Posted by keelsetter on September 23, 2012
Last night I had the sudden realization that a pending and key event on my fall film program is going to bomb. I’m flying out a filmmaker for both a Q&A and special show after the screening, and this was planned out since June. But only hours ago did it strike me with a Christopher Walken Dead Zone-style premonition that this film director is going to fly all the way from NYC to Colorado to talk to a mostly empty auditorium. It will be a far cry from the experience we had when we first flew him out about 10 years ago to speak alongside his debut feature. On that night, the auditorium was packed, all 400 seats were filled, and I had to turn people away. Why am I so sure nobody will show up this time out? Because the date of the event is Wednesday, October 3rd: the night of the first presidential debate between Obama and Romney – and that debate is taking place, live, a mere 30 miles away from my film venue. My special event will not only get eclipsed, it’s dead in the water.
This painful programming blunder immediately brought other bad memories to the fore. I’m not sure why, but my crowning achievements all seem relegated to a vault full of washed out VHS tapes that my mind barely ever taps into (probably because it can’t find a tape player that works), whereas my stumbling moments are encoded in 3-D Hyper HD formats and put on loops that are projected in perpetuity on the back wall of my skull. Some include helpful cautionary lessons worth imparting to others.
Let’s start with this one: if you’re going to bring a porn star to campus, hire extra security guards. That was what I learned when we brought out Stacy Valentine for a Q&A of Christine Fugate’s documentary about Stacy titled The Girl Next Door (1999). It wasn’t quite on par with the scene in Apocalypse Now where the Playboy bunnies had to flee for safety as the guys go nuts, but it had a similar mad energy. At our screening, which was sold-out, a bunch of frat guys managed to sneak in through auxiliary exits and they crowded the aisles and halls. To ensure we were in compliance with the fire codes we found ourselves having to forcefully eject a small herd of Animal House rejects. Crowd-control was an issue all night long. What I still remember from The Girl Next Door is how fearless and candid Stacy was in allowing herself to be filmed while under anesthesia to receive breast implants. Or how a kiss was far more intimate when shooting a porn film than copulation. The documentary was far from sexy, evoking instead a sense of something sad, tragic, but honest. It was later brought to my attention that when Stacy was having dinner she isolated the different food items on her plate so that they wouldn’t touch each other, which struck me as a bizarre compensation for all the physical intrusions she’s endured as part of her career.
Around that same time I also brought out “The Hitchhiker” from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Edwin Neal), and he offered up his his own personal 35mm print for the occasion. It never dawned on me to ask him if I could get it well in advance of the screening to double-check the quality. He was the guest, and he was even bringing out his teenage son to watch this pivotal film for the very first time. A good 35mm print of this horrific masterpiece was, back then, crazy hard to find (years later the studios would strike up new prints). Ed’s visit was a pure delight for a genre fan such as myself. He is a gifted story teller, movie poster collector, and very animated on every level. I entertained him with a private 16mm screening of Eyes Without a Face, which he’d never seen before despite some interesting similarities to Tobe Hooper’s work. We took him and his son up to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, for some sight-seeing, and a good time was had by all. But these good times came to a screeching halt when I had the projectionist throw up the first reel of Ed’s 35mm print to screen on the night before the show. It was badly faded, which by itself was not a deal-breaker, but it also had a giant traffic-light-red circle that filled most of the projected image and was beyond grind-house bad. So at the last minute I snapped up a 16mm print that I knew to be in decent condition and we slapped that onto a tower and screened this in place of Ed’s personal 35mm print. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake, mostly because of a discrepancy in speeds between the slot-load projector and the take-up tower for the film reel that resulted in the film losing its loop every 15-20 minutes. The result was an increasingly shaky image that invariably kept shutting down operations and requiring us to restart the film. We did this over, and over, and over. Here was the actor, in the audience, with his son (who was watching his dad’s performance for the first time), and both had to endure watching us butcher the proceedings in a way that made it easy to imagine how the film might have seemed if shot by a cinematographer who would go into hysterical hiccups before prematurely shutting off the camera in the middle of every other shot. Ed, I’m so sorry, and I hope both you and your son can someday forgive me for this particular debacle.
