There has been nothing near a boom in movie house construction in recent times, so when talk turns to the latest fashions in movie theaters it becomes necessary to stretch back several years. The latest arrival, the Flower Hill Cinemas I, II, and III in Del Mar, has been in operation only since summer, last, and it pretty well conforms to the pattern of all the newer, but not brand-new, theaters in the area: the Century Twins in San Diego, the Parkway Three and the UA Cinema Three in El Cajon, the Vineyard Twins in Escondido, and the Cinema Plaza Theatres in Carlsbad.
This latest mutation in theater design could be labeled the shopping-center theater. This type thrives in close community with a Big Bear Market, a Sav-On Drugs, a J.C. Penney, a Pizza Hut, or their equivalents. It is characteristically a two-, three-, or four-celled organism (it appears almost as if it might be self-multiplying), and it is invariably a clean, spartan piece of architecture, supremely utilitarian. (The one frill at the Flower Hill are the glow-in-the-dark studs along both sides of the central aisles, so that as you make way to your seat with the lights out you feel like a 747 coming in for a night landing.)
The theaters that, in recent times, have been vanishing, or languishing, on the movie landscape—the North Park, the Linda, the Helix, the Solana Beach — are decades-old dinosaurs that, rather than sitting apart in an island of chain stores, sit on suburban thoroughfares along with local schoolyards, churches, corner markets. They are what used to be known as neighborhood houses, an antiquated term since the highway department has effectively stitched together far-flung communities and made everyone “freeway-close.” And they are, to the eye, white elephants proud, oversized, overdecorated buildings that date back to an era when movie houses were also called palaces.
On either side, the actual number of appearances and disappearances, the newly-born theaters and the recently-deceased, is not large. And I don’t suppose it is proper procedure to draw generalizations from evidence so scant. Still, the trend seems to be towards a more homogenous moviegoing experience, one in which the audience is subjected to none of the distractions, or static, of the neighborhood where the theater resides.
These days, audiences are less apt to be led astray by the special character of the local crowd or by the rococo swirls or art deco lines of the buildings (do they ever design movie theaters with balconies anymore?). In the newer theaters—small, comfortable, pragmatic auditoriums that duplicate the feel of a New York or Hollywood screening room—the audience is pointed straight-ahead to the movie on the screen. This has its clear advantages. Its detriments are harder to pinpoint. But there is more to moviegoing than just the movie you are going to see. And the way movies have been going lately, you have to take your entertainment wherever you find it—if not on the screen, then in the audience, or on the ceiling, or at the candy counter, or on the drive to and fro.
The downtown San Diego theater district has remained a sort of fortress of old-time moviegoing, although it has been chipped away a bit. Just as the stores along Broadway are drained of dollars by countless outlying shopping centers, the downtown theaters suffer also. There no longer is the standardized distribution pattern for first-run films, starting in the downtown hub and later, second-run, working outwards to the neighborhood houses. Now, the preference is for a saturation-release pattern in which a movie premieres all over town, scatter-shot, so that no matter where you live, the movie is as convenient for you as the closest Thrifty Mart. The only first-run films allowed to play downtown are the one-week-stand quickies; the major releases are reserved for the plush new places around Hotel Circle. Mission Valley, Grossmont Center, etc.
Of the erosion and confusion in the downtown district, there are abundant signs: the Spreckels has gone legit (and mostly goes empty), the Tower has gone to porno, the Broadway has gone first to porno and then to Spanish subtitles, the Balboa has abandoned weekday matinees, and the California closed for a month’s breather last winter. The multiple-chamber shopping-center theaters are undoubtedly more comfortable, more accessible, and more efficient; but the ornate, other-era downtown theaters offer an architectural-atmospheric-nostalgic experience that cannot be matched in the newer, spiffier. cozier places. And. of course, they also offer the inimitable, sluggish, obstinate, cynical metropolitan audience – the sailors, the snorers. the solitaries, the no-where-else-to-go's.
