As pipsqueak theater operators at the St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace I operated with a team of young entrepreneurs in 1976, we took what crumbs our booking agent dropped to us from the Mann Theaters table of available movie product. Our agent was a Mann employee, and we were his side-hustle. One of the crumbs happened to be the 1976 film, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, starring the improbable duo of country singer Kris Kristofferson, and British actor Sarah Miles, the latter obviously desperate for work.
The movie was depressingly bad. Roger Ebert’s notion that only bad movies are truly depressing fits Sailor like a trim pair of bellbottoms; Vincent Canby said as much in The New York Times,“There is a beguilement to Sailor,...that of sitting through a movie in a state of irascible unconvincedness while being more than half seduced.” Half-seduction, as I can attest, is far worse than no seduction at all. Based loosely on impressions of a classic Japanese novel by Yukio Mishima, the movie could put you to sleep in five minutes (it did have that effect on a number of patrons, who wandered out of the dark wanting their money back). This, despite the fact that Mishima’s novel had been quietly terrifying; I recalled not being able to sleep after having read it.
All the dreary, improbable or disappointing movies we ran could be summed up as a waste of carbon-arc light, film stock, and the poor moviegoer’s buck fifty (or ninety cents, if underage). Canby knew what he was talking about when it came to seduction: when properly executed, it is I believe, what makes a movie worth going to.
A brilliant movie will deliver anywhere. Seduced in the back of a Chevy or a Paris hotel suite is still seduced. But the opposite isn’t true; movies that fail to deliver can still be softened by elegant surroundings, or another round of popcorn. So it was with the bad movies that we ran in 1976.
There was, at least, a gleaming dome to look up at. The brightest moment I recall from Sailor is the intermission (we actually scheduled one, as if we knew somehow that people would need a break). Out into the lobby they came, eager for popcorn, never expecting the real drama of the night about to take place under our three newly-polished chandeliers.
We were, at the time, using our uninhabited mezzanine to house four very young puppies, who’d been born under a bush in our yard. The dogs had the run of the mezzanine, which was fine, we thought; they were afraid of the stairs. During Sailor’s Saturday night intermission, a woman munching on popcorn, while sitting on the stairs to the mezz, proved she could reach C above high C with a blood-stopping scream. Further shrieks. In under a minute, the whole lobby emptied out onto the street. Then word went round, and screams turned to guffaws. Something wet had indeed entered her ear: the tongue of a curious puppy! Boffo, as we already called her, had braved the stairs to make her debut. We’d named Boffo after the old Variety term “Boffo Socco” — which means “outstanding box office”. Though Sailor was hardly boffo or even boffola, the show went on, with a much-awakened audience. BTW, the puppy would turn out to “have legs,” another Variety term signifying that she would last — eleven more years. She was a showbiz dog if there ever was one!
In Search of Noah’s Ark was a fake documentary which, after several decades, developed a kind of cult following as kitsch, relieving it not at all of its burden of badness. Who could believe that splinters of Noah’s actual ark, like purported fragments of the true cross, had been found on Mt. Ararat? Busloads of evangelicals could, and did believe this: a seduction for a specific audience, but nothing much for the rest of us.
Gable and Lombard was the pits, as Roger Ebert himself testified, “They had more than love — they had FUN! Yes, and they did more than make love, too — they made movies, but you'd hardly guess it from this one.” Gable and Lombard is one of those movies where casting decisions saved thousands at the expense of believability. The result was a child-like actor (James Brolin) playing in Daddy’s (Clark Gable’s) shoes. Jill Clayburgh was only a little less objectionable as Carol Lombard. Nothing happens, no seduction.
For all the bad movies, we also showed a lot of good ones, including some real surprises, flicks I’d expected would be bad and then was surprised to catch myself stopping and sitting down to watch. So it went with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the title, I thought at first, said it all. And the trailer, those women running from Leatherface in his mask, seemed to convince me it was all just blood and gore. With a bad movie you see the trailer, and oftener than not you’re sure you know what the movie’s going to be; like fast food (finger-lickin’ good), the sign says it all. What made Chainsaw worth watching, once the real movie arrived on screen? The cinematography, for one thing. Tobe Hooper had been a documentary cameraman. The film was violent, but, at the same time, in its cynical way, it had something to say about violence. The first sizzling frames drew me in. Instead of going back to my office to sort unpaid bills, I grabbed a popcorn and sat down front. I generally avoid bloody movies, but, as is true with much of Hitchcock (think the shower scene in Psycho), I couldn’t take my eyes off what was happening.
Well I started by quoting Roger Ebert, and I’m thinking of ending with an observation from an old mentor of mine, the structuralist filmmaker, Hollis Frampton. Though his films have no or little narrative, he sincerely loved movies, when their seductive powers worked. Born in the latter days of the Depression, in Wooster, Ohio, he grew up in the dark watching Laura, Rope and whatever else Hollywood had to offer from week to week at the local movie house. A poet, photographer, and, eventually, a filmmaker, he appeared at a pivotal point in my life, and changed my worldview. Over a Bloody Mary at Donohue’s on Lexington near 68th one Wednesday in 1972, he offered me his personal viewing formula: “A movie that works has to make you forget your toothache, the love you just lost, and the balance in your checkbook....” He was right. Four years later I went on to run a movie palace, and can add to his observations, “and if you’re working in the theater where the movie’s showing and you want to sit down...”
Well that cinches it.
1. Movies I remember sitting down for at the St. George:
- The Man Who Would Be King
- Taxi Driver
- Dog Day Afternoon
- Blazing Saddles
- Silent Movie
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest There were others.
2. You can never read too many good quotes. Who said, “Movies are a fad. Audiences really want to see live actors on a stage.”
(Answer: Charlie Chaplin)