Stuart Samuels’ Midnight Movies

What makes a classic midnight movie?

27 mins read

Root meanings, hidden definitions, where the words and phrases we find ourselves incautiously using every day actually come from: even in an innately visual medium like film, it’s all about the etymology. That’s especially so for Stuart Samuels, who parlayed his Stanford University Ph.D in history into a Post Graduate Fellowship in the History of Ideas at Oxford and a Professorship of Popular Culture and History at the University of Pennsylvania, then slipped neatly from theorizing about movies to making them.

“As a documentary filmmaker,” Samuels says, “all you can ever hope to do is to make people understand the context of the information you’re offering—to ask ‘how did we get here?,’ and then answer that question as best you can. Nothing happens by falling from the sky. It’s performing on a very different level of narrative: to not just cover a subject but to submerge yourself into it, let people investigate whatever aspects you’d like to highlight, and show them the source of iconography they’re already so familiar with that they never seek to find out where it came from.”

Samuels’ documentary career has had its own share of highlights. His Visions Of Light: The Art of Cinematography (1993), named best documentary of the year by the National, New York and Boston Film Critics’ Associations, explained exactly what the person behind the camera lens brings to the party. Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream (1998), based on the award-winning book by Neal Gabler, garnered him a Hot Docs best feature documentary director nod by positing a subliminal link between Hollywood’s Golden Age God-bless- the-Melting-Pot imagery and its founding moguls’ formative immigrant experiences.

Now comes his latest thesis— Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, which had a splashy premiere at this year’s Cannes film festival, along with feature films by David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. Samuels’ doc is adapted from his 1983 book of the same name, which tracks the rise and fall of six films, each showcased in turn at New York’s Elgin Theater, and screened only after 12:00 A.M., that really put the “cult” in “cult movie”: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972), Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, directed by Jim Sharman) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

“Why do we respond so readily and happily to the chaos of a Rocky Horror screening, with the fans around us all yelling very different snatches of dialogue at the screen, throwing things, making asides and jokes at the characters’ expense?” Samuels asks. “Why doesn’t that make us angry in the same way that the guy who won’t stop rustling his bag of popcorn does, or the woman who thinks it’s okay to answer her cellphone in the middle of the movie does? Because there’s a very real sense that the first group of people, noisy as they may be, are here to see and enjoy the film. The second group treat the movie like an annoyance, the first like Communion. How can that possibly not register as something very different from the norm, and therefore very precious?”

Or, to put it another way… “I think what often defines a classic Midnight Movie is its transformative ability to bridge several niche markets at once, to become a banner under which many fanatics can consolidate their obsessions. It doesn’t matter how audience member identify themselves outside of the film. Most of the people who thought it was cool to go see Pink Flamingos wouldn’t have wanted to be caught dead near somebody like Divine [Waters’ massive transvestite star, who celebrates her election as ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ with an on-camera poodle-poo snack] in real life. Similarly, going to Rocky Horror isn’t about the movie itself so much as it is about the ritual which surrounds and supports the it, like a mass Bar Mitzvah sanctifying a movement from innocence to experience, from one part of your life to another. It’s a balanced message that transmits itself without preaching—‘don’t dream it, be it’, without ever actually defining what the ‘it’ in question is.”

Sharp, sassy and amusingly unimpressed by its own content, Midnight Movies whips the most rudimentary of all narrative tactics—stock footage, excerpts from the films themselves, greenscreen and talking heads—into a pleasing froth of self-referentiality. Not striving so much to answer the central question of why these films were once socially relevant as to test whether or not they still are, Samuels focuses in on what the experience of viewing them for the first time (or the fifth, or the five hundredth) must have meant to the hipsters who flocked to them, while simultaneously introducing us to the freaks who got this particular Big Ball of Wrong rolling: the directors.

Turned to face the camera against a backdrop of their own imagery, Lynch comes off like a pleasant but slightly scary flake and O’Brien, a wicked uncle who’s seen (and done) everything. Waters and Romero appear like party crashers turned into honored guests, both seemingly amazed by the fact that they’re still allowed to outstay their mutual lack of welcome. Henzell, who never made another feature, revels in his film’s continued political impact on Jamaican society. Jodorowsky just seems happy to be there, spouting his trademark cracked aphorisms—“I hate everything that is normal!” and “The monster side is a beautiful part of life”—while simultaneously cheerfully ascribing El Topo ’s midnight screening success to the Elgin’s manager’s willingness to let everybody watching it smoke so much dope that even non-partakers would be kite-high by their second breath.

Says Samuels: “Every one of these men is an incredible student of film, which I think was one of the biggest attractions for me, in terms of wanting to talk with them. Romero will watch the same movie thirty times to see how it was put together; Waters watches different films four times a day; Jodorowsky devours everything, from Tarot card symbolism to the history of mime.

