Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Cascade of Memories about Movie Palaces

Of course I have fond memories of  L.A.’s grand old movie palaces, both those that have survived and those (like the Carthay Circle, once home to Mary Poppins and Around the World in Eighty Days) that have fallen to the wrecking ball. The Los Angeles Conservancy honors this legacy by annually staging “Last Remaining Seats,” a festival of classic films. These screen over a six-week period at such once-opulent Downtown L.A. halls as the Palace, the Million Dollar, and the Orpheum Theatre, which still houses a Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

It’s easy to forget that in the Golden Age of Hollywood every city and township could boast at least one movie palace. Many are gone now, but some – like Albuquerque’s charming KiMo Theatre and Atlanta’s majestic Fox Theatre – have been lovingly preserved and adapted to modern use. (At the Fox, which boasts a kind of Arabian Nights fantasy décor, I once enjoyed a local theatre group’s live-action staging of Oklahoma!)    

On a recent driving trip to Portland, Oregon, I caught up with several classic movie palaces that, happily, continue to thrive. One up-and-coming Southeast Portland neighborhood welcomes hipsters to the aptly-named Hollywood Theatre, which was built in 1926 and named to the National Register of History Places in 1983. (Its fancy façade was modeled after Rome’s Baths of Caracalla.) Meanwhile, in tourist-happy Ashland, the Bard is the main draw, but those weary of the delights of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival can catch a flick at the art-deco Varsity Theatre on Main Street.

It was sweltering hot when we passed through Redding, a small city in California’s Sacramento Valley, but I insisted on getting a peek at the Cascade Theatre. Built in 1935, the Cascade was an important part of the Redding scene, partly because it was the first local building to offer air-conditioning. But times change: it was subdivided into four smaller theatres in 1979, then closed its doors in 1997. Seven years later, it rose again, and now enjoys life as a community center and arts venue. My interest in the Cascade stems from a story told me by a Redding native who now teaches college in Southern California. When she was growing up, the Cascade was the only movie house around, and new releases didn’t stay long: “If you didn’t see it the one week it was in town, you didn’t get to see it.”

 She came of age in the Vietnam era, when parents and their children rarely agreed on anything. As a student at the local community college, she frequently went to the movies, because “that was sort of my only connection to the outside world.”  Her dad, a high-school principal, had become increasingly conservative over the years. When Joe and WUSA (based on Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors) were booked at the Cascade in 1970, he spotted an American flag in the ad for the double-feature, and decided to share this patriotic pairing with his daughter. In fact, the films were hardly pro-American, “but my dad, having paid for his admission, insisted on sitting through both movies. . . . I thought he was going to have apoplexy. I really thought he was going to have a heart-attack or something, watching it. He was so enraged, but he wouldn’t leave.” It was one of only two times in her life that they tried movie-going together. Their much later movie outing, to see Saving Private Ryan, doubtless pleased him more.

As motion picture distributors know, you can’t satisfy everyone. But such is the challenge of booking movies – and seeing movies -- in a one-theatre town. 

All photos courtesy of Bernie Bienstock

Friday, July 25, 2014

There Will Be Blood: The Hatfields and the McCoys

It sometimes feels, in this world of ours, that everyone hates everyone. The newspapers are full of feuds: between Ukraine and Russia, between Sunni and Shia, between Democrat and Republican. Thanks to modern technology, the globe is much smaller than it used to be. That’s why hostilities between factions near the Black Sea can (alas) destroy the lives of innocents from Holland and Malaysia. I guess you can call it progress.

Back in the nineteenth century, feuds may have been equally brutal, but they covered much less territory. Take the famous case of the Hatfields and the McCoys, which played out from 1865 to 1890 in a small valley traversed by the Tug River, separating Kentucky from West Virginia. The long-standing vendetta between these two interrelated mountain families eventually grew so fierce that it nearly reignited the Civil War. Before it petered out, it had captured the imagination of readers across the U.S., thanks to the big-city newsmen who descended on the Tug Valley to get the scoop.

