Wednesday, January 24, 2007

My Life At The Movies

Looking at the Academy Award nominations announced yesterday got me thinking about the way I watch movies now as opposed to the ways that I used to. For at least the second year in a row, I went to a movie theater fewer than ten times in 2006. I used to go to the movies all the time. Between 1983, when I got my driver’s license, and, say, 1994, when I stopped working at a movie theater, I saw at least one or two films a week and maybe more. That’s in addition to the videocassettes I rented and television broadcasts I watched.

I don’t remember ever not being interested in film. Actually, I have always had slightly more interest in television than film, and I used to read each week’s TV Guide and make mental notes of old movies and TV reruns that sounded cool. That was in the pre-cable days, when I only had three commercial TV stations to choose from. I would see listings for, for example, WGN-TV in Chicago, which aired old Bowery Boys movies and shows like LOST IN SPACE and SGT. BILKO, which we didn’t get in the Champaign/Decatur/Springfield TV market. I grew up on afternoon reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (my all-time favorite show until I was about 8), THE BRADY BUNCH, THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, BATMAN, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, but the grass is always greener, right? It wasn’t until I was in college that I experienced SPEED RACER for the first time and was able to see LOST IN SPACE on a regular basis on USA cable (it sucks, by the way).

But I digress. The first major influence on my love of movies was WCIA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Champaign, Illinois. Channel 3 aired THE EARLY SHOW every afternoon at 3:00 and THE LATE SHOW after the news on Friday and Saturday nights. It was here that I experienced so many wonderful (and wonderfully awful) films for the first time. And they made it easy by presenting them during Theme Weeks: Hitchcock Week, Abbott & Costello Week, Western Week, you name it. THE EARLY SHOW is where I saw the old Universal horrors like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, the Marx Brothers, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone westerns (THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY was spread out over two consecutive days), Japanese sci-fi (from the GODZILLA monster mashes to THE MYSTERIANS), Martin & Lewis, Rock Hudson & Doris Day, Bogart and BATMAN (the 1966 feature), M and DIAL M FOR MURDER, BUSTING and CAPRICORN ONE (WCIA ran that one uncut on THE LATE SHOW), Elvis Presley and Fred Astaire…even the notorious PINOCCHIO FROM OUTER SPACE. Of course, they were all edited and panned-and-scanned, but who knew there was any other way

My high school years coincided with the emergence of home video and the arrival of cable television, which opened new windows to film history. I didn’t have to rely on Channel 3’s library of movies; I could now see hundreds more on WTBS, USA, HBO, Showtime, Cinemax. The second great influence was Michael Weldon’s groundbreaking book THE PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM, which came out in 1983, my junior year of high school. It was an A-to-Z listing of amazing “psychotronic” movies with witty capsule reviews written in Weldon’s unique, appealing style. It was loaded with films I had already seen, but thousands more than I hadn’t and couldn’t dream that I ever would. It’s when I first learned that Sergio Leone wasn’t the only Italian making westerns, that there were tons of horror movies, spy movies, rock musicals, cop actioners that weren’t appearing on television and never ran in my local theaters. I actually wanted to see the amazing-sounding works of Al Adamson. Now that I’ve seen several Adamson movies, it’s hard to imagine a time when I thought they might be good, but that was partially due to Weldon’s descriptions. Even the films Weldon said were awful often sounded pretty cool.

WARGAMES was the first movie I drove myself to. My parents were very good about taking my brother and me to movies, although they always were PG (no PG-13 then) or G. The now-gone Lyric in Monticello and the now-gone Widescreen Drive-In in Urbana were favorite movie houses, where I saw just about every Disney film from BAMBI and DUMBO to GUS and THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG, as well as “adult” PG movies like PAPILLON and JAWS. MOONRAKER was my first James Bond film, which was exciting because I had seen tantalizing bits of them on ABC. Since the Bond films always carried “Parental Guidance Advised” warnings, I was a little afraid of them, like they might be scary or sexy or something, but the promos were always cool, and my folks always watched them. I loved MOONRAKER then, but, of course, that’s because I was 12, and MOONRAKER is aimed at a 12-year-old’s maturity level.

Going to WARGAMES with my brother and our friend Brian was exciting. Not only was it my first time driving in “the big city” (Champaign), but we were also going to the Co-Ed Theater near the University of Illinois, which was always packed with pedestrians and traffic. Not like driving to the mall! And, of course, the early-to-mid-1980s were an amazing time to fall in love with what I affectionately today call “crappy movies.” WARGAMES and BLUE THUNDER came out the same summer, both directed by John Badham. The STAR TREK movies were coming out every two years, the STAR WARS movies were out and in re-release, as were the Indiana Jones series. There were new 007 adventures regularly. Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff…hell, Cannon always had something new playing. I saw every Norris, Dudikoff and Charles Bronson movie of the ‘80s, I think. We saw AMERICAN NINJA at the huge historic Virginia Theater in Champaign. I also saw every Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood film that I could; when SUDDEN IMPACT played at the Virginia, the audience went crazy with every kill. The Virginia also ran the new breed of 3-D movie: JAWS 3-D, SPACEHUNTER, METALSTORM. Also, the historic Orpheum began running classic double- and triple-features that turned over twice a week, enabling me to see—on the big screen—all of the Connery/Lazenby/Moore Bond films (to that point), THE GREAT ESCAPE/BULLITT, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS/THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, REAL LIFE/MODERN ROMANCE, REAR WINDOW/THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and, perhaps best of all, a marathon of all five PLANET OF THE APES movies.