“Waters fascinates me in general, actually: he’s like Oscar Wilde, a completely self-created person from a deliberately artificial world. He reminds me of Andy Warhol, in that he’s always making pretty much the same movie—the power lies in repetition, not in ‘development’ or evolution. But better than that, like the rest of them, Waters’ great insight was to recognize very early on that what he had to do was to keep his personal lens intact rather than struggle to find a politically or socially ‘correct’ image or subject…a sellable image.”

Of course, even Samuels will admit that this stance is considerably easier for some to strike than it is for others. Jodorowsky couldn’t be mainstream if he tried—particularly so because getting rich by fitting in seems, frankly, to be one of the few things left that would never occur to him to try. O’Brien, Romero and Henzel look like they might have once been willing to consider the option, if they didn’t suspect it would have bored them witless. And as for Lynch…

“Lynch’s dilemma, which made him the purest and most interesting of any of my subjects, is that he sees no point at all in trying to understand his own method. If you’re constantly enmeshed in meeting the challenge of how to visually express the interior mind, why would you even bother to try and express it verbally? His power and his greatest drawback are the same: The fact that you’re forced to see everything through him, to use his mind as a filter, which makes his stories very hard for a cinematic audience to process unless they commit to seeing the film over and over again. This is why Twin Peaks was so popular—when Lynch was on television, it was as though you had an appointment with him every week, like a therapist. He’s the sort of artist who inspires cults almost by default; without repeat business, he’d have no audience at all.”

Throughout this whole tour de freak, meanwhile, Samuels keeps himself securely out of frame, an invisible yet constant presence informing every monologue with truly Godlike efficiency—or perhaps, like Peter O’Toole as Eli Cross in The Stunt Man (another cult movie worth celebrating, though it doesn’t make his list), the same sort of efficiency displayed by film directors who just think they’re God.

“For me it’s always been a case of having multiple careers in different areas, and this project certainly serves to bring all of those together. It allows me to teach and to write again, albeit in a completely different way—to cover something I thought I’d been ‘done with’ twenty years ago again, and do it better this time around, without losing anything in the translation. My challenge was to make it real, alive and not dry; so to avoid being intrusive, I tried things I didn’t necessarily think would work—everything and anything I felt would help me figure out any potential point of disconnection, then skirt it, while still maintaining a sort of continuity of information.”

Because Samuels trained primarily as an academic, he clearly sees his subjects through the lens of talking directly to the audience. He uses sound bites and clips in both the background and the foreground at once, using titles and dissolves for punctuation, then letting everything be strung together mainly by his audience’s own innate ability to quickly connect the non-linear dots. “An amazing amount of added value came out in post-production, through matte-ing composite images into the same frame,” he comments. “To layer information and let people relate to it at their own speed is the key, and it’s easier now than it’s ever been before. Existing technology has finally caught up with critical analysis, allowing the films’ potential fans, old and new, to communicate directly through a single, simultaneous reading of the source material.”

As Samuels readily points out, any idea that this is “objective” documentary filmmaking is a simple misunderstanding. Midnight Movies is very definitely his vision, strained through his personal philosophical filter…exactly, in its own eccentric way, like every other film that the movie covers.

“We’re very used to the idea of the filmmaker as content,” he says, “but a fair portion of Midnight Movies is about how fans have become equally valid content. That’s certainly been the guiding principle of this time-period, thus far—it takes us right from the 1970s to Reality Television. Marshall McLuhan said that the nature of film is that it must encapsulate you in its images, immersing you so that you can’t simply react to it as something outside yourself, but consider yourself a part of it and it a part of you. We take that immersion for granted now, which is making it very hard to reclaim or rediscover the concept.

“The film was conceived as a feature but made for Pay-TV, so when we were selected for the Cannes Film Festival, it was an exciting but scary surprise. That’s a difficult venue—very film-oriented, not to mention that most critics know this stuff inside-out. But I was really happiest to be acknowledged by the younger people who saw it there, and loved it. They were just so turned on by the energy and the passion, very much attracted to the point of view of these filmmakers—people who wanted to make films not just for the purpose of selling them, but in order to get something across outside of the system.”
For people like me—those who might still be able to remember shaking confetti from their bras at 3:00 A.M. after a particularly good Rocky Horror fan floorshow, or the sick taste Eraserhead ’s notorious dinner scene left in their mouth—listening to Samuels talk blithely about introducing a whole new generation to the films we considered so formative to our sense of where the boundaries of the allowable can be probed, is a bit of a head-trip in itself. These are the films we sometimes had to lie to our parents in order to see, at least the first time. They’re the films we might have had to claim we were over eighteen in order to enter, and occasionally bite our lips or cover our eyes in order to make it through to the end with our social cred intact.

