The Midnites for Maniacs series at the Castro Theater in San Francisco aims to “emphasize dismissed, underrated and forgotten films,” usually in the form of double or triple features. Not all the movies are dismissed, underrated and/or forgotten, but I’m the first to admit that not all the movies we do at Bad Movie Night are necessarily bad, either. (Though some, like Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights, are so horrifyingly bad as to defy any sort of rational description.) Though they frequently unearth genuine obscurities like Skatetown, U.S.A or Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, for what’s probably is a combination of practical and nostalgic reasons the movies tend to be teen or horror movies from the early eighties. Which is cool, and I got to see a 70mm print of Tron because of Midnites for Maniacs, so it gets nothing but the love from me.
This sort of show is always more fun when grouped into themes, and tonight’s was Burt Reynolds: At Long Last Love, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Smokey and the Bandit. I was mostly there to see At Long Last Love, legendary among film buffs as one of the most critically reviled films ever made, mortally wounding director Peter Bogdanovich’s career. Whether or not it was one of the worst movies ever in addition to being the most hated made was difficult to say, since few people saw it during its brief theatrical run, it’s never been released on video, and it only played on teevee a few times.
For better or worse, its reputation was kept alive by the Brothers Medved kicking it when it was already down in their insufferable books The Golden Turkey Awards and The Fifty Worst Movies Ever Made (the latter of which was directly though unintentionally responsible for the (re)discovery of Ed Wood in the early eighties). As lost films go, it’s only slightly less mysterious than The Day the Clown Cried. More people have seen At Long Last Love than The Day the Clown Cried, but that isn’t saying much.
It’s why I was breaking my own rule about seeing older movies at the Castro. I’d already done so a few weeks earlier to attend a Hal Ashby double feature (Being There and Harold and Maude), and that had been a pleasant enough experience, so I decided to give it another shot. The name “Midnites for Maniacs” invites an ironic distance, the possibility that people will do just to laugh at the movie rather than with it, but stillthis was At Long Last Love playing in a theater. Every film geek instinct told me to go, especially since I’d missed D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance the week before at the Silent Film Festival. These opportunities are among the many reasons I live in San Francisco.
Besides, the Burt Reynolds and Hal Ashby movies all were made between the late sixties and early eighties, considered by people much smarter than me to be the Golden Age of American Filmmaking. (It’s considered to span from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to Heaven’s Gate (1980), give or take, though some argue that it was killed by the sea change brought on by Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977). I disagree, since that discounts both Apocalypse Now (1979) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).) Though I’ve read a lot about the classic movies from that period and can hold my own in a discussion, I haven’t seen many of them. They looked like shit when I had easy access to them on video in the ninetieshave you ever tried to watch Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller on pan-and-scan VHS? You may as well smear Vaseline in your eyes and watch shadow-animals on the wall while listening to Leonard Cohen’s first albumand though a lot of them are now on DVD, my older teevee overscans terribly, so a lot of the picutre gets cut off. Even watching them on my computer, in the proper aspect ratio, I get restless because I could be doing more productive things on my computer, like organizing music and stuff.
But in a theater, they way they were really intended? Oh my yes. The seventies are usually venerated for the way the stories were told, but it’s also last period in which films were specifically composed and intended for a movie screen, usually wide. Sure, they knew the movies would be broadcast eventuallythat generation of directors was the first to have grown up watching movies on teeveebut home video as we know it now was seen as little more than a vague threat on the horizon. Even current please-don’t-wait-for-DVD spectacles like Beowulf are designed with this ultimate destination in mind, for their ride down the Long Tail, and not just the mandatory HD sets of the upcoming digital wonderland but tiny frackin’ mp3 player and cell phone screens.
They’re digital movies for a digital world, and that’s fine, I’m not knocking it. There’s no point, since it’s how things are now. Even David Lynch has sworn off 35mm film, and Inland Empire was nothing if not a demonstration of the abstract possibilities of digital moviemaking. But when he made Eraserhead or Terence Malick made Days of Heaven or even when George Lucas made Star Wars, they were composing and framing for movie theater screens, reflected in the cinematography and lighting and choice of film stock. Even a lo-fi, relatively naturalistic film movie like Harold and Maude has a textural quality which is only really revealed by light passing through celluloid. Enchanted, not so much.
