Jellystone Park. We all missed your comments, Blaaagh, and have done our best to fill in the void and not fret too much over your absence. But it is most exceedingly excellent to have you back, even though you may wish you were still lounging with the Mrs. and Yogi and Boo-boo, and I hope you check in very soon! It's always good to hear your thoughts, reminisences and opinions. I promise I'll call this week, perhaps even tonight, and get all caught up!

All right, everyone, the time has come. Pencils on desks. Eyes front. Quiet. All right, open your blue books and... begin!

1) Your favorite movie genre, and a prime example of it

2) Your least favorite movie genre, and a prime example of it

3) Donald Duck or Daffy Duck?

4) Your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie

5) The longest you ever waited in line to see a movie (and, of course, the name of the movie that inspired such preparation and dedication)

6) Your favorite nature documentary

7) Steve Martin or Jim Carrey?

8) Your favorite concert movie

9) Your favorite movie about or incorporating religion or religious themes

10) Your best story (long or short) about attending a drive-in movie

11) Your favorite Brian De Palma movie

12) Name one movie you initially loved, saw again and ended up thinking significantly less of

13) Name one movie you initially hated, saw again, and ending up liking or loving

14) Vivien Leigh or Olivia De Havilland?

15) Favorite blaxploitation movie theme song

16) The first movie you remember seeing in a theater

17) The movie you remember most fondly from childhood

18) Your favorite Clint Eastwood movie

19) Best use of 3-D in a movie (not Best 3-D movie)

20) Least-deserving Oscar Winner for Best Picture

21) Least-deserving Oscar Winner for Best Actor

22) Least-deserving Oscar Winner for Best Actress

23) Michael Bay— yes or no, and why?

24) Your favorite movie about food

25) Your favorite disaster movie

26) Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin?

27) Best adaptation of a book or other source material into a movie

28) Worst adaptation of a book or other source material into a movie

29) Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak?

30) Your favorite Marx brother

31) The most frightening movie you've seen that is not strictly a horror movie

32) Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi?

33) Your favorite movie about high school

34) The movie you'd most like to be subjected to a DVD commentary, and the person or persons (living or dead) who you'd like to hear talking on it

35) Your favorite animated movie

36) Most overly familiar dialogue phrase used in screenwriting, usually to connote coolness of a character or, more often, the screenwriter (Example: “Do the math!”)

37) Your favorite Howard Hawks movie

38) Carrie Fisher or Natalie Portman?

39) Your favorite kung fu movie

40) In the spirit of Freddy vs. Jason, devise a fantasy smackdown
matchup between two movie characters, fictional or drawn from life

41) Your ultimate fantasy drive-in double feature

42) Funniest… movie… ever!


That's it! Keep watching the comments section on this particular page over the next few weeks as the lists (hopefully) start pouring in. Then, in about a month or so, I'll do another round-up of answers that should be as much fun to read, and to compile, as it was last time! Here's to all our dirty little secrets, up to another 42 of them which are about to be exposed again! And... action!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


I had intended to just poke around the house, doing as little as possible, this past weekend. But then I got a call from a friend. He said he had two airline tickets to a small town in Spain, and asked me if I'd like to join him there for a little party some of the locals were throwing. Well, as the song goes, I'd never been to Spain, I was still feeling kind of burnt out on summer movie blockbusters, and even the stuff I had on had from Netflix didn't really appeal to me. So I said good-bye to the wife and kids and headed out of LAX International Airport to the land of Cortez, Franco and Almodovar, ready for a good time with my buddy in a place called Pamplona. This turned out to be a regrettable decision...

I can't wait to stay home and watch the Criterion DVD of Tokyo Story this weekend and forget I ever heard of Spain.


Well, as wise women and men have been known to say throughout history, you just can’t have it all. As you probably know by now (if you read this blog regularly anyway), The Autry Museum’s Tribute to Sergio Leone kicks off the Saturday after next at the Alex Theater with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and that following Wednesday there will be a screening at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood of Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson and, of course, Claudia Cardinale. As you probably also have figured out by now, there is a certain level of anticipation of this event on my part that is, shall we say, elevated.

