The title of Julia Marchese’s testimonial documentary on the history of Los Angeles’ the New Beverly Cinema, Out of Print, began, as her film did, as a way of suggesting the dark future which lay in store for the prospect of 35mm film distribution and exhibition in the early stages of this decade’s industry switch-over to digital projection. Marchese’s movie sprung from efforts to rally behind not only the viability of the film format in the face of the movie business’s growing infatuation with all things ones-and-zeroes, but also the viability of theaters like the New Beverly Cinema, the city’s longest-surviving repertory theater, which in 2013, around the time the film began production, saw the availability of 35mm prints, the bread-and-butter of the few independent revival houses across the country still in business, dwindling. These theaters were given a simple, expensive choice: cough up perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the conversion to digital, or close up shop. The industry itself, it seemed, would soon be out of prints.
(The theater in my hometown, staring down exactly this choice, boarded up in March 2014 and, current vigorous community efforts notwithstanding, remains shut down four years later.)
Out of Print slowly came together over the course of about a year, evolving from its origins as a love letter to 35mm and into a sort of oral history of what Marchese, and many others like her, loved even more than images on celluloid—the New Beverly itself. She rounded up a who’s-who of high profile fans of the theater, like directors Joe Dante, Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, Stuart Gordon and John Landis, and also made room for a passel of below-the-line New Beverly regulars to tell their tales as well. My favorites: the wistful considerations of New Beverly mainstays like actor Clu Gulager, who had a plaque with his name on it installed on his favorite seat; and Freddie Gillette, former limo driver for Orson Welles, who has more stories than he could ever possibly tell (which, of course, will never keep him from trying); and the quick-witted and entirely charming Gariana Abeyta, former projectionist at the Cinefamily who proclaims, deadpan tongue in cheek, that her relationship with the New Beverly is “primarily sexual.” (The fate of the Cinefamily itself, another Los Angeles specialty cinema now closed for reasons having nothing to do with exhibition formats, gives Abeyta’s wisecrack an unintended frisson of irony to go along with the laugh.)
All of these folks are united by their mutual love for what amounts to a treasured Los Angeles institution, and they supply rich veins of impassioned observation and amusing anecdotes, as well as some emotionally charged remembrances of the revival theater’s humble origins under the loving care of its original caretaker, Sherman Torgan, who died unexpectedly in 2007. Those who don’t know the theater or who are only marginally interested in the enthusiasms that are the meat-and-potatoes of Marchese’s tribute, which started screening for festivals and began its streaming life in the latter part of 2014, may find the plethora of talking heads on the indulgent side. But those for whom the New Beverly is more than just another theater will find plenty to enjoy here, and plenty to be saddened by as well.
For just as the movie started to become widely available, another chapter in the history of the New Beverly Cinema abruptly began to unfold. After ably taking over in the wake of his father’s death, hands-on shepherding the theater for seven years, Michael Torgan, who booked the films and dealt with almost every aspect of the theater’s day-to-day, night-to-night operation, was summarily replaced by the landlord, Quentin Tarantino, who had himself years earlier saved the theater from being sold off and turned into a Supercuts by buying it himself. Tarantino was self-installed as the ostensible new heart and soul of the New Beverly, sending waves of shock and surprise throughout the Los Angeles film community, who knew the Torgan family’s history as one of the city’s most important forces in the preservation of the revival theater experience. The new uncertainty about the New Beverly’s future, and especially the unceremonious handling of Torgan’s position which precipitated the “transition,” cast an entirely new light on Out of Print and what the existence of the movie as a document of the New Beverly might suddenly mean. (You can read my thoughts on what happened, with links to several outlying news stories and interviews with Tarantino himself, by clicking here— and be sure to stay for the comments.)
Approximately three-and-a-half years after what amounts to the repertory cinema equivalent of a palace coup, the New Beverly is still around. But in that time, Tarantino’s tastes as a programmer and the reliance on his own vast collection of film prints have turned the theater into something akin to his own personal grindhouse. When they are even featured, the appearance of eclectic double bills of classic Hollywood and foreign staples and deep cuts, once the New Beverly’s bread-and-butter, now feel more like token nods to the theater’s past than a vital element of its programming, having been pushed aside in favor of Italian gangster, western and horror obscurities, cheap kung fu thrillers and 90’s mall-plex nostalgia. (The theater recently segregated those musty Hollywood classics into a Wednesday afternoon programming showcase.)
