I’ve been a movie buff all my life, but the way I consume movies (as the kids put it these days) has evolved.
Sure, the technology has changed. Good thing I didn’t “follow my dream” and become a film projectionist, because I’d be on the unemployment line. And I finally dumped my last box of old VHS tapes on the sidewalk the last time I moved.
But I’ve changed, too.
I’ve written about these changes here before, like how fogeyish it made me feel when I realized I no longer automatically identified with the teenagers in movies.
Sometimes I miss the old me: the weird girl who scanned the new TV Guide with a red pen, hoping All About Eve was coming on, and who practically lived at our city’s only “rep” cinema…
#4 — The Last Picture Show
It’s been a porn grindhouse and a church of sorts (see above), but when I lived a block away, it was the Broadway Cinema.
The Broadway was the only rep in my scuzzy steel town, where interest in “weird” movies wasn’t exactly high. In those days, long before Netflix and TCM and DVDs, we local “artsy” types were lucky enough to live within broadcast range of Canadian stations that showed classics and foreign films in heavy rotation, supplemented with exclusive interviews with directors, actors, and cinematographers, on shows like Saturday Night at the Movies — or as it was initially and more lyrically known, Magic Shadows:
But the Broadway’s biggest advantage was that it was close enough to my house to reach in five minutes, yet far enough away to serve as my second home.
On many nights, for many years, I decamped to the Broadway during that sundown stretch before my stepfather staggered home (and hopefully passed out) and my mother got back from her late shift at the hotel restaurant, around 11:30 p.m. The theater opened at 6:30; shows started around 7 and ended around 11.
It was as if the Broadway had manifested itself in the perfect spot, at the perfect time, just for me.
The Broadway was ahead of its time, especially in my working class hometown: besides popcorn, you could buy hot apple cider, coffee and tea (herbal or regular), along with homemade cookies and squares.
The place was of its time, too — you could still smoke in movie theaters then. I’d set up base camp in the back row in the far right corner, arranging my army surplus bag, notepad and pen, copy of Absolute Beginners or the latest NME on the lumpy, squeaking seat next to mine. I lit up a cigarette, put my Chuck-covered feet up on the unoccupied seat in the next row, and waited.
And sure enough, I saw a lot of “weird” and not so weird stuff: the original Solaris, Wild Strawberries, Amarcord, Metropolis, Tatie Danielle.
Sometimes I went there with friends, to midnight screenings of Rocky Horror, armed with toast and other props. Quadrophenia was a VERY big deal. The Song Remains the Same — another weekly staple — not so much: that was for headbangers and stoners.
But mostly, I went there alone. I didn’t like sharing the Broadway with other people.
For a long time I thought I wanted to be a movie director, but it turns out I’m a klutz with cameras. The only good series of still photographs I’ve ever made was for a college film project, meant to be a Ken Burns style (before that’s what it was called) tribute to my Velveteen Rabbit of a movie theater. But I was too scared of the school’s Steenbeck to finish my first (and last) movie.
A few years after I moved to Toronto, the Broadway closed down.
#3 — Dim Lights, Big City
Toronto is a city of moviegoers. I’ve had friends who schedule their vacations around TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival. When TIFF built its new headquarters a few years ago, they cleverly stacked residential suites above their offices, successfully marketing the Festival Tower as “one part condo, one part film festival” — complete with its own screening room (and concession stand.)
And instead of just one Broadway-type rep theater, Toronto had at least seven or eight when I moved here in the late 1980s. Some people eagerly await delivery of the Sunday New York Times crossword; here, we watched for the empty yellow newspaper racks to fill up again, when the monthly tabloid-style rep cinema schedule hit the streets. Maybe the latest hits at Cannes were coming to town. Maybe a rare showing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was on the roster. Movie Christmas came every 30 days.
You stuck the schedule for your favorite rep theater on your fridge, with the movies you planned to see boldly circled. Such a display was a signifier of “cool.”
The solitary habits I’d picked up back home stuck for a while. But going to the movies alone lost its frisson when I no longer had a home that I was desperate to escape from. Now I could retreat into the safe, quiet apartment of my own that I’d decorated in my imagination thousands of times.
With the emergence of the VCR, a veritable epidemic of video stores erupted across the city; along with the big chains, independent video stores like Suspect and Eyesore that specialized in foreign & cult films sprang up. My neighborhood video stores were stacked floor to ceiling with Spirit of the Beehive and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! I’d trundle from video store to beer store, then stock up on cigarettes and hunker down for the night (and sometimes, the day.)
