Tag Archives: Nostalgia

CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

Check out driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.

Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”

"Elm Road Drive-In Theatre" by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA
Elm Road Drive-In Theatre” by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA – Elm Road Drive-In Theatre. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kicking nachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.

We now think of cheesy horror and sci-fi films as ruling the drive-in roost. However, I recall seeing the mediocre  western, Cahill: U.S. Marshall (1973) on a double bill with the much more fun Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) at Westlake Drive-In Theater. We stayed through both features and even got to see the closing fireworks. The oddest memories I have of that night begin with mother’s very vocal fretting over how much of Caroline Munro’s cleavage my siblings and I were taking in. If Mom hadn’t made such an ado about it, I might not have even noticed. Curiously, she wasn’t at all worried about the western bloodshed, but Ms. Munro’s breasts sent her into an evangelical panic. (To be fair, however, I just lied when I speculated that I probably would not have noticed the cult star’s ample chest. I would have).

The other, perhaps even stranger memory is the sight of a fox, a few yards away, rummaging through the trash cans by the swing-set under the screen. Of course, one could never witness such magical nature at work, or a parental outburst, in the polite comfort of an air conditioned indoor theater.

The 1950s were the heyday of the drive-in cinema. Even when our family started going, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, outdoor cinemas were Continue reading CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

CAPSULE: CRY-BABY (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Amy Locane, , Polly Bergen

PLOT: A “drape” with the ability to cry a single tear on command falls for a “square” girl in 1950s Baltimore.

Still from Cry-baby (1990)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you stacked John Waters’ movies with the weirdest on top and most mainstream on the bottom, there’s a good chance Cry-Baby would be making up the foundation.

COMMENTS: John Waters’ first movie after the 1988 death of his muse continued his retreat from the trashy outrageousness of the Pink Flamingos era into the nostalgic PG-13 rated camp represented by this and Hairspray. Cry-Baby is a nostalgic, light-hearted parody of 1950s juvenile delinquent movies, with a couple of musical production numbers thrown in almost as an afterthought. The plot is a simple star-crossed riff on West Side Story/Grease, with sexy Amy Locane as the good girl longing to be bad and Depp as the type of sensitive hood that made teen girls in poodle skirts feel things they had never felt before.

As usual in a Waters movie, the casting is half the fun. At the time, Depp was a small screen teen idol whose career arc showed little promise. Although cast because of his heartthrob status—his campy line deliveries as Cry-Baby (which sometimes sound like Elvis acting at his best) don’t allow him to really stretch his talents—Depp’s presence in a John Waters movie did telegraph his intent to gamble on oddball roles, and made casting directors look at him in a different light. As far as supporting players and cameos go, look for real-life bad girl Traci Lords as a pouty teen; Susan Tyrrell and as Cry-Baby’s reprobate roadhouse grandparents; Troy Donahue, , , Joey Heatherton, and former brainwashed heiress Patty Hearst as the older generation of drapes; and as a “hateful guard.” Ricki Lake, as a 50s version of an unfit teen mom, is piggish (“I’m so happy all knocked-up!”), rather than sympathetic as intended, but little-known Kim McGuire (or at least her makeup) makes quite an impression as the aptly-named Hatchet Face. There are so many eccentric minor players jostling for time onscreen that there’s no time for real characterization, which keeps Cry-Baby faithful to the movies it’s parodying, at least.

As a lightly magical realist comedy, Cry-Baby is fairly successful, although of course many Waters fans will miss the nasty grit of the trashpile 1970s movies. In 1990 the Eisenhower-era satirical targets are stale, but there are some amusing moments in the script, topped by an orphanage that’s run like an animal shelter, with children behind glass waiting to be adopted. “She’s Caucasian,” drawls the patrician orphanage matron in regards to a darling eight-year-old girl playing house in her cell, “but that’s about all I can recommend.” In terms of oddnesses, look for a baby cradle festooned with deaths heads, an easily spooked cow, and a “helpful” sewer rat.

Like all of Waters’ post-Hairspray work, Cry-Baby lost money at the box office. Waters regained his “R” rating with his next film, 1994’s Serial Mom, and abandoned his brief experiment in family-friendly entertainment. Depp, of course, went on to greater weirdness, starring next in ‘s Edward Scissorhands before moving on to Certified Weird performances in Dead Man (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“John Waters at his most accessible — which is still really odd.”–Rob Thomas, Capital Times

CAPSULE: HAIRSPRAY (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, , Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, , , John Waters

PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.