One other oasis of old-time moviegoing— one which, in the past, I have given attention unequal to my loyal attendance there— exists in the northernmost reaches of the county, downtown Oceanside, a small-scale replica of Big Town, U.S.A. There, time stands almost still. It is stuck somewhere (I have a bad eye for guessing ages) in the Fifties, except for the irreversible evidence of dilapidation. This is not a cheerful, progressive, optimistic town. But it should be particularly recommended to the advocates of more “real life” in movies: they may not find it on the screens in Oceanside, but they will get it in the theaters and in the audiences, and they will get nothing like it in the up-to-date, ideal environments of the newer theaters, with their “greater leg room” and “ample free parking.” Oceanside is perhaps too long a haul for most San Diegans, but it is not exactly foreign territory. For anyone who lives anywhere north of La Jolla, it is a faster trip than downtown San Diego.
The theaters of Oceanside number four, excluding the twin drive-ins on the east side of Highway 5 and the makeshift porno place that is annexed to a massage parlor and called, bluntly, the Adult Theater. All four of them sit within a three-block span at the north end of the coast highway. Hill Street, just north of an interminable stretch of car dealerships and just before it channels into the freeway at the lower border of Camp Pendleton. There is one theater per block (the Crest, on Freeman, one block east of Hill, is the only one out of line), and strolling this small area gives you a flavorful, fast, military-town tour past the karate schools, the bars, the photography shops (send a picture home to your girl), and one useful magazine store one of the few decent ones in the entire county, not only for the predictable Cavalier-Rogue-Dude bunch, but for the Nation-National Review-New Leader selection and the Art News-Art in America-Artforum group as well. Hill Street is invariably busy, brightly lit, and not nearly as scary as Oceanside’s official crime statistics.
The theaters themselves are constructed in a sort of frugal streamlined style. The gaudiest, outside, is the Star, the northern crown of the cluster, with its bow-shaped peak over the marquee and its cascade of neon stars. The gaudiest, inside, is the Crest, with its mural-sized photo collage entitled “Hollywood at Work” Lamour in a sarong, Ladd in a fedora, Hopalong Cassidy and his horse, etc. yellowed now with age. Inside each of these spacious, musty, and murkily illuminated theaters are collector-item cigarette and pop vending machines which must be the very ones the theaters began with a generation ago.
The bill of fare at Oceanside theaters is in the raunchier range of action and sex films. The Star and Crest usually go with first-run material: and while they don’t get anything that doesn't land elsewhere in San Diego, they sometimes get it earlier. The other two, the Towne and Palomar. tend toward recent revivals, somewhat comparable to the programs at downtown San Diego’s Aztec, Casino, Cabrillo. Usually, they both offer triple features and change line-ups twice a week; and for their patrons who find the “three big hits” a wearisome sit, they provide pinball machines in the lobby. (Most of the movies on their schedules are pretty awful, for sure; but they inadvertently slip in an occasional cult item like Howard Hawks’ El Dorado or Rio Lobo, John Boorman’s Point Blank, Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce, Richard Quine’s Sex and the Single Girl, and Blake Edwards' The Great Race.) The place where you can check what's playing is in the L.A. Times’ densely, minutely printed Independent Theatre Guide. .
The primary distinction of these theaters, like the ones of downtown San Diego. is the special audience. This is made up of almost a totality of males and a majority of Marines. Each of these low-priced theaters offers discounts to servicemen in uniform, but you seldom see uniforms there, except for the dead-giveaway Marine-style stubble haircuts. In addition, you see muscular torsos, snug-fitting T-shirts, bicep tattoos, and comradely exchanges of shoulder punches. These are the most receptive audiences this side of deep downtown Los Angeles for the kung-fu, black-action, car-chase, and softcore-sex movies. Any night of the week, the eleven or so Marine camp theaters are undoubtedly screening All the President’s Men. The Outlaw Josey Wales, and The Missouri Breaks, but servicemen would rather venture out to attend The Chinese Connection, Angels Die Hard, or Swinging Cheerleaders. This is not merely bad taste on their part; it is a bit of testimony to the suggestion I made earlier, that going to movies is more than just the movies. You can certainly see many of these same movies with the shoppers of Parkway Plaza or down the street from the Del Mar racetrack, but you w ill not get quite the same feeling of hooking up to direct lines of communication between exploitation moviemakers and their desired audience. For the outsider, this may be a cause of some discomfort; but. by all appearances, an audience of Marines is no more self-interested, blood-thirsty, callous, and narrow-minded than the typical movie audience of university students.
