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One good, one bad, and questions in between

Quitting at Macy's made me richer in spirit, but poorer in the wallet. One of the things I've had to give up is going to the movies whenever anything interesting is playing. I used to see 6-8 movies a week, but now… I don't.

My self-imposed rule is that I'm not buying a ticket unless it's a double feature, and admission is under $5 (an hour's wage), and I've heard or read rave reviews of both features.

Tonight's show at the Roxie met only the first requirement, but I went anyway. They're my rules so I can break 'em, and also it was Peter Fonda night.

Before tonight, I'd only seen Fonda in Easy Rider and The Trip, and in both he was slightly wooden as an actor. Those are two great movies, though, so there I was, saying "One, please" under the neon, and walking into San Francisco's oldest, maybe smallest, and coolest theater. It's barely been a week, but it's been too long.

The Hired Hand (1971) was Fonda's first try at directing, and it shows. There are too many wandering shots, slow dissolves, double exposures, and artsy under-lit scenes. Lots of 'technique', and moments that might as well have had intertitles announcing, "Directed by Peter Fonda."

The minimalist music is annoying, too, mostly consisting of one guy slowly plucking a guitar one note at a time, with the same notes repeated so often you're hoping the sound will go out.

And that happened often. It's a recurring issue at the Roxie, but because the place barely breaks even they haven't been able to fix it. When they show 16mm prints, and the film's soundtrack grows quiet — any moment when there's no dialogue, no noise, no music — all sound disappears. So if, say, there's a scene where the only sound is birds chirping softly in the distance, you won't hear the birds chirping. You'll only hear silence.

When someone speaks, the sound comes back fine, but somewhere in the wiring, 'kinda quiet' becomes 'absolute quiet'. I suppose some people in the audience don't even notice, but to me it's really distracting. It only happens with 16mm prints, so I avoid movies on the Roxie calendar that are listed as 16mm.

Tonight's double feature was listed as being in 35mm, so imagine my disappointment when the theater's manager announced with regret that the distributor had sent a 16mm print by mistake.

Despite all the above, though, The Hired Hand is very good, a borderline masterpiece. It's an elegant but violent western with a cleverly minimal screenplay about murder, vengeance, and love's redemption. Verna Bloom is a wonder, playing a very intelligent and liberated woman, Fonda is lifelike and believable as her husband, and Warren Oates steals the show as his loyal sidekick.

When the lights came up, Mr Fonda emerged from the crowd, and stood up front answering questions for an hour. He seemed intelligent and easy on the ego, long on folksy charm. "If you don't like something I say," he said at the start, "please throw vegetables, so I'll have something healthy for dinner."

He told amusing stories about working for Roger Corman, and about the other Fondas (Henry, Jane, and Bridget), and he peppered his recollections of Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson with dead-on impersonations. Fonda's Nicholson might be better than Nicholson's. Despite many years of unrepentant drug use, his wit and memory were sharply focused, and unlike some celebrity screenings I've attended, he didn't show up just for the Q & A. He was shaking hands in the lobby before the first feature, and when the questions petered out (pun!) he returned to his seat in the audience, and watched the second feature, too.

Which took some guts, because the second feature was Wanda Nevada (1979), and it was… not good. The sweet scent of pot was thick in the theater's air as it began, but only a mind-altering substance could make this movie endurable.

Fonda stars again, this time opposite an adolescent Brooke Shields, in what might have been a fast-moving, funny romantic comedy, except it moves too slow, isn't funny, and every hint of romance between the leads made me want to call a cop. And you know, I don't like cops.

Shields, you may remember, was the tragic victim of a CIA-funded experiment wherein the face of a gorgeous 24-year-old woman was grafted onto the body of a 12-year-old girl. Can't imagine the trauma she went through, making underwear ads and pervy movies at an age when she should've been playing on monkey bars.

It's not just the pervert factor, though. The movie sucked in more ordinary ways, and there wasn't even a chance to squirm uncomfortably, undecided whether to find the leading little-girl/lady attractive or not, because Shields overplays the role rather obnoxiously. She's constantly primping, comes off conceited, and every time her character was in danger I was rooting for the danger. By the time middle-aged Fonda and childish Shields fall in love, the movie is already awful and can't get worse anyway.

As I left, Fonda was in the lobby again, glad-handing people and answering questions. Of course, I walked by and left. I don't have anything to say to a movie star, especially after such a shitty movie.

On my way home, I wondered why Fonda had come. Maybe the Roxie paid his air fare, but they couldn't have paid much more than that. Add up the economics: it was a sell-out crowd, but it's only $6 p/ticket, with 300 or so seats in the theater, and Fonda sat in one of them. He must've come because he wanted to be there.

His star has faded since the 1960s and '70s, but he's still a working actor. I suppose nobody making movies hears applause very often. Tonight, there was applause.


From Pathetic Life #11
Tuesday, April 4, 1995

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

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