Not that all movies made in the seventies were classic or very good. Far from it. Far, far from it. Movies remained a popular entertainment first and foremost, intended to make money, and big names were still considered the key. Though I remember the tail end of his peak, I don’t fully get the appeal of Burt Reynolds now, but I guess there’s no reason why I should. I don’t understand why Steve McQueen or Bing Crosby were so popular in their day either. And, really? Gary Cooper? What the hell? I’m sure future generations will look back and wonder what the big deal was about who we chose to venerate. It’s a fashion like any other, and by definition fashion is of its time, ephemeral. Sometimes it still makes sense in the future, and mostly it doesn’t.
The crowd at the Castro that night skewed a little older than usual. Actually, a lot older than usual, many of them pushing walkers or carts filled with tied plastic bags, generally scraggly-looking, as if they were just this side of being homeless. Or perhaps just on the other side. Cole Porter fans are a diehard bunch.
For reasons too creepy to go intolet’s just say an employee was flirting with meI got to sit in the balcony, which is only open to the public during much bigger events. There were maybe a dozen or so other people up there, and I sat in the center, second row from the rail. Absolutely perfect, dead-on, unobstructed view of the screen, surely the best angle anybody had gotten of At Long Last Love in over thirty years. (It helps that it hadn’t been projected since then.)
The man playing the Mighty Wurlitzer organ began his final song, the same that he always plays before the movie starts. The host and and curator of Midnites for Maniacs went onstage, a genial fellow named Jesse Hawthorne Ficks (which is coolest name ever for a movie guy, when you think about it). He’s always excited about the movies he shows, but tonight was a special case. He said director Peter Bogdanovich was both “pleased and terrified” that his career-snuffing baby was going to be screened. Bogdanovich told Ficks that Woody Allen was a huge fan of the movie, seeing it four times during its brief run at Radio City Music Hall in 1975. He was flattered by this, but also a little frustrated that Woody didn’t, like, tell anybody that he liked it, especially since the film was getting ripped apart like no other movie before or since.
Critics were more powerful in those days. and while panned movie could still do well, but it was far less likely. This was also before the emergence of the quote whores (like Pete Hammond or Jeffrey Lyons) or entirely fictitious reviewers (like David Manning and probably others) who declare every movie “A Must-See!”, so when a film got savaged, that was that.
Ficks asked if there were any fans of At Long Last Love in the audience. Only a few people admitted to it aloud, and the one who was brave enough to come up to the stage when asked was given a copy of soundtrack. Neat.
Since Burt Reynolds was the theme of the evening (“Three Moustache Rides with Burt Reynolds,” to be precise) the previews were for his movies: Stick (with that shot used in the opening credits of The Fall Guy of, um, a guy falling), Malone, The Lucky Lady (featuring Liza Minnelli looking much better as a blonde than you might think), and Nickelodeon, the last being Bogdanovich’s unsuccessful followup to At Long Last Love. It wasn’t as much of a loathed megaflop, but it was the final blow from which Bogdanovich’s career never fully recovered. Just about any movie would have been.
Why? The only theory which fits the facts is that the critics had it out for Bogdanovich. As one of the relatively few people who’s seen it (let alone in a theater in optimum conditions), I can say that At Long Last Love is a noble failure, an experiment which doesn’t quite work, but by god, it tries hard and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a direct homage to lightweight Depression-era musicals, the kind featuring rich people in evening wear cavorting and dancing and singing and binge-drinking through romantic entanglements. I believe “frothy” is the word. Though shot in color, the costumes and Art Deco-esque sets are mostly in black and white, and the predictably reliable cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs provides predictably reliable cinematography. The film is largely composed of long tracking shots without many cuts, especially during the songs. The songs in question are by Cole Porter, so they’re bulletproof, which is important when the majority of them are sung by Burt Reynolds and/or Cybill Shepherd.
That right there, that’s the first problem: an extremely pre-Moonlighting Cybill Shepherd, whose debut movie was Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show in 1971. It’s a forgotten scandal now, but at the time it ruffled many feathers that Bogdanovich had left his collaborator slash wife slash mother of his children Polly Platt for the decade-younger Shepherd, and as if that weren’t enough, he was attempting to turn her into a star. This sort of thing happens every day in Hollywoodand, minus the starmaking, the rest of the worldbut on top of everything else, Bogdanovich was a tad on the arrogant side. Daisy Miller, his first movie with Shepherd in the lead role and without Platt’s involvement, was also his first critical and commercial flop.
When he announced that Shepherd would play the lead in his next movie, an homage to thirties musicals using Cole Porter numbers, the press salivated in a way not seen since Hearst unleashed Hedda Hopper on Orson Welles, or when the Hearst-dominated media turned against Fatty Arbuckle: taking this one down was gonna be a blast. Oooh, ooh ooh ooh, even better?