I never let the 15- to 20-mile drive to a theater stop me from seeing as much as I could. And when I eventually went away to college, it was nice because I now lived in the same town as the theaters. Carbondale then had several movie houses, including one in the mall (where I saw films as diverse as PLATOON and SCORPION!) and the Saluki, which ran second-run movies for $1.00; EDDIE MURPHY: RAW and ALIEN NATION I saw there. I remember seeing HEARTBURN the night my new roommate died. I remember seeing HAMBURGER HILL on an awful date. I saw ABOVE THE LAW three times during Finals Week, because all the guys in the dorm wanted to get away and see some incredible ass-kicking. I took people to see ROAD HOUSE several times, because I couldn’t believe how great it was and wanted to share it (they all agreed with me). I saw QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER the day I got fired from a job. I recall sitting in empty rooms watching movies that nobody else that I know of has seen, such as SHORT TIME and KEATON’S COP. I’d like to meet one other person besides my friend Todd Woodman who can claim to have seen KEATON’S COP in a theater.

Eventually, I came back to Champaign, where, between radio jobs, I worked at a multiplex as an usher and projectionist. I was living at home and working only 30 hours a week, but it was a fun place to work. Unlike other multiplexes, the Savoy 10 (it became the Savoy 14 during my two years there and is now the Savoy 16) was run by a manager who actually cared about the movies, cared about the audience and presenting them a quality product. Projectionists were trained. There were no ads blaring in the auditorium—just orchestral scores—and we projectionists had the thrill of opening the big curtain covering the screen while lowering the lights.

I also got to see a ton of movies for free, which means that I spent much time wallowing in muck like AMOS & ANDREW, SPLITTING HEIRS, LIFE WITH MIKEY…who remembers these? The early ‘90s were the swan song of low-budget exploitation in theaters, and I managed to catch EXCESSIVE FORCE (which played one show a night for one week) and Cannon’s next-to-last theatrical release, AMERICAN CYBORG: STEEL WARRIOR.

After leaving the theater for good in 1994, I still saw lots of films, but it has never been the same. In 1996, Weldon finally published his long-awaited sequel, THE PSYCHOTRONIC VIDEO GUIDE, which contained even more juicy descriptions of crazy movies I thought I’d never see. Of course, with the advent of DVD and the Internet, more films are available for home viewing than ever before. Also, I’ve had the privilege and joy to hook up with new friends online, mainly through the Mobius Home Video Forum message board, of which I have been a moderator for the better part of a decade. Through these friends and acquaintances, I’ve learned more and discovered more and have enjoyed the opportunity to trade movies and discussions about those movies. So even though my days of hitting the local movie house on a biweekly or even weekly basis are long behind me, the movie-watching atmosphere is richer than ever. Sure, I’ll make the effort to see LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE eventually, when I can Netflix it. But until then, I’ve got a stack of Tony Anthony westerns on DVD to dig into.


Anonymous said...

Seems that excitement for new movies has been replaced by the nagging dread that the new stuff will somehow take away a little fun of the old. I guess it depends on the person, but whenever i think about something like 'Alien vs Predator' or 'Phantom Menace' or 'Die Another Day', it seems to cheapen the experience of enjoying the originals just a bit. This goes double for the seemingly endless parade of remakes coming out of Hollywood. If the people who supposedly care so much about movies don't care about their history, how is a new generation of moviegoers supposed to react?

I want to hear a little more about your reaction to the Oscar nominations. of all the movies that used makeup this year (uhh...100 percent?) "Click" did it better than all but two others? "Dream Girls" was really that good? "Happy Feet" could win an oscar? i think i'll watch Satan's Children again instead of the oscars this year.

Marty McKee said...

I don't have much to say about the Oscars. I've seen few, if any, of the major nominees, although I'm certainly interested in THE DEPARTED, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, PAN'S LABYRINTH, to name a few. And I reckon I'll Netflix them when they become available. DREAMGIRLS is interesting in that never before has a film been the leader in total nominations, but completely shut out of the major categories. At least it's a lock for Best Song. What's making the Oscar show worth watching this year is its Honorary Award to the incredible Ennio Morricone.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I've also seen my own theater patronage decline over the years and I don't think it is because of me. A majority of the movies coming out today just don't appeal to me (CGI overloaded action flicks, CGI comedies, etc.).

Coincidentally, the first movie I drove myself to alone was WARLOCK. We both were drawn to WAR flicks.


Anonymous said...


MOONRAKER was my first theatrical Bond film and my parents took my sister and I to R-rated movies all the time. The first was ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). I love my parents!


Anonymous said...

When I went to see WAR GAMES there was a guy in the row in front of me who late in the movie began rocking back and forth and crying "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

I'm not sure if it was because they had averted nuclear war or if he'd been overcome by the Matthew Broderick - Ally Sheedy combination and had decided to pleasure himself.