Saturday, August 4, 2012

New Beverly Cinema Postcards

Woody Allen famously chided Los Angeles as being a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right at a red light. I've lived in this hateful megalopolis (another memorable turn of phrase by Robert Crumb) for five years now and while Allen's admonishment is mostly true so far as an intellectual scene - its biggest art movement revolves around 80s pop culture nostalgia, for heaven's sake - the one legitimate cultural advantage LA boasts over any other city is, naturally, revivalist moviegoing. Forget seeing the latest pablum at Grauman's Chinese Theater with the starving actors dressed as robots and superheroes outside, future tourists should make note of places like the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, the Egyptian in Hollywood, the Nuart and the Cinefamily/Silent Movie Theater in West Hollywood...and my favorite place in the world, the New Beverly Cinema.

The theater has been run as a double-bill movie house since 1978: two films for the price of one, and programmed along the lines of a cineaste's preferences. Their first showing consisted of A Streetcar Named Desire and Last Tango In Paris, setting the precedent that the two films should have at least one connective tissue. In the days before home video really took off, revival theaters were doing sacred work making films like these available to be seen. In the days before DVD, let alone the niche market of laserdisc, revival theaters were the only place you could see countless films in their proper aspect ratios, rather than the mutilated pan-and-scan abominations to which most home video viewers didn't even know they were being subjected.

The New Beverly Cinema, moreover, was not as preoccupied with the genteel xenocentrism that tends to plague independent theaters in cities like New York - apparently they premiered for the first time anywhere Richard Elfman's 1980 mondo musical masterpiece Forbidden Zone. This was a prophecy of things to come, as the theater is in something of a renaissance for lovers of the cinema du weirdo. In 2010, Quentin Tarantino bought out the place and under his patronage, the New Bev became the go-to place for lovers of cult films. Their attention to retro cult films of previous decades, foreign cult films and out-of-print gems no one's ever heard of has been particularly admirable; when Nobuhiko Ohbayashi's strange work of genius Hausu (House) was discovered and lauded by American audiences for the first time a few short years ago, several continuous weeks of screenings at the New Bev played a large part in getting the word out across the West coast.

At this point, any LA denizens reading this words are probably saying, "Oh yeah?? Well the Cinefamily shows way more weird movies, they serves barbecue and beer sometimes, they have just as many directors and actors show up at screenings, and they have posters drawn by Johnny Ryan! Plus they've got all the old black and white movies and foreign films you'd ever want! What makes the New Beverly so much better, huh?!" To that, I'd say this: while the Silent Movie Theater / Cinefamily group does show as commendable a variety of cult/retro/classic/foreign programming, offers some amenities that the New Bev doesn't have and probably hosts just as many if not more special guests...their clientele are hipsters. 

One of the hazards of going to see a bad movie on purpose is that every jacko in the crowd who thinks they're funny wants to get attention by shouting their would-be witticisms at the screen. Most of these guys aren't even genuine bad movie masochists, they're jerks who'll go to one bad movie on purpose in their entire lives, and aren't capable of simply laughing along with everyone else at what's already bad enough to be funny without external commentary. So at Cinefamily, deep in the heart of hipsterrific West Hollywood, you get a lot of future failed actors and comics honing their craft at the expense of your own viewing pleasure. My run-ins with assholes like these have been the exception at the New Bev but at Cinefamily, it's been the rule.

I'm not saying there's a Sharks/Jets rivalry between patrons of these two fine theaters, but there ought to be, as I've already chosen my side. Anyhow.

The subject of this month's Cinemachine post is my gallery of promotional postcards from the New Bev: these were printed up and available for free in the lobby around 2009/10 to promote the new regime's direction. They were briefly concurrently produced with promotional pins for midnight shows, although after not too long they were both phased out. This is a pity, as both items were fun to collect and encouraged repeat visits by newcomers, but I suppose the cost wasn't worth it. One of the New Bev's advantages (over Cinefamily especially) is their extreme affordability: double features for $8, midnight shows for $7.

The choices of imagery for these cards, and of course the programming choices advertised on the backs of the cards themselves, do more to explain why I love this place so much than words could - but in the next day or two I'll be adding captions regarding which films I saw, which films I wanted to see, which films I regret having missed, and miscellaneous recollections on what happened when I was there. So for now, just enjoy these works of art and don't envy me for possessing them, envy the fact I got to see so many of these films with crowds of fellow dorks.

And oh yeah, Burt Wilson himself, Clu Gulager, is a regular patron. So no matter what happens...don't name it after him.