So I opened up my new calendar from the American Cinematheque last night and began perusing the usual assortment of delightful rarities and old favorites that the AC routinely offers, when my eye came to a dead halt on one item in particular:

“Please join us for the first event in this ongoing series sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a rare opportunity for Los Angeles audiences to see the finest work by some of the leading performers of international and American cinema, and to hear these actors and actresses discuss their craft in a relaxed and informal setting. We’re thrilled to welcome to the Egyptian Theatre legendary Italian actress Claudia Cardinale…”

Ms. Cardinale will be there to introduce and discuss two of her lesser-known, but still terrific, movies: the rarely-seen Luchino Visconti drama Sandra (1965), which I have dreamt about for close to 25 years after having seen it in college, and Alexander Mackendrick’s Don’t Make Waves (1967), costarring Tony Curtis, a very underrated wide-screen romp which I was lucky enough to scoop off of Turner Classic Movies a few months ago.

Maybe you didn't get that. I'll say it again. She’ll be there, for rice cakes!

I was halfway out the door to race to the Egyptian Theater box office to get my ticket (It was 11:30 p.m., and the box office had long been closed for the night, therefore the previous half of this current sentence should be taken strictly as editorial elaboration for entertainment purposes only—Ed.) when I stopped to take note of the date of this engagement which I had no intention of missing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005.

The same night as the screening of Once Upon a Time in the West, for which I already have tickets.

I had to wonder, was this some conspiracy of counterprogramming on the Cinematheque’s part to undermine the kick-off to the Autry festival? How could these two events be taking place on the same night without some evil influence at play somewhere behind the curtains?

But then I realized that it was merely a coincidence, bad timing for a bounty of cinema riches, and maybe those who missed out on tickets to see Leone at the Arclight would get to salve their wounds in the presence of Ms. Cardinale herself.

Now, some might say that the choice of seeing Claudia Cardinale on a giant silver screen, looking the way she looks as she informs the feminine aspect of Leone’s great movie-fevered western, is probably the better choice, rather than to have one’s fantasies interrupted, or perhaps dashed, by seeing the great beauty in person and bearing witness to the inevitable impressions that Time will have left on that beauty (and if you’ve seen the many interviews on the bonus disc of the Once Upon a Time in the West DVD you’re already familiar with what she looks like these days). And there’s no argument that Once Upon a Time in the West is a far better movie than either Visconti’s searing drama or Mackendrick’s wacky surf satire.

But if Cardinale’s looks are your main inspiration for seeing her films, then you’d be indisputably in as much clover with Sandra or Don’t Make Waves as you would with Leone’s masterpiece. Plus, you’d get to hear the actress speak about her career—a rare-enough privilege, to be sure— and see for yourself that, though even great beauties are not immune to the aging process, great beauty often has a way of shining through and transforming the inevitable into the insistently enviable.

In other words, Claudia Cardinale may be 67 years old, but she’s absolute proof, as is my mother-in-law (78), that beauty has no age limit, as long as we have eyes wide enough to take it in.

If you get to the Egyptian that night, bask in it, won't you, and leave me a note as to what it, and she, was like. Not that I won't have a pretty good idea already...

Saturday, July 09, 2005


I moved to Southern California in March of 1987, and within approximately eight years I saw the drive-in movie theater all but disappear in the greater Los Angeles area. One after another they went down—the Studio in Culver City; the Centinela in Inglewood; the Van Nuys in (you guessed it) Van Nuys; the Sepulveda in Van Nuys; the Torrance in (yes) Torrance; the Winnetka 6; the Pickwick in Burbank; the Simi in Simi Valley; the 101 in Ventura; the Stadium in Orange; I attended them all with regularity in the waning days of my bachelorhood, and they all went dark in between 1987 and 1995. (According to, there may be as many as 70 or 80 others in the immediate area that closed before or around the same time that I never attended.) By the time my daughter was born in 2000, there were two drive-ins operating within driving distance (or so I thought) of Glendale—the Vineland in City of Industry, and the Foothill on Route 66 in Azusa. I took my wife and my then-three-month-old daughter to see Mission Impossible 2 at the single-screen Foothill, a pretty well-kept venue open only seasonally (from May to September or early October), and even shot videotape of the occasion in case drive-ins as a whole ceased to exist by the time she was old enough to watch the tape. When the Foothill closed its gates in September of 2000, that would be it—they would not reopen that following summer, and though I haven’t been out to the area lately, the word from the Pacific Theaters chain, which ran the Azusa through its final days, is that the lot was sold to nearby Azusa Pacific University to be used for campus parking or, perhaps, student housing.

