Friday, February 27, 2009

Theme Night

I recently rediscovered the joys of watching a movie in a themed setting. Except it was quite by accident. Two nights in a row.

Let me explain what I mean by a themed setting. I mean when you watch a movie in a circumstance/environment that enhances its themes/ideas/plot, and ultimately makes the experience more enjoyable. I'm sure you can think of many examples, but one would be a decorated theater. On two very different occasions, for example, I had themed viewings in Disney's El Capitan Theater in downtown Hollywood -- The Princess Diaries, when it was decked out with tween-bait princess furnishings (hey, I went with a guy who was in the movie), and a recent re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, when the place was given a ghoulish makeover (and a live organist pounding away on some sort of Tim Burton-ish contraption).

But it doesn't have to be quite as overt as that. There was the time when I saw Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby at the drive-in theater -- a car movie while sitting in a car. Most bizarrely, there was the time I went with some friends to an artists' loft in downtown LA and watched what can only be described as "puppet pornography." As the 1976 schlockfest Let My Puppets Come, directed by Deep Throat helmer Gerard Damiano, unspooled before my eyes, I happened to look over to my right to notice two stuffed muppets watching along with us. That's right, it was none other than Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show -- you know, the grumpy old men who sit in the balcony, naysaying and cracking themselves up. I later found out that those two stuffed dolls sat on that particular ledge for all the screenings that occurred there -- it just so happened I was there when they watched the puppet movie.

Well, on my trip to Bisbee, Arizona last week, I added two more to the collection.

First I think I better tell you why my wife and I chose Bisbee as the destination for our road trip. Several years ago, we'd heard about a vintage trailer park in Bisbee called The Shady Dell, where guests can stay the night in Airstream trailers and other mobile homes from the 1950s. This might not be everyone's idea of an exciting adventure, but it's a testament to our compatibility that we both fell in love with the idea. We finally got the trip on the books last week for my wife's birthday, and started driving east last Wednesday night. By Thursday afternoon we'd passed through Tucson and made our way an hour further south to Bisbee, just minutes from the Mexican border. And not only was the old mining town absolutely adorable, but The Shady Dell was everything we'd hoped for and more.

Wanting to stay a night in each of the 12 trailers on the grounds, but being forced to choose just two, we selected the Spartanette for Thursday night and the Tiki Bus for Friday night. (And just in case you didn't notice the embedded links, I thought I should point them out to you.) As soon as we stepped inside the Spartanette, I began mentally calculating how to fit in all the ways I wanted to appreciate it -- in the sadly finite period of 16 hours, half of which would be spent sleeping.

One of the most charming things about the Spartanette was its antique home electronics. No sooner had we stepped in the door than we were throwing Dean Martin and Harry Belafonte on the record player, and trying to discover if the old TV actually worked. We'd assumed from the shots on the website that it was decorative only, but finding a DVD player connected to it -- hidden discreetly in the closet to preserve period authenticity -- immediately challenged that assumption. Not to mention the dozen classic DVDs that were provided along with the room.

After giddily flipping through all sorts of wonderfully kitschy titles -- like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Woman Eater (1957) -- we decided on And Then There Were None, Rene Clair's 1945 adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel. And after a yummy steak birthday dinner and a few glasses of wine, we settled in.

At first, the TV did not seem to work. But we later discovered this was just its inevitable cranky warm-up period, which lasted maybe four minutes. It started with a blank screen whose slight change in hue was the only indication the device was even powered on. This then changed into typical between-station fuzz. When we turned the DVD player on, an image appeared. Of course, it took several more minutes for this image to stabilize -- isn't that what they used to call it, the vertical hold? -- but when it did, there was the title menu for And Then There Were None.

And what followed was an absolutely authentic viewing experience. The sound was terrible, the contrasts were sometimes impossible to make out, and if you stopped the movie for any reason, you had to fight the vertical hold for another couple minutes. (Granted, those first two probably had more to do with the original print of the film than the TV). But I tell you, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. Sitting in this vintage trailer, watching this old movie, it was easy to imagine that I was actually in the 1950s -- and since this movie would have been ten years old in the mid-50s, it's theoretically something the networks might have actually seen fit to play on a Saturday night. I tickled myself with the unlikely -- though narrowly possible -- notion that someone may have watched And Then There Were None in this very trailer, decades earlier, when "DVD" was just a meaningless acronym.

Just because it would have made for such a jarring anachronism, I had hoped to follow this up with an episode from the Californication DVD I'd brought with me. But we were both too tired.

Fast forward to the next night. We survived a trip into a mine shaft and a day in town, and now we're in the Tiki Bus. This is a giant blue bus that's been tricked out with a kitchen, a breakfast nook, a bathroom, an outside tiki bar, and a double and single bed on either side of the aisle. Plus, it's got a forest of straw hanging down from the ceiling and a couple heads like the kind on Easter Island, to complete the effect of being in Hawaii, or somewhere Polynesian in nature. This lodging also has a record player and a half-dozen vinyl albums, most of them Hawaiian in theme. But no TV.

Never fear. I've brought my portable DVD player with me. In fact, this is only its third usage since I had to replace my old one. It's what I'd been expecting to use the night before if the TV hadn't worked.

But what was really crazy was the movie I'd brought with me, and since I used it as my art with this posting, the title should be no surprise: Forgetting Sarah Marshall. What's crazy about that? Well, for starters, the movie is set in Hawaii.

You planned that, Vance. Actually, I didn't. I've already seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and my usual M.O. when at the video store is to find something that neither my wife nor I have seen. You know, always wanting to expand our horizons. In fact, I had a couple such choices in my hand already when I came across Sarah Marshall on the shelves. I saw it last year when she was out of the country, thinking she didn't have much interest in it, which was actually true at the time. But she came around on it and mentioned it recently, so I picked it up as a surprise choice for her birthday trip. See, that's the problem with a movie neither of you has seen -- it might totally suck. I wanted to stack the deck in our favor this time, so I picked it up. There was no consideration to the idea that we might watch it in a giant blue bus wearing a Hawaiian outfit.

But that we did, and so for the second night in a row, I was washed over with a certain surrealism. Yes, it was surreal just to be watching a movie (and sleeping, and making a pasta dinner) in a blue bus with track lights running along the bottom and hula girl bobblehead dolls on the dashboard. But the subject matter made it more so. The image was crisp and clear on my DVD player, and the movie was enjoyed by one and all.

I'd be remiss if I closed this post without singing the praises of the people at The Shady Dell, who were perfectly wonderful in every way you'd want them to be. Jen, Justin and their staff took great care of us, and we wished we could have stayed a week longer. (And kudos to the refurbished Dot's Diner, which just reopened a few weeks ago, a classic diner located just steps from the trailers that was transported from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s). If you are ever traveling through Southern Arizona, you have to put The Shady Dell on your itinerary.

I'd love to hear about any memorable theme movie experiences you had, my dear readers.

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