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By Theodore Rozsak
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 1991 Theodore Roszak
All rights reserved.
I saw my first Max Castle movie in a grubby basement in west Los Angeles. Nobody these days would think of using a hole in the wall like that for a theater. But in its time — the middle fifties — it was the humble home of the best repertory film house west of Paris.
Older film buffs still remember The Classic, a legendary little temple of the arts wedged unobtrusively between Moishe's Strictly Kosher Deli and Best Buy Discount Yard Goods. Now, looking back more than twenty years, I can see how appropriate it was that my first encounter with the great Castle should take place in what might have passed for a crypt. It was a little like discovering Christ in the catacombs long before the cross and the gospel became the light of the world. I came like the bewildered neophyte wandering into the dark womb of an unformed faith, and found ... what? Not a sign of the kingdom and glory to come. Only a muffled rumor of miracles, an alien rite, an inscrutable emblem scratched on the crumbling wall. Still, in the deep core of his being, the seeker feels conviction stir. He senses the great hungering mystery that lurks before him amid the rubble and rat droppings. He stays and tastes of the sacrament. Transformed, he returns to the world outside bearing an apocalyptic word.
That was how I discovered Castle years before he acquired the cult following my life's work as scholar, critic, and enthusiast would one day bring him. In my case, the sacramental supper was a single flawed film, a dancing phantom of light and shadow only dimly perceived, less than half understood. Having begun its career as a censored obscenity, the poor, luckless thing had languished for decades in the deep vaults of defunct studios and uncaring collectors. That it had managed to survive at all — at one point as one of the lesser spoils of war, at another as an article of stolen goods — was a miracle in its own right. The words of Jesus, so we are told, once existed as nothing more than chalk scrawled on the pavement of bustling cities, trodden underfoot by busy merchants, scuffed by the feet of children at play, pissed upon by every passing dog. Castle's message to the world might just as well have been committed to the dust of the streets. A movie, a thin broth of illusion smeared across perishing plastic, is no less fragile. At a dozen points along the way, it might have vanished beneath the waves of neglect like so many film treasures before and since, an item of unsalvaged cultural flotsam that never found the eye to see it for what it was. That was what Castle's work needed: a beginner's eye — my eye, before it became too schooled and guarded, while it was still in touch with the vulgar foundations of the art, still vulnerably naive enough to receive that faint and flickering revelation of the dark god whose scriptures are the secret history of the movies.
Like most Americans of my generation, my love affair with the movies reaches back farther than I can remember. For all I can say, it began with prenatal spasms of excitement and delight. My mother was a great and gluttonous moviegoer, a twice-a-week, triple-feature and selected-short-subjects fiend. She used the movies the way millions of Americans did at the tail end of the dismal thirties: twenty-five cents' worth of shelter from the heat of summer and the cold of winter, a million dollars' worth of escape from the long, bitter heartbreak of the Depression. It was also the best way to avoid the landlord lurking on the doorstep at home to collect the back rent. It may be that more than a little of the archetypal detritus that fills the unswept corners of my mind — Tarzan's primordial mating call, the cackle of the Wicked Witch of the West, the blood-howl of the Wolf Man — infiltrated my fetal sleep through the walls of the womb.
In any case, I've always regarded it as prophetic that I was born in the year that is fondly remembered as the high noon of Hollywood's Golden Age — 1939 — the annus mirabilis when the great baronial studios showered the nation with a largesse of hits, just before the storms of war submerged cinematic dreams beneath historical nightmares. I gestated through The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights. Mother's labor pains began, in fact, halfway through her third entranced viewing of Gone With the Wind — in sympathy, so she claimed, with Olivia de Havilland giving birth during the burning of Atlanta. (With the ambulance waiting at the curb, she refused to leave for the maternity ward until the management refunded her dollar-and-a-quarter admission — a hefty price in those days.)
Once born and breathing on my own, I was nursed through Joan Crawford matinees, I teethed on the Three Stooges. In early adolescence, I suffered my first confused sexual tremors when, at the action-packed conclusion of episode nine, we left Nylana, the blouse-bursting Jungle Girl, supine across a heathen altar, about to be ravished by a crazed witch doctor.
All this, the dross and froth of the movies, settled by natural gravitation into the riverbed of my youthful consciousness and there became a compacted sludge of crude humor and cheap thrills. But my devotion to film — to Film, the movies revered as the animated icons of high art — this began with The Classic during my first years at college. It was that period many now regard as the Heroic Age of the art-film house in America. Outside New York, there were at the time perhaps a few dozen of these cultural beacons in the major cities and university towns, many of them beginning to earn reasonably well from the newfound audience for foreign movies, some even taking on a few amenities: Picasso brush-stroke reproductions in the lobby, Swiss chocolates at the candy counter.
And then there were the struggling repertory and revival houses like The Classic, few in number, poor but pure. These weren't so much a business as a brave crusade dedicated to showing the films people ought to see, like them or not. Invariably, they were shoestring operations, store fronts with the windows paneled over and the walls painted black. You sat on folding chairs and could hear the projectionist fighting with his recalcitrant equipment behind a partition at the rear.
