Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Inimitable Magic of Midnight Movies

Last night, Two Dogs and I watched a documentary called Midnight Movies (which is available at Netflix. This doc (based on the eponymous book by Stuart Samuels), takes a close look at six of the most important films of the genre (though far from the only ones): El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, The Harder They Come, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Eraserhead.

Of these, I have only seen Rocky Horror, and frankly was not that impressed, except for “Time Warp” and Rocky Horror’s blond hunky goodness. I had never heard of El Topo, thought that The Harder They Come looked like a dull crime drama, am too frightened of Night of the Living Dead (even though it was filmed in Pittsburgh, the big city near me when I was growing up), and am still working up the courage to see Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead. Despite this record, I still love the idea of midnight movies, and harbor hope that they won’t become completely extinct.

Born in the convention-defiant maelstrom of the late 1960s, and living long enough to become all but obsolete in the home video age, midnight movies share these characteristics:

1. Out of the mainstream – way far out;
2. Sexually and/or politically subversive;
3. Packed with weird and disturbing imagery, almost like dreams;
4. Marijuana-friendly

The midnight hour was also an essential ingredient. Larry Jackson, the manager of the Orson Welles Theater in Boston (an early promoter of midnight movies) said, “At 12 o’ clock, a different world of movie-going took place.”

Imagine driving to a big-city or college-town theater at a quarter to midnight, finding a parking space, and then walking to the theater under ghostly street lamps. You won’t see little kids or uptight middle-aged matrons among your fellow movie-goers; they’re people who know, people who dare, people who don’t let Reader’s Digest tell them how to think – people like you.

You buy a popcorn and a drink at the concession stand (that alone is transgressive; snacking after midnight is so naughty), and find a seat in the middle of the theater. You sniff the air, and discover the skunky aroma of pot smoke. Before the lights go down, you notice that the theater itself is a little run-down; the velvet of the curtains is worn-down in spots and the wooden armrests are grooved with amateur carvings. This doesn’t bother you one bit; who wants to see a midnight movie in an antiseptic chain theater?

Darkness closes in on the theater. The mumble of conversation sinks into whispering. The curtain parts with the rattling of pulleys. After a series of coming attraction trailers and lovably cheesy “go-get-some-popcorn-now” ads, up comes the midnight movie. And man, it’s stranger and better than you ever imagined. It turns you over and cracks your head open like an egg. It’s as if the sky had turned bubblegum pink.

Beats sitting at home watching some lame Loretta Young movie on the Late Late Show, no?

What are your favorite midnight movies? Two Dogs wasn’t happy that his favorite, The Song Remains The Same, wasn’t in the documentary. I can also vouch for Freaks, Heavy Metal, and that collection of Beatles shorts that popped up from time to time (Beatles fans, you know what they are). We are keeping our eyes out for the midnight movie experience again, but no more Rocky Horror. BT, DT.

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