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Apr 24, 2013

A Subjective History Of Sitting In The Cheap Seats

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. There were a lot of good things about those times. The music was superb, there were still cars with fins on them, you could buy enough fish and chips to feed a family with pocket change and nobody ever complained about not getting a wi-fi signal.

But it wasn't all Scott Walker's first album, Chevy Impalas and battered saveloys. For someone like me who would become a dedicated, if down-market, cinephile it was the best of times and the worst of times.

This was an era before movie geeks as we now known them, existed. Yes, there were cinephiles who usually had goatees without moustaches and read Cahiers Du Cinema. Not me. I was a kid from a working class suburb. I didn't know the difference between Truffaut and a truffle.

The cheap suburban cinemas I visited on Saturday afternoons, drive-in double features and the movies shown on weekend television were the schools where I learned about movies. Just as my elders were deeply interested in horse and greyhound racing, football and how to buy beer on Sundays, I was becoming eerily knowledgeable about cinema pricing, the relative merits of concession stand snacks and the Dean Martin Matt Helm films.

Saturday matinees at the Regal Theatre were my baby sitters. While my father attended nearby hotels, my brother and I stayed busy watching Elvis musicals (which I hated), James Coburn as Derek Flint, British comedies with left-over Ealing alumni, cold war weirdness like Battle Beneath The Earth, caper films and sexist adultery-fantasy comedies like A Guide For The Married Man. These films – good, bad and mediocre showed me places I'd never been. They taught me that there were nothing cooler than going to the movies without adult supervision, that a well-placed karate chop could take down any opponent and that pool halls weren't the only places you could misspend your youth.

Although I didn't know it at the time, I was becoming a movie geek, a term which didn't exist until the punk era of the VHS/ Betamax Wars. Geeks of any sort weren't fashionable before the 1980s. The very word geek came from the Low German “geck” meaning mad person. Check out Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley for more details. Geeks were carnival freaks, usually terminal alcoholics, who dressed up as ape-men and bit the heads off live chickens in side-shows in Depression Era America. Reality television now works on the same basic concept.

As wonderful as Saturday matinees were, there were problems. The now-simple act of finding and seeing a specific movie was about as easy as visiting Brigadoon. You had to be in the right place at the right time and bloody lucky.

Seen through modern eyes the 1960s and 70s were a strange, bleak and austere time for cinephiles. There were no home-VCRs, PVRs, DVDs, Blu-Rays or downloads. Television programmers, film studios, cinema owners and government censors determined if, when, where and how you could see a movie.

In those days there were only four television channels. Channel 2, Channel 7, Channel 9 and the recent start-up Channel 0 or 10, depending on which state you lived in. In those days the stations would stop broadcasting a little after midnight. You'd get the National Anthem then six hours of static. (Shift workers were stuck with Mickey Spillane novels or overnight radio for their entertainment.)

However, there was an exception to the End of Transmission static. Between midnight and dawn on long weekends, Channel 9 or 10 would throw together three or four 1950s science fiction or horror movies they could get cheaply from the distributors and show them. In a weird way this programming decision was an act of faith and the channels never knew how popular or unpopular these marathons were. Ratings were not tallied that late at night. Their only feedback was via letters to either the station themselves or the TV pages of newspapers.

Working in this information vacuum, the channels didn't advertise the movie marathons. You had to buy a newspaper, TV Week or TV Times and check the listings. My brother Garry and I loved movie marathons but there were objections to us watching them that mostly had to do with the fact that they were on all night.

However, we were not unschooled in guile. We had seen The Caper of the Golden Bulls, They Came To Rob Las Vegas and Deadfall. We knew how to plan and execute covert actions, with or without John Barry music playing in the background.
So we snuck out of bed, turned the TV volume down low and became familiar with the works of John AgarJack ArnoldBeverley Garland and Richard Carlson. It was worth a half-comatose Sunday to stay up all night and watch them. We snuck back to bed before anyone was any the wiser and claimed to be feeling unwell.

Our second possibility of viewing that one desired genre movie was late on Saturday night. Purloining the concept of horror movie hosts from the Americans, the 0-10 Network showed double feature horror movies hosted by four different guys called Deadly Earnest.

The Deadly Earnests were disgusting ghoulish characters cracking badly punny jokes in sets decorated with coffins, spider webs and instruments of medieval torture. Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide all had different Deadly Earnests. They all looked different and they all did their own shtick.

Fortunately interstate travel was less common in the 1960s and so Deadly Earnest Confusion among seven to fourteen year old boys was kept to manageable levels.

I may be biased, but Sydney had the best Deadly Earnest, Ian Bannerman. He looked like Michael Caine's Harry Palmer as a zombie. He was Beatlemania meets the walking dead. None of the other Earnests approached that level of cool.