The Classic had taken up residence in a building that originally housed one of the city's first and finest picture palaces. On its opening night some time in the late twenties, a fire broke out and the place was gutted. Over the next twenty years, the surviving auditorium served as everything from a soup kitchen to a Chautauqua lecture hall. One-night-stand evangelists and passing medicine shows had frequently rented the space. Finally, before it closed down soon after the war, it had gone over to Jewish vaudeville. Faded posters for Mickey Katz as "Berny the Bull Fighter," "Meier the Millionaire," or "The Yiddisher Cowboy" could still be found hanging askew in the lobby when I started visiting. The Classic had been salvaged out of the building's capacious basement, which was as darkly sequestered as any Gothic dungeon. You entered along a dim alley next to Moishe's Deli off Fairfax Avenue. Several shadowed yards along, a discreet sign lit by a frame of low-wattage bulbs pointed around the back of the building and down a short flight of stairs. Even with people illegally huddled in the aisles, The Classic couldn't have held more than an audience of two hundred. There was only one touch of refinement: the price of the ticket included a small paper cup filled with a bitter brew that was to be my first bracing taste of espresso. Often the little cups got spilled, which left the theater's unscrubbed floors perpetually sticky underfoot.
The crowd I ran with in those early college days included an elite corps of theater-arts and film-studies majors who were advanced movie addicts. With religious scrupulosity, they took in everything that played at The Classic, which was run by one of their own kind from the previous generation, an early postwar dropout named Don Sharkey, who had discovered the art of cinema during a bohemian sojourn in Paris after being mustered out of the army. Sharkey and his woman friend Clare kept The Classic running on sweat capital and pure love. They sold the tickets, ran the projectors, mimeographed the film notes, and swept out — if any sweeping was ever done — at the end of the evening. Silent classics and vintage Hollywood movies rented cheap in those days, if you could get them at all. Even so, except for what they took in from the occasional second-run foreign film, Sharkey and Clare picked up little more than spare change from the business and had to earn from other jobs. The Classic was their way of getting others to chip in on the rentals so they could see the movies they wanted to see.
At the time, I was treading water at UCLA. My parents back in Modesto had me programmed for law school — my father's profession. I went along with the idea; anything that kept me out of the post-Korean War draft would do, and the easier the better. But it would never have occurred to me that the movies — this leftover childhood amusement — might be the subject of deep study and learned discourse. What was there to say about these cowboys and gangsters and glamour girls I had been watching since infancy in a state of semihypnotic fixation? I was bemused by the aesthetic furies that agitated my film-buff friends, the heady talk, the rarefied critical theory they exchanged among themselves as we sat drinking coffee at Moishe's after an evening at The Classic. I envied their expertise and sophistication, but I couldn't share in it. A great deal that fired them with ecstasy left me stone cold, especially the heavy-duty silent films in which The Classic specialized. Oh, I could handle Mack Sennett, Chaplin, Keaton. I had no trouble enjoying a kick in the pants, a pie in the face. But Eisenstein, Dreyer, Griffith struck me as lugubrious bores. Movies without sound (and at The Classic, too penurious to hire a pianist, the silents were shown silent, unrelieved by a hint of musical distraction, only the harsh liturgical rasp of the projector filling the hushed and lightless shrine) were my idea of a retarded art form.
What a young savage I was among the gourmets at The Classic's banquet table. I came with a voracious appetite for movies, but no taste. No, that's not true. I had taste: bad taste. Appalling taste. Well, what would you expect of someone raised on a steady diet of Monogram westerns, the Bowery Boys, Looney Tunes? For such items (I blush to say), I was blessed, or burdened, with total recall; no doubt it is all still buzzing around in my deep memory, a zany chaos of fistfights and pratfalls. At the age of ten, I could rattle off verbatim a half-dozen Abbott and Costello routines. At play in the streets, I could reconstruct in precise detail the shoot-em-up Saturday matinee exploits of Roy Rogers and Lash La Rue. My Curly the Stooge imitations were a constant household irritant.
Kid stuff. Later, in my high school years, the movies became kid stuff of another order. They were mirrors of the adolescent narcissism that blighted America of the fifties. It was that period when middle-class elders were finding all the illusions they needed on television, the family hearth of the new suburbia. By default their offspring became the nation's movie going public. Suddenly Hollywood found itself held to ransom by randy teenagers on wheels. Given the primary use the kids were making of drive-in theaters as do-it-yourself sex-education clinics, it was needlessly generous of the moviemakers to provide their work with any content at all. Make-out movies didn't exist to be watched; a blank screen would have done just as well. But those who came up for air long enough to take notice were apt to find that screen flooded with corrupting flattery, tales of moody youth grievously oppressed by insufficiently permissive parents who failed to take their least whim with the utmost and immediate seriousness. Like millions of others my age, I grasped at what I took to be a lifelong license not to grow up and rushed to pass myself off as the reincarnation of martyred James Dean — the surly slouch, the roguish clothes, the finely greased ducktail. A leather-clad, motorcycle-mounted Marlon Brando was constantly before my mind's eye, a wishful image of the perpetual untamed adolescent I wanted to be.
