I freely admit that this particular column has its roots in one of the very first Screening Room entries. Cut me a little slack. I’m coming to you from my bed of pain—OK, so at the moment it’s a chair of pain—with not one, but two throat infections, one of which requires gargling every six hours with a concoction so vile that it’s almost a toss up as to which is worse, it or the infection. I also cannot talk, and while that may a boon to some, it’s annoying for me.
In the midst of all this, I started thinking back on some of my more memorable moments of the moviegoing kind. Or perhaps I merely had a passing hallucination on the topic. I know I addressed the peculiar incident of the unwilling moviegoer who kept up a running commentary of complaints during Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) in that earlier column, and while there may be nothing quite so grand as that in the following, there may be a tale or two of some amusement value.
Considering that today is Elvis’ birthday—something of which I’m painfully aware thanks to all those reasonanbly awful Elvis movies all day long on TCM—I figure I should start with my earliest memory on this topic. Actually, it’s less a memory—I have only the vaguest recollection of this taking place—than a family legend. However, it has the stamp of authenticity. It concerns me slipping away from my parents (I would have been about three) and being discovered coming up the aisle of the Gem Theatre doing an Elvis impression during Loving You (1957). I can only conclude that I must have been singularly impressed with Mr. Presley at that moment and was carried away in the heat of the moment. Thankfully, this appears to have gotten such antics out of my system. At least, I am aware of no further lapses in decorum on my part—at least of quite this kind.
Let’s jump ahead to a 1969 midnight show of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968) at the State Theater in Lake Wales, Florida. OK, so the movie was no great shakes—I didn’t expect it to be, never having been that fond of the Christopher Lee Dracula movie—but to a 15-year-old the appeal of being out that late on my own was all that mattered. That notion must have been pretty widespread, because the theater (one of those cavernous 400-plus seat places) was packed. And whatever the film may have lacked in cinematic artistry was more than made up for by the young lady in the row ahead of me. As the movie ground to its climax—a pretty graphic image for its time—where Christopher Lee is impaled on a cross, her response was nothing if not visceral. That’s to say that Lee hit the cross and her dinner hit the theater floor. People always talk about a movie making them want to throw up, this girl acted on it. Film criticism is rarely so vivid.
It was only a few years before I was exposed to that most interesting of things for a moviegoer—the college audience. I soon found that this could be either the best, or the worst audience a film could ask for. The one thing I rarely found it—at least 30-odd years ago—was an indifferent audience. I’ve certainly never seen any other audience so completely get into King Kong (1933) —and without the reverence of seeing a classic. Some people might be offended by the “inappropriate” laughter at some of the campier or more outdated dialogue (“Say, I guess I love you”), but I never found it mean-spirited or derisive. It seemed rather that they were getting into the movie in a way I’d never seen with a regular audience. The very fact that 200 or more kids—few over 21—were crammed into these auditoriums to see a movie from 40 years ago was exhilirating to me.
While it might not have actually enhanced the movie, I’m not in the least sorry that I saw Busby Berkeley’s Technicolor fever dream The Gang’s All Here (1943) at a midnight show that included at least 20 cross-dressing Carmen Miranda impersonators in the audience. It really is the kind of ultra bizarre movie—at least when Berkeley’s biggest production numbers are onscreen—that’s suited to this kind of treatment. That it also resulted in a certain amount of flying fruit seems a small price to pay. Plus, it offered the possibility of scoring a nice snack—and it definitely provided a 3D effect no technology can hope to duplicate.
Somehow or other, I’d never seen a Betty Boop cartoon till I was in college—something that was made up for when a selection of them were interspersed with a massive film festival of 1930s movies. Whoever programmed that festival knew what they were doing, since each and every one of the Boop cartoons featured were from Betty’s pre-code era. That means they were very sexualized, prone to occasional drug references and often downright lewd. (I still don’t know how Louis Armstrong got away with improvising a line in the song “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal. You,” so that it came out, “You bought my wife a Coca-Cola so you could play on her vagola,” but he did.) However, what I will always remember from that particular introduction was the moment in Snow-White (1933) when the wicked queen transforms herself into a witch, prompting a girl nearby to enthuse loudly, “Far f**king out!” (Yes, it was 1973 and I won’t swear drugs were not involved.)
Even away from college showings, I’ve encountered some not always so pleasant audience input. I am quite certain that my original viewing of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) was not in any way improved by being parked in front of a woman who was translating the entire movie into Spanish for her companion. At the same time, I didn’t feel particularly out of sorts when the titular monster of An American Werewolf in London (1981) made its first appearance and some disgruntled patron expressed his displeasure by announcing—in a very backwoods accent—“That looks like a goddamn bear!” Maybe that’s because I couldn’t really argue the point. The lady whose cellphone went off playing “Dixie” during the exorcism scene in the expanded 2000 re-release of The Exorcist (1973) is another matter.
In general, I don’t approve of yelling at other moviegoers—no matter how much they deserve it. However, the first time I saw Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction (2002), a couple of teenage girls had somehow gotten into the theater (they certainly weren’t old enough to be in a R-rated movie), presumably because they wanted to see TV heartthrob James Van Der Beek. They had not, it seems, reckoned that this wasn’t going to be like an episode of Dawson’s Creek. Clearly, they were not prepared for the scene where Ian Somerhalder fantasizes making out with Van Der Beek and let out a disgusted, “Ewwww!” My viewing partner turned around and shouted, “Oh, grow up!” I can’t say I was sorry.
And on that note, I see that it’s time for me to gargle with the vile concoction again, so I think I’ll end this. Oh, did I mention that after you gargle this stuff, you’re supposed to swallow it? Ewwww!