March 1998
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Filmgoer

I was a Shock Theater kid. In the 1960s, baby boom children were presented with a weekly dose of Golden Age Hollywood Horror every week on television, where packages of fright films started to be shown for the first time, sometimes with a humorous host. Kids like me - bored, sensitive, imaginative, gifted weirdoes - responded with a passion, buying up billions of dollars worth of monster magazines, model kits, toys, gum cards, whathaveyou. We found straight drama to be limited and unimaginative. I sat through Whoís Afraid of Virginia Wolf? waiting for Richard Burton to change into a werewolf and bite Elizabeth Taylor on the neck.

In the Ď70s, the fire died down, but flared into an inferno during the Ď80s, when the Shock Theater kids revived and expanded their obsession into the vague intergenre beast sometimes known as "psychotronic". Some of my readers may be hip to the fact that I, as evidence of my acute affliction, write and maintain the website of the Psychotronic Film Society. Maybe some of you are even fellow mutants, deeply in love with B- and Z-grade drive-in fodder - obsessed with the kind of movies that 'serious' people consider mindless trash.

film festival

But come on, who would be insane enough to watch 'bad' movies for a solid 24 hours?

Me. And guess what? Iím not alone. Every year I attend the B-Fest movie marathon at Northwestern University. About fifty souls tough it out for the entire run, with another couple hundred dropping in for only 4 or 5 flicks. The program is well balanced: some Ed Wood, some '50s sci-fi, a few '30s roadshow features, some odd shorts, '70s drive-in trash, a Harryhausen crowd-pleaser, about 17 features in all. All shown in 16mm (although past shows have had some in 35mm, and even 'scope) on the big screen. Thereíre always a few features that Iíve never seen in a theater. And thereís always one obscure movie that even Iíve never heard of. This year, they dug up something called Let My Puppets Come, which turned out to be a hardcore porn feature (a B-Fest first!) from the director of Deep Throat, in which all of the principles are played by Muppet Show wannabes.

Iím one of those nerds that gets all pissed whenever some asshole starts yacking at the movies, but thereís a place for that sort of behavior, and B-Fest is it. Audience participation is definitely encouraged, and some audience members even prepare elaborate skits to put on during their favorite flick. Screenings of Plan 9 From Outer Space have taken on ritual trappings resembling those of the Rocky Horror cult (but hey, with us itís just once a year), with traditional audience debates and hundreds of paper plates filling the air every time a flying saucer appears.

This year, as 5 AM rolled around and I was struggling to maintain consciousness - while simultaneously trying to think up some more short jokes to liven up the agonizing midget Western The Terror of Tiny Town - I fell into a period of dreamy omphaloskepsis concerning my participation in this event. Maybe itís because I feel that Iím at a point in my life when Iím questioning my place in the world and pondering plans for the future. Maybe there was something wrong with the pizza. But I found myself with a need to justify the fact that a grown man who shaves and kisses girls and everything looks forward to this annual celluloid acid test more than Christmas, Halloween, or any other traditional holiday (even Waitangi Day). Why does it make me happier than Mr. Blackwell watching the Golden Globe Awards during a prostate exam?

I mean, I love movies like Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory and Nude on the Moon, and Iíve got thousands of them on video, but I donít sit at home watching them nonstop for an entire Earthly rotation. Love has its limits, or as Groucho Marx once said, "I love my cigar, but I donít stick it up my ass." I like alcohol, but Iíve never indulged in a Spencer Tracy style binge - tying myself to a hotel bathtub naked and wallowing in my own filth while downing bottle after bottle of cheap bourbon and screaming obscenities, trying to drown out the shrieking pit of nothingness where my soul used to be until I get it out of my system and Iím ready to face the world again without trying to kill everyone I see. At least, not that I recall.

So what makes B-Fest , or any of the other similar marathons put on across the country, so different an experience? Well, for me, the movies are only part of the equation. I see movies all the time, and while I occasionally attend a screening with a friend, there are a lot more movies than friends. Iím *sniff* not so popular *sob* that I can get somebody to go with me to all of them, so I usually end up going alone. Sure, thereís always somebody else in the theater (unless youíre seeing The Postman), but itís nothing like the group experience/party that I get at the marathon.

Despite the lack of promotion given the show by Northwesternís A & O Film Board, people come from all over the country for the event. I get a lot of e-mail from folks that are into it, and thereís several web pages devoted to it. Iíd like to think that, though they might very well shun each other the rest of the year, these avid trash hounds can get together every January to make fun of The Crawling Eye and make ribald jests at the expense of Invasion of the Bee Girls. Thereís a kind of pride in knowing that, although youíve all sat through Robot Monster together a dozen times, everybody can still come up with fresh material. The camaraderie is inspiring. As Iím bolting for the door after itís over, It gives me a warm feeling inside to see a lot of people pitching in to help the staff clean up the mountain of trash left behind.

I feel a lot of love in that room. Sure, itís a desperate, perverse, sloppy and awkward kind of love - but what do you want for fifteen bucks?

DOUBLE DIPPERS:

If youíre not careful, you may find yourself paying twice to see these people at the movies this month: Robert Duvall, Robert Downey, Jr., Daryl Hannah, Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson, Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, David Schwimmer, John Goodman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Dourif, Kathy Bates, and Jackie Chan.

write brian@smug.com

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