On all of my own trips to Oceanside, an irresistible detour takes me past one of the rare Spanish-language theaters to be found between downtown L.A. and Tijuana. It is called the Teatro Carlsbad, although there is no such designation on the marquee jutting out from the white stucco facade, nestled inconspicuously between a hardware and an appliance store on State Street. The box-office is tucked away beneath a hacienda-like archway; and behind the Medieval wooden doors is a startlingly expansive, long, wide auditorium, populated on a Saturday night by a quiet scattering.
This habit of mine—reading the posters outside Spanish theaters in hopes of stumbling onto a stray Bunuel. Bardem, or Torre-Nilsson— is something I acquired during my term in New York City, where there were two such theaters on the walk from the 103rd Street subway station to my apartment. My vigilance paid off only infrequently and only in small change. And never, on the East Coast or the West, have I been able to get past the box-office of these places without the ticket seller deflating my aspirations toward cultural mingling. One look at me and she cautions, “This is in Spanish, you know. No subtitles.”—“Yes, I know,” I shrug, feeling like a sore thumb and losing nerve even to come back with my rehearsed line, “Estudio espanol."
This unmasking occurs in spite of the striking facial resemblance between myself and Rudolph Valentino. (Hardly a week passes that some utter stranger doesn’t approach me, pinch me, and remark, “I thought you were dead.”) The problem, plainly, is my pallor. To remedy that, I have even tried the recipe with which Marlon Brando, in The Appaloosa, attempted to pass for Mexican. (Step 1: Take 1/2 cup used coffee grounds. 2: Wrap grounds in cheesecloth. 3: Pat face with the soggy wad as if it were a powder puff.) It didn’t work for Brando either.
I had never, in all my stops in front of it, gone so far as to purchase a ticket to the Carlsbad theater, which seems to lean toward family comedies, westerns, and light romances, until I stopped there a few weeks ago and ran across Hugo Fregonese’s name at poster bottom. This untouted director has been over a long road. Born in Argentina and university-educated in New York, he directed major films in post-war Argentina and minor ones in Fifties’ Hollywood (memorably, Apache Drums for Val Lewton, My Six Convicts for Stanley Kramer, Black Tuesday, The Raid), and, on the downhill slide, an Italian spectacle, a German western, and a 70mm remake of his own Argentine epic, Savage Pampas, before he finally returned to Argentina, presumably never to be heard from again.
But there, in Carlsbad, was La Mala Vida (“recomendada para adultos”), dated three years ago, a richly produced period piece about mob war and white slavery in Thirties’ Argentina, shot with a fine eye for menacing compositions, for the perfectly-cast faces of slick toughs and doll-faced molls, and for the Depression decors, costumes, coiffures. A vigorous, visceral gangster picture modeled along classical Thirties' lines, it is given a malignant, poisonous, stomach-turning sense of evil through its unflinching Seventies’ sensationalism: bushelfuls of rats are dumped into the windows of a public prosecutor’s home in mid-night; a gangster’s face, held beneath the steam jet of a restaurant coffeemaker, emerges with a Phantom-of-the-Opera makeup job; a riverboat cargo of spiritless women is unloaded, cattle-like, in thick jungle, their bodies are showered off and their underarms shaved, and they are paraded naked onto an auction block before the dapper, white-dressed ladies and gentlemen of the underworld. I count this as one occasion when vigilance paid off with the jackpot, and as one of the unexpected, clandestine rewards of moviegoing which do not come along every month, nor every year.