My knowledge of the Hatfields and McCoys does not come from the much-lauded miniseries that ran on the History Channel in 2012. From the looks of the cast list, the producers tried hard to reflect the actual doings of the feud’s main participants. But showbiz understandably needs to cut corners. Anyone wanting the full saga should check out a book that was published in 2013. Dean King’s The Feud: The Hatfields & McCoys: The True Story is the result of years of research, including the author’s discovery of source material that had remained untapped for over a century.

And what a story King tells! It features moonshiners, yellow journalists, bounty hunters, hotheads, deadbeats, crooked lawmen, avengers, turncoats, a Romeo and Juliet romance, kinfolk who die of broken hearts, a public hanging, and the Supreme Court. I learned about the local flora and fauna, and got clued in about the role of razorback hogs (the source of the political term “earmark”) in helping ignite the feud. I also got up to speed on the region’s enthusiastic mating habits: it was not unheard of for a couple like Randall and Sally McCoy to have sixteen children, with the eldest and the youngest born 25 years apart. (Eight of those children would be feud victims.)

Of all the instances of senseless bloodshed, the one that still haunts me took place in 1888. In a New Year’s Day raid, Hatfield marauders attacked a McCoy cabin, killing and maiming several women. Through the long night afterwards, five McCoys huddled around a campfire, watching their home burn to the ground. Writes King, “Sally [McCoy], whose ribs had been broken near the spinal column, was unable to walk, and her bloody hair was frozen to the ground.” Later, he cinematically describes a shootout between a lawman and someone from the Hatfield camp: “Both men squeezed their triggers. Crazy Jim’s hat flew ten feet above his head, like a cap tossed in victory. Some of his brains were inside it.”
It’s a story not short of colorful characters (with names like Devil Anse, Hog Floyd, Bad Frank, and Squirrel Huntin’ Sam), but this was no Li’l Abner cartoon. The violence persisted, egged on by bounty seekers and the national press, almost into the twentieth century. Remarkably, in 1913, a later Hatfield, a physican, became a progressive governor of West Virginia. And in 2003, an official peace treaty was signed by the two families’ descendants to symbolize American unity in a post-9/11 world. 

I wonder if we’ll need to wait 100 years for today’s international feuds to run their course.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Peggy Sue Goes Back to the Future

Last weekend I attended a major reunion of my high school class. I will not divulge how long it’s been since we all graduated from Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles, but there’ve been some serious changes among us: marriages, divorces, births, deaths, expanding waistlines, hair that changed colors or disappeared altogether. Not that my reunion was nearly as eventful as the one portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married. I don’t think anyone there was time-traveling, and our shindig wasn’t graced by the presence of a one-time dweeb who has now blossomed into a computer zillionaire.

Nonetheless, a good time was had by all. I’ve been to enough reunions to realize that the urge to impress one’s former classmates has long since faded. Instead, we’re all simply grateful that we’re still here, standing on our own two feet (most of us), and happily spinning stories of what we’ve survived and what lessons we’ve learned along the way. Admittedly, my reunion wouldn’t have made for a terribly good movie. The juicy stuff – the diva out to flabbergast, the drunken confessions at the bar, the reuniting of lost lovers who promptly decide to dump their longtime spouses – either didn’t happen or escaped my attention because I was too busy comparing notes about dead parents and favorite teachers. I must say, I didn’t mind at all that the drama of the evening was so muted.

On screen, though, reunions can be potent things. The classic reunion movie, one that remains a touchstone for my generation, is Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, released in 1983. It’s not about a formal reunion, but rather chronicles a gathering of some Baby Boomers who’d been college chums in the Sixties, and have now gathered fifteen years later to mourn the loss of one of their own. In reviewing The Big Chill for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, “These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin'. For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the '60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B.”  Corliss’s description fits my classmates and me as well. We vividly remember the politics of our high school and college days, the loss of JFK, the fear of being drafted, the music by which we lived our lives. One of Saturday night’s highlights for me was the moment the deejay put on the old tunes and some of us bravely bopped to everything from “The Stroll” to “Unchained Melody” to “Honky-Tonk Woman,” in defiance of the passing years.