As a result, Out of Print, in what feels like only the time it takes to pass 24 frames past a projector lamp, has gone from a celebration of a family legacy to a sad remembrance, and perhaps it is that sense of loss which gives the movie even more resonance that it might otherwise have had. As regards the heart of the format debate, Marchese, a fierce defender of 35mm herself, had to refashion her film to recognize that the digital revolution had already been won even before her production wrapped, that film vs. digital would never be an all-or-nothing affair, that both formats could and should co-exist, a sentiment that the old New Beverly had already acknowledged. Though currently (and apparently indefinitely) closed while undergoing renovations, business has reportedly been robust for the theater under the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s tutelage, while the refusal to acknowledge the digital revolution in any way still fuels the theater’s overriding sensibility. However, after almost four years the new New Beverly’s 35mm-or-bust attitude seems to have also limited the scope of the programming in ways that have nothing to do with whether or not 35mm is a superior format over digital. Of course, one cannot love revival cinema, in Los Angeles or anywhere else, without wishing the current gatekeepers of the New Beverly Cinema well. But seeing Out of Print now makes painfully apparent, for those who once did and still do call the New Beverly home, the demarcation which exists between the theater’s past and its present, the suspicion that though the theater still thrives something perhaps intangible, like light from a projector beam cast on dust and smoke, has indeed been lost.
In the interests of full disclosure (in case it wasn’t already plainly obvious), the New Beverly Cinema has meant a great deal to me for a long time. In fact, I am one of those below-the-line folks interviewed in Out of Print. Though I’d had a DVD copy for a couple of years, I had put off seeing the movie until last weekend because I didn’t really relish seeing myself in it, and also because I suspected it would be an uncomfortable experience in light of what happened just after it was made. But for me the sadness was leavened considerably by seeing my kids in the movie as well—I took them along with me frequently to see everything from Modern Times and The General to pictures like Ace in the Hole, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Fiddler on the Roof, Kansas City Confidential, The Lady Eve and dozens more, and their history with the theater has ended up well documented here as well. There’s a great still in the movie of Nonie out in front of the theater, plastic fangs in place, getting ready for a double bill of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and The Fearless Vampire Killers, as well as a shot, which brought tears to my eyes, of the drawings Emma made depicting herself, me and Michael outside the theater that were displayed at the entrance past the box office for years after she gave them to him. So, I thought for me the best way to expand upon Marchese’s history of my New Bev, as well as the theater itself, would be to share some of the stories about what the theater has meant to me, stories which I originally posted when the theater’s future was very much in doubt. I’ve only been back three or four times since Tarantino took over, but I scan each monthly schedule nonetheless, looking for more reasons to head back. In the meantime, allow me to return in my own way.
THE FIRST MOVIES I EVER SAW IN LOS ANGELES WERE… Less than a year after I graduated from college, a friend and I ventured south from Oregon to Los Angeles with vague hopes of trying to find work in the movie business– #1 piece of advice: Don’t try to break into the movie business during what amounts to an extended two-week vacation. Though we did manage to wrangle an audience with producer Mary Anne Fisher at the old Venice location of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (we even showed her some super-8 movies we’d made), the trip was basically a chance to screw off and see movies. And the first ones we saw were a double bill of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Eraserhead (1977) at—where else? —the New Beverly Cinema. Especially for two hayseed boys from small-town Southern Oregon, the theater had a strange, sinister run-down vibe that was, of course, exacerbated by the skeevy terror of the films themselves, and I remember being constantly aware of my surroundings, as if I seriously questioned whether we’d make it out of there alive. We did. But if you’d have told me in the spring of 1982 that I’d be taking my own daughter to see movies there some 37 years later, I might have suggested driving to the nearest hospital for an emergency vasectomy. Especially after seeing Eraserhead.
UPON RETURNING TO LOS ANGELES FOR GOOD IN 1987, the New Beverly became a favored destination for me and my best pal Bruce, as well as other friends I would quickly make. I remember a screening of Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka (1983) during which Bruce and I discovered the one section in the middle of the auditorium from which the foul reek of stale piss was inescapable. The fact that the house was packed (Packed! On a Wednesday night! For a notorious Nicolas Roeg flop! This place must be some sort of heaven!) meant that we had to sit tight and stick our heads in our popcorn bags for any hope of relief. Avoiding that section in the future, I saw greats like Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Manhattan (1979), Red River (1948) and Ride the High Country (1962) with other friends, including the woman who would soon become my wife. And one night I faced up to one of my major bucket-list fears and bought a ticket for Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). Like the horrific stench of stale piss, there was no escape from Pasolini’s tortured vision either. (Fear not, motif hounds—I shall return to the urine theme a bit later, though, believe it or not, in a much happier context. And by the way, just for the record, that smell has long since been vanquished from the auditorium!)