Though I’ve been to drive-ins in San Luis Obispo (the wonderful Sunset Drive-in just south of town on the 101), San Jose (the Capitol) and Newberg, Oregon (the Super 99W) since 2000, I haven’t been back to enjoy an outdoor movie with my wife and daughter(s) because it’s just too far to drive to any of those locations and, although it’s celebrating it’s 50th year of operation this summer, the Vineland Drive-in was kinda shabby when I last went there around 1995, and I didn’t imagine things were likely to have gotten much better in the intervening years. But when my nephew arrived recently for a projected ton of movie-going fun, one of the things his mom insisted upon was that I take him to a drive-in movie. And since the only one I knew of that was still in operation anywhere nearby (at least according to the Los Angeles Times movie listings) was the Vineland, I started making tentative (and I do mean tentative) plans to revisit the theater. I looked up the site on to see if there were any comments from people who had recently attended, and though most of the comments were fairly enthusiastic, and tinged with just enough nostalgia to indicate the age of the commenter and the extent to which their drive-in experience and expertise reached, there were also enough comments regarding the condition of the lot and the inefficiency of the sound system to give me pause. It was then that I read a post from one Chris Utley, who began extolling the virtues of the Mission Tiki Drive-in in Montclair, California.

The first thing that grabbed me about information on the Mission Tiki were Utley’s comments regarding its projection system. He expressed hope that Pacific Theaters would keep the Vineland running strong for another 50 years, and that in order to ensure that success the chain should seriously consider investing in the Technalight projection system used at the nearby Mission Tiki drive-in. A little research revealed that Technalight is, according to the Robert Film Services website, which created the system, a combination of specially engineered lamps and reflectors designed to restore brilliance, resolution and clarity to the projected image, and that any lamphouse can be retro-fitted with the system without changing the projector’s existing main head. It’s used mainly in large-format theaters like IMAX and Omnimax, but enterprising drive-in theater owners and restorers are beginning to realize the excellent application of the Technalight system to their outdoor theaters. The system has been installed and operating at the Mission Tiki since the end of February of 2005, and manager Jeff Thurman and owner Ralph Nardoni have been getting rave reviews for its performance on drive-in web sites ever since.

Utley added that Thurman has been giving tours of the projection booth, showing off that new Technalight system.

Another drive-in fan, “Eric,” had this to say about the Mission Tiki: “Easily the cleanest and best maintained of all the Southern California drive-ins. The new projection technology really makes it hard to justify a trip to the local AMC or Edwards, especially at (admission prices) of five bucks for two movies! The tiki theme is coming together nicely. The toll booths are little grass shacks and the employees wear Hawaiian shirts. While the quality of the food was lackluster, like any movie theater, the prices are honest ($1.25 for a hot dog). It’s removed enough from the city to be its own little world, and the trains passing by add ambience. Sweet!”

And down below, at the very bottom of the page of comments for the Mission Tiki, was a very telling submission from Jamie Deiner and Misty Valenzuela who said: “(We) love working for the Mission Tiki Drive-in. It seems to be getting better all the time.” This place was beginning to sound too good to be true. A drive-in theater where the employees are going on-line to say how much they appreciate working there? Practically unheard-of!

I wasn’t even sure where Montclair was, but I was now convinced that scrapping plans to visit the Vineland and heading out to the Mission Tiki was an excellent idea. (And it just so happened that the double feature the nephew and I had planned on was also showing at the Mission Tiki!) So we drove 40 minutes from Glendale to the Indian Hill Road exit off the 10, made our way to Ramona Avenue, and spent the rest of the evening and well into the night soaking up the fun of the all-around best drive-in movie theater I’ve been to in years. The old Circle JM Drive-in of my youth in Oregon has a special place in my heart, but it was by no means a great drive-in (in fact, it was, by most indicators, a pretty typical drive-in, and fairly run-down in its waning years). And the Sunset in SLO and the 99W in Newberg are rich in atmosphere and history and ambience. But from the developing tiki theme to the immaculate snack bar and eating area (picnic tables outside, plastic tables inside), to the very helpful and friendly employees, one of which (Misty or Jamie, perhaps?) told me she loves coming out for a movie on her off nights, to the vast, well-kept lot filled with friendly filmgoers, to the believe-it-or-not brilliance of that much vaunted projection system, the Mission Tiki has simply raised the bar for what a drive-in can be. I even thought the snack bar food was far better than "Eric"'s description-- at $2 apiece, those were some pretty darn good cheeseburgers, folks. When was the last time you ever spotted a fresh tomato or pickle slice within the walls of a drive-in snack bar? And the popcorn was fresh and delicious too.