The Deadly Earnests hosted and mocked movies like The Hypnotic Eye, It Came From Beneath The Sea, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and The Monster Of Piedras Blancas. Solid 1950s drive-in fare sold to television stations in cheap package deals. Again, it required us to stay up past bedtime, but it wasn't a school night and so deals were cut, especially if we were visiting family members on school holidays.

The theatre managers had more marketing-savvy than the television networks. They knew their audience and acted accordingly. Lobby cards for the horror double feature were displayed for two months before New Year's Eve in an alcove window outside the cinema. Every kid who went to a Saturday matinee saw the lobby cards and wanted to go to that one midnight session where Creature From The Black Lagoon or Psycho or Curucu, Beast Of The Amazon or Caltiki- The Immortal Monster would be shown. The lobby cards teased us with images of Anthony Perkins, the Gill Man and lesser rubber-suited monsters. We really wanted to see those films and they were never shown on television.

In 1948 the Australian government censors banned all horror movies from all cinemas. Let's put this in context. Hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened World War Two veterans had hit civvy street a couple of years before. The government decided to protect these ANZACs from seeing Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill or Lon Chaney Jr spookily imply hideous things that then occurred off-screen. I'm sure they were grateful.

This policy continued for over a decade which meant that by the 60s and 70s there weren't many prints of classic horror movies in Australia.

The censors were even more parochial and paternalistic than that. In the late 1940s they also expressed grave and serious concern at the number of crime movies being produced by Hollywood. Many years later, after the Cahiers Du Cinema guys coined the term film noir, those very movies would become treasured parts of cinema history. At the time of their production however, Australian censors thought they were The Dummy's Guides To A Life Of Crime. Rififi must have scared the shit out of them when it came out in the early fifties. That 25 minute jewelry robbery was a How To Guide for budding burglars.

Essentially, the censors decided that Australian cinema goers could exist solely on a diet of Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies, Cecil B. DeMille biblical epics, Roger and Hammerstein musicals and B-picture starring Audie Murphy, Jeff Chandler, Jock Mahoney and Sabu.

Came the 1970s and things changed for the better. The film festival mob, including an English migrant called David Stratton, got mightily pissed off by their annual drubbing by the censors. These pioneering cinephiles were a new breed. They were educated at private schools alongside people who were by that stage in Federal Parliament. They also had mates who wrote for newspapers and there was nothing a mid-20th Century Australian newspaper journalist liked more than kicking the arses of politicians, unless it was beer, cigarettes, strippers and two-up games.

So the government was lobbied with cogent, rational arguments and finally in 1971 the R Certificate became law. Oddly, it was a conservative government that created the new rating system, thanks to a now-revered politician called Don Chipp who later jumped ship to create his own political party, the Australian Democrats.

Entry to an R-rated film was restricted to people over the age of eighteen but the censorship limitations were significantly, if not completely, removed.

The first movie to get an R Certificate in Australia was Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller. In its wake came a flood of blaxploitation flicks, Roger Corman women in prison movies, sweet little dubbed Swedish sex comedies, a decade or more of back-catalogued Hammer and Amicus horror films replete with Kensington Gore and heaving bosoms. There were even locally made movies like TheAdventures Of Barry McKenzie, Stone and Alvin Purple. Without the R certificate there would have been no Ozploitation.

At first, being in my mid-teens by this stage, I thought the R certificate was an egregious affront to my self-identified right to see movies.

This is where the recklessness of youth has an upside. At the age of fifteen and feeling both bold and defiant, I splashed Brut aftershave over myself and tried to get in to see the Jim Brown action movie Slaughter on a double feature with Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha at the Regal. Both were R Rated. I put on a gruff, deep voice and said “One, please”.

The man in the box office didn't even look up from his newspaper as he sold me a ticket to cinematic freedom.

(These days, with multiplexes, the process is simplified: buy a ticket to a Pixar movie, slip out of the kiddie-flick and into Cinema One where the R rated film is showing, but you didn't hear that from me.)

After that initial success at adding three years to my alleged age, I just fronted up to cinemas and saw anything I liked. Nobody really gave a shit as long as they sold a ticket.

As a teenager, there is nothing quite as satisfying as getting away with something adults have forbidden. Add to that the frisson of female cinematic nudity and a love of ridiculous violence and breaking the law never felt so good. While my contemporaries were smoking dope and drinking illegally, I was watching The Ginger Trilogy, The Wicker Man and Across 110th Street.

