I don't remember the title associated with my earliest movie memory (truth be told, I probably fell asleep before the trailers finished). I do recall a warm summer night, gravel crunching under the tires, the slightly musty smell of overstuffed pillows propped up in the back of the flatbed truck; I remember the crackle of the silver-gray speakers hanging from side windows and the flashing beam of the movie projector as my father and I weaved between parked cars on the way to the snack bar. I remember how happy people looked in their little drive-in auto camps: the folks with coolers and lawn chairs, roasting hot dogs; the teenagers curled up under blankets, giggling on the hoods of their cars; the kids playing on the jungle gym and racing through the darkness as pre-show cartoons flickered overhead. This was not my first movie, but the first to make an impression not as passive experience, but as event.
Later, in my teens, came The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Wall at the Strand, social scenes that required planning, preparation, and props, or, at the very least, mind-altering substances. It wasn't until my early 20s, however, that I discovered living-room cinema.
Cutting through an alley South of Market, I came across an open doorway, suffused by the flickering light of a film projector. On the door was a small, handwritten sign — “SHADOWS” — with an arrow pointing down a short stairway. Like Alice, I descended, discovering a small concrete room with 15 people crowded together in front of a projection of John Cassavetes' Shadows. The screen was a pitted and cracked concrete wall, painted white; the seats were old sofa cushions. Someone handed me a dixie cup filled with popcorn, and someone else indicated a hollow in the crowd where I might insert myself.
At the time I didn't know anything about Cassavetes as a director, but I learned that night. Shadows was the last of a monthlong series that included The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, and Faces; the following week would begin a series on Ingmar Bergman, again working backward, from Fanny and Alexander to The Seventh Seal. I went a number of times, not because I felt a pressing desire to see any particular movie, but because I enjoyed the experience — the strange sense of community tucked away, below the street, in a concrete room, watching black-and-white images flicker on a wall.
The Bay Area is rife with participatory moviegoing adventures, some established enough to have crawled out of obscurity. The MadCat Women's International Film Festival, for example, which usually hosts movies under the starlight canopy of El Rio's back patio, began as a small get-together, but has morphed into an international, juried affair. And the Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In Movie Festival has been invading local parking lots for the last nine years.
Others are just getting started: “Spaghetti and a Western” at Aloft features pasta, salad, and garlic bread as well as prizes for the best hat, whistle, and scowl; “Midnight at Eight” is aimed at girls who love cult movies but need their beauty rest and is hosted by a female drag queen and her frisky sidekick at Femina Potens; the “ANSWER Film Series” of socially conscious cinema is presented by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) at Artists' Television Access; the film shorts shown in “Beer-O-Scope” enliven the Zeitgeist beer garden; and a wide range of horror/rock 'n' roll/action movies is offered in the Jezebel's Joint subterranean screening room, which can turn into a low-impact B/D playroom and emergency make-out nook after the midnight curfew.
But not every local film-watching adventure happens underground, or even in San Francisco.
With its grand lobby, gilded balconies, plush seats, velvet curtains, and “carved glass” entranceway, Oakland's Paramount Theatre offers more than breath-suspending beauty; Timothy L. Pflueger's design hearkens back to an era when moviegoing was inherently social. Outside the 2,992-seat auditorium are smoking lounges, sitting rooms, wet bars, promenades, couches, benches, and balustrades (conveniently located in two crow's-nests above the grand lobby, where the elegantly coiffed crowd might be quietly observed). To the creators of the Paramount Theatre, sociability was of key importance, and, thankfully, the effects of their conviction have not been lost over the years.
Even waiting in line to buy my $5 ticket for the summer season's opening night — a screening of the 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate — I am surprised by the congeniality of fellow moviegoers. Strangers strike up conversation, hold places for each other in line, share jokes and smokes as the sun slides behind the theater's mosaic façade. In the amber-drenched lobby, an elegant couple dressed in '30s-era evening wear greets us with sparkling smiles while, in the auditorium, Jim Riggs ruffles the keys and teases the pedals of the Mighty Wurlitzer. Some patrons saunter to the bar for a pre-show cocktail; others take their seats to clap along with the rousing Riggs. I climb to the top floor to peer through the porthole that overlooks the lobby, then run my fingers over the ornate walls in the balcony. With nearly half an hour before curtain, the auditorium is already more than half-filled, and there is a noticeable current in the air; the crowd is buzzing as if the world's greatest superstar were about to appear. Instead, a large standing roulette wheel is rolled out onstage. It's time to play Dec-O-Win!
