What is it about the spring and the New Beverly Cinema? Last year, just around this time, the Torgans (Sherman and Michael), along with ace grindhouse experts Brian Quinn and Eric Caidin, joined forces with no less than Quentin Tarantino who provided access to his own vault of prints and presented Grindhouse 2007. The festival served as both a two-month-long brush-up on the kinds of movies that informed the sensibilities of Tarantino and partner Robert Rodriguez, but also set the stage as a unique nightly promotion for their own movie Grindhouse, which opened at the festival's midpoint. (Tarantino even screened it at the New Beverly a couple of days in advance of its national release as a treat for the faithful.)
The Grindhouse 2007 was a wonderful gathering of like-minded cineastes and trash fans, and though no one could have possibly anticipated it, the festival also served as a going-away celebration for two of its premier participants. Director John Flynn, who was present at a screening and absorbed the audience appreciation for his well-regarded thriller Rolling Thunder (1977), passed away a mere two weeks later. His appearance at the New Beverly would be his last in public, and shortly after the New Beverly paid tribute to Flynn by screening his underrated mob picture The Outfit (1974)-- and if memory serves, Rolling Thunder was on the bill that night too.* (* UPDATE 4/6/08 My memory apparently does not serve me well after all. Brian wrote me an e-mail this weekend reminding me that the John Flynn double bill that appeared at the New Beverly shortly after the director's death was in fact the director's follow-up to Rolling Thunder, Jan-Michael Vincent and Teresa Saldana in Defiance (1980) doubled with one of the few good Steven Seagal movies, Out for Justice (1991). I get the feeling, though, that if they received enough e-mails requesting to see Flynn at his best, the New Beverly might just be open to a Rolling Thunder/The Outfit double bill sometime soon. Let's get those cards and letters, as they used to say, coming in!)
But even more to the heart of the matter, it was only after basking in the success of his theater’s highest–profile event in years that on July 18 we were all informed of the tragic death of Sherman Torgan, the man who owned the New Beverly. Torgan shepherded the theater through several rough and economically unsure decades, which included the demise of campus film societies, the Beta-VHS wars, the rise of VHS and the home video revolution, and at the time of his death the encroaching competition of DVD and high-tech home theaters. An outpouring of support for the Torgan family, particularly for son Michael who decided to carry on in his father’s footsteps, coincided with an uptick in business for the New Beverly, which some lay at least partially at the feet of Tarantino’s festival, as well as the Times Square sensibilities of Caidin and Quinn, and now Phil Blankenship, who has spearheaded the Midnight Movie revival at the theater by canny programming of cult hits and ‘80s nostalgia fare.
Key to the New Beverly’s apparent renaissance have also been offshoots of the Tarantino-curated Grindhouse 2007 festival, in which directors such as Edgar Wright and Eli Roth have programmed a couple of weeks on the New Beverly calendar with some of their favorites. Both Wright’s selections (which included canny double bills like Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik paired with the 1980 Flash Gordon, and the mad tracking shots of Raising Arizona and Evil Dead 2) and Roth’s slates (Carrie plus co-hit Zapped!, et al) were a lot of fun, and featured plenty of great guest appearances by some of the key players involved in making the films.
And now the New Beverly has scored probably its greatest coup yet in terms of presenting filmmakers and the movies they love to eager audiences. This time they got a great filmmaker to hold court for two weeks, diagramming and dissecting his influences, his personal tastes and the idiosyncratic, cynical humor that is so much a part of what he brings to every movie he makes. Starting Saturday night with a midnight screening of the director’s 1978 Jaws rip-off/parody entitled Piranha, the New Beverly will give over two weeks to Joe Dante and his Dante’s Inferno film festival. Dante has long been one of my favorite directors, an unrepentant appreciator of the camp qualities and the genuine wit and scrappy creativity to be found among the many titles to have filled the B-movie bucket over the past 50 years or so. His encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly every movie ever released, his unimpeachable cinematic acumen, is never show-offy, either in his films or in the many interviews and DVD commentaries he has graced during his career. Nor is his command of film style and artistry. He is that rarity, a smart filmmaker with a degree of humility who allows his intelligence to shine through his work in ways that are often misinterpreted or devalued by the keepers of the cultural flame.
For this reason, not nearly so many people as should tend to understand that movies like Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Explorers, The ‘burbs and his HBO film The Second Civil War are masterpieces of design, effect, satire and social commentary that far outstrip most of the movies that august bodies tend to crown with awards. Dante's movies are firecrackers, ones you shouldn't hold in your hands for long. They snap, crackle, pop and outright supernova with the kind of exuberance that most directors half his age can’t muster. Don Mancini’s Seed of Chucky is about the only movie that can stand anywhere near Gremlins 2 as an acid-blooded, tear-the-roof-off-the-joint studio sequel that makes the very idea of a sequel its radically funny foundation, a foundation from which a virtual house of mirrors explodes and plasters the walls of the cinema with a thousand different angles on creative cannibalism.
The audience gets another funhouse mirror held up to itself in The ‘burbs, as critical a movie of its own viewers and their uglier tendencies as I’ve ever seen (which perhaps explain why, despite its high laugh count, audiences much preferred seeing this movie on cable TV and DVD as opposed to a theater, where their surroundings weren’t so instantly comforting).