There were unexpected benefits, too. It made gift-giving dead simple. No more argyle socks and Blue Stratos deodorant for Father's Day. Give the old man The Dirty Dozen and Enter The Dragon and on Mother's Day you couldn't walk down a suburban street without hearing Doris Day singing The Deadwood Stage from Calamity Jane from every second house.

Communities began to coalesce around the idea that you could become knowledgeable about film genres without spending two weeks in another town at a film festival, or doing a University cinema appreciation course or travelling ridiculous distances to see Ladri Di Biciclette in a dingy flea-pit where you could watch the cockroaches run across your shoes by the light coming from the seat numbers at the end of the aisle.

Around this time, with our dial-up modems on Usenet we could start to download movie stills and short clips in multiple-part postings. Most of the time there were parts missing from the usenet group feed. Worse still, someone would call our home phone number and disconnect the dial-up modem somewhere around the 96th percentile of a painfully slow download. Digitizing a full movie would have been cool but nobody had a hard-drive above 20MB at the time and even a fairly low-resolution feature film took up ten times that.

Speeds of processors, swifter connections and innovation increased over time. Moore's Law saw to that. Eventually PCs started coming with CD instead of floppy disk drives and you could hold a whole movie on just two disks! I remember that it used to take roughly twenty hours to digitize a whole VHS tape. I needed a special PC card to do it, which cost as much, not adjusted for inflation, as the netbook I'm typing this on.

I travelled to the USA in 1998 and most of my luggage coming back was two sports bags crammed with videotapes I couldn't buy in Australia. When I reached Customs on the way back I pushed my trolley through the “nothing to declare” doors and suddenly found myself in the concourse without ever seeing a customs officer. In those pre-9/11 days, this was not entirely unusual. Later I discovered that two of the films I'd brought in were banned in Australia.

So zip-pan to the second decade of the 21st Century. We've now survived DVDs, the Blu-Ray/HD War, and moved forward to bittorrent and digital downloads. Where once you had to go to a cinema to see a new release movie, now you don't even have to leave the couch.

This blossoming of movie availability has yielded unexpected benefits. Without it we wouldn't have Quentin Tarantino, the video store clerk who made good, or the vast numbers of film festivals, rooftop cinemas, home theatres, HBO and best of all, audiences who are cinematically literate.

The physical manifestation of movies has come full circle. From the cinema-only days when all we saw of the physical media of movies were anonymous metal boxes lined up outside projection booths, all we now see of them are icons on a screen. Copies of movies have again become all but invisible but this time, we consumers control them.

Movie studios now have their own spy agencies, con artists, shifty lawyers and strong-arm merchants to attempt to enforce their copyright. These daughter-industries of the entertainment corporations resemble nothing so much as the Feds in an old Warner Brothers gangster movie trying to enforce prohibition. We have now reached an age when stopping the piracy of films, music and books is like trying to stop neutrinos with a tennis racquet. From holding all the cards and strongly controlling access, the authorities now hold a pair of deuces and we know the bouncer.

Technology gives us a choice of which movies we see and when, and it also gives us the ability to share the passion for cinema in ways previously unimaginable. The diaspora of cinema both geographically and technologically, and the gift of being able to talk globally about films I love and hate enriches my life. In my lifetime the definition of cinema has changed radically but  I still get that frisson when the lights go, the electric shadows begin and I'm about to see a new movie. 

1 comment:

Iain said...

Wonderful reminiscence, Terry. I grew up in Canberra which only had two channels (ABC and Channel 7) and didn't have late night movie marathons until sometime in the mid-70s (I can't remember the films we watched, Dr Phibes Rises Again may have been one of them, but I remember falling asleep during Moon Zero-Two.) Fortunately in years 11 and 12 we could do film appreciation courses, and sources films from both the National Library and the various embassies, my first exposure to Jean Luc Godard, Sergio Leone etc. Electric Shadows had started which modelled itself on the legendary Valhalla Cinema in Sydney. That was where I saw Harold and Maude with my father, a film that means a lot to me even today.

Through meeting up with the local SF club in primary school I found out about a 16mm film group where we would sit in a cold and drafty hall on hard plastic seats and watch Val Lewton doubles. In a way I miss the old film clubs.

But for years my only access to SF, Fantasy and Horror films was Famous Monsters of Filmland. Copies were hard to get in Canberra so they became geek pornography to us, hurriedly passed around until an authority figure showed up, presumably to confiscate them.

We live in a kind of wonderland of film now, I've seen films I never thought I'd have the opportunity to see (like Guy DeBord's "The Society of the Spectacle" which, to be honest, I haven't made it all the way through.) We have an embarrassment of riches but I still miss the communal experience of seeing a legendary film for the first time in a room full of like minded fans and discussing afterwards over cups of tea and warm cordial.