I scurry down the staircase and take my seat next to a powder-cheeked grandmother who swears she saw The Black Pirate the first time around, near a 7-year-old girl and her all-natural “Earth mother,” six rows behind a rowdy band of urban pirates waving toy cutlasses. The eclectic crowd falls silent as a young woman in silver and black satin slinks across the stage to spin the wheel.
“8-2-9-1,” announces her dapper companion as audience members carefully study their ticket stubs. When someone finally waves his ticket in the air, the crowd applauds heartily. “Congratulations! You've won luxury accommodations at the Oakland Airport Holiday Inn.” Laughter and more applause. [page]
“The next prize is a gift certificate for the Pacific Coast Brewing Company in lovely downtown Oakland.”
“And, finally, season passes for two to the Paramount Theatre's 'Summer Classic Film Series'!”
While the crowd's enthusiasm for Dec-O-Win is impressive, it pales next to the abandon that accompanies the pre-show cartoon and vintage newsreel; the general din of laughter, applause, and hooting is punctuated by heartfelt exclamations of glee, such as “I'll always love you, Rudy!” shouted during the footage of Rudolph Valentino's funeral procession, and “Pirates of the air!” yelled during a clip of Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic. By the time Douglas Fairbanks rips his first shirt and swings from his first sail, I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl and ready for more.
Like the Paramount's summer series, the Parkway Theater's “Thrillville” — hosted by Will the Thrill Viharo and his wife and able-bodied assistant, Monica Tiki Goddess — embraces the premise that movies can be more than a spectator sport. “[Y]ou need to offer people an interactive alternative, some sort of seductive gimmick, just to pique their curiosity, then sucker-punch them with the movie,” says Will, and the curiosity-piquing is hardly subtle. All shows include a spin of the “Big Wheel” and fabulous prizes (usually movie books, posters, or CD compilations really worth having), and most include live music (often a full rock band, live theremin player, or Rat Pack impersonator), pre-show titivation (most often in the form of the Tiki Goddess, but occasionally by way of a stripper or two), and a pre-feature warm-up (such as an episode of The Shadow or Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot). Unlike the Paramount, though, “Thrillville” does not venerate forgotten silver screen classics. Rather, the Viharos and their fans revel in the B-movie debauchery of the '50s and '60s, yearning for a time when Karo syrup went further than CGI. Beach bunnies, bikers, monsters, spies, thugs, and slime are “Thrillville”'s regular fare, and none of them is confined to the screen; over the years, Viharo has invited live dancing girls, biker gangs, and men in foam-rubber monster suits to waltz across his stage, along with midnight-movie hosts, Hollywood has-beens, and a legion of C-list celebrities. Here, the chaise longue and cold martini have been supplanted by the overstuffed couch and pitcher of draft beer, and most people in attendance think William Castle and Ed Wood could mop the floor with Cary Grant and Fay Wray, any day of the week.
Werepad Movie Lounge founders Jacques Boyreau, Scott Moffett, and Vikki Vaden would hold the bucket while Grant and Wray were drowned. Nestled on the discreet, industrial expanse of Third Street in San Francisco, the Werepad is designated by a silhouette of Leroy, the free-'fro-sporting mascot that has come to typify its creators' fierce passions, which are “exploitation cinema” and the “beatnik lifeforce,” writes Boyreau, author of Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Movie Posters.
Slipping into the dimly lit lounge, one half expects to see the cast of The Swinger covered in body paint. Smoke curls through the air; psychedelic lights swirl across the movie screen; Kris Kristofferson, Burl Ives, and Leonard Nimoy croon over the sound system; and attractive hipsters in vintage apparel mingle and swill, their anticipation swelling. As the music fades and the smoke recedes, the cinephiles settle into their seats and the projector flickers to life. The feature — some juicy piece of cult, horror, sci-fi, or exploitation madness culled from the 400 titles in the Werepad's Cosmic Hex Film Archive — is usually preceded by a DJ and sometimes followed by a live band, but people come for the celluloid. To date, Westworld, C.C. and Company, and the television drama Go Ask Alice have (weirdly) garnered the most fervent response from Werepadians, but other titles, including Werepad productions such as Candy Von Dewd and the upcoming Beat-massacre House of Jazz, often appear under the auspices of other movie showmen such as the Four Star Theatre's Frank Lee. Lee's “Midnites for Maniacs” series is harvested from his own private collection and has included everything from the cranium-crushing Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky to the much-protested Garbage Pail Kids Movie; during a recent screening of Escape From New York, he even offered prizes to anyone who wore an eye patch.