FOR TEN YEARS FROM APPROXIMATELY 1997 to 2007, I FELL OUT OF THE HABIT OF GOING TO THE NEW BEVERLY CINEMA. But I had a pal at work who was becoming a regular and who was constantly encouraging me to attend the occasional Grindhouse Night with her, those special sojourns into the scurrilous world of low-rent genre cinema that would soon become a twice-monthly staple of New Beverly Tuesday nights. I was constantly begging off, having recently had two daughters of my own and experiencing firsthand the life- and scheduling-altering effects of parenthood. I’d been writing this blog for three years when she finally talked me into it. The first Grindhouse Festival, designed by Quentin Tarantino as a simultaneous homage to the trash classics he loved but also as a cross-promotional opportunity for the upcoming Grindhouse (2007) double feature, got under way in March of 2007. I seized the chance to write about the event for this site, specifically about the two double features I managed to attend– John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) and Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and then a few weeks later Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), starring Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson, doubled with Richard Lerner’s Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976)– in a piece entitled “Sex and Violence x 2: Grindhouse Report 2007.” And I was off, again, and running.
IF WE’RE LUCKY, WE GET TO HAVE A HANDFUL OF GREAT THEATRICAL EXPERIENCES IN OUR MOVIEGOING LIVES, and during that stretch from 2007, when I started my habit anew, to this year, 2014, the New Beverly has afforded me seemingly more than my share. There was the night, during Edgar Wright’s second “Wright Stuff” festival, when John Landis, who replaced Wright at the last minute, hosted a screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and, to my initial horror, called me out during his introduction to talk about my experience as an extra on that film in front the whole house. (He asked if I thought he’d been a nice guy to work for, and when I answered in the positive he proclaimed, “Well, then I can reveal now that you’re the main reason for the movie’s success!”)
During that stretch I also had the chance to see several of my favorite Robert Altman films projected, including Brewster McCloud, Thieves Like Us and The Long Goodbye. Most thrilling, however, were the exquisite prints I saw on a M*A*S*H (1970)/California Split (1974) double feature about three years ago, bested only by the chance to see Nashville (1975) again last fall, just prior to Criterion’s gorgeous Blu-ray release, after a long period of not seeing it theatrically. It was even more exciting because I saw the film with two friends who had never seen it before. And yes, we spent some time in the lobby afterwards, with Michael, talking about just how astonishing the movie remains nearly 40 years after it was released, and how even more prescient it seems in the current light of day.
I’ll never forget seeing Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) on a double feature with Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) a few years ago, just weeks before Halloween. The hallucinatory brilliance of the double feature (how many more programs like this can we reasonably expect without Michael Torgan’s influence?) was capped perfectly when I made my way out into the lobby afterward, only to see Julia stumbling down the stairs from the projection booth, a dazed look on her face. When she saw me she muttered, “That’s the freakiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. Did you like that?!” Equally memorable, the transcendent Sansho the Bailiff (1954; Kenji Mizoguchi), which I’d never seen before, and which unspooled in its haunted splendor before me and about 10 other paying customers on a Friday night. When I stopped to thank Michael for showing it, he could not hide his disappointment that so few patrons, even among the New Beverly faithful, seemed willing to give the movie a chance.
AND THERE WERE THE GREAT, LO-O-O-O-O-O-O-ONG SITS that made me forever grateful for the theater’s seat replacement program, in which the tiny, beat-up fold-down seats were replaced by much nicer, cushier, back-friendly ones—with cup holders!— in 2008. It was a real privilege to spend my first riveting and unforgettable experience with Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976; Chantal Akerman) in the company of my pal Maria, on whose urging I decided to finally come to terms with this unique and brilliant film myself.
Slighty longer than that, though considerably more action-packed, was a midnight screening of Tarantino’s own personal answer print of Inglorious Basterds (2009), hosted by the loquacious director himself, which started a half-hour late and was preceded by 45 minutes’ worth of WWII movie trailers also brought in by the director—which meant that the nearly three-hour feature didn’t get started until about 1:00 a.m. The usual gathering in the lobby to hash out the experience got under way at about 4:00 a.m., and I didn’t leave for home for another half-hour, remembering all the way to my car and all the way home how I used to do this sort of thing all the time in college, and it never seemed as devastating to my system, or my need for sleep, as it did in this moment.
However, easily the longest and the most pleasurable of all was the opportunity I took a couple years ago to avail myself of a New Beverly pre-New Year’s tradition: a seven-hour (with bathroom break between features) double bill of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), perhaps the most devastating and thrilling of all American epics. To see it unspool in such close proximity, at full attention, was a singular thrill. I’d pulled this stunt once in the VHS days as a particularly perverse Thanksgiving treat to myself, but there’s nothing like the power of Coppola’s films unleashed in a theater, sans distractions—not even a peep from a cell phone, as I recall– to make you appreciate their true, unforgiving power.
