Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Editorial November 09 e-issue #5

Editorial November 09 e-issue #5
By Nickolas Cook

See that picture up there?
That’s the last tie to my childhood.
It is finito!
To paraphrase a famous pet store customer, “That childhood has ceased to be!”
I turn 40 years old this month, so maybe it’s about time it was dead.
Who knows?
You’d think I had given it up a long time ago. Not true, of course. I don’t think you can do what I do, which is essentially dream for a semi-living, if you kill off the best of what you ever were.
One of the things that made my childhood special was the numerous drive-in theaters within 20 minutes of where we lived. ‘The Playtime’ was one of them. In fact, it was the last one still standing when I left my home for Orlando to seek fame and fortune. What I got was a loveless failed marriage of convenience and a giant slap from fate. I’ve lived long enough to know that nothing lives forever, including-- or maybe especially-- those things we cherish most, the things that go into making up your life.
Back when I was a kid ‘The Playtime’ showed mostly grindhouse and porn films, usually on the same night. Not that Skin-a-max crap, either. Hard core, XXX, porn.
Would you believe I cared more about what was happening on the horror screens than the sex ones?
It’s true.
Not saying me and my little brother never sneaked a peek or two at the action on the porn screen behind us (and how the hell my parents always finagled that is beyond me), but it was the blood and screams that interested me most.
And in some ways my experience in those formative years might just be the quintessential American horror culture love story.

Drive-ins began popping up across the American landscape way back in the 1930s, had their heyday in the 50s and 60s, and then slowly began to die out. Today, we still have them scattered hairy scary in all fifty states, but they are a dying breed, folks. And they're dying a slow and painful death.
That slow painful death started back in the early 80s when the video revolution exploded in the U.S. The drive-in culture, a once great union of car worshippin’, blood and guts lovin’, pop corn eatin’ and soda slurpin’ people, slowly began to fade away into that sunset of the American cinema. You can read more about it here, see lots of graphs and stats:
Recently, here in Tucson, AZ., the last drive-in, the De Anza shut down. It died an ignominious death, too. Showing some crap Hollywood releases, the like of which were unable to sustain the coffers any longer. Of course there was the inevitable belly aching from those long time residents who bemoaned the passing of a historical landmark. But it’s telling no one tried to stop it.
You know, there’s something special about the drive-in experience that most modern kids will never get a chance to feel and taste deep down in the gut. Of course I’ll be the first to admit it ain’t for everybody. It requires a special love of that bright insect infested beam of magic that shoots like a Jedi sword from the roof of the concession stand to the giant multi-paneled screen ahead. It is not for the pampered mall rats that think gabbing and texting on their cells during the movie is a totally acceptable way to behave around strangers.
No, drive-ins are for those people crazy enough to still like sitting in their car, an enclosed environment that they can completely control, while watching monsters chase half naked women across a swampy dimly lit moor in some nameless European locale. You know, the sort of places you find a Naschy film or maybe a Blind Dead movie setting? Those movies were like the porn movies they used to play at ‘The Playtime’: cheap, dirty and a couple of steps over the line of good taste.

And maybe that’s what really killed the drive-ins, that too conscious effort to legitimize horror, to pull it out of the low budget basements, from the DYI swamp, and into a Hollywood world of over budgeted homogeneity.
We can all thank George fuckin’ Lucas and his Star Wars films for that, by the way. After the success of Star Wars, more and more studios began to funnel their money into grossly over budgeted special effects silliness; thereby, forgetting the Corman Golden Rule of a good horror film: spend $1,000 make it look like $1,000,000. If you over burden your cast with huge name actors, throw money at the screen with CGI blowouts, then you will, of course, have to get back 100 times what you spent to break even.
And if you fail a couple of times?
Well, you can kiss your studio goodbye.
Hell, you could see it happen all throughout the 80s. More and more studios were sinking a ton of money into hapless productions that bombed and pulled them under. Remember ‘Last Action Hero’?
How about ‘Hudson Hawk’, for Christ’s sake?
(And I swear, if you email me a complaint about my calling ‘Hudson Hawk’ a bomb, I will curse you with ten thousand weeping boils that sing Mariah Carey songs while you try to sleep).

Small mom and pop drive-ins couldn’t afford to pay for those types of over budgeted movies, and they sure as hell couldn’t afford to show them if they didn’t bring in money because of shitty reviews. A lot of those places were living week to week on their receipts. Drive-ins worked best when there were companies like American International Pictures and Hammer Studios in existence. In many ways, it was a symbiotic relationship. Those studios owed their very existence to the drive-in culture. And the drive-ins could afford their cheap, but entertaining films. No big budgets, no big name Hollywood pocketbooks weeping through every line of dialogue. Just huge hearts and hungry talents trying to make something that would get a paycheck. Some of those hungry talents went on to bigger and better.
AIP spawned the likes of Jack Nicholson, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron from its DYI swamp. They got paid squat, worked with miniscule budgets, and learned how to make a little look like a whole lot. Some were more successful than others, but it was a training ground, a filtering process that pulled the chaff from the wheat.

There are no such studios in America now (and, no, I do NOT count Troma; they do very little to get their people bigger and better gigs). There’re no cheap films. Everything has to be run through test audiences, passed by execs, etc., etc. Even a film like ‘Paranormal Activity’, which was $11,000 to make, wound up having to be test run by Steven Spielberg, who, in inimitable Spielberg fashion, wanted to throw money at the screen to fix what he thought were problems.
Look, Stevie, you’re losing your edge, man. You’ve been sitting in the board rooms too long. If something like ‘Paranormal Activity’ can bowl the world over with almost no special effects, maybe it’s time you rethought your filmmaking philosophy, huh?
But back to drive-ins…
There was a sense of community in the wash of the giant screen that you don’t get using Netflix, or by going to your neighborhood mall sprawl. You could be as social as you wanted; or keep to yourself. If some asshole started talking loud enough to wake Chris Lee from his eternal sleep of the dead, then you could just roll up your window and ignore the jerk. And you did not pay out the nose for tickets, drinks, popcorn and such. Today, a trip to a movie for two on a Saturday night is easily going to run into 40 bucks.
That, my friends, was probably just about the budget of some of Corman’s greatest films.
We have supersized ourselves to a bloated nation of over eaters, under thinkers and have become a populace of lazy do nothings.
Sometimes, maybe bigger is not better, folks.
Maybe less is more.

The death of the American drive-in experience is the death of meaningful American cinema. Maybe even the death of meaningful American culture.
And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
So the next time you’re standing in line at the mall, waiting behind some noisy ass little pre teen who is already texting and talking on her cell before she even gets into the theater, remember how nice it used to be to roll up the window, put the popcorn between you and your sweetie, snuggle back together and turn up the volume on the speaker until you drowned out the little shit in the car next to you.
Remember that.
And remember also that it is just about dead.

--Nickolas Cook