A litmus test of how much I liked a movie was whether or not I watched the whole thing. If I felt drawn to a movie, I either watched it in patches, when I could spare the time from juggling the books of a failing business, or if I couldn’t resist, and was profoundly depressed, I just plain sat down and watched the whole damn thing. As winter approached, sitting down had a lot to do with how warm it was, hence my sketchy memory of Silent Movie; how can you laugh when you’re freezing?
Prints of the movies we showed, even the newer ones, arrived in our lobby in film canisters Wednesday mornings, scuffed and scratched, but still watchable at half-price. Remarkably, a number of the sixty-three films we projected in our year running a movie palace have since been inducted into the archives of the Library of Congress:
All the President’s Men
Dog Day Afternoon
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
A Venn Diagram of this list and mine would show more than a sliver of commonality. It’s alarming how many movies I don’t remember that we ran at the St George that year. Until I resumed the painful process of scrolling through microfilms of The Staten Island Advance circa 1976, looking for the movie ads we ran (interspersed with ads for flared pants and unbelievably cheap steaks), I had nearly forgotten — or blocked — a number of titles. One was an Italian thriller, easy to forget the title of, as it had aliases. We advertised it on our marquee as Don’t Open the Window, while in England it was known as The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, having started its Italian career as Non Si Devi Profanare il Sonno del Morti, roughly, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Then there was the naturally forgettable Cops and Robbers, and the meant-to-be-hilarious Mother, Jugs and Speed — whose Harvey Keitel and Racquel Welsh are so young you hardly recognize them (Cosby’s in this one, still looking innocent). The St. George Theatre low-budget list is lengthy. I have absolutely no memory of: Death Machines, The Legend of Bigfoot, Food of the Gods (based on H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel) or At the Earth’s Core (from a work by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1914). Did we really spend precious projector carbons on the likes of The Giant Spider Invasion, a 1975 release that apparently features huge spiders descending on the town of Merrill, Wisconsin?
Though I don’t remember these one-week wonders, a lot of people post-millennium seem to revere some of them. In fact, a few of the less-memorable titles cited above have emerged as cult films. Don’t Open the Window — or whatever you choose to call it — is a 1974 fiction zombie horror film, which has made it to Blu-Ray. Likewise The Giant Spider Invasion, has prospered over the years, raking in approximately $15,000,000. How low-budget was Spider Invasion? The giant spider was a Volkswagen with artificial black fur and fake legs, operated from the inside by seven members of the crew. I haven’t included The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) in this list, because I actually sat down to watch it. Normally I am not one for blood and gore, but Texas Chainsaw had a visual elegance to it, somewhat like Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Chainsaw is now the cult film to end all cults.
It’s been forty-three years since I ran a movie palace. The trouble with imagining a “favorites” movie list forty-three years in the future, is that presentation in theaters is what made even the lowly Death Machines into something of a cult. Theaters, especially single screen houses like the St. George, may also be why Taxi Driver is in the Library of Congress; and why the number of people watching the Academy Awards is slipping year by year, with a modest uptick the other night, that still yielded the second-lowest attendant audience in Oscar history.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma did very well, but here in New York City, its presence last fall on release in an actual theater, the IFC, lasted only about two weeks. Of course! — it’s a Netflix property.
Since I was a child, we’ve gone from “Where’s that showing?” to “Did you see it in a theater?” Now we’re headed for, “Nexflix... or Amazon?” That said, I notice Roma is showing post-Academy Awards, at the Nitehawk on Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where, while trying to comprehend non-subtitled phrases, a patron has the opportunity to down a Barry Lyndon (pink peppercorn-infused Perry’s Tot Gin with Combier Pamplemousse, lemon, and Earl Grey) — who cares if a phrase slips away? The 1974 Kubrick movie the drink is named for was a technologically brilliant piece based on a Thackeray novel, notoriously slow, but beautiful. I wish I’d had a grapefruit-laced drink back then to settle me into my seat...
Here’s the original list of movies I can’t quite forget. I’m tempted to add to it, but then the whole point was to generate a list of movies in one moment, off the top of my head:
Two for the Road (1968) Stanley Donan (he just died, BTW)
Cinema Paradiso (1988) GiuseppeTornatore
Fanny and Alexander (1982) Ingmar Bergman
Taxi Driver (1976) Martin Scorsese
Dr. Strangelove (1964) Stanley Kubrick
Metropolis (1927) Fritz Lang
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Sidney Lumet
Blazing Saddles (1974) Mel Brooks
The Graduate (1967) Mike Nichols
Bananas (1971) Woody Allen
Tin Men (1987) Barry Levinson
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) David Lean
The Atomic Café (1982) Jayne Loader
Do the Right Thing (1989) Spike Lee
Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz
Murder on the Orient Express (the original Sidney Lumet version, 1974)
The Man Who Would Be King (1975) John Huston
Moonlight (2016) Barry Jenkins
The Dead (1985) John Huston
Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski
My Brilliant Career (1979) Gillian Armstrong
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) Peter Weir
Executive Action (1973) David Miller
The Piano (1993) Jane Campion
A Passage to India (1984) David Lean
12 Years a Slave (2012) Steve McQueen
So few women! This exercise has left me determined to look for more work by women directors.
It’s interesting to note that Dog Day Afternoon had already won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while Blazing Saddles was nominated in its time, for three Academy Awards. Bananas never won anything apparently, but I treasure it because I liked Woody Allen best before we knew he was a perv and when he was sticking to his natural genre, slapstick. Taxi Driver won the Palme D’Or and was nominated for four Oscars, none of which it was granted. Silent Movie was a Mel Brooks throwaway, brilliant, with an amazing cast of walk-ons