Last year, now married and sober and smoke-free and more than gainfully employed, I tried to recapture that same “movie bunker” magic when my husband went out of town. I piled up a bunch of DVDs I’d never bothered watching, bought chips and dip and grabbed a bottled water and turned off all the lights, figuring I’d enjoy the feeling of having the couch and TV all to myself for the first time in years.
God, it was boring.
#2 — Leaving “Leaving the House” Behind
I wasn’t exclusively a hermit back in the old days.
Those Woody Allen movies I’d grown up watching had promised me that when I moved to The Big City, I’d finally meet people as witty and sophisticated and intelligent as I thought I was — and I did. Our gang went to all the “cool” opening nights — a new Tim Burton film was a must-see the day it came out, along with anything starring Nicolas Cage, Winona Rider and Johnny Depp.
We also gathered mournfully at my place the day the news about Allen running off with his step-daughter broke. Somebody cried, but I can’t remember whether or not it was me. I never went to another Allen film again, with my friends or anybody else. I didn’t realize until later that that event marked the beginning of the end of my lifelong movie mania.
When Pulp Fiction arrived to great fanfare I was the last person I knew to go see it — and I wasn’t impressed. Tarantino was just “quoting” a bunch of movies I’d already seen.
Then Hollywood came down with sequel-itis, for which there seems to be no cure.
Almost all Toronto’s rep cinemas are closed now. So are most of the beloved downtown venues like the Eglinton, the Uptown, even the one-time world record holder for “biggest multiplex.” (Canadians were instrumental in inventing and developing the megaplex.)
All were torn down to make way for more condos, with higher profit margins per precious square meter.
(And in the case of art-house theaters wedded to old technology, the cost of printing and shipping 35mm films around the country is ten times the cost of a digital print.)
But would I set foot in any of these cinemas now, even if they were open?
I honestly don’t remember the last time I saw a first run film in a theater. Between the awful selection of “new” movies (mostly remakes) and other people’s cell phones, to the idiots who — this happened when I went to the 2000 theatrical re-release — bring screaming toddlers to The Exorcist, I don’t see why I should bother.
How much longer will movie theaters of any kind survive?
#1 — Taking out the Trash
“No one understands absurdity like John Waters. If being a conservative means renouncing John Waters, then I would proudly not be one.”
— Andrew Breitbart
I didn’t agree with Andrew Breitbart on everything. His hero worship of director John Waters (Polyester, Hairspray) is a good example. We both admired Waters’ guerrilla film making ethos, humor and intelligence, but we parted ways when it came to actually watching a John Waters movie. At least in adulthood.
When pushed, Breitbart allowed that Waters had legitimized a new genre of “shock the bourgeoisie” schlock cinema and trash TV that coarsened the culture.
“If someone vomits watching one of my films,” Waters used to say, “it’s like getting a standing ovation.” He’s the mischievous “Pope of Trash,” dropping a turd in the vanilla ice cream of corporate, suburban pop culture.
But that’s the trouble with taste: that turd inevitably overpowers the vanilla, not the other way around.
Indeed, Waters’ brand of “lowbrow,” “cult” entertainment slowly metastasized into the new middlebrow mainstream.
Let’s face it: In the world of Jerry Springer, Fear Factor and Jersey Shore, the fatal “Filthiest Person Alive” contest in 1972’s Pink Flamingos is no longer shocking.
A typical week on TLC — with its churning combination of midgets, hoarders, wedding planners and the morbidly obese – looks like Waters is moonlighting there as a showrunner.
Meanwhile, as TV and movies got stranger, Waters’ work got more star-studded, sentimental and old fashioned (like Cry-Baby). Many of those early fans from the same multiple midnight screenings I went to snubbed “sell out” fare like Serial Mom, and still can’t believe Hairspray is now a Tony-winning, family friendly Broadway smash. The very idea, well, offends them.
Maybe it’s just me, but I sense that Waters has mellowed and matured. When you’re young, sheltered and feeling invincible, sharing Waters’ morbid fascination with “glamorous” criminals like the Manson girls is a quick, cheap thrill. To his credit, though, he’s mostly outgrown his early “crime is beauty” affectation:
“I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victims’ families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case.”
And in Waters’ defense, he laughs off descriptions of himself as “transgressive” (“That’s a little high falutin.'”)
He’s also resisted being turned into an “official” gay icon, preferring the freedom that comes with not being labeled.
I respect and appreciate John Waters even more now than I did when my biggest weekly priority was scanning rep cinema schedules for a screening of Desperate Living. But today, my going to one would be out of the question. If I’m in the mood for a trashy B-style movie, I’ll just watch the real thing, like the reform school musical Untamed Youth (1957).
And besides, midnight’s way past my bedtime.
Have your movie-watching habits changed over time? Have you lost your taste for slasher films, or gained a new appreciation for black & white classics? Have your say in the comments.