Each of them taught us things which seemed vitally important at the time, as we sat there surrounded by strangers in theatres with broken seats and sticky floors, busted heating systems or no air conditioning, air that stunk of stale popcorn and a considerably more surreptitious whiff of hash than the fabled Elgin ever supported. That a man can look sexy in women’s lingerie, for example—especially if he’s a mad scientist from another planet, rather than a drag queen from Baltimore. That it’s always important to practice safe sex, unless you want to end up with a mutant baby in your dresser drawer. That surrealism looks amazing in slow-mo, but pretty stupid at full speed. That the dead do not travel fast but will catch up to you anyway, no matter how hard you run. That somewhere out there is a guy who can make his asshole sing.

Which isn’t to say that these cult films don’t need revisiting, if only to see how they’ve held up over the intervening years. Very well, in some cases; in others, not so much.

What people of my generation may have to take away from Midnight Movies is proof positive of the very unwelcome idea that utterly “contemporary” films from the 1970s, by which we once rated our own coolness, must inevitably become period pieces whose relevance can—and will—be called into question by any knob with a DVD player and access to the Internet Movie Database. Confronted by rickety artifacts like The Harder They Come, whose Black Power-Jamaican travelogue-reggae-intensive clips simply pale by comparison with director Henzell’s vividly alive interview footage, we may even find ourselves left stranded in the ruins of our former obsessions, wondering why we ever devoted so much time and effort to immersing ourselves in these particular experiences.

Or then again, we may not. Samuels’ sections on Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead still stand up, while his Rocky Horror coverage should remind us of what it was like to get up and dance in the aisles with the projector as our only strobe-light.

Now that everything is routinely referred to as “cult,” however, does it really matter where the concept of cult movies began?

“Well, it’s a paradox, even today,” admits Samuels. “When you’re starting out on the avant-garde, trying to change and comment on the existing power structure, then you pride yourself on that fact—it’s your currency. But when you do finally break in, and end up simply becoming just an alternative part of the same mainstream you were fighting to detach yourself from, where do you source your power from then?”

The challenge, Samuels maintains, is to err on the side of creative authenticity rather than to mine the fields of cinematic success. With truly talented filmmakers, it’s never a question of whether or not they can break in, just of what they choose to do with their access once they’ve got it. Many newcomers now pay homage to the idea of making Midnight Movies as a sort of entrance strategy rather than as an outgrowth of a genuine, valid vision, deliberately courting “outsider” status in order to get noticed, then dropping it when Hollywood comes calling.

“What’s problematic and disturbing,” says Samuels, “is that the success of this infrastructure of mass media—the ease of use, the availability, the huge scope of comprehension—has begun to prevent marginalization altogether, even when the best thing for a filmmaker’s development might be to stay marginal.”

Does our immediate future hold a resurgence of the Midnight Movies phenomena, then? Samuels shakes his head. “Will we ever again be likely to encounter a situation in which the viewing and re-viewing of a film is treated in an almost religious way—film as mass? I don’t believe so; I really think that the 1970s and 1980s were the last burst of this not being just a programming strategy, a way to fit more showings onto a given bill. Perhaps with new innovations in sight and sound, theatres will eventually be able to attract audiences away from the home theatre experience, but that’s the challenge which remains: to give people something they can’t get at home, something they’ll trade their creature comforts for, and still feel they’re getting the best of the bargain.

“I think that even if that were to happen, we’d basically be looking at more of a revival than anything else, a nostalgia-based experience built around old films rather than new product— ‘Midnight Movies’ reborn in a faux or neo way in refurbished repertory chains. The idea of delivering a film you literally couldn’t see anywhere else is a dated one, especially post-Internet, though that in itself might eventually open up possibilities. Some sort of real-time story being lived out interactively, globally, on many simultaneous levels, could provide the missing sense of shared experience that nothing else really delivers anymore.”

Perhaps. What I know for sure is that when I went to see Flash Gordon twenty times, it was just me alone in the dark— which may be why I sometimes, even now, feel guilty or embarrassed about admitting my undimmed affection for this cheesiest of all cheesy 1980s space operas. But when I went to see Rocky Horror, at least as many times, I was in the middle of a great crowd of like- minded weirdos…people who had proven—just by being willing to show up and pay to get in every Saturday night, when they could have been doing something “real” instead—that I was very definitely not alone in that obsession.

Today, when it only takes ten seconds’ Googling to find a virtual community built around any given common interest, the ability to share armrest-to-armrest basic human contact within a similar context seems to have been forgotten. Maybe reviving the midnight movie tradition would help to remind us that virtual communities are just that: virtual—and that nothing beats sharing, real-time, in a theatre-wide orgy of good ol’-fashioned mutual geek love.

Or maybe, just by making Midnight Movies —shining a bit of projector-light back on the movies which once promised to make their viewers cool by osmosis, or at least by default—Samuels might yet spawn a little cult of his own. Perhaps he can introduce a touch of the risky or dangerous into a sadly staid state of cinematic affairs, if only in retrospect. Stranger and less welcome things certainly have happened, before or after the witching hour.

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