We visited with one family who had backed their SUV up into a spot and opened up the back, so everyone could sit out in the fresh air and enjoy the movie. The mother watched her two daughters playing in the front of the lot, directly under the screen, and told us that though it was fairly quiet that night (it was a Tuesday, and the lot ended up probably one-third full), on Friday and Saturdays, and sometimes even Thursdays, cars are backed up for a half a mile on Ramona Avenue trying to get in as soon as those grass-thatched box offices open, and those nights the lots usually resemble gigantic block parties for an hour and a half before the movie starts. It seems that, just like the Super 99W, the folks around the Montclair/Pomona area know that they have an increasingly rare privilege to attend a drive-in movie in a safe and friendly atmosphere, and they seem to be responding with the appropriate enthusiasm and appreciation.

For someone who thought until just last week that the drive-in movie experience was something that was going to have to be left for special occasions or very long drives, the revelation of the Mission Tiki Drive-in is particularly happy news. I can’t wait to get my daughters out there in their pajamas and show them a little bit of what my childhood was like. Hopefully it’ll become an important part of their childhood too. I was so enthusiastic about my experience there that I e-mailed Ralph Nardoni, the owner and designer of the drive-in’s restoration. He sent back a response that led me to his own Web site, which details his history in the drive-in theater business, as well as links to other drive-ins he’s restored. And darned if it doesn’t turn out that he’s got another one close by that he’s shepherded into the little drive-in renaissance he’s been mounting—the Rubidoux Drive-in in Riverside, California. There are plenty of photos on this page that suggest Nardoni may have another gem in his collection here, and I can’t wait to check it out in person.

For other drive-in enthusiasts who may be reading this, one way of doing just that might be to join Chris Utley for the inaugural meeting of the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society. Chris says the goal of the group this summer is to tour Southern California’s four remaining drive-in sites (the Mission Tiki, the Vineland, the Rubidoux, and the Van Buren Cinema 3 Drive-in, also in Riverside), getting tours of the operations and, I would imagine, preferred parking for the best spots on the lot, and celebrating the mini-rejuvenation of the drive-in movie experience that’s going on in Southern California, thanks to some committed drive-in owners and operators who seem to really understand the concept of maximizing the unique features and fun of outdoor cinema. I really appreciate being invited by Chris to attend that inaugural meeting at the Mission Tiki on Saturday, July 23. Unfortunately, that date coincides with another major cinema event of the summer, one for which I already have tickets—the kick-off to the Autry Museum’s tribute to Sergio Leone at the Alex Theater in Glendale, a one-night only screening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with a special appearance by Leone scholar Sir Christopher Frayling and a performance by Alessandro Alessandroni, who whistled the original musical theme for Ennio Morricone on the film’s soundtrack. So I hope Chris and company understand that I would love to be with them under the stars that night, but it won’t be possible. If joining the Southern California Drive-In Movie Society for their inaugural meeting sounds like something you’d like to do, you can contact Chris Utley directly at for more information. (And when you do, tell him Dennis at sent you.)

As a matter of fact, if there’s any of you who consider yourselves drive-in movie connoisseurs, or who maybe have never been to a drive-in and would love to go to a really good one, or who just haven’t been in years and would like to put together a little convoy to attend the next meeting of the SCDIMS, whenever that might be, I’d love to coordinate it. It could be a really fun evening out, and a chance to meet all kinds of new people who are afflicted with various strains of cinemania relating to watching movies under the stars like God intended. Let’s keep this string going—drop in and let me know if it’s something you’d be interested in, and I’ll contact Chris Utley and try to find out when that next meeting might be.

Fifteen years ago I would have never believed anyone could make this statement, but I’m really glad to be able to say, the drive-in’s alive in 2005! Hey! Ho! Let’s go!


There are lots of terrific places to go on the Internet to find out more about drive-ins, many of which are featured on the sidebar of this blog. But here's a link to a very good article by freelance writer Bill Thorness which invokes the necessarily sacred drive-in memories, but also a lot of stories about people who are doing great things with the exhibition format, giving encouragement to those who hope the mini-drive-in renaissance we're seeing now will continue to flourish and take root in the culture again.


UPDATE 7/23/2005: More encouraging news on the health of the drive-in, this one in Montana. News by way of Loxjet and the Billings Gazette.