Saturday, April 4, 2009

Three disparate films watched back-to-back several times

When I was sixteen, my sister came to visit South Bend from Texas for the summer. She wanted to go to the Niles 31 drive-in theater to flirt with a guy she was interested in, and I was happy to go along for the movies. Little did I know we'd have to go see the same damn movies three nights in a row in order for her to complete her conquest. And what the hell was the film booker smoking? The films were "Love and Death" (1975; United Artists), "Nashville Girl" (1976; New World Pictures) and "Lipstick" (1976; Paramount).

Usually film bookers got "deals" from studios to run old films with new films (i.e., the memorable triple feature of "Phantom of the Paradise," "The Rose" and "All That Jazz," which I saw at the Chippewa Drive-In, all from 20th Century-Fox, which made for a memorable but extremely long night of musical fun) but this flea market of disparate celluloid made no sense whatsoever. How was one to absorb these three pictures together to form some sort of theme? Even as a 16-year-old, I had no frame of reference. They were nice, warm summer nights, so I didn't really care. I guess I could have walked over to screen #2 and watched what was playing there, but the lot was gravel, not tarmac, and it wouldn't have been very comfortable to sit on. Plus I might have been chased out by employees brandishing baseball bats.

Onto the movies:

"Love and Death" is Woody Allen's 1975 spoof of Russian lit and Ingmar Bergman films, and it's one of my three favorite pictures from the Woodman (the others are "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan"). He was still in his slapstick phase, and even though I hadn't yet discovered the icy, austere joys of Bergman, I still loved it. My favorite exchange occurs when Woody is ogling a beautiful woman at the opera house and asks his companion, "Who's that?" She responds: "The countess Alexandrovna. She takes lovers." His response: "She takes uppers?" This is not a drive-in film per se. It's too highbrow and requires a sophisicated sense of humor, unless you're stoned, which I'm sure was the state of many of the other patrons.

Then came the Roger Corman flick, one of those "hicksploitation" epics made popular in the wake of such classics as "Macon County Jail" and "A Small Town in Texas." In this one, Monica Gayle ("Switchblade Sisters") stars as a small-town girl who longs for stardom in Nashville but gets used and abused on the way. Her family is trash and she gets raped by a wanderer, go she packs up her guitar and heads for Nashville only to discover that she needs to bed-hop to make her way to the top. This one was definitely the dull spot in the program and was really painful to watch three times, as it didn't generate a lot of excitement unless you really enjoy rape scenes and country music. It was much more of a drive-in picture, though, and if it had been paired up with the aforementioned films or even "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry," it would have been more thematically appropriate.

The final film of the evening was definitely a "huh?" Margaux Hemingway, then red-hot as the model for Babe Perfume, takes the lead. Unfortunately, it was produced by Freddie Fields at the height of the coked-up Studio 54 glamour phase, and is an uneasy mixture of high fashion and violent rape. It was meant to be a starmaking debut for Margaux but unfortunately revealed that she had a major speech impediment and limited acting ability. However, it did make a star of sister Mariel, which must have caused no end of family squabbles. Tragically and ironically, Margaux killed herself one day before the anniversary of the suicide of her grandfather, Ernest Hemingway.

Here's the revenge scene. Warning: violence and disco music!

Did you dig the "Jaws" theme stuck in there? What the hell was that about?

Back in those days you could often be surprised by the content of the films. For example, Italian gangster films were often promoted as horror movies. I hated that. And Film Ventures International retitled and rereleased its absurd animal revenge epic "Day of the Animals" as "Something is Out There" within just a few months, which was also infuriating. On the other hand, a title like "Don't Open the Window" was the name that the 1974 classic Spanish zombie movie, "The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue," came to America with; a thrilling discovery. And from time to time the Niles 31 would throw in something really vintage and offbeat as the first feature (when the sky was still light), such as "The Girl Can't Help It" or "Dracula, Prince of Darkness."

But these three? If you've read this far, you're probably saying, "Why do you even remember?" Because that's the way my mind works.

I never saw "Nashville Girl" again but I revisit "Love and Death" frequently. A couple of years ago the American Cinematheque showed a double feature of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (another Freddie Fields epic) and "Lipstick." I watched all of "Goodbar" but only stayed through the rape scene in "Lipstick." Is that crass?

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