Loews’ Salem Avenue Theater in 1992 (formerly the Kon-Tiki)
Every once in a while I go on a sentimental Google journey looking for photos of Dayton’s Kon-Tiki theater, the South Seas-themed movie theater where I saw my first movie. (Either You’re A Boy Named Charlie Brown or Snow White. Accounts vary.) There aren’t many. This one comes from the Dayton History Books Online site, and captures it has it appeared in 1992, about a year after I worked there. Gone are the tiki heads that gave it such character until it was sold and renamed in the mid-1980s, but you can still get a sense of the place, an odd three-screener (expanded from one when it opened in 1967) on a once-fashionable stretch of road connecting Dayton to the north suburbs that had started to fall on hard times by the ’80s.
It’s gone now, and it hurts my heart every time I drive past the lot where it once stood. I saw a lot of movies there as a kid and teenager before whiling away even more hours as a part-time employee/nearly full-time hanger-arounder in the post-high school/pre-college summer of 1991. I became very familiar with the ending credits music to Jungle Fever (Stevie Wonder’s “Feeding Off The Love Of The land) and Terminator 2 (GNR’s “You Could Be Mine”). (A stint during winter break allowed me to become just as familiar with Hammer’s Addams' Family song.) And I got to know a lot of people I never would have otherwise met during the long stretches between screenings that our terrific manager—a sometime comic—didn’t feel all that compelled to fill with busywork. I miss the place and the people I worked with there. And I miss those tiki heads. (Also, if anyone has more photos, please let me know.)
I’ve been revisiting The B-52s a lot lately and a couple of things have occurred to me:
1) I’m hard-pressed to think of many bands that have given me more pleasure over the years. Just sheer joy, Who else? I’m drawing a blank.
2) It’s easy to forget how strange, and kind of radical, the band was when it first started. No one else was combining so many disreputable elements from the cultural fringes like they did: ’50s and ’60s kitsch, sci-fi, thrift-store chic, surf music, punk energy, and so on. And while what they did was often funny, it’s not like the band was a joke. It’s all remarkably creative—Ricky Wilson’s guitar work on those first two albums is some of my favorite ever—and as out there as Fred Schneider is as a frontman, there’s something almost confrontational about what he does, too.
A YouTube search led me to this early—crazy early—clip of the band performing “Rock Lobster” in what appears to the world’s smallest club. It captures what it must have been like to see them early in their career, and the modesty of their beginnings. “Don’t forget waitresses live on tips,” Scnheider says by way of goodbye. “I know: I’m a waiter.”
A cab turning off State onto Randolph, 1972, Chicago.
Double feature now playing at the Loop Theater: Kung Fu and Duel of the Iron Fist.
Talking to some of the veteran Chicago critics has always made me think I missed a golden age of colorful downtown theaters where b-movies played one after another. Photos like this seems to confirm that suspicion.
One of the bigger pieces I’ve been working on for The Dissolve is this overview of Jodie Foster’s career. (It was timed to coincide, more or less, with Elysium on the suspicion that it would a terrific movie in which she gave a first-rate performance. That didn’t quite pan out.) Working on it was an interesting experience. For one, I decided to do it without realizing just how many Foster films I hadn’t seen. So in went everything from The Hotel New Hampshire to Maverick to Nell to the queue. And since I watched roughly chronologically, it was kind of fascinating to watch her grow and age on screen. My only regret is I didn’t have time to re-watch Silence Of The Lambs, but that performance is pretty burned into my brain.
One conclusion I reference a couple of times in the piece: Foster’s seldom taken the easy route but she’s also signed on for a lot of ambitious films that don’t quite work out, from The Brave One (almost a fascinating take on the vigilante film, but then just not) to Nell (great performance, but the script around her lets her down).
By sheer coincidence, Bill Simmons and Wesley Morris discuss Foster’s career on a recent installment of Grantland’s BS Report. It’s a compelling conversation that comes to some very different conclusions than I do as Simmons tries to convince Morris that Foster is overrated. (Team Morris, incidentally, though on Simmons’ scale of wins and losses he may have a point.) I spotted a few factual errors and one whopper of a problem with Simmons’ take on Stealing Home (apart from him failing to note it is awful). Bonus points if you catch it too.
“Celebrities came in flocks, including actor Robert De Niro, who took special note of Bruce’s pre-encore “Are you talkin’ to me?” routine (which the actor later transmuted into a creepy highlight of his performance as a psychotic in 1976’s TAXI DRIVER), along with director Martin Scorsese, who came away eager to cast the rocker in one of his movies.”
Here’s what happened when I moved to Madison, WI in 1995: I rolled into town with most of my possessions in the trunk of a 1995 Lumina, a college graduation gift from my parents. I went to my friend Jeremy’s house where I was staying for a few days before my own apartment was vacant. Jeremy was out of town, but on his bed he’d left a copy of a newspaper called The Onion and a note: “Read this. I think you’ll like it.” I did. And I did. And now that feels like one of those moments when one’s destiny is, quietly, fixed.
