Screengrab Archive #5: Thanksgiving Edition

[Originally posted 11/27/08]


JAWS (1975)

It’s the summer of 1975 and I have successfully completed the second grade. I am living on a Navy base in Puerto Rico, and I’ve got the run of the place: swimming pool, ball field, bowling alley, snack bar all within easy biking distance…and of course, the movie theater. We’re a few months behind the States, which means every time a kid comes back from a week’s vacation stateside, I hear about it all over again: Jaws. By summer’s end, I have entire scenes memorized and I haven’t even seen the damn thing yet. Every week I check the base newsletter (El Tiburon – meaning, of course, “the shark,” and did I mention that our little league team was also called the Sharks?) for the upcoming movie listings. Finally it appears on the schedule. When the big night arrives, I pedal to the theater, ditch my bike and get in line. While trying to catch my breath, I overhear bits of conversation. They’re not talking about sharks – they’re talking about pinball wizards and deaf, dumb and blind kids. I get to the ticket window. “Sorry, there was a misprint. The movie tonight is Tommy.” I pedal home in tears. I rage to my parents about the unfairness of it all. My dad gets on the horn and raises a stink. Apparently he’s not the only one. The next night, I finally get my shark movie. I close my eyes when the head pops out from under the boat – I knew it was coming – but other than that, I’m good. I’ve seen it a few times since then.


A few years later I’m in high school in Maine. My friends Nick and Rodney and I are the A/V department, which somehow entitles us – again – to the run of the place. We’ve got keys to everything, including the teacher’s lounge, where we sometimes hang out long after hours, watching the rough footage of our day’s production. (Our primary function is shooting the basketball games and school plays, but we often commandeer the equipment to make our own sketch comedy show, a sublime blend of the Monty Python and Bert and I sensibilities, God willing now lost to the ages.) One day someone brings in a rented copy of A Clockwork Orange, a movie I’d tried to watch once before. I wasn’t ready for it then; I was ready for it now. There can’t possibly be a more awesome, mind-blowing movie when you’re sixteen years old – especially if you’re watching it in the teacher’s lounge. Up until now I’d always been baffled and a little perturbed that the director got so much more credit than the screenwriter. So the director decides where to put the camera and maybe works with the actors a little? So what? A Clockwork Orange clarified the matter for me, more so than any Filmmaking 101 course ever could. When I got to college and caught up on Pauline Kael and company, I learned that not everyone was quite so enamored with it. I even grudgingly conceded they might have a point or two, but the impact of that long-ago viewing still lingers.


Every cineaste should get a chance to play movie star once in their lives, and I got that opportunity when fellow Screengrabber Andrew Osborne cast me in the lead role of Zeke in his indie feature Apocalypse Bop. (What can I say, my price was right.) I was working as an office drone at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles when word came through that the financing was in place (i.e., Andrew had maxed out his credit cards – where is his government bailout, I ask you?) and shooting was scheduled to commence in Boston and Middleboro, Mass. Although fully prepared to quit my job, I was given a leave of absence by an understanding boss and jetted east for the month-long shoot. As the perpetually harried writer-director-producer, I’m sure Andrew has a very different perspective (and maybe he’ll tell you all about it someday), but we cast members had an absolute blast – that is, until the final days when my immune system finally shut down under the strain of 12-hour shooting days and late-night partying. The movie itself – a surreal Gen-X comedy about a party at the end of the world – didn’t become the next Clerks, but it had a respectable festival run and I happen to think it’s pretty groovy – and you can order your own copy for cheap in the fancy new VHS format if you’re curious! Later I would go on to co-write and co-star in the Austin-shot indie What I Like About You, but it wasn’t quite the same experience as my summer vacation as a movie star.


On a whim during the summer of 2001, I decided to partake in a combination canoe trip, BBQ and outdoor screening of Deliverance sponsored by the Alamo Drafthouse (see below). I thought it might make for a fun Film Threat article, but I ended up getting a lot more out of it than that. The complete tale of my harrowing voyage is told in the preface to my book Hick Flicks – which was inspired by this very same event. Before the feature presentation began, trailers from ’70s drive-in pictures like Gator, Grizzly and Smokey and the Bandit were shown, and I had a flash of inspiration that led to nearly three years worth of research, writing and – most time-consuming of all – watching hundreds of (mostly terrible) movies about moonshine, fast cars, redneck sheriffs and killer hillbillies. Eventually, however, I got a book out of it, and that will live on into eternity – or at least until all the copies decompose.


I’ve been a working film critic for nearly a decade now, and I must confess that the thrill of going to the movies is…I won’t say gone, but somewhat diminished. Very often I’m assigned to review movies I wouldn’t see on a dare otherwise. The screenings are free, but not always convenient, and many of them are promo events sponsored by radio stations with loudmouth hosts shooting t-shirts into the audience…the whole production has very little resemblance to what I used to love about going to the movies. (Has my pity party started yet?) So it is that on this day of turkey, stuffing, football and giant floating Underdogs, I give thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse, which has made moviegoing fun again. How have they done this? Well, they’ve added beer to the proceedings, which is always a plus in my book. But they also have tasty food, unusual programming and a keen sense of showmanship. You always want to get there early for the custom-tailored pre-show. And, of course, for the beer.

And thank you, Screengrab reader, for putting up with my little walk down memory lane. My list may have seemed somewhat random, but I’m very thankful for all of the above and I’m glad it’s all on the record. Now go get you some more pie.


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