Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The 812

By Cornelia

I was listening to NPR in the car yesterday, since I live in my car pretty much, what with these being the chauffeur years of parenthood. The movie review dude on Terry Gross was talking about a new DVD box set: Essential Arthouse: 50 Years of Janus Films.

For $650, you can now own 50 of the foreign films that graced the screens of America's most Boho theaters. Since movie review dude only discussed a few of these selections, I went to the Janus website this morning to check out the entire list, wondering if any of the ones I grew up with had made the cut.

There was only one of my seminal flicks listed--Black Orpheus.

Originally titled Orfeu Negro, it's a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the favelas of Brazil during Carnival. As above in a contemporary poster, this was "the film that introduced bossa nova to the world..." and I spent a lot of time as a kid listening to the soundtrack album.

My mom had seen it in New York, back when it was originally released in the States. I first watched it in the early seventies, at the 812 Cinema on Cannery Row.

The 812 is long gone, as are most of the funky businesses I remember operating out of the abandoned canneries along the shores of Monterey Bay in that era, like Kalisa's, a Middle Eastern restaurant whose namesake owner drove around the peninsula in an ancient ambulance, painted a striking metallic lavender.

Nowadays, Cannery Row is a slick and bustling tourist destination, anchored by the Monterey Aquarium. You can buy cotton candy and ride indoor carousels. You can load up on stuffed toy sea otters and souvenir "All I got was this lousy t-shirt" t-shirts. You can barely make your way down the sidewalk through the crowds, most days. Everything's spiffy and shiny and repainted.

I miss the funky stuff, back in the days when all you'd see on the street at dusk was that purple ambulance and tumbleweed bits of paper, rolling down the empty asphalt. I miss the 812 especially.

It was a narrow, high-ceilinged building, built on pilings out over the water. Sometimes if the audience got quiet, you could hear surf moiling below. There were no seats, no aisles--just piles of giant pillows, stuffed with torn foam rubber and upholstered in faded Indian print bedspreads. Parking was not exactly a problem.

One of the non-Janus-distributed films we saw there was Zorba the Greek, which my sister and I basically turned into an early audience-participation deal--perhaps the Ur Rocky Horror experience--having memorized the bits of dialogue on the soundtrack album for years beforehand.

Such as Alan Bates sounding all British and wussy, going "Teach me to dance, will you?" and Anthony Quinn responding, "Did you say... dance?... Go on my boy!"
Although I think our favorite bit was when Zorba was asked whether he were married, to which he answered, "Am I not a man, and is not a man stupid? I am a man... so, I married... wife, house, children, everything... the full catastrophe."

Another film we saw there was the original Lost Horizon, the black-and-white film of James Hilton's novel about a secret valley in the Himalayas where everyone is immortal and pacifist. Seeing it years later, I found the whole art-deco-meets-Tibet set design a little harder to swallow, but it's still one of my favorite movies--so much so that I still hate Burt Bacharach for trying to remake it as a musical in the seventies.

The coolest part is when the High Lama explains to Ronald Coleman why he founded Shangri-La in the first place:
I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in the vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw the machine power multiplying, until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time when man, exalting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world, that every book, every treasure, would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving, that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and of culture that I could, and preserve them here, against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity, crashing headlong against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality.

A time must come my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. Against that time, is why I avoided death, and am here. And why you were brought here. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here. For here, we shall be with their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: Be Kind! When that day comes, it is our hope that the brotherly love of Shangri-La will spread throughout the world.
These were pretty much all message movies, and that was the message they shared: "Iconoclasts of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your day jobs...."

Yellow Submarine depicted the overthrow of the Blue Meanies, with nothing but some good Beatles tunes employed to topple their hegemony:

A Thousand Clowns pitted Jason Robards against the Madison Avenue/Network broadcasting brigade. When social workers show up to inspect the premises in which he's raising his nephew Nick (who delights in trying on different names throughout the film), Robards tries to return to the day-job fray, writing TV schtick for the odious Chuckles the Clown.

Chuckles patronizes young Nick and offers him a small bag of the sponsor's potato chips, into the bargain, causing Nick to observe, when asked for his "simple childhood reaction" to the man's wheezing patter:

My simple child reaction of what you did is that you are not funny. Funnier than you is even Stuart Schlossmen, who is my friend, and is eleven, and puts walnuts in his mouth and makes noises. What is not funny is to call us names, and what is mostly not funny is how sad you are, and I'd feel sorry for you if it wasn't for how dull you are. And those are the worst-tasting potato chips that I've ever tasted. And that's my opinion from the blue, blue sky.

