Double feature

Last Friday night, I was talking with Brünhilde right before a showing of Friday the 13th at the rundown Capri Theater. A tacky movie at a tacky theater, the experience should have been perfect. The Capri’s been closed for twenty years, and it shows. It’s been gutted of its lobby, ticket booth, projection equipment, seats, curtains, a lot of its ceiling tiles (that was probably accidental), concessions area, and (most important) its restrooms. The concrete floor—even the carpet’s been stripped away—slopes downward at a sharp angle.

The theater opens only for themed repertory showings sponsored by the Crossroads Film Society, with warnings that audience members should bring their own popcorn, foldable chairs, and footwarmers (heat’s gone, too), and that they should expect to use the Port-A-Poddy outside for the necessary business.

At least there’s $3 beer on tap, provided by the society; that, at least, wasn’t part of the original Capri’s lineup. Cheap, cold beer and an environment so scummy that even the rats have left—perfect for Friday the 13th.

Anyway, we didn’t actually watch the movie. Instead, we sold beer, pointed people to the Port-A-Poddy, and chatted. In October 2005, C. and I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Capri. It’s perfect for schlock horror, softcore porn, or the sleaziest in cinematic excess. So, of course, it reminded me of Grindhouse.

I still haven’t seen the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino wankfest, and I’m not sure that I will. I’ve soured on Tarantino post-Jackie Brown, which is the last of his movies that I’ve enjoyed. I like Rodriguez better when he worked with lower budgets (El Mariachi) and kid-friendly material (the first two Spy Kids movies). His blood-drenched kamikazes are hit-or-miss for me: I loved Once Upon A Time in Mexico, I respected but didn’t much like Desperado, and I hated Sin City.

When the two directors collaborate, as with Four Rooms and From Dusk till Dawn, the results are dismal. (Dusk, at least, has strong performances from George Clooney, Juliette Lewis, and Harvey Keitel.) They fall too in love with their own tics, are too punch-drunk on junk movies to reveal anything about the human condition. Grindhouse looks to be more of the same, but amplified. Reels are intentionally missing; the celluloid has been digitally scratched and blotched; sound fades in and out; every horror-and-sleaze archetype gets trotted out; T&A gets bared flagrantly; gushing blood and popping pustules fill the screen.

Say what you will, Grindhouse is a (self-)loving emulation of both the actual 1970s grindhouse schlock and the experience of watching such movies. And that’s why I’m only mildly curious about the movie.

I was born in 1976. The closest I’ve come to the grindhouse experience was the aforementioned Rocky Horror screening, and even that was manufactured and sanitized. Unlike in real grindhouses, there was no chance of getting mugged in the restroom or hearing someone whacking off two rows behind you. The experience of grindhouses seems more important to Grindhouse than the (mostly terrible) movies themselves.

So, I’ve no nostalgia for grindhouses, and there’s no inner longing for sticky floors and smoke-stained velvet chairs in me. Grindhouse seems tailor-made for those who worship these scuzzy altars and the experience—again, not so much the content, but the experience—of seeing scuzzy movies in such environments. The movie’s trailer, as slick and sophisticated as it is, seems to thumb its nose at anyone who doesn’t respond with delight to grindhouse screenings.

There’s one aspect of the grindhouse experience, faithfully recreated in Grindhouse, that I do love, and which Brünhilde brought back to my attention. The Capri may have reminded her of it.

“Okay, so what’s your ideal double feature?” she asked. “If you could show any two films together, what would you show and why?”

I’ve had a romantic attachment to the double bill ever since I saw the 3-hour Dr. Zhivago, bifurcated by an intermission, at the classy, refurbished, balconied Lakewood Theater in East Dallas, with L(2), back in Spring 1995. We were in high school. We were best friends; I had a crush on her. Nothing happened when the lights went down, though, except that we watched a great movie on a really huge screen, with a luxurious and clean print, in an otherwise empty theater. We whispered extensively during the movie, and chatted at length during intermission, pontificating and cracking jokes as we walked in the aisles and between rows. Why not? No one else was there.