Physical Media Dilemma #63: I know I’ve posted about this topic before and as far as “problems” go it’s nothing, but it weighs on me. This is what remains of the items in a storage locker my wife and I rent. We’re trying to pare down our possessions because it’s just impractical to own so much stuff, particularly in the city. What you see above, apart from a few other items, are tubs filled with CDs. I know I’ll listen to the music on a lot of them again but I’ll almost certainly never play the discs. I’ve been buying CDs since 1988—first purchase RATTLE AND HUM—and I know I will hold on to some favorites. But I need to winnow this down, right? By about 85% I’m thinking. Right? Help talk me into this. Also: the allure of replacing favorites with vinyl is pretty strong.
“Where do films come from? Where do they go? After a hundred years of movie, we are still not very adept at answering those questions. Let alone the matter of what they do to us while they are ‘here.’ We have set explanations, and we agree more or less that certain arguments apply—that the business system of motion pictures delivers (or seek to sell) these things to us; or that they may be the work of individuals, artists, auteurs, film-makers. Then, as for what they do, why they entertain us—or not. They make us laugh, cry, hide our eyes, or cultivate our souls. They move us. As if we were so important. Or is it just time that is moving? Look back a hundred years or so in your own family history, say, beyond the lives of people you knew or heard of, beyond mere names, to the notional claim that the family tree had branches then. Were those people moved by stories or plays they encountered? Does it matter? I mean ‘matter’ besides the extraordinary, anonymous but undeniable thrust of life itself. What is left of their being moved? Is that load there in our spit, our blood or our come?”
—David Thomson, The Alien Quartet
That’s the lyrical opening to David Thomson’s otherwise prosaic book on the Alien series, the fourth in a short-lived series of movie guides published by Bloomsbury in the ’90s. I like that quote and return to it from time to time because I don’t really have an answer to its questions. Even those first two. I’ve been at this thing I do long enough to forget whole films until stumbling across an old review I’ve written about them. I’ve seen movies inflate to dominate the cultural conversation only to fade away in a month, or a year, or a decade. (In the summer of ‘89 I saw heads with the Batman logo shaved into them but it’s hard to find too many people with a kind word for that movie now.) And I’ve seen other films linger like ghosts, sometimes passed down in moments borrowed by other films, sometimes in the memories of others. To talk about movies is to talk about ephemeral things that, in one way or another, live forever. Maybe the role they play in what Thomson calls the “undeniable thrust of life itself” is reason enough to say they matter.
Late to the Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
I don’t want to spill a lot of words on this one since it’s already been talked to death (and subsequently half forgotten). I eyed this movie warily before it came out as it got passed from Guilermo Del Toro back to Peter Jackson and then expanded from one to two to three movies for reasons that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, at least from a creative standpoint. My wariness grew as I heard reports of the 48 FPS projection and its disturbing, more-vivid-than-life-itself qualities and intensified when the less-than-stellar reviews started appearing. Nonetheless, it’s not like I wasn’t going to see it. I love Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Worst-case scenario, this would just feel like a bloated postscript with some memorable moments.
It’s good to prepare worst-case scenarios, isn’t it? Leaving aside the 48 FPS issue for the moment, it’s a slog to get to the memorable sequences. Watching it, I was reminded of how deftly Jackson and his collaborators adapted the massive Rings trilogy into three films. It took some effort to streamline all that narrative into feature-length films (longs ones, sure) while still finding room for the characters to come alive and the space for all those action sequences. The Hobbit has trouble pulling off the same trick in reverse. I knew I was in trouble when Bilbo breathlessly laid out the back story for what felt like 30 minutes and then the subtitle, An Unexpected Journey, flashed on the screen. There’s good stuff between the bloat, though. Martin Freeman’s a lot of fun as Bilbo, Ian McKellen has some fine moments, and the confrontation with Gollum is a real highlight. There’s a lot of imagination in the production design, too. (I was particularly fond of the Storm Giants, but could have done without the scrotum-necked Goblin King.)
As for the 48 FPS projection, I can’t say I wasn’t warned and I didn’t expect to like it. But my attitude was to treat it like an aesthetic choice. Jackson wanted the moive to have that look so I should give it a chance. We live in changing times. I love film as much as the next person but I’ve seen some directors find the aesthetic advantages in digital. (Che was a real turning point for me in appreciating what someone who knows how to play to the strengths of new technology can do.) And I can kind of see why he would want The Hobbit to have that look. In the effects sequences, where real actors fight CGI beasties, both realities live side-by-side seamlessly. As proof that, yes, Jackson’s effects studio knows what it’s doing, it’s extremely impressive.
On the other hand, it’s that sort of vividness is all wrong for a movie like The Hobbit, at least to my eyes. Why give a fantasy film the hard digital sheen of news footage? There’s a scene in the goblin cave when Gandalf scares off the bad guys with a flash of light and it took me a moment to figure out what the flash of light reminded me of. Then it hit me: It looked like a stage effect, as if someone were shining a spotlight at the audience. Carrying that thought a little further, The Hobbit looked like a really elaborate version of a filmed opera much of the time, a sort of Live From The Met with orcs instead of arias. I felt less transported to another world than dropped in the middle of its elaborate sets. Is that where we’re heading, toward movies that aspire to be more like a windows than a canvases? I hope not. I’m glad I had a look at what 48 FPS looks like, but I left The Hobbit hoping never to see it again.