Robards woos the female social worker by playing "Yessir, That's My Baby" on the ukelele, and taking her to the old passenger-liner docks of Manhattan to throw confetti and wish total strangers bon voyage.

At least he didn't shoot her at the end, like Elvira Madigan. This was a Scandinavian film perhaps best remembered today for the bits of Mozart in its soundtrack, and for featuring the very first instance of lovers running toward one another across a field, in slow motion.

Probably my favorite movie of all the things we saw at the 812, however, was King of Hearts, in which Alan Bates morphed from wimpy Brit dancing on Greek beaches to a Scots soldier in World War I, sent to warn a town in France that the Germans are about to invade. He's missed the actual townspeople, however, and spends a day frolicking with the inmates who've wandered out of the local asylum, including a tremendously fetching Genevieve Bujold.

The man looked pretty good in a kilt, I have to say. Plus there was the bootie shot at the end, when he takes off all his clothes in the hopes the nuns will let him past the asylum gates as a resident for at least the rest of the war.

I've been thinking about movies a lot recently, since I'm going to have lunch in LA on Monday to discuss the possibility of writing a screenplay, which would be really cool if it works out.

I imagine we might discuss movies, during this meal, and I admit I'm not too up on recent releases since I don't get out much, what with the price of babysitting and everything. I haven't seen the rehash of The Poseidon Adventure, or Marie Antoinette, or pretty much anything that's come out in the last year, so I'll probably sound vaguely Amish, should the subject come up. I guess I'm hoping that my lunchmates have a fondness for the old arthouse stuff, since I'd love to talk about that instead. Not so much Bergman and Kurosawa, just the funky little anti-establishment flicks we cheered for at the old 812.... the ones that tried to get us all to just be kind.


  1. Writing a screenplay? Oh Cornelia, how cool! There isn't a thing you can't do and it would mean I could go to a film and say when your name came up on the credits, "I met her once."

    And then I'd feel all special and important for a millisecond.

    I've seen a lot of good movies lately. Always nice to get recommendations on ones I've missed though.

  2. See, this is why I will never be as cool as you. Because, in my childhood, I did not watch nifty counterculture movies at a funky old theater; I was too busy gobbling up The Great Mouse Detective and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and being terrified by E.T..
    Which, let's face it, does not give me a whole lot of cred.

  3. Hi Cornelia,
    Wow, you brought back some memories. :-D We were at Monterey in 1998 for the World Fantasy Convention. Bob and I took nine rolls of film alone. We tried to avoid doing the touristy thing, but I couldn't resist getting us onto one of the otter boat tours. Turns out we didn't see the otters, but the boat ended up doing donuts - tight circles - in the middle of a passing school of about several thousand dolphins. Totally enchanting.
    As for some of your films: the original Lost Horizon is one of my favourites. I watch it on DVD every so often. Been awhile since I've seen Zorba the Greek, though. You might like the more odd parts of our humungous movie collection... Some of the Japanese art films are quite good. No: not Kurasowa, although we have his films.
    Good luck with the screenplay! I loved your 'A Field of Darkness'. I'm looking forward to what Maddie and Ellis get into next. :-D Damn fine writing - your style should carry over well into film.
    Hope you've rested up some.

  4. Those were the days, my friend...we thought they'd never end...

  5. Ah, Sandra, if it ever gets that far, I would be psyched indeed.

    And Daisy, I have to admit that the majority of my childhood film consumption was of crappy Disney-type flicks at the Jerry Lewis Cinema--Flubber and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Well, okay, B&B was pretty cool, but the rest of it made Honey, I Shrunk the Kids look like Bergman.

  6. Marianne, you guys sound like my kind of movie people! I plan to watch Kurosawa when I feel a little more together, brain-wise. Maybe if I ever make any money at this writing stuff, I can invest in that Janus collection and get caught up.

    And Janine, you rock as always!

  7. There used to be an old theatre on Capitol Hill in Seattle like the 812. I saw a bunch of great art films there in my college days. Loved King of Hearts! I didn't see Black Orpheus until recently, but found it interesting since I danced with one of the samba schools in the official Carnaval parade in Rio many years ago. Ah, the memories.

    And that screenplay business? Break a leg!

  8. Patty, you danced in a samba school? That is so so so cool!!!

  9. Cornelia,
    For a really good atmospheric spooky (as in suspenseful) watch, look up a US print of something called 'Kwaidan'. It's Japanese, with the most amazing stories and soundtracks - not quite music. You never know, could be inspiriational - no pun intended.
    My husband, Bob, wants to know if you've seen the Orson Welles mockumentary from 1973 called 'F for Fake'.
    Patty, you Salsa'd? Cool! I did some of that at a little foreign club in Sydney called 'La Vida' about ten years ago or so. Some of the people I danced with - ballroom, Latin, and New Vogue - for a few years, used to go there sometimes after one of our usual haunts closed. Nice memories. I miss dancing. Great for toning!

