Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Dome of the Rock

The Cinema 150 was the biggest movie theater in Arkansas, a massive domed building with a single screen that was curved at a 150 degree angle. It was built in the late sixties and hosted the world premiere of John Wayne's Oscar-winning Western TRUE GRIT. I was born in Little Rock in 1975, and the first film I saw at the 150 was THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980. I screamed when they froze Han Solo, and my mother had to carry me out of the theater to hastily explain the Empire's cryogenic technology. This theater, this domed fantasy land with its gigantic portal into other worlds and other lives, still haunts my dreams. It was the high church of my cinematic obsession. 

Sadly, tragically, it's gone now. It had a long slow death that went hand-in-hand with the economic decline of that particular corner of Little Rock, the corner of Asher and University. I used to know that corner like I knew my own body. I went to school nearby at the University of Little Rock, and I regularly went to the movies at the 150. When we were kids, my father took my older brother and I to see THE DEAD POOL, the last Dirty Harry film, there. I saw Star Wars movies and Star Trek movies and Mel Gibson action vehicles and even the odd art film there (when I saw THE THIN RED LINE I was virtually alone in the empty theater). When I got old enough, I went on dates there, holding hands and falling in love.

Oddly, my most profound memory of the 150 is when I went to see David Fincher's THE GAME by myself on a warm summer day in 1997. I've largely forgotten the film, though I know I liked it at the time. What I remember so clearly about that day was the theater itself, the air conditioning and the darkness, the dome high overhead, the whispers of the handful of other people sitting around me waiting for the movie to begin. In those days, there were no pre-show commercials, no loud Coke ads or pitches for lame-looking television shows. There were just people sitting quietly in the dark, waiting for the show to begin.

Here's a link to a beautiful piece about the destruction of the 150 by the writer Kat Robertson. Her details (like the Wendy's next door with the newspaper tabletops) are vivid reminders for me and trigger one of my favorite memories of the 150. My best friend once snuck a Wendy's mesquite cheeseburger into a showing of STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, and when he unwrapped the burger in the dark and its rich aroma filled the theater, the whole crowd laughed.

Sunday, April 14, 2019


Chicago's Music Box Theater kicked off a new series today, I Wouldn't Stop Loving You: The Films of Bogie & Bacall, with a showing of the pair's first film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. As it happens, a sudden snow storm pounded Chicago this morning, but it didn't stop a large and enthusiastic crowd from showing up to this first screening. It was a joyous experience, with the crowd laughing and applauding the movie, a recognition that few films have held up better than this one, one of cinema's true masterpieces. In coming weeks, the Music Box will show THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE, and KEY LARGO. It's a short but impressive list. Of those films, I'd rank two A+ (TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP), one A- (DARK PASSAGE), and one B+ (KEY LARGO). Some might quibble with here or there with my rankings, but I'm unlikely to encounter much resistance to the idea that these four films comprise one of the greatest of all movie star pairings.

I wrote about each of these four films back in 2014, after the death of Lauren Bacall. I'll link to my piece on TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, a movie I've loved since I was a teenager, and that I treasure more every time I see it.   

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Unreliable Narrator Theory of DETOUR

The other day, I bought the Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray of DETOUR. It's a divine object. Beautiful packaged, it is a glorious restoration (the same 4k restoration I saw last year in theaters) supported by a bounty of enticing extras--a documentary on director Edgar G. Ulmer, an interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, an insightful essay by the critic and Jim Thompson biographer Robert Polito, and more.

One aspect of this package that I find interesting, however, is the repeated insinuation in some of the extras that DETOUR's doomed protagonist Al Roberts is a liar and a murderer. In his essay, Polito writes that DETOUR is a "progression of increasingly awful and improbable flashbacks" and calls Roberts' tale of fate and misfortune "steadily more suspect." In his interview, Isenberg makes similar comments, offhandedly implying that DETOUR is essentially the bullshit alibi of a killer. 

The theory that Roberts is lying to the audience in his voiceover narration has been around for a while. I think Andrew Britton was the first critic I can remember floating this theory, though it may well predate him. In his 1998 review of the film, Roger Ebert cited Britton directly and fully embraced the theory.

I find this theory intriguing. I also find it wrong. 

There's nothing in the text of the film to suggest that Roberts is anything other than a doomed man lamenting his fate. We never catch him in a lie. His tale is outlandish, sure, but that puts it on par with roughly one hundred percent of the film noir canon. Hell, most noirs start at outlandish and go from there. 

I suppose my bigger problem with the unreliable narrator theory is that it undercuts what the film itself is telling us it means. DETOUR is the greatest statement of predestination in all of film noir. It ends with Roberts intoning the line, "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." As it is, this is one of the greatest lines in all of noir, but if Roberts has been lying to us about the deaths of Charles Haskell and/or Vera -- if he is not a victim of fate, but rather a victim of weakness and his own low character -- then this line totally misrepresents the entire story we've just watched.

Moreover, the unreliable narrator theory of DETOUR undercuts what, for me, is the film's defining characteristic: its wholehearted embrace of nihilistic doom. The message that Al Roberts gives us is shocking -- maybe too shocking for some viewers to bear. He's telling us that we're fucked. Whichever way we go, he says, fate will stick out its foot to trip us. Embracing the unreliable narrator, however, means assigning a moral judgement to his fate. Like Job's fickle friends, purveyors of this theory seem to be saying, "You must have done SOMETHING to upset God."

Maybe that's easier. Maybe DETOUR, undiluted with academic theory, is just too strong a shot of nihilistic despair. And, hey, I don't begrudge anyone the comfort of their theories. Life's hard. I get it. But I'll take my DETOUR straight up, no chaser.