Evanston, Illinois, was an idyllic 1950s paradise with stately homes, a beautiful lake, a world-class university, two premier movie houses, and one very seedy movie theater the Valencia.
This was the site of Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter's misspent youth. Instead of going to school, picking up girls, or tossing a football, Hunter could be found sitting in the fifteenth row, right-hand aisle seat of the Valencia, sating himself on one B-list movie after another.
The Valencia had a sticky floor, smelly bathrooms, ancient popcorn, and a screen set in a hideously tacky papier-mache castle wall. It was also the only place in town to see westerns, sci-fi pictures, cops 'n' robbers flicks, slapstick comedy, and Godzilla.
In Now Playing at the Valencia, the author of such bestselling novels as Havana and Pale Horse Coming has compiled his favorite movie reviews written between 1997 and 2003, bringing to the discussion the passionate feelings for cinema he discovered in the '50s, a time when genres were forming, mesmerizing stars played unforgettable characters, and enduring classics were made. While filmmaking has changed tremendously since Hunter first frequented the Valencia, the view from the fifteenth row, and the thrill of down and dirty entertainment, has remained the same.
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Now Playing at the ValenciaPulitzer Prize-Winning Essays on Movies
By Stephen Hunter
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2005 Stephen Hunter
All right reserved.
In the fifties, Evanston, Illinois, was a paradise distinguished by a million leafy elms, a beautiful lake, a world-class university, a block-by-block array of stately homes. But who the hell even noticed? I certainly didn't.
Far more interesting were its three movie theaters.
It was in one of those theaters that I misspent my youth. From the first second I'd seen a movie, I knew I had discovered a home far more nourishing than the one into which I had been born. I had an immediate imaginative connection with the images on the screen. What happened up there was as real to me -- more real, in fact -- as anything in the otherwise unglamorous career in mediocrity better known as my childhood. I should have been in school, I should have been doing my homework, I should have been mastering sports, small talk with girls, simple arithmetic, all skills that to this day elude me. But I was at the Valencia, fifteenth row, right-hand aisle seat.
The Valencia was the tawdry B-house of Evanston, located in the southern end of the small downtown, where the class and elegance of the Sherman Avenue corridor had begun, ever so gently, to decay. Architecturally, it expressed its affinity for the Spanish motif of its namesake by a style called "El Cheapo." The screen was set in a ludicrous papier-mache castle wall, complete to parapets and ramparts, all painted a dreadful mauve. The floor was eternally sticky, the bathrooms eternally smelly. Jujubes sealed in mucus dotted its ceiling. In the lobby, the Affy Tapples snared flies in their caramel tar, the Coke cup came out of the machine crooked and wasted a nickel's worth of sugary bubbles, and the popcorn had been popped before the Second World War.
Naturally, the place showed films appropriate to its location in the movie food chain: all the crumb-bum double features, a new one every week, the raw, the violent, the cheap, the sensational, the pitiful, the inept. Guns fired, blood splattered, mules talked, monsters mashed, pies flew, throats spurted, cities flattened, and planes crashed. Everyone said it was ridiculous. And, as is so often the case, everyone was wrong.
To me, the stories were thrilling, the stars -- the Ken Tobeys, the Frank Lovejoys, the Rory Calhouns, the Stephen McNallys, the Dan Duryeas -- gigantic, the themes of heroism and male supremacy utterly convincing. I also liked the guns. Those movies were filled with guns, used in every creative way. Swords were neat too, as were airplanes, but not as neat as the guns, which dangled in low-slung gunfighters' holsters or were carried with a tough sergeant's insouciant I-don't-know-what as part of the cool messy GI look.
You couldn't see guns elsewhere, at least not in such weekly profusion. You couldn't see them at the posh Varsity slightly uptown, abutting that temple of Sherman Avenue upscale consumerism, Marshall Field's. The Varsity was a cathedral of swank with twinkly lights in its dome suggesting stars in the firmament. It exhibited the A pictures of the decade, the MGM musicals, the inspirational biblical dramas, the blubbery Douglas Sirk melodramas, the big-budget Broadway and literary adaptations, like Marjorie Morningstar, which I didn't and still haven't and happily never will see. They actually cleaned the urinals at the Varsity. But there were very few guns -- much less gunfights, fistfights, sword fights, dogfights, and monster attacks -- at the Varsity.
Nor were there many guns at the Coronet further downtown, boldly located in a yet more decayed area which was dangerously closer to the actual Berlin Wall between black and white Evanstons. This was the art house where Bergman first played, and Kurosawa, where small, dark wonderful pictures changed world cinema but no cities were ever squished flat under a prehistoric paw. Immediately upon entering it -- my insane father took me a couple of times, to films he couldn't get my mother to go to; I remember Samurai and The Magician -- you understood you were in a different culture with different expectations. You had left the mainstream, a daring thing to do in the fifties, and were grasping at something strange. I picked up on this even if I couldn't articulate it, and I suppose I responded. But still: It was provocative, it was mind-spinning, it was different. But it wasn't me.
Left to my own devices, I far more happily spent my time in the Valencia. And that perhaps explains why I became the second film critic in America to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. I was -- here's the Cap-I irony -- educating myself exactly to the job I would someday be lucky enough to hold. I learned more in the Valencia than I did anywhere on earth, in any school, in the army, in a marriage, and in the features departments where I would spend my life. And that's also why I still prefer to sit in the fifteenth row, right-hand aisle seat.
This volume collects what I believe to be my best work from The Washington Post, but as I assembled it, I was astounded by how much more it seemed to do with what was playing at the Valencia in the fifties than with the present; it ends up examining in a loosey-goosey way the process by which the genre pictures of the forties and fifties became the mainstream movies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It shows why the Valencia was America in the fifties and how America of the oughts came out of the Valencia.
I've organized by genre, which of course is never quite neat enough (nothing is) and leads to a certain untidiness at the margins. Each genre corresponds to a lost pleasure of the Valencia -- those vulgar categories that still proclaimed that movies were meant to be fun, not art, without really realizing that the fun was the art. I must say rereading my own work wasn't much fun, and I kept coming across little tricks that seemed funny two minutes before a deadline but now seem pretty dreadful. And at a certain point it became clear to me that maybe I don't have the true movie-mind that believes there is no other life than the life on the screen. If you want that, plenty of critics can provide it, geniuses all. I don't thrive on arcane cinema data and can't remember entire crews down to third assistant grip. I'm not even sure what a grip is. Even as a critic, I've never really left the Valencia: I want the Valencia's pleasures, which are escape, excitement, provocation, most of all an emotional journey. Otherwise, I lose interest and don't care what lens was used.
So I'm really only selling one product: my attempt to convey the awe and joy at what's on screen, and the bitterness when it's absent. It's not much, I admit. You won't learn a lot, except by accidental inference: a sense of why we go to the movies, what we want from them, what we in fact get from them, and why they are so damned important to us. And the answer, I suspect, has much to do with your childhood and how you first saw them. Lord help you if The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was your first experience.
Copyright 2005 by Stephen Hunter
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Table of Contents
2 Crime and Suspense
6 Monsters and Sci-fi
8 A Last Visit to the Valencia