January 17-23, 2007

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Cult Leader

How to Watch An Old Movie: And why stoners should dig Douglas Fairbanks

By Steve Palopoli

I LOVE TO watch old movies. More than that, I love to watch old movies on the big screen. If you've ever seen a black-and-white film in a great theater, you may know what I'm talking about when I say the experience rates somewhere between sex and Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot tournaments on my list of Top 10 things to do on a rainy afternoon.

Lately, I've had plenty of opportunities—the Bay Area is finally catching up to Los Angeles in great showcases for classic films. In its recent two-week run of screenings, the California Theatre showed not only well-worn crowd-pleasers like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Casablanca (yes, I went to see it anyway), but also Douglas Fairbanks' 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro.

I'd never seen Fairbanks' first swashbuckler blockbuster, and it was a revelation. How is this man not a hero to stoners everywhere? Has there ever been an action hero who so looked like he was out of his mind on Scooby Snacks? Not only does he laugh at danger, he laughs at everything, and wears a big ol' goofy grin through the whole thing. Yet he still wins every swordfight, gets the girl and liberates his peeps. This movie has it all!

I also caught Double Indemnity—my favorite film of all time, incidentally—at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland last week. They've been showing a classic movie a week, but apparently this was the last one for a while, which is too bad since whatever they've been doing for publicity, it worked. Several hundred people showed up—one of the best turnouts I've ever seen for a revival screening.

On the plus side, how cool to see a democratization of what has become a fairly specialized type of movie experience. A lot of people just won't watch "olden" movies—which means "anything made before 1982," a girlfriend once told me. You can laugh, but don't make the mistake of assuming she's alone in thinking like that.

Which leads me to the downside of my Double Indemnity experience, which was that some people there simply didn't know how to watch an old movie. This is a common problem, symptoms of which include laughing a lot at things that aren't funny, and not laughing at things that are funny.

The situation can turn embarrassing if the viewer, thinking he or she is more sophisticated than the movie, laughs at something totally inappropriate. A good example was the Double Indemnity line Fred MacMurray says in reference to his bleak situation: "Just like I remembered what you had told me, Keyes. About that trolley-car ride and how there was no getting off until the end of the line where the cemetery was. And then I got to thinking what cemeteries are for. They're to put dead people in." A few people laughed as if they thought the filmmakers didn't realize how strange that construction sounds. But then came the kicker: "I guess that was the first time I ever thought about Phyllis that way." Deafening silence in the theater, except for some uncomfortable shifting by at least one person near me who had just laughed.

Here's how to avoid such embarrassment: Don't judge the datedness of a movie before you've seen it—there's a big difference between a campfest like Reefer Madness or Plan Nine From Outer Space and something that holds up today, like The Apartment or Psycho. Truly great films have a timeless quality—in fact, they defined the attitudes we think of as "modern." Also, don't forget that irony was not invented in 1989—it's been one of the filmmaker's most powerful weapons since the early days, and by 1934's The Thin Man, sarcasm was pretty much Hollywood's primary export.

Lastly, the different styles of earlier filmmaking eras can be disorienting, like learning a new language. Don't get too hung up on the anachronistic details. However, there are a couple of things it's always OK to laugh at: prices (the line in Double Indemnity about a house costing $30,000 always earns a roar from California audiences) and outdated stereotypes. They'll pull you out of the viewing experience every time. And hey, if the filmmakers were foolish enough to put them in, they're fair game.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite movie anachronism here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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