The songs were going to be sung live.
Live on camera, anyway. Since 1932, movie musicals had used canned vocals, recorded in the studio beforehand and lip-synced when the movie was shot. (I wonder if most civilians even realized that vocals are recorded in advance, that they aren’t really singing while they’re dancing or whatever they’re doing. Probably not, considering how many people still think actors make up their own dialog.) It was easier and more effective: the performances were better, and the numbers could be shot without sound and have it all dubbed in later so the camera was free to do more interesting things since it didn’t have to compensate for sound equipment. Nobody had recorded live sound in a musical in over forty years, and he was going to do it…why? Just to show that he could? Bogdanovich clearly thought he was the second coming of D.W. Griffith, or at least his personal hero Orson Welles, and they were more than happy to crucify him for it.
As a jaded Gen-X’er who’s only two years older than the film and never really got into musicals in the first place (what the hell did we have to work with ? Newsies?), I adore At Long Last Love both because and in spite of its flaws. Cybill and Burt aren’t great singers, nor are they very good dancers. And singing and dancing at the same time? Fred and Ginger, they ain’t. And they ain’t supposed to be. I could be wrong, but I think I got the joke which the critics deliberately or otherwise missed (of course, sometimes I think I get the joke behind Metal Machine Music, too): this is what life would be like if people really did break into song while going about their business, and they won’t look like they were choreographed by Toni Basil. (Nor, thankfully, would they talk their way through the songs like in the excruciating Jesus Christ Superstar movie.) The fancy-pants mise-en-scene of drunken playboys and haughty heiresses notwithstanding, it’s like a magical realist musical, where bursting into song is how things are. When characters starting singing and dancing in public, sometimes the bystanders and watch, sometimes they shrug and walk away, but either way it’s not big deal to them. Perfect.
The closest comparison in my limited experience is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Once More With Feeling,” though I’m told Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You is directly influenced by At Long Last Love. I never saw it, as my disillusionment with Woody’s movies was starting to peak by then, but that’s another article entirely. Short version: Manhattan + Stardust Memories = God.
Two moments early on in At Long Last Love sold the movie to me, convinced me it knew exactly what it was doing, and from there I was willing roll with it. In one, a character played by an actor you’ve never heard of is in the middle of a song when he steps into an elevator. The camera stays outside the elevator, the doors close, the song gets muffled and fades out…cut to another floor, the music can be faintly heard, it returns to full volume as the elevator doors open and the character walks out, still having been in the song the whole time. At that point, I got a dumb grin which never quite went away.
A few minutes later, the Burt Reynolds character begins singing in the back seat of his car. His driver, played by Higgins from Magnum, P.I., asks: “Are you singing to me in particular, or just singing in general?” There are a few lines like that peppered throughout the movie, and if one is inclined to dislike the film, they probably come across as incredibly self-indulgent. Even if you like the movie, it can come across as incredibly self-indulgent. And so what? If it’s also entertaining, isn’t that what matters? Sure, unless you have an axe to grind. (I’m not claiming moral superiority over the haters; I have plenty of my own axes which are constantly grinding, and I enjoy watching my enemies fail as much as the next humie.) The postmodern elements wouldn’t be fashionable for another twenty years, though I’m pretty sure the critics at the time would have killed the movie either way.
The performances are not especially polished. Madeline Kahn holds her own (no surprise), but lines are flubbed here and there, obvious mistakes happen during songs, and they just keep on going. Even a lot of the non-musical acting has an amateurish ring to it, or at least stagey, especially given the demands of the Nick & Nora-esque banter; Cybill Shepherd in particular often seems like she’s playing to the back row. It feels like they could have done better but were directed not to. After a while, I realized it felt like a community theater musical. The sets and costumes were gorgeous, but the skill level of the acting was on par for a play at The Dark Room. I love plays at The Dark Room, and the acting is always great for that sort of thing, but big-budget movies have different standards. If the movie hadn’t been buried, it surely would have been translated to the stage by now; it’s certainly on my list of plays (which includes The Day The Clown Cried, Talk Radio, Crash and Joe Vs. the Volcano) that I want to direct when I have nothing better to do with my free time than to direct plays.