All this had nothing to do with the art of film; it was simply the stalled identity crisis of my generation. What was it, then, that drew a born-and-bred vulgarian like me to The Classic and its elite clientele? If I said it was a fascination with foreign films — especially with the French and Italian imports which the art houses of the time relied on to pay their bills — that might suggest some sudden refinement of taste. But no. Not immediately. Not consciously. Let me be honest. To begin with, the attraction was totally glandular. For me, as for thousands of moviegoers of the forties and fifties, foreign films meant sex — sex of a frankness American movies of the time weren't even trying to rival. For at least a few young, romantic years, European eroticism became my standard of grown-up sophistication.
Where else did I have to turn? I harbored every young man's curiosity about the mysteries of maturity. But the American movies that dominated my fantasy life were no help. On the contrary, they populated my head with treacherous delusions of womanhood. During that era of canting Eisenhower piety, the screen was peculiarly cluttered with a succession of vestal virgins — Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Deborah Kerr — who seemed to have been welded into their clothes at birth, and whose lovemaking reached its absolute libidinal limit with a dry-lipped kiss. Between the clavicle and the kneecap they had been anatomically expurgated by the Legion of Decency. Is this what I was to believe of women? Every bone in my pubescent body told me nothing human could draw a living breath and remain so antiseptic.
Yet, when Hollywood tried to smuggle a stronger dose of sex appeal through the tight cordon of censorship that surrounded it, things got even more bewilderingly unreal. The result was no improvement upon Nylana the Jungle Girl who had, for lack of anything better, been functioning as my make-believe love-slave since the age of ten. Jane Russell, Linda Darnell, Jayne Mansfield ... their intimidating torsos, cantilevered and cross-braced, with cleavage calibrated to the last permissible millimeter — so much and no more — might have been fabricated by a team of structural engineers. Even Marilyn Monroe, the movies' closest approximation to sluttish abandon, always looked to me like a windup fiberglass doll designed to titillate by the numbers. Off camera, I imagined she was packed away in the special-effects storeroom along with King Kong and the Munchkins.
The Great Change came one Saturday during my senior year at Modesto High, when, in the company of two buddies, I drove to San Francisco on secret sexual maneuvers. Our object was to infiltrate the old Peerless Theater on Mission Street, then terminally tacky but still advertising "The Hottest Burlesque West of New York." Unable to pass ourselves off at the door as grown men, we grudgingly settled for second best: a selection of Tempest Storm strip flicks at an equally seedy showplace down the street. This was also "Adults Only," but the gates weren't so closely guarded. Slipping by the near-comatose ticket-taker, we eagerly seated ourselves in the oppressively grungy auditorium amid an audience of scattered single males slouched down to the ears in their seats. For the next hour, we were treated to a dimly photographed parade of bored and beefy ladies whose perfunctory bumping and grinding was more often off camera than on. When we finally got to Tempest Storm, she was as blurred an image as all the rest and no less concealed by tassles and bangles. This erotic delight was followed by a bonus: a silent reel of posture shots featuring a dozen or so rigidly positioned "artist's models" morosely shifting this way and that. Whenever the girls failed in their maladroit efforts to make sure that not more than the permissible half-nipple was revealed, chop! the film got edited with a meat-ax. Even seen from beginning to end a second time, these were meager rations, barely enough to give us the satisfaction of vindicated manhood.
Afterward, our lust unslaked and the night still young, we cruised the streets fruitlessly looking for more of the same. Finally, when we'd drifted out of the Tenderloin into more respectable parts of town, we were ready to give up and begin the long drive home. But then, in one of the city's better neighborhoods, we happened upon a demurely lit first-run movie house whose marquee advertised a film called The Lovers. This sounded promising, and indeed there were posters of a man and a woman and a bed. We decided to make a few exploratory passes.
The theater seemed suspiciously tasteful, much too swanky for a porn show. The glass doors were polished, the lobby inside carpeted, the man who took the tickets was dressed in jacket and tie. Moreover, the audience going in wasn't the scruffy crowd with whom we'd shared Tempest Storm's charms. The men buying tickets looked well-dressed, intelligent, reputable. They looked like our fathers, for God's sake! Moreover, they had women with them. How could a guy enjoy dirty movies with females present? We knew there had to be a catch. There was. This wasn't an American movie. It was French. That's why it cost so much. A whole dollar. More than Tempest Storm. Our doubts grew stronger when one of my companions perceptively noted, "It says subtitles." He made the observation as if he'd discovered a dubious clause in the small print of a contract. "That means they put all the talking in words at the bottom of the screen."
Excerpted from Flicker by Theodore Rozsak. Copyright © 1991 Theodore Roszak. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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