Dark Days (2000), the fascinating black-and-white documentary shot on borrowed 16mm equipment by Marc Singer, while he was living with the homeless in the tunnels under NYC, proved to be too popular for its own good. At this point readers who are paying attention can take some consolation in knowing that not only porn stars can pack a 400-seat house to over-flowing numbers for people are also interested to hear and see stories about those who are disenfranchised among us and live on the fringe. The word-of-mouth on Dark Days was so hot, that 300 latecomers refused to leave upon hearing the venue was full and, instead, began a surge past my student staffers who were trying to keep people at the door from coming in. The situation became unruly and I found myself in the thick of it. I will never forget being nose-to-nose with one particularly irate customer in dire need of anger management therapy and who was trying to incite a riot. He lobbed a steady stream of insults and spittle in my face and I came as close as I’ve ever come in this life to using my clenched fists on another human being, but I’m happy to report that I managed to stay my ground without tossing out a single punch. This was due, in no small part, to my ability to conjure a rather unflattering headline with my name prominently splashed across the morning paper.
Speaking of unruly crowds, I also played a small but regrettable role at the 1999 Lapdance Film Festival which, according to Glasgow Phillips (author of The Royal Nonesuch), “was the biggest party ever thrown at Sundance, including Sundance events. The line of headlights stretched down the mountain toward Park City, and probably three thousand people were in and out over the course of the night.” Although I have fond memories of the party itself, I have decidedly mixed feelings about my active role in helping the party organizers convince one of the most important avant-garde filmmakers of our time, Stan Brakhage, to lend his work and time to the affair. (Stan passed away four years later.) Especially when it turned out that the selection of his films that were being included in the program were being projected from a balcony onto a huge screen on the far side of the building as background visuals rather than being screened in a proper theatrical environment that was respectful of the filmmaker. It didn’t help that things went downhill from there. More literally, they jumped off the second floor balcony onto the dance floor below, as Phillips himself recounts in his book: “My most vivid memory from the evening if of being packed tightly among people I did not know on the balcony and seeing one of Stan Brakhage’s films jump loose from the unmanned projector. It spooled out gaily, a falling celluloid ribbon, and was trampled to avant-garde bits beneath the feet of the crowd below.”
But, hey! At least no-one died. Which is what almost happened five years later around Halloween of 2004, when we decided to show a bunch of horror films in the local Odd Fellows Hall, which included a freak show that was topped of with a live rock concert. About 300 people were there, in costume, but the overall noise-level proved to be a bit much for the historic building. It brought the roof down – or at least part of the ceiling. Thankfully, when a five-foot-in-diameter chunk of three-inch-thick hard plaster decided to come crashing down near the entrance, it was toward the end of festivities and nobody was standing near the soon-to-be-damaged floor. Cleanup for that particular gig was an exhaustive and nasty affair, but at least no blood was involved to complicate the proceedings and, thankfully, my choice to have my entire crew dress up like Hell’s Angels didn’t become a prophecy for a similar tragedy as happened in Altamont.
I’ll end with one last tidbit gleaned from my last fundraising attempt, which included a screening of Straight to Hell Returns followed by a concert featuring a Clash-cover band called The Nuns of Brixton which was then headlined by a local powerhouse group called Veronica. The event was meant to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the film series I program. In what I intended as a celebratory note to reward the long-time customers who have attended our many films, I decided to buy a keg from a local beer company called Wake Up Dead Imperial Stout. This high-octane Russian Imperial Stout has an ABV of 10.20% and would normally be served in a small wine glass for about $4 or $5. Me, being the genius that I am and feeling generous and celebratory, thought it would be a nice idea to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the film series I program by selling this potent brew for 70 cents a pint glass. I’ll spare you the litany of damage this caused and the number of people who went to jail. I proffer it only as a cautionary note that ties into this notion that when planning special events every small detail is important. Inspect your films ahead of time, anticipate crowd-control problems, be mindful of practicing non-violence at all times, don’t talk filmmakers into projects they’re uncomfortable with, don’t give out booze on pennies to the pint, and always make sure to have proper insurance coverage.
Oh, and don’t fly out filmmakers to put on a show that conflicts with the first presidential debate of the year. That would be bad.
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