Still from Hairspray (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s just a whisper of the old Trash Trilogy weirdness left in John Waters’ 1960s teen nostalgia movie.

COMMENTS: The first of two films John Waters made in the late 1980s with PG ratings and mainstream aspirations, Hairspray indulges in personal nostalgia for the once-and-future transgressive director. The tone is what you might call mock-saccharine. Set in Baltimore at the dawn of racial integration, much of the action takes place on the set of the local teeny-bopper dance show, where wholesome white suburban youths swivel their hips each afternoon to rhythm and blues hits from black artists, while the darker-hued children wait for “Negro night” to strut their stuff. Hefty “hair hopper” Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) gets her shot at a tryout and turns out to be a huge crowd favorite, earning the ire of previous teen queen bee Amber von Tussle and her showbiz parents. Hairspray isn’t a profoundly weird movie, but neither is it a straightforward one. The level of reality here is about the same as a Hollywood musical (and the characters do break into spontaneous choreographed dance routines), and, although it deals with serious racial issues, there is no more real conflict or danger here than in an Annette Funicello beach movie of the same period. The pro-integration teens are innocent and righteous, and the rigid old guard eventually withers in the face of their enthusiasm, leaving the good guys to celebrate at a sock hop while the bad guys pout in the corner. But, while there’s none of Waters’ trademark nastiness on display here, his arch view of our tacky culture still shines through, especially in the outrageous wardrobes (a roach-studded dress), hairstyles (Debbie Harry sports two different ‘dos that no human being has worn before or since), and decor (the doe-eyed thrift-shop family portraits on the walls of the von Tussle homestead). There’s also the novelty casting: novice actress Ricki Lake (cast because she was the only fat girl Waters could find who could dance), blues singer Ruth Brown, celebrities fallen on hard times like Sony Bono and Pia Zadora, pop stars like Debbie Harry (who’s great as a nasty stage mom) and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (as a Baltimore beatnik), Waters regulars like Mink Stole, and, of course, Divine (both in and out of drag). If that’s not enough outrageousness for you, there’s also Waters himself running around as a psychologist with a hypno-wheel and a cattle prod, trying to shock Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton out of her forbidden “checkerboard” relationship with the black Seawood. Throw in a wino serenade, a trip to a special ed class reserved for “hairdo scofflaws,” and teens doing “vintage” dances like the Roach, the Tailfeather and the Bug, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’s odd without being alienating. This is one of Waters’ most beloved films (admittedly, by a different demographic than the one that worships at the idol of Pink Flamingos) because his genuine fondness for the era and its naively idealistic teenagers comes through on the screen. Even Debbie Harry’s asymmetrical flip hairdo can’t outshine that.

Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and from there into a second feature film in 2007 (with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, and others). The musical remake made more money than the original, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s seen it. The original lands on Blu-ray this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors are best when they avoid exaggeration and remain weirdly sincere. That way, they do nothing to break the vibrant, even hallucinogenic spell of Mr. Waters’s nostalgia.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Julie Taymor

FEATURING: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood

PLOT: More than thirty Beatles songs illustrate a romance between a working-class

Still from Across the Universe (2007)

Liverpudlian and a New England WASP during the tumultuous 1960s.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Set in a sentimentalized Sixties, it’s inevitable that Across the Universe heaves to that decades psychedelic squalls.  Spectacular director Julie Taymor relishes slathering lysergic pigment on her CGI canvas for five or six of the thirty plus songs, but the ultimately the story is more about how all you need is love than it is about girls with kaleidoscope eyes.