That Bogdanovich dared to use Cole Porter songs was another point of contention, but it’s a meaningless detail to me. I can’t tell Irving Berlin’s music from Cole Porter’s, and much of my familiarity with Porter’s music comes from the Red Hot + Blue tribute album released in the nineties. The songs that made the biggest impression on me were the Sinead O’Connor version of “You Do Something to Me” (mostly because of the smokin’ hot video), and Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop doing “Well Did You Evah?” (again, the video helped). Only the latter song was used in At Long Last Love, though some others sounded vaguely familiar; I know “De-Lovely” was the name of a Cole Porter biopic a couple years back, and “You’re the Top” was referenced in Woody Allen’s Zelig. (There’s also a late-night diner in San Francisco called It’s Tops. Coincidence? I think not! It’s Tops also claims to have the best hotcakes in town. There’s a connection, but I have no idea what it is.) In fact, the majority of my exposure to the music of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and what’s known as “American Popular Song” is from Woody Allen movies.
Which is more than most people my age get, I suppose. I wish I knew more, but a lot of it just doesn’t stick with me. Like, Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” is called the most-recorded song of the twentieth century. Willie Nelson used it as the title track to what my mom once called the best album ever made (though if I had to choose a Willie Nelson album for that honor I’d go with either Phases and Stages or Spirit), and some years back I heard an interesting piece on NPR calling it the most recognizable melody ever written. It even provided the title to and the music for possibly the best moment of Woody Allen’s godlike Stardust Memories. The image of Charlotte Rampling as Louis Armstrong’s version plays is burned into my consciousness. (I’m more partial to Jessica Harper in that movie, but, again, that’s another article.) But every time I hear it, whether I’m listening to Willie Nelson’s Stardust or watching Stardust Memories or listening to it played briefly before the invasion in the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast (in which it’s referred to as “a tune that never goes out of favor”), it sounds unfamiliar. My tin ear, I suppose. I lack wang chung.
Looking over the balcony rail when the movie was over, I saw the turnout was much sparser than I’d expected. A shame, because the movie is just so good-natured and eager to please. It deserves a longer engagement at The CastroCruising played there earlier this year, after all, and At Long Last Love doesn’t feature single gay killingor at least to finally hit video. I’m rather bummed that unless I find a bootleg copy, I’ll probably have to wait another thirty years to see it again. There are a few clips on YouTube from one of those bootlegs, if one cares to look.
The theater filled up a bit more for the second feature, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It’s a considerably more famous movie, and a lot of people in this town have fond memories of it. It’s played at Midnites for Maniacs before as part of a Dolly Parton night, and in addition to being a Burt Movie, I got the feeling it was functioning as a palette-cleanser this time around. I’d never seen it, and at one point had considered just leaving altogether after At Long Last Love, but decided I should be in it for the long haul.
The prize for being an admitted fan this time was a copy of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack. The Reynoldsian previews were Semi-Tough, The End, Sharky’s Machine, and The Cannonball Run withomigod!Jack Elam! Yeah, sure, there was also Dean Martin and Jamie Farr and Dom DeLuise and Burt Reynolds, but, Jack Elam! Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to be watching a movie with Jack Elam. Preferably the first Cannonball Run, since I was still scarred from the last time I saw Cannonball Run II on late-night teevee. But, ooh, Jack Elam! Was he maybe in Whorehouse and I just didn’t know it?
Sadly, he was not. Elam: denied! His name never appeared in the credits, though Burt and Dolly’s names got plenty of screams from the audience. They were a more boisterous and reactive crowd than the previous movie, and what was perfectly appropriate. (I was glad that I’d gotten to see At Long Last Love with a bunch of quiet old people.) I was especially happy that the film was in anamorphic widescreen. I’ll watch just about anything if it’s shot and projected at 2.35:1.
Whorehouse is a more classical musical than Love, and it was interesting to see them back-to-back for comparison’s sake. Taken on its own terms it’s a fun movie, if disjointed narratively, with too much attention given to the wrong subplotsI can only assume that Dom DeLuise’s agent blew the director, because nothing else can account for how much screen time his tonally inappropriate character gets. (That said, I missed him terribly during the third feature.) Other thoughts on the movie: Jim Nabors plays what probably wouldn’t have been the Jack Elam role, and he’s a poor substitute either way; thanks to “The Aggie Song,” it’s easily the gayest musical about hetero sex since Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; it’s a whore-positive film, and Burt gets the single best (and possibly only) pro-prostitution speech ever heard in a mainstream American film; Dolly Parton occasionally gets a squeak in her voice which in large quantities would probably be grating, but in the context of the film was adorable; I’m amazed that “Hard Candy Christmas” wasn’t a hit single; giving Charles Durning a song-and-dance number justifies any movie’s existence; the audience went nuts at the first line of “I Will Always Love You,” which is originally from this movie, and it pains me to admit that I like Whitney Houston’s phrasing better; speaking of singing, Burt’s was considerably better than in At Long Last Love, which goes to show what a difference pre-recording and less challenging material makes; and, much to surprise and delight, the ending is a downerthe lovers stay together, but the bad guys win, and when the bad guys are personified by Dom DeLuise and in a bad pageboy wig and a worse fake nose, it’s downright jarring.
