Image: cityscape from Wong Kar Wai's beautiful 2046 (2004).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Alt Cinema(s)

So, sometimes it takes a kick in the head to get me back into things, and the kicks have been flying thick and fast, at least cinema-wise, lately.

I have found myself knee-deep in the annual floodwaters of preparations for TIFF, working the fifteen-hour days, trying to convince a crew of highly motivated new staff that they need to stay even more motivated throughout the grueling next few weeks, and trying to pry programme notes from the programming team who are as busy as usual corralling new films from around the world to bring to Festival audiences.

I last posted in May; I blinked, and it was almost August. Sad, but also exciting as the summer has delivered some amazing films. The TIFF selection will have to be something I - hopefully - talk about in subsequent posts (though I certainly draw everyone's attention to Us Chickens, a stunning film that is playing in the Festival's Short Cuts Canada programme...). Instead, I wanted to write about two recent, both rather pulpy movie-going experiences: the drive-in and the Trash Palace.

First, the Drive-In.

What does it say about how incomplete my graduate education has been that, while already an ABD in film studies, I had never been to a real drive-in movie until two weekends ago? (I use the qualifier "real" here to keep myself honest, as I once sat in my car in an alley behind a business supply store in Hollywood, trying to stay awake through the projection of an LA indie filmmaker's "pirate" drive-in. I remember some incredibly befuddled narrative, maybe something involving an island, and a desperate, unrequited craving for licorice.) So, after discovering that The North York Drive In Theatre was close enough to make a night of it, plans were hatched.

I suppose I imagined that the only things that still played on drive-in screens would be retro films... something animated by Ray Harryhausen maybe... So seeing The Dark Knight (the first half of a double bill with Get Smart) the Saturday after it opened and set box-office records across North America was not what I had expected. Afterall, the people who are really geeking out about it are freaking about seeing it in Imax. It is a visually lavish, Michael Mann-esque city film that revels in reflections, steel, glass and no small amount of flame, so waiting til the last bits of twilight are faded and trying to take it all in through a dashboard, with the occasional flitting-bys of nighttime bugs and the incessant distortion of the radio sound system, is probably not high on a lot of would-be viewers' lists.

But the experience was perfect. There are many glowing (yes, truly) things that I would say about the film, almost all of which relate to Heath Ledger's Phantom-esque turn as the Joker, and director Christopher Nolan's brilliant decision to make this a film about the villain more so than the hero.
The longer I sit with this film, the more I wind up thinking about its incredible moments of near-orchestral beauty (the image here epitomizing that facet of the film for me) and strange humanism. (On another day, with more time, I'd like to write about the "strange humanism" of the superhero genre more generally.) And the longer I think about how truly amazing Ledger's performance really was. I assume Jack Nicholson has been looking back at his own work in the 1989 Batman and lamenting what could have been.

But the things I liked about the film were only part of what I loved about the drive-in. Let me paint the picture. The North York Drive In is not, in actuality, in North York, but rather in the area of Holland Landing, outside of Newmarket, Ontario. It is, in effect, in that gray zone where a small suburban city like Newmarket rubs up against its completely, fantastically rural surrounds. The crowd was, I'd say, drawn from these communities. I felt like we stuck out rather obviously... not so much for our "urban" conspicuousness, however, as for our evident rookie approach to the event. Sure, we were there two hours ahead of sundown, anxious not to be shut out on the blockbuster's opening weekend. And naturally we brought a picnic, including a couple of tall cans of Strongbow. But we still lacked even the basic fundamentals: lawnchairs, a frisbee, a deck of cards, about twenty noisy, cigarette-smoking friends (that seemed to be a popular accessory), dogs, air mattresses, even laptops such as the one on which the middle-aged couple next to us watched another movie (Batman Begins?) during the wait til twilight. We brought snacks, and some work to edit.

The drive-in has three screens, the audience for each of which no doubt formed separate small communities, so I can't really say what went on in the parking lots for Mamma Mia or Hellboy 2. But at Screen 1, a carnival broke out. Children ran willy nilly like something out of a Roald Dahl tale; entire families seemed to gather; and eventually, as though everyone knew the code and as though the 1960s-era concession stand had sold its last freezie pop, the horns and flashing headlights started... a subtle inveigling to the (presumably) veteran projectionist camped away in the bunker-style booth (the door of which, strangely, seemed to be barred from the outside...) to start the show.

And start it did. The night unfolded despite audio difficulties (I don't think drive-in broadcast systems are especially satellite-radio-friendly), bugs, humidity, rain and even, eventually, Get Smart, leaving me with a newfound respect for the event of cinema and the communities it creates. Something was different from the usual anonymity of theatre-going at the drive-in. It didn't change the way I felt about the film, so much as the way I felt about watching a film. Taking part in a really, really old concept, going to the movies felt new again, and that was a powerful thing.

And then there was Trash Palace.

What can I really say about the Trash Palace? Check out the link and you will see just how much irony inheres in their self-description as Toronto's "classiest cinema." A labour of love for local print-shop runner and film-print collector Stacey Case, who devotes the 1,800 square feet of his shop to screenings every second Friday night, the Trash Palace is a shrine for the scummiest, B-filmiest, most pulpy cinema out there. We were invited by friends who moved to Toronto just over a year ago, and how they found out about the hushed-up screening programme before I did is something of a puzzle for me. The procedures for getting tickets are somewhat arcane - involving being at a certain coffee shop, at a certain time, on a certain day, as near as I can tell - and the address kept secret until you are officially a paid customer.

The roster of films, including pre-feature shorts (mostly trailers for some of the most egregiously unscary B-horrors ever made with some of the scariest, campiest soft core ever produced alongside them), are luridly, startlingly bad; so horrible they're amazing. Once discovering the secret downtown print-shop turned B-movie grotto, the uninitiated go underground into a realm of really uncomfortable seats (kinda like being back in the Spanish class room at my high school), where one can buy a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon for $3, can pee in a bathroom that's a like a glorified outhouse all dolled up (rather literally) in retro kitsh, and can - if one has purchased a membership - locate their card on the wall and punch it in on the time clock. And one can join a surprising, small population of hipsters and cinephiles and watch a film like The Thing with Two Heads, a social-problem horror film that borrows as much from blaxploitation and Dukes of Hazard's cop-hating car chases as from Frankenstein. It cannot easily be described. All I'll say is: two heads, one body; a monster at the motocross course; and a final scene in which three characters (one of whom recently lost some irksome extra weight that looked a lot like Ray Milland) driving off singing "Oh Happy Day." (Perhaps they were heading to their local drive-in?)

The feature was preceded by a (too long) short film produced decades ago by the Dairy Farmers' Association of America (I think), designed to terrify bankers with a Machiavellian hybrid of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and It's a Wonderful Life that would convince them to invest in more milk farmers.

There were shrieks and giggles, give-aways and custom-made truffles shaped like the Thing with Two Heads, and there were even some yawns as the feature's long final-reel chase sequence, well, dragged. But, in a way much like the experience I had at the drive in less than a week before it, last Friday's trip to the Trash Palace thrilled me. For someone working two jobs (a job with two heads?) related to cinema, and for whom film is a constant backdrop, generally associated with stress and to-do lists, it was amazing to make an event of the movies... even if what was onscreen was downright trashy.

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