But the current titleholder for midnight-movie maven of weird shtick is none other than Peaches Christ, for her sixth summer installment of “Midnight Mass” at the Bridge Theatre. Just standing in line is an event worth arriving an hour early for; this is where all the drag queens, musicians, wrestlers, performance artists, petty criminals, and circus freaks come on their Saturday nights off. Amid a procession of wine, grass, sparklers, and champagne, I am offered a more wholesome medley of gummy fruits and Red Vines. Inside, though, it is pure Hollywood hedonism: My large popcorn buys me a lap dance. I consider buying two, so that I might share the love, but a few well-placed dollar bills make extra butter flavoring unnecessary. Watching the crowd preen is worth the price of admission; but then Peaches and her faithful sidekick, Martiny, launch into a live rendition of the pivotal scene in Showgirls, during which Elizabeth Berkley pushes Gina Gershon down the stairs so that she can be the top topless whore in the hottest topless whore show in Vegas.
The choreographed dance routine is “fierce,” complete with sickly blond wigs. We all love Showgirls; it's an opening-night tradition. The yammering begins as soon as the opening credits roll, and members of the audience reach for the catch phrases that might stick, becoming staples among interactive Showgirls moviegoers for generations to come. After all, someone had to be the first to yell, “Describe your balls,” before Dr. Everett Von Scott said, “Heavy, black, and pendulous,” in his opening Rocky Horror monologue. [page]
To future Showgirls participants, I offer these gems:
At the first sight of Gershon, shout, “Cameltoe!”
Before the first kiss between Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan, shout, “Kiss me K.D. Lang!”
After the nightclub owner says, “The Stardust will never be dark while I'm alive,” shout, “Racist!”
Upon leaving the Bridge, one of my friends sighs contentedly and makes this comment on the emerging catcalls: “It's nice to know we're leaving behind a legacy, something to nurture and inspire the next generation that discovers the genius of Showgirls.”
The members of the Nonchalance Collective are working on their own kind of legacy. Since 2000, when they launched “City of Dreams,” a digital slide show of 130 images projected onto architectural landmarks throughout Oakland, they've devoted themselves to recording and promoting the hidden treasures and disregarded charms of their town. The slide show led to a poster campaign, which spawned the sapling Oaklandish movement, complete with stickers, T-shirts, and hoodies, all bearing the mighty oak logo. Over the last three years, Nonchalance has launched a Web site and started the Oakslander Lakeside Gazette, a zine that offers articles about East Bay characters, historical figures, anti-heroes, subterranean waterways, secret stairs, delicious hot dogs, mythic monsters, and a subject very close to the collective's heart, the Guerrilla News Network; the group has also organized games of Capture the Flag at City Hall and collaborated on open-air slide show retrospectives with the Bay Area Aerosol Heritage Society; the collective's members have produced videos on mass media misinformation and grass-roots Oakland rebellion and projected Black Panther videos onto the side of the Alameda County Courthouse to illuminate “the dispossessed and displaced spirits of Oakland” on the location where it all went down. Most happily for me, they have created the Liberation Drive-In.
On the last weekend of every summer month, Nonchalance takes over a parking lot within walking distance of the 12th Street BART station in Oakland. Armed with a large projector and a pirate radio frequency, the group shows documentaries, independent films, and B-movies with East Bay flava. Happily, there is no shortage of such fare; All Power to the People, Sun-Ra: Space Is the Place, The Mack, and Hell's Angels '69 have all graced the Oaklandish concrete screen, reminding us that if San Francisco boasts the Beats and the Gay Liberation Movement, Oakland has a history of outlaws, bikers, revolutionaries, and space messiahs, all made larger than life under a starlit sky.
During the Liberation Drive-In, people are encouraged to arrive by way of bicycle, skateboard, art car, van, truck, or foot with blankets, pillows, lawn chairs, coolers, and barbecues. Of course, small children are expected to run around like maniacs and fall asleep in the flatbed before the feature begins.