“We used to go to the movies. Now we want the movies to come to us, on our televisions, tablets and phones, as streams running into an increasingly unnavigable ocean of media. The dispersal of movie watching across technologies and contexts follows the multiplexing of movie theaters, itself a fragmenting of the single screen theater where movie love was first concentrated and consecrated. (But even in the “good old days,” movies were often only part of an evening’s entertainment that came complete with vaudeville acts and bank nights). For all this, moviegoing still means what it always meant, joining a community, forming an audience and participating in a collective dream.” –
From the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s programming notes for its current series, “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing”
Currently under way at the Billy Wilder Theater inside the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood, the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s far-reaching and fascinating series “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing” takes sharp aim at an overview of how the movies themselves have portrayed the act of going out to see movies during these years of seismic change in the way we see them. What’s best about the collection of films curated for the series is its scope, which sweeps along from the anything-goes exhibition of the silent era, on through an examination of the opulent era of grandiose movie palaces and post-war audience predilection for exploitation pictures, and straight into an era—ours—of a certain nostalgia for the ways we used to exclusively gather in dark places to watch visions jump out at us from the big screen. (That nostalgia, as it turns out, is often colored by a rear-view perspective on the times which contextualizes it and sometimes gives it a bitter tinge.) As the program notes for the Marquee Movies series puts it, whether you’re an American moviegoer or one from France, Italy, Argentina or Taiwan, “the current sense of loss at the passing of an exhibition era takes its place in the ongoing history of cultural and industrial transformation reflected in these films.”
The series took its inaugural bow last Friday night with a rare 35mm screening of Matinee (1993), director Joe Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas’s vividly imagined tribute to movie love during a time in US history which lazy writers frequently like to describe as “the point when America lost its innocence” or some other such silliness. For Americans, and for a whole lot of other people the world over, those days in 1962 during what would come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis felt more like days when something a whole lot more tangible than “innocence” was about to be lost, what with the US and Russia being on the brink of nuclear confrontation and all. The movie lays down this undercurrent of fear and uncertainty as the foundation which tints its main action, that of the arrival of exploitation movie impresario Laurence Woolsey (John Goodman, channeling producer and gimmick maestro William Castle) to Key West, Florida, to promote his latest shock show, Mant!, on the very weekend that American troops set to sea, ready to fire on Russian missile installments a mere 90 miles away in Cuba.
Woolsey’s hardly worried that his potential audience will be distracted the specter of annihilation; in fact, he’s energized by it, convinced that the free-floating anxiety will translate into box office dollars contributed by nervous kids and adults looking for a safe and scary good time, a disposal cinematic depository for all their worst fears. And it certainly doesn’t matter that Woolsey’s movie is a corny sci-fi absurdity– all the better for his particular brand of enhancements. Mant!, a lovingly sculpted mash-up of 1950s hits like The Fly and Them!, benefits from “Atomo-vision,” which incorporates variants of Castle innovations like Emergo and Percepto, as well as “Rumble-rama,” a very crude precursor to Universal’s Oscar-winning Sensurround system. The movie’s Saturday afternoon screening is where Dante and Haas really let loose their tickled and twisted imaginations, with the help of Woolsey’s theatrical enhancements.
Leading up to the fearful and farcical unleashing of Mant!, Dante stages a beautifully understated sequence that moved me to tears when I saw it with my daughters last Friday night at the Billy Wilder Theater. Matinee is seen primarily through the eyes of young Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a military kid whose dad is among those waiting it out on nuclear-armed boats pointed in the direction of Cuba. Gene is a monster-movie nerd (and a clear stand-in for Dante, Haas and just about anybody—like me—whose primary biblical text was provided not by that fella in the burning bush but instead by Forrest J. Ackerman within the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland), and he manages to worm his way into Woolsey’s good graces as the producer prepares the local theater to show his picture. At one point he walks down the street in the company of the larger-than-life producer, who starts talking about his inspirations and why he makes the sort of movies he does:
“A zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave,” Woolsey expounds. “He goes out one day—Bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now, he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great.”
Gene, eager to believe but also to understand, responds quizzically– “Well, yeah, ‘cause he’s still living.”
“Yeah, but he knows he is, and he feels it,” Woolsey counters. “So he goes home, back to the cave. First thing he does, he does a drawing of a mammoth.” (At this point the brick wall which the two of them are passing becomes a blank screen onto which Woolsey conjures an animated behemoth that entrances Gene and us.) Woolsey continues:
“He thinks, ‘People are coming to see this. Let’s make it good. Let’s make the teeth real long and the eyes real mean.’ Boom! The first monster movie. That’s probably why I still do it. You make the teeth as big as you want, then you kill it off, everything’s okay, the lights come up,” Woolsey concludes, ending his illustrative fantasy with a sigh.