BUT AS GREAT EXPERIENCES IN A MOVIE THEATER GO, whether at the New Beverly or anywhere else, it’s hard to beat these three in my personal book. In April of 2008 I topped off the first of two interviews with director Joe Dante, who has always been one of my favorites, with a cornucopia of treats he offered at his first “Dante’s Inferno” Film Festival at the New Beverly. There were several highlights, of course, including Dante’s superb Matinee (1993) and his hilarious, politically astute satire The Second Civil War (1997), but nothing could possibly top the first screening in 40 years of Dante’s legendary, lunatic masterwork The Movie Orgy (1968), compiled with producer/friend Jon Davison during their college days. The screening was free thanks to the multiple rights violations within the program itself, making it illegal to charge admission, and it was packed to the gills, taking on the feel of a true underground phenomenon. More an experience than a movie, The Movie Orgy almost defies description, which as you’ll see in my piece “Joe Dante’s New Beverly Movie Orgy” in no way stopped me from trying. (This was the evening during which I was first introduced to Michael Torgan as well. A big night indeed!)
Only about six months later, it was time for another one of those “I never thought I’d ever see this” kinds of nights that the New Beverly was becoming very generous in providing. Staged in part as a tribute to actress Wendie Jo Sperber, who died in 2005 from breast cancer, and a fund- and awareness-raiser for WeSpark, the breast cancer foundation, the New Beverly staged a double bill of epic proportions featuring Sperber and many, many others– I Wanna Hold Your Hand! (1978) and one of my favorite films of all time, Steven Spielberg’s unjustly maligned 1941 (1979), both of which were written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. (The former was also Zemeckis’ first directing gig.) The stage was packed with veterans of the Zemeckis/Gale stock company, including Gale himself, actress Nancy Allen and actor-director Perry Lang, who staged a great Q&A before 1941 that was worthy of its own DVD audio commentary track. I was especially thrilled to be able to participate in that Q&A and express my unalloyed love for both movies, but Spielberg’s in particular. In my piece “Fire at That Large Industrial Structure: A 1941 Postscript,” I talk about the night, which had both an unexpected beginning and a transcendent grace note of a finish.
Those were brilliant nights to be sure, but I don’t think anything could match what my friend Don Mancini and I managed to pull off two years later, just before Halloween 2010. The one and only time the name of this blog was ever attached to a movie event was this one, and it was a real honor to have had a hand in making it happen. We commandeered two nights on the New Beverly schedule for what, in our eyes at least, was a terrific double bill— Jaume Collett-Serra’s genuinely rightening Orphan (2009) coupled with Don’s very own misunderstood orphan, Seed of Chucky (2005). The first night was dedicated to the cast and crew of Orphan, including the film’s screenwriter David Leslie Johnson and the unnervingly self-possessed and talented star of the film, Esther herself, Isabelle Fuhrmann, all featured in a Q&A hosted by Don. Night two was dedicated to the spawn of Charles Lee Ray, with Don, actors Jennifer Tilly, Steve West and Debbie Lee Carrington, and producer Corey Sienega all on stage for a Q&A moderated by Face/Off screenwriter Mike Werb. It was a chance to stand up for a couple of horror movies that are much better, more frightening and, in the case of Seed more deliberately funny and satirically sharp than they are usually given credit for, and I think we took 100% advantage of the opportunity to kick-start the buffing-up of both their reputations with this event—and I got to meet (and sit down for dinner with) Jennifer Tilly! Read all about it, and see the Q&As themselves, in my piece “The Seed of Chucky/Orphan Q&As.”
OVER THE PAST SEVEN YEARS I’VE MADE MUCH IN THESE PAGES ABOUT THE NEW BEVERLY FAMILY AFFAIR, and though it might sound like a sentimental cliché it really is true, in a couple of different ways. I’ve never felt the sense of bonding over movie love as strongly anywhere else as I have at this theater, and that has everything to do with seeing the same engaged, excited faces at screening after screening, ready to soak up whatever unknown or happily familiar sights and sounds that would be spilling off the screen on any given night. And I’ve met so many people who have become an important, indispensable part of the Los Angeles filmgoing scene that I’ve been welcomed into since 2007. I introduced myself to Anne Thompson for the first time at a screening of Richard Brooks’ Wrong is Right in 2008— astoundingly, she knew about my blog already and has been an ardent supporter of my writing ever since.
