You're never going to believe what I saw in the theater...
... and don't worry... I wouldn't believe me, either.
2020 was a nightmare, and 2021 has only been marginally better.
I’m not alone in thinking that, of course. It’s been a tough year for everyone, and it feels like everything we’ve been through has left a mark on us collectively. Individually, I’m sure we’re all dealing with different trauma, and mine is not the worst, by any measure. But it’s mine, and it’s been a brutal 20 months, so maybe what happened was a complete break with reality. Who could blame me?
Trust me.. at first, I considered forgetting all about what happened last week and never writing a word about it. But it was so strange and so special that before I get back to my James Bond Declassified series, I feel like I have to write this up and share it, even though, let’s be honest… you're not going to believe what I have to tell you today.
I'm not using that as a figure of speech, either, or a hyperbolic start to an amusing anecdote. You're not going to be able to accept what I have to tell you today as the truth. But it is.
The revival scene in Los Angeles has managed to come creeping back to life as the pandemic has started to come under control, and while many mainstream theaters are closed or struggling, it feels like there are more options than ever to see older films in theaters or in newly-converted spaces. The fact that there are so many different groups and people and voices represented in the programming is encouraging. I am pleased to see people arguing passionately in favor of the theatrical communal experience, determined to bring it back on the other side of this unimaginable interruption, something I strongly believe is key to understanding and fully experiencing most movies.
I've been to every theater in Los Angeles, I think, and many of my favorites are long gone at this point. I moved here in the summer of 1990, and the first theater I went to was the Mann's Chinese. It was the opening day for Days Of Thunder, and the Chinese had just put in their first DTS digital sound system. My buddy who moved across the country with me, the two of us determined to make it as screenwriters, was there with me, both of us thrilled to finally be at the famous Chinese Theater, prepared to have our asses handed to us by the sound system.
It did, for a little while, shaking the building to delightful effect until one of the speakers in the front of the house popped with an angry sound and the film suddenly was broadcasting to us from deep underwater, with an insistent buzzing making it hard to hear.
I've spent untold hours in theaters that no longer exist and some of the theaters we use all the time now were still years away from being built when I moved here. Over time, I've made an effort to see something pretty much any place they show movies in this city. Private screening rooms. Every room on every studio lot. At the old Academy Theater and at the brand-new Death Star screen behind the Academy museum. Each different Guild's special theater. Mixing rooms. Shopping malls. Places downtown, old palaces no longer used. During the pandemic, there were drive-ins popping up everywhere. Hell, thanks to Tim League's Rolling Roadshow, I once watched Jackie Brown sitting outside in Torrence with the planes from LAX taking off and landing directly overhead.
I remember the Avco before they broke it, before they made the colossal stupid bonehead blunder of dividing their giant downstairs theater, one of the best sounding auditoriums I've ever been in, and turning it into two crappy theaters that both tilt for no reason, neither one of them acoustically satisfying at all.
I remember when Westwood mattered in general, and when the National was the great unsung theater in town.
I spent hours and hours at the Hollywood Galaxy, right next to the L. Ron Hubbard Reading Room, and I remember opening day of Battlefield Earth there with my drunken friends, all of us obnoxious in a room full of neatly-dressed well-behaved young folk who all politely applauded the Great Man's screen credit.
I remember the Studio City theater that was cursed, every film that opened there failing miserably, a stunningly perfect record of wretched bookings eventually resulting in the place being converted into a Bookstar. I even worked there when it was a bookstore.
I've even managed a theater in Los Angeles, for god's sake, right when I got here. That same summer I was so desperate to see the Chinese as soon as I arrived, I used my experience at theaters in LA to get a manager's job out here. It was interesting working as an assistant manager at the GCC Sherman Oaks what with all the test and trade screenings we hosted.
I am nostalgic for a number of LA spots, but I have long accepted that this city does not take care of its own history. We can't be bothered to protect the theaters that are the places we share the things we make with the people we make them for, which seems a shame to me. Over the last thirty years, I have spent an enormous amount of my time thinking about the theatrical experience in LA that so believe me… if anyone understands how hard this next thing is going to be to believe, it's me. If anyone else were telling me what I'm about to tell you, I would laugh in their face.
