Sometimes movies are about the big picture. Triple Feature traces a common theme or element through three movies to see what they have to say about each other, and to us.
Nobody watches movies alone. Not really. Not in the ways that count. I’ve watched countless movies by myself—out of professional obligation, necessity, and personal choice—and never once felt alone while they played. Simply watching a movie means entering a conversation: with the film, with others who have seen it, and with moviegoing experiences past. We look for reviews and ask others what they thought. We compare films with those we’ve seen before and remember previous trips to the movies and those with whom we saw them. We don’t watch passively. Even when we seek escapism we hold a film up to standards, even if it’s just its ability to pass the time. With movies you’re never alone in the dark.
Then there are all those people up on the screen and the many more who helped create the images, working so hard to entertain, enlighten, or distract us. They may not be, strictly speaking, present. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not there. The line dividing films and their audience has always been a bit fluid. Those stories of early movie viewers flinching and screaming as trains came hurtling toward them may have gotten exaggerated with time, but that they’ve survived suggests we’re still a little uncomfortable knowing where reality ends. (I’ve seen a variation of this myself: I watched an audience bat at the objects in front of them at Disney’s EPCOT center, and we were only watching Captain EO.) Surely it means something that the one image from Edwin Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery immortalized in textbooks and clip reels is its still-startling final scene, in which one of the mustachioed train robbers faces the camera, points his gun at the audience, and fires, eliminating the distance between the mayhem viewers have just witnessed and the world around them. I’m here. And I’m here with you.
There’s potential for wonder as well as terror in that relationship, as Buster Keaton captured in his 1924 feature Sherlock Jr. Keaton plays a projectionist in what we’re told is a “small town theater.” I emphasize that the titles tell us this fact because otherwise it wouldn’t be clear. I’m never quite sure where some of Keaton’s comedies take place, Sherlock Jr. among them. Keaton largely shot Sherlock Jr. in Los Angeles, but the Los Angeles of Keaton’s movies sometimes looks less like a bustling ’20s metropolis than a turn-of-the-century frontier town. Streets with streetcar tracks—surely not a feature of many small towns—abruptly turn into country roads. (For those interested, the UCLA Film And Television Archive, inspired by the work of scholar John Bengtson, even offers a guide to Keaton locations. I’m sure they make for a fascinating contrast with the city as it now appears.)
Years later, studios would have to construct the lightly trafficked streets and rural locations that in the ’20s were still a part of everyday Los Angeles County. Keaton used those relatively wide-open spaces as a playground where virtually anything could be used as a gag, and he built films around his ability to see the world that way. So, as with all movies, there’s no “real world” to speak of when talking about Sherlock Jr., even before it turns the idea of mundane reality and movie fantasy inside out. We’re already in a movie, and one that shares some pretty clear rules with the other films of Keaton’s golden age: Keaton will be put-upon. He’ll suffer those indignities with an unchanging deadpan expression, even as the action around him spins out of control. And in the end he’ll prevail.
There are other sorts of expectations as well: Keaton’s projectionist spends his spare time studying detecting. (We first see him wearing a fake mustache and reading a book called How To Be A Detective.) Though penniless, Keaton courts a local girl (Kathryn McGuire) who fancies him, but he has a rival for his affections in Ward Crane, who frames Keaton for a crime that Keaton then tries to solve using his newly acquired detective skills. He’s eventually exonerated and gets the girl, but by chance rather than his own efforts. He’s a comedic hero who thinks he’s in a mystery but whose life resembles a romantic melodrama. He’s stuck in a tangle of film genres even before Sherlock Jr.’s most celebrated sequence, when Keaton falls asleep in the projection booth and dreams himself into the movie on screen.
It’s not just any movie he dreams himself into, either, even if at first he seems to have dreamed himself into every movie. After Keaton dozes off, his spirit walks to the front of an auditorium playing Hearts & Pearls, by all appearances a cookie-cutter silent-era melodrama that his mind has recast with the people from his own troubles. After pausing in a seat by the screen, he steps into the film itself. At this point, the film-within-the-film loses coherence and Keaton becomes a puppet of a movie that appears to be edited by a madman. As the film switches abruptly from a stately manor to a city street to the edge of a cliff to a forest scene with a pair of lions and so on, Keaton moves with it, all without any visible edits to his own action. I have some idea how he pulled this off by combining rear projection with his own masterful combination of timing and stunt choreography. But that’s really all I want to know. It’s close to magic, and I’m happy to keep it that way.
