As Chance the Gardener said so succinctly in Being There (1979), “I like to watch.”
I was one of those kids, part of the Star Wars generation, raised on Sunday afternoon reruns of Abbott & Costello features and secret after bedtime viewings of the CBS late night movie.
I watched WTAE’s Sunday morning movie instead of going to church, and weekends were spent watching the likes of Logan’s Run (1976) and Rollerball (1975) on WPIX and WWOR. Thanksgiving and Black Friday marathons of Godzilla and King Kong were yearly traditions and I would wake up early on my days off to watch all the films from the beginning.
It wasn’t just TV though, I begged my parents to take me to the movies at every opportunity and in those days it was no big deal to drop your kid off at the theater for an hour or two, while mom shopped or did whatever else grown-ups did. I saw all of the classics, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), The Land that Time Forgot (1975), The Norseman (1978), the Benji films, Disney fare like Herbie Goes Bananas (1980) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976), The Bad News Bears go to Japan (1978), etc. OK, maybe not classics, but beloved none the less. Our local library also had a pretty good cinema program too and I can recall one fantastic afternoon of Universal Monsters clips and select highlights from Hammer Films.
Then there was The Star Channel, later to be rechristened The Movie Channel, and my fate was sealed. Our town had a free preview week, back when having cable meant you had twelve channels instead of three, and we watched Gray Lady Down (1978) one evening. After that, it seemed like everyone in town subscribed, or at least all my parent’s friends and relatives. Suddenly, there was a whole new level of accessibility to films, and not just kid’s fare either.
The Movie channel would air about 30-35 films a month in rotation, and I’d pretty much see everything by the end of the four weeks. The neighborhood kids would have sleep overs which almost always ended up in us watching whatever was on all night long. We’d sit through multiple viewings of Dogs of War (1980) and Attack Force Z (1982) and be especially delighted when something risky like Fade to Black (1980) was on.
If mom knew I was watching the likes of Little Darlings (1980), Humanoids from the Deep (1980) and Carnal Knowledge (1971) she would protest, but having two working parents meant a lot of unsupervised TV and despite any rumors to the contrary, I was basically a good kid, so I was left on my own a lot.
My dad was somewhat the opposite, and I think he enjoyed the cinema as much as I did. Although he was never as obsessed, he made sure we always had The Movie Channel, then HBO and later Showtime. From the first, he and I would watch the broadcast runs of the James Bond films, back when ABC was “still the one,” and later would take me to see my first R rated films in the theater. We saw Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Blues Brothers (1980), Blade Runner (1982) and The Road Warrior (1981) before I was old enough to buy my own ticket. Even before that though, he would often take my sister and I to the drive-in on nights when mom had to work. We’d see films like The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979) and Candleshoe (1977) through the windshield of the Oldsmobile.
The 1980’s brought us the VHS boom, and with seemingly a new video rental shop manifesting on every corner, there was now an opportunity to not only watch films, but to actively have a choice in what to watch. No more would my viewing be dictated by the whims of a programming director or restricted by what was currently showing in the theater. Now, I could choose what I wanted to see, when I wanted to see it.
I’d go on runs, like watch every Chuck Norris movie, Good Guys Wear Black (1978), A Force of One (1979) and The Octagon (1980), or all those ninja movies, Ninja III: the Domination (1984), or fantasy films such as Deathstalker (1983), Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982) and Barbarian Queen (1985), often watching two or three films a night.
It wasn’t always genre films either, by the end of the VHS era, I was making my way through established filmmakers. I spent two weeks with Hitchcock, starting with The Trouble with Harry (1955) on through North by Northwest (1959), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the rest.
Eventually though, the VCR gave way to DVD and with that shift, came not only the ability to rent films, but to affordably own our own copies. As a bonus, they never looked better. Our TVs got bigger, and the resolution clearer. It was a cinephile’s dream. Suddenly, aspect ratio mattered. Letterboxing was essential, and never again was I going to watch anything “pan & scan” or “edited for television.”
I became obsessed with owning my favorites, watching and re-watching the best of the best: Big Trouble in Little China (1986), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Then as prices dropped to consumer friendly levels, it was even easier and practically more affordable to just buy a film on DVD even if you had never seen it before. For the price of two theater tickets you could own the DVD.
Obscure films, both domestic and international were all easily within reach thanks to the Internet. With the whole Asian film market opened up to me, I dove in head first. Not just obsessed with quality films like House of Flying Daggers (2004) but a true love of more genre films like the ‘girls with guns” pictures Naked Weapon (2002) and Beyond Hypothermia (1996). I started tracking down and collecting film noir, The Killers (1946) and Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia (1946) and seeking out films I had missed in my childhood, The Cat from Outer Space (1978).
All of which leads me to where I am now… a cinema irregular.
I will generally watch almost any movie, any genre, and usually find something to like about it. I’m not saying all films are good, and believe me I’ve seen a lot that weren’t, Tenement a.k.a., Game of Survival (1985) I’m calling you out, but given the right time and place, even a bad film can be good when watched with the right group of friends.
With that in mind, and with the encouragement of my friends who often have to listen to my film critiques at lunch, I’m starting this blog to record my thoughts on what I’m watching.
I won’t always promise you’ll like the films mentioned in this blog, in fact I’m sure that won’t be the case, but hopefully you’ll at least find yourself exposed to a film or two you may not have heard of or see an old movie in a new light.