Another Dallas experience, about two years later: A casual friend, Binh Chong, worked at the Inwood Theatre, an art-house theater in slightly North Dallas, as a projectionist, ticket-booth clerk, and concessionist. Over the course of the three years she worked there, she cut trailers from movies that ran at the cinema. She spliced about 30 of the most interesting ones together and, because by this point she was a manager at the Inwood, showcased her trailer film one night. Honestly, we weren’t very close; I’m not sure why I was invited. But I was. I was fascinated. For two minutes or so, we were immersed into the most tantalizing frames of movies. And then we were knocked back out, and then plunged into another trailer. Loads of movies that I had no interest in actually seeing—Zentropa, The Young Poisoner’s Handbook, Chronos, and Lair of the White Worm were a few of those I still remember—nevertheless held me in their thrall for a minute or two. I ended up seeing and loving Chronos based on this trailer, and like it more than any other Guillermo del Toro movie.

A final one, this time in Memphis, summer 2005: Traveling Tom and I drove up from Memphis, intending to catch a screening of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. We checked the theater’s schedule to make sure that it was still showing, and double-checked the times, as it takes close to an hour to drive to Memphis from Oxford. We rolled into Memphis, and didn’t even get lost on our way to the theater. No Enron; it had left a day before, and the theater hadn’t updated its site. So, we ended up watching a double dose of documentaries: Rize (about crump-style dancers in Los Angeles; good subject, disappointing and condescending take) and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (about precisely that, and the man who cares for them, in San Francisco; charming and sweet). We ate Mexican food in-between showings. We’d only vaguely heard of either movie, but the experience turned into a day of engaging viewing.

Oh hell, one more: Until I signed up for Netflix early last year, I frequently made use of Video Library’s 5-for-5-for-5 policy. Video Library, an independent video rental store near me, allowed anyone to rent five movies, for five nights, for five bucks, as long as they weren’t new releases. On Fridays, in those lonely two years right after I graduated college, I’d rent five movies by a single director, and spend Saturday having a crash course in his/her oeuvre. I can hardly believe I’m writing this: I blazed through Robert Altman’s Nashville, Short Cuts, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, and Cookie’s Fortune on a single Saturday in 2000. That was extreme overkill, and not something I did often. More often, I’d rent a five-batch of sci-fi (or romantic comedies, or Shakespearean adaptations, or whatever) by different directors, and watch one on Friday, two on Saturday, and two on Sunday.

As I thought about Brünhilde’s question, I realized that I wasn’t going to come up with a good answer readily. I’m not good with the quick draw; I worry sometimes that my conversational skills are stunted. But that’s not the only reason I hemmed and hawed.

The truth is that, as much as I loved double features and intermissions back in the day, it’s harder on me now. It’s revelatory to enter one cinematic world, and then immediately enter another one, but it’s also exhausting. After three years of doing the 5-for-5-for-5 regularly, I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t know when exactly I noticed that the cinematic whiplash left me with headaches, or that I now zoned out midway through the second movie, or would return the five movies on Wednesday having only watched two or three.

Whatever happened to me, I stopped doing the double feature. I only do it in moderation now. I saw the Thai chopsocky flick The Protector in August, and it was so bad—clumsily shot, badly acted, poorly choreographed, lit murkily, grainy and idiotic—that I snuck into Talladega Nights to cleanse myself. I may have laughed harder than the movie deserved—the crowd was big, and engaged—just because it was so removed from the debacle I’d just seen.

Three weeks ago, I “did” my first film festival, the Crossroads Film Festival here in town, which meant that I was watching features and shorts nonstop from Friday through Sunday. I had a blast, but the old 5-for-5-for-5 headache hit me by Saturday evening during Joey Lauren Adams’s lyrical Come Early Morning. It didn’t last as long, though, and I had enough food-and-drink-filled intermissions to replenish my energy.

(I need to build up my strength, as I’ve more or less decided to attend this year’s Toronto International Film Festival for at least five days.)

So, back to Brünhilde’s question. I mumbled something unconvincing about a Buster Keaton double bill. Now, though, I’ve given it more thought.

I’d invite the audience to, of course, the old Lakewood Theater. Concession are $1 apiece. The chairs are plush and clean. The four movies—relax; it’s two shorts and two features—would move gradually in tone from frenzy and chaos to calmness and order.