It was pushing a quarter to midnight when Whorehouse ended, but I was hopped up on chocolate penguin mints and granola bars, so I was good to go. I also figured nobody would notice or care if I dozed during the final feature, since the audience was thinning out both upstairs and down. Rather than just asking who was a fan, Ficks took a trivia approach to the album giveaway: he asked who directed Smokey and the Bandit, and I shouted out: “Hal Needham!” Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that the voice came from the balcony (and why would he?), so he gave a copy of the movie’s soundtrack to someone else. Frack. I mean, I have no need for it, but still. His next question started as such: “Hal Needham’s final movie was about” He didn’t get any further, because I was already shouting: “Rad!” I know way, waaaaay too much about Hal Needham’s directing career. (Before there was the IMDB, there was the Videohound Movie Guide, and some of us stuided it like the Torah.) This time he realized it was coming from up above, so I rushed down the stairs, through the lobby, into the theater proper, up the fairly long aisle to the stage to get the prize, which turned out to be…the soundtrack to City Heat? Seriously? Man. For no good reason whatsoever I was disappointed. It’s so mediocre it doesn’t even have kitsch value, and if it wasn’t for recently being in the Onion A.V. Club’s My Year of Flops, nobody would even know the movie existed. Which is more exposure than At Long Last Love has gotten lately, and damn, I would have loved to have gotten a copy of that soundtrack. Oh well. Swag is swag.
The previews started with The Longest Yard, and then it a Needham Trifecta: Smokey and the Bandit II, Hooper and Stroker Ace, all movies I saw commercials for as a kid, though Smokey II was the only movie I watched. I remember liking that one better the original, what with the more apropos DeLuise role and the elephant and that great convoy scene at the end and Sally Field seeming much hotter than she did in the first movie, though I couldn’t say why at the time. No Jack Elam, but not every movie can star him, even though they’d all better if they did. And now he’s dead, so it’ll never happen. Way to blow an opportunity, Hollywood.
Ficks said Smokey and the Bandit was best viewed as a showcase for Burt’s Mad Improv Skillz. While I’m inclined to believe that Burt’s best lines were in fact improvised, and he’s far more charismatic than he has any right to be, it doesn’t change the fact that it was in the context of a bad, bad movie. “Asinine” was the only word that seemed to fit, and I said “Jesus, this movie is asinine” to myself a few times. (Besides, it’s a fun word. Say it aloud right now. See?) I was glad I didn’t really like the movie in the first place, so I wasn’t technically disappointed.
Of course the movie was asinine; it was never meant to be anything other than mindless, low-budget entertainment, one car chase after another, and in that respect it succeeded admirably. It was also a ginormous hit, one of the biggest of the 1977. I thought about how Ficks arranged the movies, going from an ambitious, borderline arthouse movie went down like the Hindenburg (At Long Last Love) to a fairly middling musical which wasn’t a big hit but has developed a cult (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) to a huge blockbuster smash which aimed so low, it practically shot its own toes off (Smokey and the Bandit),
Though I was tempted at times to nap, I stayed awake. There’s few things more surreal than watching the very non-anamorphic widescreen Smokey and the Bandit in a swanky theater well past midnight as “East Bound and Down” plays on the soundtrack for the seventy-third time. I could have left before it was over, of course, and I’d gotten my ten bucks’ worth by the final reel of At Long Last Love, but I was determined to ride it out. Besides, I could have sworn I’d seen Stephen Tobolowsky (one of my favorite living character actors) as a deputy, and the elderly waiter from the second season of Twin Peaks, so I had to stick around for the credits. It’s not like I could have gone home and checked the internet. That’s just crazy talk.
Eventually the movie ended on a freeze-frame which made me expect to hear William Conrad’s voice saying “Stay tuned for scenes from next week’s Smokey and the Bandit!” (Damn, I’m old.) It was finally over and I was free to reclaim my life and ponder what a huge financial success it was, spawning two sequels and countless ripoffs, including a teevee show I was very fond as a kid. I disagree with H.L. Mencken’s financial advice regarding the intelligence of the the American peoplethe Dot-Com crash is a good place to lookbut lord knows we liked to watch cars crash and shit blow up in those days, and as near as I can tell, we still do. The budgets are just bigger.