With something like 30,000 shorts and features at my back and a 60-candle birthday cake just weeks in the offing, the time seemed right to gift my audience with this ruminative list of personal bests (and worsts) accrued during a lifetime of service on the frontlines of cinema.
Movie most watched: A line from Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love can be found tattooed on my prefrontal cortex. When asked why he’d seen Gone With the Wind 11 times, Kris Kristofferson replied, “Because I know it will be good.” Five trips to Technicolor Tara were enough — hour four’s sacchariferous revolving door of death more than makes up for the three that come before — but there’s nothing more beneficial to boost one’s spirits than another slice of Duck Soup.
The first of my 128 (and counting) voyages to Freedonia left port on a 2 a.m. commercial television airing. I was 10, and not a year has passed, not even six months, where I haven’t sought refuge in its relief-giving madness. At 68 anarchic minutes (and with no harp or piano solos to shovel sand on the tracks) it’s quite simply the perfect movie comedy. Why this over the 12 other Marx Bros? Credit Leo McCarey, the man Groucho later called, “the only director we ever worked with.”
Movies most watched in a theater: Pink Flamingos was my Rocky Horror Picture Show. It played Fridays and Saturdays at midnight, and every weekend saw me fourth-row center, sometimes both nights. It’s that rare breed of film that best exists at night. Only one of my 50-plus viewings, a 25th Anniversary revival, occurred during daylight hours. It comes in at number three behind Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, for which I gladly forked over 75 admissions apiece to see. Not unlike Pink Flamingos, half the fun of Brooks’s hilarious postmortem of the American spoof was watching the convulsive reactions of rookies who at the time had never experienced anything quite like either picture.
There was a seven-year period between MASH (1970) and Three Women (1977) where Altman could do no wrong. Alas, Quintet and A Perfect Couple soon signaled a quick fall from power. Such was the case of the leftover soufflé that refuses to reheat: if Scorsese is God, Altman was rapidly emerging as a false prophet. Still, the textured imagery and restless camerawork of California Split, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (much of its visual impact is forever lost on TV), and particularly The Long Goodbye — with it’s depiction of a hard boiled, ’40s schooled Rip Van Winkle gumshoe awakening to the neon blur of ’70s L.A. — continue to enlighten. If life imitates art, credit Elliott Gould’s chain-smoking gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, with kickstarting a nasty nicotine addiction.
(Those eager to see what vintage Altman looks like on a screen need wait no longer. The 40th anniversary digitally restored print of Nashville opens at the Landmark Hillcrest on September 29.)
Most number of movies consumed in one sitting: My bar mitzvah gift, not counting a lovely dinner reception held in the small room of the otherwise deluxe North Shore Hotel, was a trip to Los Angeles. It was only by divine intervention than an ad in the show section of Uncle Sam’s L.A. Times instantly caught my eye. The name of the venue escapes me, but my mother’s cry of “You’re not spending the night in a movie theater!” rings clear after all these years.
An invite to act as chaperone was greeted with even further disdain. Guess who won the argument? One stipulation: a roll of dimes was issued along with express instructions to call at every intermission. My cousin Danny dropped me off at 6 p.m. and was there waiting at noon the next day after the last of the 13 Marx Bros. features — projected in chronological order — had unraveled. First time on a screen for all of them, including a rare, beat to hell 16mm dupe of the then impossible to see (Paramount failed to renew the soundtrack rights) Animal Crackers.
Screen door cinema: I was the first civilian to be entrusted with a set of keys to the University of Chicago’s Doc Films vault. For three years, I’d arrive on campus at 8 a.m. Sunday morning to spend the day watching anywhere from two to four features, depending on their running times. Student Orientation Week found me locked out of the main auditorium, as well as the two adjacent classroom facilities, thus forcing me to watch a 16mm dye-transfer Technicolor print of John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef on the back of the office door. It still beats television!
A riches of embarrassment: Opening night at MoPA found a black tie (optional) SRO crowd packing the newly built Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theatre, eager and curious to watch this au courant outsider strut his stuff. No brainer: let’s christen the brand-spankin’ new million dollar, state-of-the-art screening facility with a program of first films by notable directors. Unable to track down a print of What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, Scorsese’s second student film, It’s Not Just You, Murray, was called in as a last-minute substitute. Two things you need to know: (1) There was no direct access to, or means of communicating with, the booth, and (2) unbeknownst to me at the time, the projectionist was a tweaker who sweat 80 proof.
After a duly devout setup, the light hits the screen, and what to my wondering eyes does appear but a reel of Clutch Cargo cartoons not on the hand-printed playlist. (They were being stored in the booth with the intention of torturing future audiences, not a gathering of high-end potential donors.) As I beelined toward the exit, a hand took firm hold of my wrist. “Where are you going?” my boss asked. Continuing up the aisle, the last thing I remember saying while locking eyeballs with Mrs. Jacobs was, “The booth, to strangle my effing projectionist.”
We were lucky to have escaped with our lives: Mandingo lit the fuse; Drum promised the explosion, and a friend and I were determined to take in a Friday night sneak preview of the detonative sequel at Chicago’s State Lake Theatre. Even given the excess, a case has been made that few films present as accurate a depiction of slavery as Mandingo. Not so Drum, an exploitative potboiler that spends 100 minutes of its running time depicting white masters (led with exuberance by Warren Oates) dehumanizing their “property,” capped by ten minutes of bloody avengement.
The climactic bloodbath whipped the audience into a frenzy. Chants of “Kill the white m’fers” began reverberating across the once-glorious, 2600-seat picture palace. Being one of only two white faces in the theater, I turned to the other and, in my best Curly Howard, whispered, “Don’t look now, but we’re white m’fers.” Concerned dad would later note, “Nothing happened, but it might have.”
Oddest in-theater experience: It’s been covered at length.
Greatest movie ever made: Here’s hoping the thrill still awaits.