Thursday, September 20, 2012

Memories of the River Oaks Theater (I Mean, Don't Worry, It's Still There)

Our summer travels behind us, we're now braving the humid jungle of Houston, waiting in the blind for our big career opportunities to come flapping by. A couple of weeks ago we made it out to the remarkable midnight movie series at the River Oaks Theater, which rates as essentially my favorite movie theater in the world.

My earliest memory of this theater is when my dad took me and my brother here- I was probably 8 or so- and we saw a matinee of The Modern Times, followed by three or four of Chaplin's short films. I was mesmerized by the feature- it seemed just as intent on dazzling the audience with beauty as it did on making them laugh- but I liked the shorts even better, because the humor was even more obvious. We all cackled like drunk seagulls until we were out of breath.

Later, in my brooding movie-going days of high school, when I'd take off alone at night to see two films back to back, this theater was my favorite haunt. The Greenway Plaza 3 had its good points, too- it was a seriously grim and atmospheric place, a rat warren of garage stairwells and abandoned, flickering hallways, perfect for seeing a Todd Solondz film or S. Ray's The Middleman or the 20th anniversary print of Taxi Driver- but the River Oaks was a good home for just about any movie experience, and the 90's really had a little bit of everything: The Pillow Book, Dead Man, Cemetery Man, Richard III with Ian McKellan, Female Perversions with Tilda Swinton.

Most of the time the best films were cooped up in the screening rooms upstairs, two little boxes where you could hear the projector clattering. I went to a sold-out screening (on the bigger screen) of A Clockwork Orange, my favorite film at the time, and the tired, very dirty old print met with a gooey end right at the moment when Alex is getting ready to leap out the window. The audience threw popcorn and booed and whistled when the poor projectionist came out to explain that the show was over.

I even paid tribute to this theater by giving it a cameo in my own film, Door. The air conditioning vent in the ceiling has a ribbon of paper stuck in it, fluttering away, just like I remember it.

On our most recent adventure to the River Oaks Theater, we saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D. It was every bit the turkey we were hoping for, perfect for making sarcastic comments, except that these drunk, middle-aged suburbanites ruined it- really loud and unfunny people. Eventually the usher came and shushed them, and I give him huge credit for doing that, but then nobody could say anything for the rest of the show. Nobody wants to crack a joke if it risks encouraging that kind of person to get into the act. So we all just sat there watching the movie respectfully, which is not at all how you're supposed to watch that kind of movie.

My advice, if you want to know how to make sarcastic comments at a midnight movie: rent some Mystery Science Theater 3000. Notice Tom Servo's technique. He does not yell drunkenly at the screen about genitalia. His hostility is aimed at the film itself, not at the experience of his fellow movie-goers. His jokes may seem low-brow, but they often require some intelligence to be appreciated. Most people understand that not just anyone is qualified to do this.

In fact, think about what happens when you're in a room with one of those rare people who is actually funny all the time. Nobody tries to compete with that person at all. They just let him or her dominate the situation completely. Yet without that person, many of those same people might try to fill in the empty space with their own awkward attempts to be the life of the party. A situation that calls for humorous commentary works best with a strong leader. This is why Mystery Science Theater 3000 was such a good idea. I saw the feature film of MST3K in the very same theater, and while watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, I became nostalgic for the '96 film and wished that Mike and the bots were in the front row piloting us through the experience. We clearly needed their help.

Nevertheless, I am thrilled to be going to movies at the old places again, and this one especially. I rejoice that this blog now has for its subject the movie scene of Houston, which is indeed rich.

Two nights ago we went to a theater I'd never seen before: the one at the Rice Media Center. We saw a program there entitled "Sonic Slippage," attended by about 60 or 70 people, introduced by a director at the Menil Collection (one of the great small museums of America) and curated by an art professor at UC Berkeley. It included several fascinating pieces of experimental film and video art. The best three:

Lossless #2: A 2008 piece that compresses, distorts, and stirs pixelated images of Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon like blobs of oil on the surface of a soup. (This video compression effect is decidedly not "lossless"- the pixel artifacts are like big tumbling legos.) In these three minutes, the effect of the 40's avant-garde classic is not so much played with as amplified. It was already wild and startling, with its knife that blinked in and out of existence and its shrill Japanese flute, but this piece fairly throttles you; faces leap out of nowhere, and the knife and everything else you see is nothing more than grey putty writhing on the screen, taking one nightmare form after another.

Rose Hobart: Jamie and I both liked this piece the best. This is a film collage made by Joseph Cornell in the 30's. We see scenes from the film East of Borneo, and every scene used (and nearly every shot) features the actress Rose Hobart. The film is presented at 16 frames per second (though it was shot at 24), projected through a deep filter of color (it's usually a blue color but the projectionist the other night went with a gorgeous wine purple), and a Brazilian record is played (you hear this music but not the original soundtrack or anything else). That's all it is, for 20 minutes. It's like a lovesick janitor went into an old editing room and taped together all the bits on the floor that had his favorite actress in them, so he could watch it dreamily on the Moviola while he listened to the radio. Of course, the bits of the movie are made incoherent by their re-ordering, but after 12 or 15 minutes I was in some kind of trance, and my brain was trying to make sense of what I was seeing in an involuntary kind of way, the same way as when you're going to sleep while listening to a story and you're struggling to understand and connect the bits you manage to hear as you drift in and out of consciousness.

Lilith: I very nearly decided this was one of my favorite short films I'd ever seen. I backed off from that somewhere toward the end of it. But I still think it's completely astonishing. See what you think (follow the link to watch it, it's worth a few minutes).