When the film’s dream logic settles back into a plot, Keaton’s character is again charged with clearing his own name by solving a mystery. He meets with more success and heightened peril in the film world before waking up to find that the girl of his dreams, having cleared his name for him, is ready to take him in her arms. For that he needs a bit more instruction. Keaton looks over his beloved’s shoulder to observe how the Hearts & Pearls hero kisses the girl, drawing one last example as he guides his movie-shaped life to a happy ending.
Keaton understood that this was more than a good gag. He justifiably earned his Great Stone Face nickname, but implacability shouldn’t be confused with a lack of emotion. Keaton makes himself into a blank slate, and consequently the consummate everyman, an underdog battered about by life who emerges ultimately triumphant, or at least intact. Beneath the chases and pratfalls, Keaton told his audiences’ own stories back to them.1
Of course, that trick is not unique to Keaton. Though mirrors as perfect as Keaton’s unmoving, troubled face come along rarely, movies always reflect the world that made them back to those watching. Sometimes the mirrors are closer to the surface than others. It’s the task of a horror film to be scary, sure, but scary has a way of shifting with the times. Horror filmmakers unwilling to exploit the anxieties of the times around them, subtly or overtly, tend to have short careers. Then there are those who gleefully play into those anxieties, like Lawrence Woolsey, the director played by John Goodman in Joe Dante’s 1993 film Matinee.
Like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Landis, and others, Dante is from the filmmaking school that grew up reading Weird Science and Famous Monsters Of Filmland but never outgrew them. An added strand of Mad DNA runs through most of Dante’s films too. Dante gives his movies a prankish, satirical quality that others of his generation lack, or at least suppress, but he’s seldom only out for laughs. Gremlins sets a group of bloodthirsty beasties in the sort of small-town anywhereland found in everything from It’s A Wonderful Life to E.T., but it’s ultimately as affectionate about those sorts of places as the films it tweaks. (And while we’re on the topic, it features a great movie-watching moment involving Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs to boot.)
Set in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Matinee, written by Charlie Haas and Jerico Stone, is unmistakably a comedy, but one that takes place on the edge of an apocalypse. As America and the Soviet Union edge closer to nuclear war, a teenage military brat played by Simon Fenton worries about his absent father while anticipating Woolsey’s arrival to promote his latest film, a monster spectacular called Mant. (“Half man! Half ant! All terror!”) Billing himself as “The Screen’s No.1 Shock Expert,” Woolsey is half auteur, half carnie barker, offering insurance against being scared to death, paying actors to protest his films to stir up controversy, and trumpeting miraculous “processes” like Atom-O-Vision that promise to revolutionize the moviegoing experience. He’s also canny at tapping into real fears to sell his movie. The trailer for Mant, which opens Matinee, begins with actual nuclear-test footage and includes a sales pitch from Woolsey warning about its basis in fact and “theories that have appeared in national magazines.” Who can argue with that?
Woolsey has his own basis in fact. He’s inspired by William Castle, the director/producer/huckster behind films like The House On Haunted Hill and The Tingler, films released, respectively, in “Emergo” and “Percepto.” (The former involved floating a glow-in-the-dark skeleton over the audience mid-movie, the latter wired a handful of seats in every theater to vibrate.) Goodman’s Woolsey doesn’t look much like Castle, a dapper, John Mahoney type. But he perfectly captures the way Castle would cordially invite audiences to his latest terrifying offering, sometimes while happily chomping on a cigar. He also gets the Castle twinkle, the one that suggests he’s conning you, and that he knows that you know he’s conning you, but let’s not spoil the fun of it, okay?
Matinee’s not just fun, however. Though the film has its lumpy elements, it brilliantly captures how viewers, kids in particular, need both outlets for their fears and art that asks them to question authority and the stability of the world around them. In one of the best scenes, Fenton’s character partakes in a duck-and-cover drill that one of his fellow students, the daughter of a bohemian couple, just isn’t buying. Instead of crouching in the hallway and using her hands to protect her neck, she informs everyone around her that they’re being given cold comfort and that an actual nuclear attack—like the kind seemingly only minutes away—would wipe them out. That’s a fear too big to contain in anything but a monster like Mant. Is it any wonder that Fenton and his brother sit impatiently when, after watching adults fight over food in a grocery store and staring at television with dread-inducing UN coverage, they’re sent away to watch a defanged, Disney-style comedy called The Shook Up Shopping Cart? 23
The Key West première of Mant lives up to its billing. Unspooling as the missile crisis reaches its climax, the screening erupts into chaos for reasons too convoluted to get into here. Suffice to say that the chaos involves a poetry-spouting juvenile delinquent in a rubber Mant suit, a bomb shelter, and a rickety balcony. Dante stages the action by rhyming the action onscreen with the action in front of it—and eventually behind and beneath it—letting one comment on the other until eventually they start operating in sync. It’s all beautifully staged, but with a strong suggestion of underlying dread. After Woolsey orchestrates an onscreen explosion that, by design, looks too real for comfort, one audience member screams, “Jesus! This is it!” as if he knew they’d all just been passing the time before the end.