Among the other people I’ve become acquainted with at the New Beverly include fellow writers Peter Avellino, Jeremy Smith and Jen Yamato, filmmakers Brian Crewe, Joe Dante, Matt Dinan, Marion Kerr, Julia Marchese, Peter Podgursky and Edgar Wright, extraordinary and erudite film fanatics like John Damer, Marc Edward Heuck, Cathie Horlick, Jeff McMahon, Brian Quinn and producer/classic film specialist Michael Schlesinger, film archivist Ariel Schudson, as well as all-around good souls and New Bev fixtures like Corky Baines , Freddie, and of course Clu Gulager. If ever one needed and coveted a family of like-minded filmheads, this is a pretty glorious group with which to start.
And as I stated earlier, Michael and the New Beverly always found a way to make my family feel as though the place was our second home. One evening we found ourselves on the way home from the Westside and my youngest daughter Nonie, as often happens to young kids, was seized by an urgent need to take a whiz. We just happened to be passing the theater on Beverly Boulevard, so I whipped around, pulled in front of the theater and asked if she could use the pottie. While I waited for her to finish, I talked with some of the staff and Michael even gave Nonie a hot dog for the ride home. Try pulling that off at your local AMC mall-tiplex. (See how I returned to that urine motif? Told you I would.)
BUT FOR US THE FAMILY CONNECTION GOES DEEPER than the well-timed availability of the ladies’ room. Round about 2008 I began making a concerted effort to encourage my kids’ interest in classic films, and the New Beverly played a hugely important role in that time and aspect of their young lives. As a dad hoping to instill reverence and love for all sorts of movies in his kids, the theater provided an opportunity that was just too rich and varied to pass up. I started them both off with a kiddie Halloween matinee of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), and we were off to the races. Nonie joined us on occasion, but more often it was Emma accompanying me for a wide variety of great double features, including Kansas City Confidential (1952) and 99 River Street (1953), during which she cultivated a short-lived Jack Elam impersonation, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Christmas in July, (1940), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), from which Nonie’s popular head shot was cultivated, Modern Times (1936) and The General (1926), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and Coogan’s Bluff (1968), and other great movies like Ace in the Hole (1950), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and The Palm Beach Story (1942).
Emma had a personal revelation with the hilarity of the Marx Brothers when I took her to see a double feature of Duck Soup (1933) and Animal Crackers (1931)—I wrote about it in a piece entitled “Duck Soup— Funniest Movie Ever?”, and another one when director Rian Johnson, working on a theme of cons in the movies, introduced her to the ostensibly strange but beautifully modulated double bill of The Lady Eve (1941) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). (I thanked Johnson, and received a nice response back, in a post entitled “An Open Letter to Rian Johnson”.)
And we had a great time together as a family for two Halloweens running, with me dressing up in totally white vampire egghead mode the first year for The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941), and then the next year working a subtle variation on the bald, totally red-headed Satan, Nonie as his unaccountably lovely daughter/minion, for a double feature of Island of Lost Souls (1932) and Them! (1954). The second year’s bonus is that we entered the New Beverly Halloween Costume Contest, judged by the audience and emcee Joe Dante, and Nonie and I kicked ass, taking first prize, a pass card worth 16 free admissions! It was worth the brutal Lava soap scrub-down I had to endure to get myself clean when we finally made it home.
But Michael and the New Beverly saved the best for a couple of birthday celebrations. For my 50th birthday in 2010, Michael generously offered to let me program the double feature to be shown on my birthday date that year, and the pairing I chose—You Only Live Twice (1967), my favorite of all the Bond movies, alongside Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the third in the Michael Caine/Harry Palmer series, which I’d never seen projected, was the perfect combination.
And earlier that same year, through Michael’s seemingly endless generosity, we threw Emma’s 10th birthday party in the theater on a rainy Saturday morning, with a magician, free popcorn and sodas, pizzas hauled over from Domino’s by Michael and myself, and a screening of Emma’s movie choice, Cats and Dogs (2001). To this day I can’t think of this party and how much it meant to me and my family without getting emotionally overwhelmed. We carved out a one-of-a-kind memory for my movie-crazy daughter that day, and I will be forever in Michael’s debt for facilitating such an amazing experience for her. You can read all about it in my post entitled “Wanna Be the Daughter of Dracula…”
Thank you, Michael, and thank you, New Beverly Cinema, for some of the most memorable, meaningful experiences my family and I have ever had in a movie theater.
The DVD of Out of Print is available through Amazon.com and can also be seen on Amazon Streaming and several other streaming services. As they used to say, check your local listings.