But that’s not all, folks. At this point, Dante cuts to a Steadicam shot as it moves into the lobby hall of that Key West theater, past posters of Hatari!, Lonely are the Brave, Six Black Horses and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. The tracking shot continues up the stairs, letting us get a really close look at the worn, perhaps pungent carpet, most likely the same rug that was laid down when the theater opened 30 or so years earlier, into the snack bar area, then glides over to the closed swinging doors leading into the auditorium, while Woolsey continues:
“You see, the people come into your cave with the 200-year-old carpet, the guy tears your ticket in half—it’s too late to turn back now. The water fountain’s all booby-trapped and ready, the stuff laid out on the candy counter. Then you come over here to where it’s dark– there could be anything in there—and you say, ‘Here I am. What have you got for me?’”
Forget nostalgia for a style of moviegoing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more compact, evocative and heartfelt tribute to the space in which we used to see movies than those couple of minutes in Matinee. The shot and the narration work so vividly together that I swear I could whiff the must underlying that carpet, papered over lovingly with the smell of popcorn wafting through the confined space of that tiny snack bar, just as if I was a kid again myself, wandering into the friendly confines of the Alger Theater in Lakeview, Oregon (More on that place next week.)
Dante’s movie is a romp, no doubt, but its nostalgia is a heartier variety than what we usually get, and it leaves us with an undercurrent of uneasiness that is unusual for a genre most enough content to look back through amber. Woolsey’s words resonate for every youngster who has searched for reasons to explain their attraction to the scary side of cinema and memories of the places where those images were first encountered, but in Matinee there’s another terror with which to contend, one not so easily held at bay.
Of course the real world monster of the movie— the bomb— was also, during that weekend in 1962 and in Matinee’s representation of the missile crisis, “killed off,” making “everything okay.” But Dante makes us understand that while calm has been momentarily restored, something deeper has been forever disturbed. The movie acknowledges the societal disarray which was already under way in Vietnam, and the American South, and only months away from spilling out from Dallas and onto the greater American landscape in a way so much less containable than even the radiative effects of a single cataclysmic event. That awareness leaves Matinee with a sorrowful aftertaste that is hard to shake. The movie’s last image, of our two main characters gathered on the beach, greeting helicopters that are flying home from having hovered at the precipice of nuclear destruction, is one of relief for familial unity restored—Gene is, after all, getting his dad back. But it’s also one of foreboding. Dante leaves us with an extreme close-up of a copter looming into frame, absent even the context of the sky, bearing down on us like a real-life mutant creature, an eerie bellwether of political and societal chaos yet to come as a stout companion to the movie’s general air of celebratory remembrance.
The “Marquee Movies” series has already seen Matinee (last Friday night), Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) paired with Polish director Wojciech Marczewski’s 1990 Escape from Liberty Island (last Saturday night), and Ettore Scola’s masterful Splendor (1989), which screened last Sunday night.
But there’s plenty more to come. Sunday, June 12, the archive series unveils a double bill of Lloyd Bacon’s Footlight Parade (1933) with the less well-known This Way, Please (1937), a terrific tale of a star-struck movie theater usherette with dreams of singing and dancing just like the stars she idolizes, starring Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Betty Grable, Jim Jordan, Marian Jordan and the brilliantly grizzled Ned Sparks.
Wednesday, June 15, you can see Uruguay’s A Useful Life (2010), in which a movie theater manager in Montevideo faces up the fact that the days of his beloved movie theater are numbered, paired up with Luc Moullet’s droll account of the feud between the French film journals Cahiers du Cinema and Positif, entitled The Seats of the Alcazar (1989).
One of my favorites, Tsai Ming-liang’s haunting Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) gets a rare projection at the Wilder on Sunday, June 19, along with Lisandsro Alonzo’s Fantasma (2006), described by the archive as “a hypnotic commentary on cinematic rituals and presence.”
Saturday afternoon, June 25, “Marquee Movies” presents a rare screening of Gregory La Cava’s hilarious slapstick spoof of rural moviegoing, His Nibs (1921), paired up with what I consider, alongside Matinee and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one of the real jewels of the series, Basil Dearden’s marvelously funny The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), all about what happens when a newlywed couple inherits a rundown cinema populated by a staff of eccentrics that include Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers. (More on that one next week.)
And the series concludes on Sunday, June 26, with a screening of the original 174-minute director’s cut of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988).
(Each program also features a variety of moviegoing-oriented shorts, trailers and other surprises. Click the individual links for details and show times.)
(Next week: My review of The Smallest Show on Earth and a remembrance of my own hometown movie theater, which closed in 2015.)
Later this year Matinee will be released by Universal in the U.S. (details to come) and by Arrow Films in the UK (with a nifty assortment of extras).