COMMENTS:  In a career of a mere eight years, the Beatles probably cranked out more memorable melodies than Mozart.  It was a minor stroke of genius to adapt that songbook into a musical.  The script of Across the Universe, which tells the story of a pair of young lovers and their friends with the Vietnam War protests and the Summer of Love as a backdrop, can be viewed in two ways.  It could be seen a complete failure, built out of equal parts of romantic cliché and self-congratulatory Baby Boomer nostalgia.  Or, it could be looked at as a masterpiece of craftsmanship, considering the fact that the scriptwriters had to weave a coherent epic tale from a relatively small catalog of three-minute song-stories containing no recurring characters.  Like most musicals, however, the story is almost beside the point; it only needs to be good enough to set up the next production number.  Fortunately for weirdophiles, the numbers Universe‘s story sets up are frequently cosmic, though you will have to wade through an hour of character setup before it starts coming on.  This being an archetypal 1960’s tale, there’s a nod to acid culture: more than a nod, it’s a magical mystery tour through an extended three song medley.  It starts with the principals sipping LSD-spiked drinks at a party while a Ken Kesey type (played by Bono) lectures on mind expansion using “I Am the Walrus” as the holy text; whirling cameras and and tie-dye colored solarization gives their trip to the countryside via magic bus the requisite grooviness.  This sequence segues into “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” where another acid-guru (Eddie Izzard) takes the crew inside his magic tent for a twisted computer-generated carnival complete with a roller skating pony, a dancing team of Blue Meanies, and contortionists in spooky wooden tribal masks.  The scene’s an impressive visual spectacle whose impact fizzles thanks to Izzard massacring the lyrics through an off-the-beat, spoken-word delivery with some unfortunate improvisations.  The dreamy comedown features the flower children staring up at the sky, imagining themselves tastefully nude and making love underwater.  Psychedelia intrudes into other numbers, as well: the carefully layered images of “Strawberry Fields Forever” feature bleeding strawberries that morph into fruit bombs splattering on the jungles of Vietnam; “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” includes a cameo by Salma Hayek as five sexy dancing nurses, and a bliss-giving syringe filled with a nude dancing girl.  The best and weirdest segment may be “I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” which addresses the draft board and stars a talking poster of Uncle Sam, dancing sergeants with square plastic chins, and a platoon of soldiers lugging the Statue of Liberty.  Standout non-weird numbers include a gospel version of “Let It Be” set during the Detroit riots and a funky “Come Together” performed by Joe Cocker, who sings as three different characters, including a natty pimp backed by a chorus of hookers.  Hardcore Beatles fans will rate Universe a must see (and they’ve probably already seen it); unless you’re some sicko who absolutely can’t stand Lennon-McCartney compositions, you’ll want to check it out just for the visuals.  It can get pretty far out.

Despite its weird parts, Across the Universe was able to secure a mainstream release.  Audiences were willing to accept the unreal scenes because they were presented in the lone format where the average person expects and accepts surrealism—the music video. Unfortunately, however, even the Beatles fan base couldn’t make Taymor’s experiment profitable at the box office.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A cameo by Bono as a sort of godfather among hippies (delivering a forceful cover of ‘I Am the Walrus’) shifts the movie into a hallucinatory realm, with a tie-dye color scheme that suggests scenes were shot during an acid trip with Baz Luhrmann. Viewers who like movies to reflect their out-of-body experiences will gladly inhale, but for others, the excess may seem off-putting.”–Justin Chang, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: AUTOMATONS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: James Felix McKenny

FEATURING: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm

PLOT: The lone survivor of a devastated nation lives in an underground bunker; her only companions are the voice recordings of a long-dead scientist and the robots she sends out to do battle with the enemy on the planet’s poisoned surface.

Still from Automatons (2006)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the underground hype regarding this 2006 indie from James Felix McKenny and Glass Eye Pix likens Automatons to a cross between Eraserhead and Ed Wood, with Guy Maddin‘s name bandied about for good measure. There is nothing remotely arthouse or surreal about Atomatons, however, and the only identifying aesthetic McKenney might share with Maddin is an obsessive love of a genre. Maddin’s love of baroque silent film expressiveness hardly compares to McKenney’s hard-on for 1950’s sci-fi kitsch. That’s the problem with hype; it usually tends to be a disservice, and is so here.

COMMENTS: Automatons is not weird or surreal. That is not to say it does not have merit or is a film without interest. Is it a thought-provoking, intelligent film, worth comparing to some of the better, more compact Outer Limits episodes? No. The post-apocalyptic scenario of a lone survivor is a really, really old one that has been around since Robot Monster (1953) and is repeated in Omega Man, Mad Max and countless movies.

The robots themselves look like they just stepped out of an old “Superman” TV episode, but without the awkwardly quirky personality of those 50s tintypes. Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) is the professor who instructs heroine Christine Spencer through a series of pre-recorded videos. The biggest problem here lies in Spencer’s flat acting, which fails to project the necessary charisma needed in this type of project.