The theater...tip o' the hat to Robyn Von Swank, apparently. Many famous people have walked down these aisles and sat in these rows. Jon Davison and his wife once politely got up so I could take my seat for Joe Dante's legendary 3+ hour 1968 exploitation and pop culture mashup, The Movie Orgy. In the aisles, I got to tell Dan O'Bannon that Return of the Living Dead changed my life. The last great screening/Q+A I saw was Roddy Piper showing up after They Live to declare he was all out of gum.

Extreme close-up on the poster of the apparent post-Nightmare on Elm Street special effects mediocrity Bad Dreams (1988, Andrew Fleming) starring Richard Lynch as the Freddy figure. Using the VHS cover to evoke nostalgia and achieve Warhol-like deification of the genre's advertising doesn't fit with the New Beverly's emphasis on theatrical screenings and the other postcards don't have this detail, but it's effective.

Bloodsport (1988, Newt Arnold)

Standing Ovation (2010, Stewart Raffill) is noteworthy as a floundered attempt by the New Beverly staff to raise to cult status a film from the director of infamous bombs like The Ice Pirates (1984), Mac and Me (1988), and Mannequin: On The Move (1991) about the cliche-ridden world of amateur tween girl dance/pop music groups competing to win a music video contest in a scenario the Disney Channel might reject as too cliched in the "follow your dreams!!" kid movie genre.

Gone With The Pope is noteworthy as a more successful work of another curator's vision; the discovery of lost work. In this case, a follow-up film to star/director Duke Mitchell's stylish and trashy Massacre, Mafia Style (1978) in which yes, the Pope is kidnapped by Mitchell to hold hostage for the ransom of one dollar from every Catholic in the world. Grindhouse Releasing, who do really great DVDs and print distribution for revival theaters of exploitation horror like Pieces and I Drink Your Blood, actually released Gone With The Pope to the public for the first time in 2010 and the film was not completed until 2009 after beginning to be filmed in 1976.

Cobra (1986, George P. Cosmatos) is a riot of "bad cop" action film cliches of the mid-80s, sold with unwavering conviction in his own badass 'tude by Sylvester Stallone as one of the most absurd plots in action movies in action movies unfolds around a citywide crime wave by a killer cult and only rogue cop Marion Cobretti can stop them. Featured by myself and Andrew Wickliffe on An Alan Smithee Podcast.

Cobra is one of three films on the display side of cards for the fantastic month of June 2010. You have to appreciate the gathering of three brain-melting three films by Roger Corman's most prolific campy hack Jim Wynorski, including the long out of print on video The Lost Empire (1985) and Sorority House Massacre (1986),  a ripoff paired with its source on the same double bill: Corman's New World Pictures slasher classic The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, Amy Holden Jones).

A still of the aerobisploitation inanity that is Heavenly Bodies (1984, Lawrence Dane) is version two of the card.

The satirical image chosen from Revenge of the Nerds (1984, Jeff Kanew) for version three.

Version four of the card promoting this particular week of June, 2010 features a simple excerpt of the poster for The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987, Rodney Amateau) which is a fascinatingly, frighteningly weird kids movie disaster that's been rediscovered in recent years thanks to a 2005 DVD release after years of VHS obscurity.

I've had an personal connection to those Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, the mid-80s creation of comics geniuses Art Spiegelman and Mark Newgarden, as objects of gross art which began a lifelong love of same. I also found out about them a little too late and in pre-Internet days, you actually couldn't find things that weren't being currently sold anymore. In lieu of being able to find the cards, luckily, I literally stumbled upon The Garbage Pail Kids Movie on the shelf of a video store and ran home clutching it to my breast.

The ensuing onscreen spectacle thrilled me to no end as official Garbage Pail Kids product, although as an adult that enjoyment is heavily tempered by an awareness of how shoddy everything including the ghoulishly ugly full head costumes the little people inside the Garbage Pail Kids have to wear to make their livings in the movies as little people. With hindsight, this film is a lot as though Troma during the same era was contracted to create making a PG-rated children's movie in the vein of E.T. One of the New Beverly's proprietors, Phil Blankenship, chuckled with grim giddiness while introducing the film at the fact most of the crowd that night had not seen the film and "had no idea" what they were in for.

Hilariously, the second half of that double-bill was the serviceable late-era Empire Pictures release Ghoulies II (1988, Albert Band) merely for the connection that both feature little person acting veteran (and Charles Band regular) Phil Fondacaro. In Ghoulies II he at least gets to portray a character outside the abomination against nature of a "Greaser Greg" suit.