The Big Chill always puts me in mind of John Sayles’ 1980 indie, The Return of the Secaucus Seven.. Because Sayles broke into movies via the Roger Corman Graduate School of Film, I spoke to him at length while researching my inside bio, Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. With $40,000 in the bank, the use of someone’s house, and a gaggle of non-SAG actors all turning thirty, Sayles chose to craft a story about former college friends gathering to commemorate the day, ten years earlier, when they all got arrested en route to a D.C. protest march. The film, Sayles’ directorial debut, beautifully fulfills an important Corman maxim: take advantage of what you’ve got.

I’d like to think that my Hami High classmates have done the same.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Getting Naked, I’m Afraid

I’m just back from an outdoor wedding in Northern California. Both bride and groom kept their clothes on. This made for a lovely event, but it would have had no cred on today’s reality TV. As I’ve discovered, the new trend is for total nudity. Yesterday, VH1 launched a series called Dating Naked, to compete with such shows as Buying Naked and Naked Vegas.

I stumbled onto the nudity trend via my treadmill TV. Channel-surfing on a Sunday morning, I came across Naked and Afraid, which was launched by the once-dignified Discovery Channel in June 2013. It’s a survivor-type show with a titillating twist: two healthy young Americans of different genders are stranded in some sort of exotic wilderness area, where they must manage to live off the land. For the 21 days of the challenge, they are given no food, no water, and no clothing. 

The episode I partly saw, “Mayan Misery,” was set in the jungles of Belize. Cass, a strapping former soldier with a family back home, started out armed with plenty of brute strength. Shannon, a willowy earth-mother type, was touted as an expert on herbs and alternative medicines. Both sported lightweight cross-body satchels containing a diary, a map and one useful item of their own choosing, like a fire-starter or knife. Other than that, they were buck-naked except for their tattoos.

I watched this couple, nearly dying of thirst, risk serious illness by drinking out of local streams. I watched them, faced with torrential rains, crouch in a spooky cave inhabited by bats and who-knows-what. As time passed, I saw the damage done to their skin and bare feet. Basically, they looked like hell. Their nudity (with genitalia discreetly blurred for TV viewers) was hardly a turn-on for me, nor (I presume) for one another. But what was the point, exactly?

In the New York Times for July 17, 2014, Neil Genzlinger published an amusing piece called “Say Yes to Undress,” in which he predicts that someday soon, in deference to “14-year-old viewers and those who wish they still were,” we’ll have All-Bare TV. This trend, he frets, “is going to cost the jobs of countless costume designers, seamstresses, ironers, dry cleaners. Several Emmy Award categories will disappear, though in fairness, one will surely be added for outstanding blurring of crotches and nipples.” He’s not looking forward to Naked Downton Abbey.

My own thoughts have gone in a different direction. Yes, the featured couple in Naked and Afraid  is bug-bitten and defenseless, but they’re hardly alone out there in the jungle. This is a TV show, after all. So there’s got to be a camera crew recording their every move. Even with today’s lightweight and versatile equipment, I presume our couple is being tailed 24/7 by a cameraman, a sound recorder, maybe a lighting expert, and likely a producer to keep things running smoothly. None of those folks, I’m guessing, is going without food or water. And I’m quite sure they aren’t required to work in the buff, with their primal parts flapping in the breeze.

Oddly, I’m reminded of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As I learned when researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, the Grinch’s heavy costume and makeup made star Jim Carrey so acutely claustrophobic that one afternoon shooting had to be halted hours earlier than planned. The next day, director Ron Howard showed up in identical Grinch garb out of sympathy for his leading man. Seems only fair that the behind-the-scenes team on Naked and Afraid show some solidarity with their nekkid stars, right?