  10. Marianne, I'd love to see F is for Fake--I just Googled it and sounds wonderful. I wish there were a complete version of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS floating around, too. I'll look for KWAIDAN, the next time I have any cash.

    One of the best movies I've seen in recent years is LES CHORISTES. The plot summary from IMDB makes it sound hokier than it is:

    "Set in 1948, a professor of music, Clement Mathieu, becomes the supervisor at a boarding school for the rehabilitation for minors. What he discovers disconcerts him -- the current situation is repressive. Through the power of song, Clement tries to transform the students."

    Marilyn in my writing group recommended I see it when I talked about the setting for the manuscript I just turned in.

  11. Great. Now I've got the music to Zorba the Greek dancing around in my head.

    Good luck with the screenplay. Those Hollywood meetings can really suck the life out of you. You might want to get really baked before hand. Might cut some of those cocaine jitters coming off the agents in the room.

  12. Stephen, as long as it's not the Herb Alpert version of Zorba music, you'll probably survive.

    As for me, the idea of just standing on a street corner in LA stoned is enough to make me want to go hide under the sofa. My metabolism just does not equate mellow with THC, for some reason. On the bright side, I'm a cheap date, pot-wise.

  13. oh god. A Thousand Clowns. One of the finest films EVER made. The underappreciated work of Martin Balsam in that film makes me smile so much, and it's one of Robards' best star turns.

    I have SO many lines from that film stuck in my brain that will never leave.

    "Better go to your room."

    "This is a one-room apartment."

    "Then go to your alcove."

  14. Of COURSE you are a Martin Balsam fan, dear Andi. And I almost quoted the alcove exchange, but I had to go with "and that is my opinion, from the blue blue sky" about the potato chips and chuckles.

    I wish there were a soundtrack album for this movie, even if it's just the one song

  15. I hope the screenplay folks spring for lunch at least, and preferably in a place where you can gawk at celebrities.

    I spent my formative years in So. Cal and had a high school friend who worked at the Rialto theater in South Pasadena. This lovely art house theatre was featured prominently in "The Player". Tim Robbins' character meets and kills his victim there.

    I went almost every week because my friend was able to get me in for free. I confess that I don't remember most of the artsy fartsy films I saw (there were a lot of French and German ones) but the soundtrack for The Rocky Horror Picture Show is seared into my memory. Ah, to spend an evening with Brad and Janet--it was so much fun.

  16. Hollywood? Movies?

    Best stay away from those low sorts, my dear. A more demented self-absorbed shallow loathsome lot you will be hard pressed to find.

    But damn they sure have nice piles of money to play with.

    If/when that whole dealio comes to fruity fruition, drop me a line-- we can compare offenses and irritations.
    B (charging headlong towards oblivion even as we speak)

  17. We were way too...uh...frugal to go to the movies much as kids, but we did have certain soundtracks I still know by heart.

    Among them, of course, two convent favorites: The Sound of Music and my mother, with her "sisters" as back-up, singing Ave Maria in a soprano better left to my eight year-old self than the halfway decent alto I confess to be now.

    Add to those every track of Helen Reddy's I Am Woman, and you have the key to my psyche.

  18. Cornelia,
    What great fun reading such marvelous writing. Thanks.

  19. First of all, break a nail tomorrow, dollink! At least we know they have good taste to start with because they like Field of Darkness.

    As always, fun taking a trip down memory lane with you. My all-time arthouse favorite was always "Les Enfants du Paradis," where the hero is a mime and the heroine is an exquisite, romantic slut. You have to love a movie that can glamororize a promiscuous woman. (Need I point out that it is French?)

    Alas, I've hardly seen anything more recent than that. I have gone to the movies approximately 12 times in the past 6 years and I think 7 of them was with my 6-year-old daughter. I'm hoping it's a lifecycle thing. love, ariel

  20. Harumphhh. I grew up with Roy, Dale, and Gabby, Gene, Hoppy, and the Durango Kid, Saturday cartoon shows and serials.

    Your kind of theatres were called "Art," and the nuns warned us away from those, and we stayed away because there was no adult who would take us.

    Now, do I try to come up with $650, or keep buying books? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

    At least I saw Cannery Row before it 'died'--took the book with me and tracked down Doc's lab and many of the other spots, now lost. Progress is fine, but there's something about the past....

    Thanks for the memories.

    Tom, T.O.