Doctor Giggles (1992, Manny Coto) - a really corny horror film in a time of increasingly corny and overblown horror films. This poster however, and the film's tagline, really put the fear into me when I saw it in the back of a Spider-Man comic. I can't really imagine an R-rated horror film being advertised in a Marvel comic today, and not just because there aren't any more R-rated horror films.

Stunt Rock (1978, Brian Trenchard-Smith) had to have been heavily considered for a postcard cover for the month of December, 2009. Another revivalist effort, this time of simple re-release from an otherwise neglected original run, came from the obscurity discovery label Code Red and is some kind of KISS-inspired theatrical rock concert film intercut with dangerous stunt footage. Hence, Stunt Rock.

Inglourious Basterds was released four months earlier, hence the programming of it and Reservoir Dogs by Tarantino. The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982, Stephen Carpenter & Jeffrey Obrow) is a slasher I wish I'd made the time to see, even though I have had one bad experience with a midnight slasher screening at the theater that I'll get to later.

June 2009 was possibly the best month of programming in the theater's history, recalling the rest of the offerings and the times I did get to see them. Prominently featured on this card's display side is a brilliantly emblematic shot of the sleazetastic Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985, Danny Steinmann) - the middle of an amazing triple feature featuring Friday the 13th Parts 4 and 6 as well. Writer-director Tom McLoughlin was in attendance for a Q&A before Part 6, which I have to admit I didn't stay for - Parts 4 and 5 are the best anyhow. This was the first time I had ever seen the New Bev completely sold out for a show, which made it really awkward when some joker started making fart noises to an otherwise stonefaced crowd during one of Joseph Zito's finely workmanlike suspense scenes from Part IV: The Final Chapter.

Class of 1984 (1982, Mark L. Lester) and 3:15 - The Moment of Truth (1986, Larry Gross) is a brilliant double feature of an exploitation classic and a hard-to-find ripoff, but the show I wish I'd made it to even more is the Clu Gulager themed triple feature of the obscure Deliverance riff Hunter's Blood (1986, Robert C. Hughes), gay camp classic A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985, Jack Sholder) and the modern creature feature directed by his son John, Feast (2005).

The screening I wasn't expecting too much from - the video game themed bill of the Nintendo shilling kids' movie The Wizard (1989, Todd Holland) and Joy Sticks (1983, Greydon Clark). The former was already an old joke amongst Internet geeks with an appreciation of gross commercialism from their childhoods, in this case that of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Fred Savage. Joy Sticks, on the other hand, was a comedy obscurity I'd never given a thought to, not yet being a fan of 80s teen comedy exploitation nor ever suspecting that any movie involving video games could be enjoyable on a level beyond novelty. I discovered one of my favorite films the night I saw this, and breathlessly raved about it back when.

Version two of this card is another spotlight on Heavenly Bodies, because Phil Blankenship loves it so.

Gremlins (1984, Joe Dante) is one of first movies I ever really loved and the New Beverly's choice of a shot from the theater scene at the end is truly apropos. This is one of my favorites.

Also in that month of August was The Dungeonmaster, a film which became included an early episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast. Although I didn't see it at the theater, I wouldn't have discovered it otherwise had they not included it in programming. And then there's this other Alan Smithee connected film, which gets its own feature card for the month:

Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal) is one of the most beloved slasher films of the genre's apex year: a reintroduction of Michael Myers into the genre his character created after Myers' immediate progeny, Jason Voorhees, had quickly turned the words "horror film" synonymous with "teenage shish kebob." In other words, it's a lot dumber and a lot bloodier, the way the people wanted.

As mentioned, the New Bev's heavy promotion of House with constant screening for weeks on end was a major boost in getting the word out about this gem that had been rediscovered by Janus Films and rereleased on the Criterion Collection label. I believe I saw this card in the lobby on my way to the theater, and while the image alone certainly suggests the wild time of a kung fu ghost story (there are a lot of those in Asian cinema), that descriptor doesn't begin to do justice to this work of brilliance. As in the case of Joy Sticks I had to express my thoughts soon afterward.

Also being advertised this month is Terror Train (1980, Roger Spottiswoode), a slasher which I brushed off while at the Bev but when viewing later decided it was an all right entry to the slasher genre. Shout! Factory is actually in the midst of rereleasing new special edition Blu Rays of this, Halloween II and other horror titles from Universal in the future.