1. Stan Brakhage’s Rage Net (1988). One part Abstract Expressionist, one part pure Romantic, Brakhage’s movies veer from the deeply personal to the completely meaningless, usually in the same movie. Here, Brakhage describes Rage Net as a therapeutic attempt to come to grips with his divorce. This movie is pure animation, as if a Jackson Pollock canvas came to life. For this one, as with so many late-period Brakhage movie, the filmmaker scraped the emulsion off black film, and then hand-painted it frame by painstaking frame. The movie begins with an explosion of white, yellow, and green that slash against the rich black background. In seconds, the frame becomes filled with color, splotches, emulsion bubbles, painterly strokes and swirls, and searing scratches. Each frame’s image tops the previous one for audacity, and the cuts are so quick until we’re afraid the riot will escape from the screen. It’s swirling rage, encased in paint and celluloid. But Fred Camper best describe the closing: “None of this predicts the miraculous final moment, in which green vertical and horizontal lines suddenly seem to come out of nowhere to form a crystalline image of almost-tranquil clarity.” The film captures and calms fury—a net—and makes something beautiful. Pretty good for a 52-second film.

2. Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline’s The Scarecrow (1920). If The Scarecrow only consisted of Buster and Joe Roberts eating in their living room, filled with Rube Goldberg contraptions, it’d still be a masterpiece. Every aspect of dinner—from buttering the bread, to sprinkling the salt, to baking the potatoes, to cleaning the dishes, to wiping one’s mouth—has been mechanized, operating on strings and pulleys. The five-minute dinner sequence is shot in one long, static take, so that we can better appreciate the choreographed mayhem. In a way, the invention shows off the roommates’ collective genius—the brainpower involved in creating this house must have been colossal. On the other hand, it’s sheer, laugh-out-loud satire—it would be easier and less dangerous to just stand up and grab the wine, instead of building a device that will make it swing at high speed to you from afar. As I said, this sequence is worthy of high praise. But then the pair leave the house, Buster falls in love with the same saucy farmer’s daughter, and he spends the rest of the movie running and hiding from Fatty Arbuckle’s dog, a father with a bad attitude, and his roommate who has also been smitten by the girl. It’s a Keaton two-reeler, so it’s redundant to see that it’s basically an unstoppable chase movie, filled with beautifully timed stunts, intricate gags, hair-raising set design, and the coolest homemade special effects ever. It’s basically choreographed chaos. Oh, and there’s a laugh every five seconds or so. The Scarecrow is twenty minutes of pure pleasure, powered by guffaws.

3. Clare Peploe’s Triumph of Love (2001). There’s less slapstick in our first feature than in The Scarecrow, but the laughs are just as plentiful. Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley, Fiona Shaw, and Rachael Stirling all shine, cracking sly jokes, putting each other on, and manipulating emotions at will in this sneaky, sexy anti-romantic comedy. Not anti-love, mind you—Triumph of Love hinges on love breaking through our prejudices. But Clare Peploe’s luscious adaptation of the Marivaux play is streetwise, sharp, and willing to show how false romantic conventions really are. It’s a movie set almost entirely outside and in Italian villa that glows fervently. The dreamy sunlight makes the skin, costumes, and ripe bodies sparkle. There’s all this light but everyone’s living in the shadows. Deception and maneuvers hide in plain sight; light is so bright, Peploe seems to say, that it can blind us. Roiling emotions churn beneath everyone’s façades. As befitting a stage adaptation, the sets are few, and the time is collapsed; the movie takes place over a single day. But Peploe’s a marvelous filmic presence. She shoots this 17th-century farce like a French New Waver, with a restless, handheld camera, jump cuts, surprising edits to closeups, and unsettling angles. It could have been a genteel costume comedy, but Peploe makes it into a ramshackle, erotic laughfest that’s quick on its feet.

Let’s have a 20-minute intermission here, and then…

4. Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979). Ballard is the overlooked hero of the American rebels who emerged from the 1970s, in part because he makes kid-friendly dramas, mostly about children and animals, that take on mythological undertones. Critics perhaps think of him as a simpleton. It’s a pity. He paints with light with the same level of skill as Terrence Malick, and with the same intensity as Brakhage paints on film. Every frame is stunning. His camerawork is thoughtful and contemplative, his narrative pacing is so orderly and graceful, and his characterization is so free of pop-culture riffs, rudeness, and smirks that he shames most of the overcooked, over-amped stuff that passes for children’s cinema today. His Duma, Never Cry Wolf, and Fly Away Home are all great, but their template—and superior—is The Black Stallion. A simple, sorrow-laden but hopeful film about a boy and his horse has spawned such worthy heirs as Babe, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and Holes. It leaves me energized every time I see it and, on the big screen, The Black Stallion takes my breath away.

At the end of a double bill, I think the audience should be left breathless, so there you go.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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