But what if moviegoing itself has an expiration date? That’s not as ridiculous a question as it sounds. The form’s been around for slightly more than 100 years. And while I suspect movie-watching will persist long after you and I are dead, the ways we watch them might change. In the last century, movies have seen nickelodeons give way to palaces, palaces give way four-plexes, four-plexes give way to multiplexes, and multiplexes give way to megaplexes now littered with discarded 3D glasses. (Drive-ins, once a thriving distribution outlet, now hang on out of inertia and novelty value.) Now, theaters fight against the wait-for-DVD and on-demand impulse, to say nothing of competition from other forms of entertainment. What was once the only game in town—particularly somewhere like Key West—is now just another option. (That virtually all the theaters I used to attend as a kid and the vast, decrepit theater I worked at as a teenager have been turned to rubble gives me the sharpest pangs of my own mortality.)
Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2004 feature Goodbye, Dragon Inn takes place during a mammoth Taipei theater’s final night of operation. It’s tempting to call what Tsai captures the end of an era, but it looks like the era ended long ago. Hardly anyone attends a screening of its final feature, the King Hu martial arts classic Dragon Inn (a film that no doubt packed the house in 1967). Those who do attend aren’t necessarily focused on the movie. A Japanese tourist (Mitamura Kiyonobu) cruises for sex with other men. A limping ticket-taker tries, slowly and with little luck, to find and feed the projectionist whom we gather she loves unrequitedly, though the spare dialogue never spells it, or much of anything, out. All the while, the feature plays out in more or less real time.
Tsai’s films—especially at this phase in his career, which also produced The Hole and What Time Is It There?—dwell on the sorts of alienation only possible in cities, when the press of crowds and the bustle of activity never safeguard against loneliness. Some people find his movies excruciating, filled as they are with unblinking shots, minimal dialogue, less explanation, and no obligation to provide resolution. I find them weirdly thrilling for all those reasons, but especially the way Tsai never makes forging human connections look futile, just difficult to the point that even trying to connect with someone appears heroic. Maybe even heroic on a metaphysical level: In one memorable scene, Kiyonobu meets an attractive man in one of the theater’s seemingly endless back corridors who tells him the place is home to a ghost. He looks like a man from another era and slips away just as Kiyonobu seems on the verge of finally realizing his desire. Neither can quite express what he needs. Yet there in the dark, to the accompaniment of a muffled soundtrack, they try.
Then, shortly after a long shot of an older man watching Dragon Inn with tears in his eyes, the film within the film ends. The lights come up. He wanders to the lobby where he exchanges some friendly, regretful words with another older patron attending with his grandson, then they go their separate ways. Both men are played by actors from the Hu film, and one has a pair of entwined laments, “No one goes to movies anymore. And no one remembers us anymore.” A song with the refrain “can’t let go” begins. The projectionist and ticket-taker clean up as if the place were to open again tomorrow, then, without seeing each other, head their separate ways into a rainy Taipei night. The movie’s over and they’re alone at last.
1 That’s part of why Samuel Beckett’s Keaton-starring 1965 effort, Film—the playwright’s sole excursion into moviemaking—has an extra layer of cruelty. Beckett withholds the great comedian’s face until the final moments as he avoids the glare of other people, his own reflection, the gaze of animals, and anything that looks like a face before thumbing through some photographs of himself at various stages of life. He doesn’t want to see himself as he now appears, or look at anything that can see him. When he finally does look at himself, he looks hideous, partly because that fits the scheme of the film, and partly because Keaton was dying at the time.
2 Starring a then-unknown Naomi Watts.
3 Not that horror movie producers didn’t recognize that there was money to be made in both markets. Castle also produced his share of toothless, family-friendly comedies, including the Disney-aping Zotz! starring future Bob Newhart sidekick Tom Poston.