Many hold up Dante’s original Gremlins as the movie that spears the Spielbergian sensibility most effectively—it was a movie that Dante made for Spielberg’s Amblin’ Entertainment, after all. I think there’s no denying that Dante finds the sour satire at the gooey heart of Chris Columbus’ script (now, there’s a filmmaker after Spielberg’s fresh, still-beating heart). But speaking of hearts, Dante’s doesn’t seem to be fully engaged in dissecting the Spielberg universe-- Gremlins was a job for hire, and he had fun squeezing as much juice out of the concept as possible. For me, Explorers instead represents Dante’s most personal work, one in which the optimism of the Spielberg framework is exercised and ultimately put to one of the best anti-climactic jokes ever pulled in a major motion picture. And again, it’s a joke that comes as much at the expense of the audience, who are ready to lap up lots more Spielbergian scraps until Dante’s jolts them out of their potentially euphoric experience, as it does to Spielberg himself who, with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, had already begun to leave the E.T. superstructure behind. It was left to Dante to tweak, make resonate with extra feeling, and put to use as a brilliant coming-of-age tale that doesn’t feel the slightest bit sentimental. Explorers is currently a favorite of my own daughters, and I’m very thankful for that.
Finally, the welcome bruises one takes while watching Dante’s bleakly hilarious The Second Civil War are well earned. The large-scale canvas Dante paints on (ironically, on the small screen) is full of cacophonous life—Beau Bridges is an Idaho senator who secedes from the nation rather than allow passage of a group of Afghani refugees through his state. The tailspin this rash and politically cynical decision sets in motion finally engulfs the entire country. The movie gains in blackly comic ground, and in deeper, darker shadows, as it reaches for its inevitable conclusion. Dante juggles a pessimistic vision of media, politics and abdicated responsibilities of citizenry with deft visual sleight of hand—- the movie never seems sluggish or weighed down with purpose, but instead light on its feet, skipping like a bug over boiling lava, heading for disaster. To think of another movie I felt handled this kind of subject matter this well, a brooding, brutally funny tapestry of head-spinning, pop-eyed Americana, I might just have to invoke the “N” word-- Network, or perhaps Nashville.
Unfortunately, for patrons ready to spend some time with Dante discussing his own films, three of the four Dante films fall under the purview of Blankenship's midnight hour-- Piranha screens Saturday night, April 5, Gremlins 2: The New Batch shows up April 12 at midnight, and April 26 brings The Howling to the New Beverly at the witching (or the wolfing) hour. (Dante has apparently not discounted the possibility of showing up for at least one of these.) But the sole Dante film to make it onto the regular schedule (at least as it stands right now) is a doozy and one of my favorite movies of all time: Hollywood Boulevard (1976), which really should be seen at a drive-in, but that’s no excuse to pass up this opportunity. It’ll screen April 11 and 12 along with Isaac Hayes in Truck Turner (1974), directed by another of Dante’s classmates at the Roger Corman School of Exploitation Filmmaking, Jonathan Kaplan, who will be attendance for at least one of the nights.
Otherwise, the schedule is an excellent tribute to the genres and influences that Dante feels have made him the filmmaker (and film lover) he is today.
On April 9 and 10, a fascinating double bill—the trashy shock “documentary” Mondo Cane (1962) paired with the grim and glorious spectacle of doomed Imperialism, Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins and Michael Caine in Cy Endfield’s excellent Zulu (1964).
April 11-12 bring Hollywood Boulevard and Truck Turner to the screen in a virtual time-travel capsule back to the glorious days of ‘70s exploitation cinema.
April 13-15 looks to be a real treat. Arch Hall Jr. stars as The Sadist (1963), a relentless low-budget shocker about a group of innocent kids trapped in a junkyard by the titular creep and his equally creepy girlfriend. I caught the last half hour of this on TCM not too long ago and found it riveting; it was shot by none other than Vilmos Zsigmond, who will be in attendance at least one of the nights. The bill will be more than filled by Larry Cohen’s delirious political thriller The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) starring Broderick Crawford, who heads a unbelievable cast including Rip Torn, Michael Parks, Jose Ferrer, Celeste Holm, John Marley, Ronee Blakely and Andrew Duggan.
April 16-17 brings Roger Corman’s The Secret Invasion (1964) to the New Beverly, plus genuinely awesome co-hit, Corman’s Tomb of Ligeia (1964), written by Robert Towne.
Richard Brooks’ Wrong is Right (1982), a prescient satire of TV news blather and nuclear destruction that has, like Network, been outstripped of its outrageous satire by reality itself in the form of Fox News and just about every outsized, greedy political figure on the scene, heads the bill on April 18-19. It will be twinned up with a mystery movie, the title of which is not yet known or being revealed. It has been suggested that it will be in a similar apocalyptically satirical vein.
April 20-21 shows Dante’s taste for terror remains unabated and as sophisticated as ever. Piers Haggard’s gorgeous and insinuating Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), which I was lucky enough to see last summer on the big screen, is already unmissable. But then team it with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Telly Savalas riding the Horror Express (1973) and you’ve got a grade-A ‘70s horror coupling that will satisfy even the most jaded fanatic.
Finally, Dante’s Inferno finishes off with a big bang, the often-discussed but rarely seen short version (at 4 hours, 20 minutes!) of Joe Dante and Jon Davison’s wild collage of trailers, clips and anti-military documentary clips (plus a whole lot more) entitled The Movie Orgy (1968). Incredibly, a much longer seven-hour version was quite a sensation, traveling from screening to screening in Dante’s college days. Here the director is bringing out the much more digestible-in-one-sitting short version to end his days with the New Beverly. That sounds like a rare treat indeed, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
More details on these movies and other things Joe Dante has on his mind coming up later today, so keep your eye on this space for a major update. But right now, get to your calendars, start marking your dates and make sure to make plans to arrive at the New Beverly early. Get more updates on the festival by checking in directly with the New Beverly Cinema.