Where Automatons takes an admirable independent risk is in its lethargic pacing, which, despite the plot and acting, creates a hypnotic milieu. Long, static takes, along with the much repeated Scrimm transmissions, are, at first, odd, then oddly compelling. This is the one surprising, indeed endearing quality about Automatons.  It refuses to cater to commercial pacing. Some mistake that for an arthouse quality or made predictable, banal comparisons, such as that to Eraserhead. Automatons does not possess that organic, wistful Lynch quality. It is grounded in the love of its genre. The later battle scenes and the gruesome deaths have a certain grainy style derived from its 8 mm source, but this is an often utilized stylistic ploy in genre indies, and is not what gives Automatons its original flavor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Automatons is what happens when Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Iron Man bong themselves into oblivion and collaborate on a minimalist avant-garde sci-fi cheapie shot in a toolshed… Robot radness acheived!”–Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

On Friday nights in Indiana during the 1960’s and 70’s, you invited your best friend over to spend the night (Denny), pleaded with Mom to fix a tray of pizza rolls and, out of courtesy, asked to stay up late for a night of Nightmare Theater with Sammy Terry. Of course, Mom always allowed it, as you knew she would, fixed those pizza rolls, brought in the blankets and left the two of you to your night of magic because she sure as heck was not going to watch those “scary movies’.

The creaking of the coffin filled the house as you watched, transfixed, as Sammy Terry and his spider, George, emerged to host a night of classic horror.  Usually, it was one of the Universal movies starring Karloff, Lugosi, or Chaney, Jr.

Bride of  Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Room, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Creature from the Black Lagoon were frequently shown favorites.  Quite a few of the Val Lewton RKOs were shown regularly, as well as the occasional Jack Arnold film, such as Monster on the Campus, Tarantula, or The Incredible Shrinking Man. My own personal favortie was Ulmer’s The Black Cat with Karloff and Lugosi battling out to strains of the Beethoven 7th. If the films shown on Nightmare Theater were  not always approached by the filmmakers as high art (i.e. The Wolfman) , then there was certainly consummate craftsmanship that one always felt Sammy approved of.

In between the features, Sammy Terry would discuss the movies, make jokes with George and other regulars (Ghost Girl, Ghoulsbie) , have an occasional guest, talk about the Pacers, or show off the crayola drawings of Sammy and George that local children would send to WTTV 4.  Sammy had an inimitable laugh that would send shivers down the 8 year old spine.

If you made it to the end of the night (and frequently did not, hence the blankets)  Sammy would retreat to his coffin and bestow his wish of “Many Pleasant Nightmares.”  You knew, with excitement and dread, that he would return the following Friday.

There were lots of local urban myths about Sammy Terry and we were all too happy to spread those myths to fellow classmates since Sammy was a favorite subject.  Of course, this was long before the days of cable TV, VCRs, and even color TV (at least until the mid 70’s at our house) so the local WTTV 4 Station ruled the roost out of the four available TV Continue reading NIGHTMARE THEATER WITH SAMMY TERRY

THE WILD AND ZANY WORLD OF TODD M. COE

Todd M. Coe is one of those secret finds that is all too tempting to keep secret.

Todd M CoeTodd’s animated shorts evoke the decade of the 1970’s, which  he is hopelessly in love with.  Drive-in commercials, exploitation, cheesy horror, 70’s adult  posters, variety show television specials, low budget spaghetti westerns, robots, the rock group Kiss, Aaron Spelling cop shows, feathered hair, plaid bell bottoms, and, of course animation are all manna from pop culture heaven for him.

Todd could undoubtedly add a few thousand items from that decade to the list, such as one of his favorites (and the delightfully of it’s period) Paul Lynde Halloween Special ,with Donnie and Marie Osmond, Mrs. Brady, Witchie Poo and Billy Barty all trading groan worthy barbs with the inimitable and much missed Mr. Lynde. Todd discussed this perennial favorite in a series of emails and his enthusiasm was admittedly infectious.

Todd is a post-modern, eclectic “slapstick surrealist”.  His four shorts can be seen on both youtube (his channel is called school pizza) and on his website—http://www.toddmcoe.com/—where you can also view his numerous illustrations, drawings and paintings.

Todd pours his obvious love of subject into all of his amazingly detailed work and, boy does he pour it on, like a good oozing heap of Aunt Jemima syrup.

Taking a tour through Todd’s website is an inspiration. After a near fatal overdose from the increasingly bland overkill of Tim Burton’s monotonous school of animation, or even more monotonous, bland Japanese Animation, Todd’s work is a much needed breath of fresh red, white and blue air.

Don’t be surprised to find yourself humming the Love American Style and SchoolHouse Rock’s Conjunction Junction theme songs as you take the Todd M. Coe ride.

I certainly did, and now I’m really fighting the urge to throw in a video of the Banana Splits, locating my 45 record of Styx’s Mr. Roboto, re-read my Green Lantern comics, fall in love with the Farrah posterall over again (God bless that angel’s soul), take a whack at the etch a sketch, and pour myself a big bowl of Crisp cereal. I doubt I win that fight.

Thank you much Mr. Coe.