Aside from the ocean and other screenwriters, the coolest thing so far about L.A. is the existence of actual “revival” or “repertory” cinemas. Tacoma, of course, has the Grand, ingeniously packaged in a building with a couple of art galleries and a coffeeshop. Atlanta’s homegrown Lefont Theaters chain is greatly diminished from its late ’70s/early ’80s peak, and the Screening Room is now gone, but the Midtown was picked up by Landmark and United Artists bought the Tara. And Chicago, when I lived there, had the Fine Arts, the Music Box, and two or three others. But these are all “art” cinemas, playing contemporary non-mainstream movies. Sometimes those movies are really mini-mainstream films, employing recognizable actors in fairly conventional stories, and all the “art” designation means is that the films aren’t pitched to 14-year-old boys. On the other hand, I’ve occasionally seen some really unusual and challenging work at these theaters: Catherine Breillat’s Une Veille Maitresse at the Grand, Waking Life and The Young Poisoner’s Handbook at the Tara. So I’m by no means knocking art theaters, and I spend more money than is probably right for a guy with no income at the Laemmle in Santa Monica.
But the revival house is different. Neither as overtly serious as the art cinemas nor as devoted to pushing movies as product as the mainstream theaters, the revival house instead gives people an opportunity to see older mainstream or semi-mainstream movies in a real theater, with an audience, for a reasonable price. The Aero in Santa Monica charges $10 for a double bill, while the New Beverly a little further inland charges $7 for two. Some people leave after the first show, because it’s still no more expensive than a normal movie in L.A. (The AMC Century City, where I endured Eagle Eye and enjoyed The Lucky Ones, has the nerve to charge $11.50 a show. Take note, red-staters: some things are still tipped in your favor!) But I’m cheap and I love seeing movies in the theater, so I stay for both shows.
And I’ve gotten to see some really cool stuff that way — movies I would otherwise never even have put in my Netflix queue. So far I’ve seen Harold and Maude paired with a documentary about that film’s cinematographer, John Alonzo; The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with a lesser-known Huston pic, Fat City; and by far the most interesting and unlikely, two Walter Matthau films selected by comedian Patton Oswalt for the New Bev: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Charley Varrick.
What’s interesting about these two is that neither is an acknowledged classic like Harold or Sierra Madre. They’re not going to make AFI’s top 100 anything, you can’t find them reviewed anywhere in Roger Ebert’s gargantuan archives, and Charley Varrick is only available on DVD in crappy fullscreen. They’re not Hollywood A-pictures, and they’re not arty little independents that film geeks will keep alive forever. They’re just solid entertainments, products that sufficed at the time, did some business, put some asses in seats, and then quietly slipped into oblivion.
Or a kind of oblivion. Because it seems pretty obvious that these films are the sources for later movies by kids with more talent than imagination, especially Tarantino and the Coens. Don’t get me wrong — I applaud Tarantino and the Coens for stealing good material and re-inventing it, especially since later waves of wannabe filmmakers have stolen the stolen material without knowing its provenance. But there’s something jarring for me, as part of the post-Reservoir Dogs generation, in hearing Pelham One Two Three‘s robbers call each other Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Green, and Mr. Gray — especially when the real psycho turns out to be, just as in Reservoir Dogs, the guy whose name isn’t a normal color. And I’d be very surprised indeed if Joe Don Baker’s relentless Mafia fixer in Charley Varrick wasn’t re-incarnated in any number of implacable Coen villains, including Anton Chigurh. (Though Baker’s Mr. Molly is a good deal less pretentious than Chigurh, if more casually sexist and racist.)
So God bless the revival houses. God bless the Aero, which was built by aviation tycoon Donald Douglas to show movies 24 hours a day so his workers could go whenever they got off shift. God bless the New Bev, which used to be a porn theater and still kind of looks like one. God bless Doc Films, which when I was in college would let you see a different movie every night of the week for $20 a quarter, and Law School Films — now, I think, sadly defunct — where I worked as a projectionist. Come Halloween, when the Aero is playing an Abbott & Costello monster movie double feature, I think you know where I’ll be.