Marked For Death (1990, Dwight H. Little) is something I might find amusing someday, having already lost the part of my brain preventing me from enjoying a good bad Sylvester Stallone action film like Cobra. Unlike Stallone, however, Steven Seagal is utterly devoid of ironic or genuine talent and appeal. The New Bev missed the opportunity to feature some much better films from the ones featured alongside Marked on the opposite side of the card.

Most egregiously, they could've forsaken the cheap laugh of Seagal's ponytailed profile shot and chosen a lush image from Terrorvision (1986, Ted Nicolaou) - Empire Pictures' masterpiece and the future subject of an essay on this blog.

Happy Birthday To Me (1981, J. Lee Thompson) is a dull slasher forgettable but for a memorably stupid twist ending, and the site of my really unpleasant experience to which I alluded earlier: Happy Birthday was a Saturday midnight show and as such, had the misfortune to attract some quick-witted future comedians looking to crack up their friends at "a slasher movie" due to the COD (cliche on delivery) title that practically begs illustration in drippy-blood red font. Some cluster of chuckleheads couldn't stop talking to the screen, to the point when others started yelling back at them, and nothing breaks the spell of a film more than hearing one stranger ask another if he wants to "start something." The staff actually had to get a little anal about "no talking" announcements for a brief while after the incident.

On the lighter side, here's another missed opportunity: I really wish I had gone to the midnight show of Stephen King's infamous 1986 directorial debut, the cheerfully crude action-horror flick Maximum Overdrive, which I have to imagine plays to a midnight audience of geeks like gangbusters. The poster chosen for this card's image is just all kinds of hubristic showmanship gone awry.

Featured the same month, vaguely in the same vein of truck flicks is Transformers: The Movie (1986, Nelson Shin) which undiscriminating nerds can find in a lot of smaller city revival theaters instead of animated films of skill and integrity, unfortunately.

Charles Bronson on the poster of 10 to Midnight (1983, J. Lee Thompson) 

Poster detail from Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero)

Poster from Re-Animator (1985, Stuart Gordon)

This one is a mystery to me - none of the films on the opposite side of this card, posted below, seem to match with this art, whose signatory Kirk Reinert has done tons of fantasy illustration work for movies over the years. It may be sort of a general promotion piece of his own creation, because I think I can see Tim Curry's demon character from Legend in there.

God, how could I have missed the double feature of Demons and Demons 2? Whatever I was doing that night for Halloween wasn't worth it.

A rather bland moment from the not at all bland The Thing (1982, John Carpenter) also promoting Carpenter's idiosyncratic Lovecraftian siege horror film Prince of Darkness (1987) on the opposite side.

Poster from the rare wacky 80s comedy, Up the Creek (1984, Robert Butler)

Finally, another extreme closeup image to bookend the collection, from David Cronenberg's 1983 masterwork, Videodrome. As with the inclusion of the 'HORROR' sticker on the Bad Dreams card, a little bit of functional or ad copy goes a long way in pleasing the aesthetics of retro genre fans who make up so much of the revival theater scene.

Looking back through these, I'm really struck by the knowledge of how lucky I am as a movie fan to have always lived a short driving distance from this theater since living in Los Angeles. Most people are lucky to live anywhere near a theater that will play a midnight show of Army of Darkness every once in a while, and here I have the New Bev spoiling me rotten. The more important thing than just being able to see cult fave obscurities on the big screen, though, is being introduced to new (old) titles like House, Joy Sticks and The Movie Orgy; the hard to find, the impossible to find, the secret knowledge that cult movie fans are striving for. The days of discovery, the video store browsing - it's all gone, and today a cult film gets mileage basically from word of mouth amongst Internet nerds, which tends to favor the so-bad-it-might-be-good school of exploitation appreciation more than quality exploitation, ie. the cults which arose around The Room and Troll 2. Yes, we're actually at the point where the Rocky Horror Picture Show cult and attendees of Robot Monster in the pre-video era are socially well-adjusted by comparison to today's midnite moviegoers.

The power of independent theater owners in discovering films for their audiences on personal diminished just as much at the grindhouse as in family movie palaces when Ronald Reagan re-deregulated Hollywood's ownership of the theaters. That's why experiencing a great old film for the first time in 35mm is an incomparable experience, and I'm glad the New Beverly Cinema is keeping alive the feeling of finding nearly-lost film treasure. A lot of reviews on Cinemachine wouldn't have been possible without a lot of trips there, and I plan on going on a lot more yet.

www.New Beverly