On the Lost Pleasures of a Grindhouse in Summer
If this was a summer before, say, 1990 (a decent enough cutoff date before the total ascendance of megaplexing), you'd sit in a moth-eaten seat among resting prostitutes, students, junkies, and derelicts of all stripes and close your eyes for a grateful moment as the sweat cooled on your brow. As you'd walked into the middle of some feature--cheap horror and chopped-up art films, soft-core, Hong Kong movies made even more surreal when cut to ribbons with the dialogue running in multiple-language subtitles--you almost always caught things in midstream. You might glimpse the strangely exquisite, blue-toned scene in Xtro (1983) in which an alien cocoons in glistening gauze a girl who is posed as if praying. Or blink twice as cat-food-company tabbies turn on their masters (1972's The Corpse Grinders), or Jesus metamorphoses into a glowing hermaphrodite from deep space (1976's God Told Me To). You'd see all manner of things, and all of them had the texture of half-recalled dreams--dark, grainy, jerky, the shoddy-print images skipping madly.
An essential aspect of this lost summer film experience: These images were a one-time-only thing. You had no way to corroborate the wonders you'd seen; you usually didn't know what were watching. Showtimes weren't listed, and the titles on the marquee were a plastic-letter Scrabble mess. The help was of no help: Grindhouse concession people had the demeanor of taciturn somnambulists; the projection man was often very old, half-blind, and/or drunk. Obviously, you couldn't do a Web search, order the enhanced DVD, and replicate the experience at home. I believe that information technology, along with supplying us with quick data, has also robbed us of something--the inexplicable, unverifiable moment, the grindhouse stock-in-trade.
It never ended, it was always a surprise, and it cost about three bucks. You could scoot over to the nearest frosty 24/7 bijou and view Rita Jenrette, ex-wife of convicted ABSCAM scoundrel/congressman John Jenrette, crawl off the headlines into a hot naked shower in Zombie Island Massacre (1984). When I saw Chuck Connors (of The Rifleman TV fame) molested by a cavalry of shrieking mannequins in Tourist Trap (1979), I could not believe my eyes. A moment like that would send you running to friends (in an air-conditioned diner) who'd say, "Oh, you were on the Deuce"--the louche 42nd Street locale of New York's grindhouses, which had its double in most cities. The obvious drug corollary of being "on the Deuce" is apt, although my connection is closer to what regular folks might think of religion. The trappings were all there--the woe (being hideously hot!), the relief (AC), and, most wonderfully, the credulity-vaporizing visions.
As amateurish, exploitive, and artless as these movies may have been (and all those adjectives should be in quotes), these oft-skeezy visions from fly-by-night producers always left you enriched. One couldn't watch The Slime People (1962), well, slime people or witness the skewering of consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978) without, at the very least, having your storehouse of metaphors increased. The entire experience questioned any rational way of seeing, and so made you think, even if the thought was only, What the hell was that?
Air conditioning is cheaper now, and the all-day, all-night picture-show experience has been superceded by Moviefone and megaplexes. The theaters I attended on the Deuce--and, before that, in Los Angeles, where I grew up (the El Portal, the Pacific, the Lankersheim--what names!)--have long since been leveled. When it's hot out now, I brave the heat just long enough to hit the video store, pick up the latest whatever, head home, crank the AC, and watch a good print.
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