I found a brand-new theater.
It shouldn't be where it is. I thought I'd made a mistake when I noticed it at first, since all I caught was a glimpse, half-seeing it out of the corner of my eye.
This weekend, I was taking some discs to the new Amoeba, and I found myself going out of my way to drive down my old street. My windows were down and my music was loud, and I made sure to slow down as I pulled closer. Even so, even moving that slowly, I almost drove off the road when I saw it again.
It was one of those moments where a part of your brain just shuts down, like a breaker was thrown, and in my case, it was a matter of shock. I couldn't make sense of what I was looking at, and so my brain threw a flying tackle on it.
I pulled over to the side of the road. Shut the car off. Got out and looked around, trying to get my bearings. Looked back at this impossible thing. A movie theater.
Not a big one, mind you, but a movie theater, nonetheless. It looked like it was old. A solid, functional mid-'50s design. Unassuming, with the marquee was built into the front of the building, unobtrusive. Nothing gaudy. Nothing flashy. Just white space. Black letters.
"BRAD PITT - TO THE WHITE SEA - 70MM - 1 WEEK ONLY"
I will never forget the feeling of standing there, feeling breeze across my brow, the mild tickle of perspiration on the back of my neck, the sound of traffic on Sunset the only thing I could hear as I looked up at the marquee for The Nostalgia, trying to make sense of it.
Forget about the fact that there wasn't supposed to be a theater there… what they were screening surprised me even more the theater's existence did. Because there is no way any theater could show To The White Sea starring Brad Pitt, because that film doesn't exist.
It should. I wish it did.
To The White Sea was a novel by James Dickey, the same guy who wrote Deliverance, and it's an elegant piece of writing. It's about a tail gunner during the final days of WWII who is shot down during the firebombing of Tokyo. He survives, but then makes the choice to walk home. From the war. Across China, Siberia, and the Bering Strait.
The first people to take a shot at the script were David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, who co-wrote 12 Monkeys. Then the Coens became involved, and they did their own draft. The thing is, the book is so intensely cinematic already that I think the drafts were very similar. They both made great use of an opening monologue that is basically word for word from the book, and they both were accomplished with almost no dialogue. The first 18 pages play like any other movie, but from that point to page 89, there are only two short lines of dialogue and then one voice-over on the last two pages. Other than that, the script that the Coen Bros. were ready to shoot was almost purely visual.
There was a point when they came close to making it, too. They wrote their draft in 1998, and they managed to get Brad Pitt attached to star. It was all set to start shooting with an $80 million price tag, and then the studio blinked. The price tag, the largest the Coens would have worked with, was due in large part to the location work they were going to do. This was one of two pricey Brad Pitt films that imploded right around that same time. Aronofsky eventually managed to make The Fountain at a lower price and with another actor, but To The White Sea just plain dropped dead where it stood, and for a little while, it took the Coens with it.
I've always wondered what would have happened if the film had been made. This would have been the film after O Brother Where Art Thou? if they'd gone through with it, and I'm guessing we would not have seen the odd broken-hearted left turn of The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. Those were both jobs for hire, something the Coens really hadn't done up to that point, and maybe if they'd made To The White Sea, it might have led them in some other direction creatively. There was even some talk after the film didn't happen that they were considering quitting directing, that they were only going to do script doctor work from that point on, and for someone who is a huge fan of what they've created, that was a terrifying time.
All of this flashed through my head as I stood there looking up at the marquee.
It was a gag. It had to be a gag. There was no way it could be anything but a gag. I looked around to get my bearings. It was the middle of the day, and the school playground on the east side of the street was busy, loud, alive with the sound of kids running, screaming, laughing. I could read the lettering on one of the school buildings clearly: MICHAEL JACKSON AUDITORIUM. This was the spot where Hugh Grant had been caught with Divine Brown in his car. It looked just like it always had until I turned back to face the building that now took up a good chunk of the west side of the street.
There was a single ticket kiosk in front of the doors to the theater, with three poster cases in the small alcove that housed the kiosk. The marquee stuck out, sheltering the kiosk with perpetual shade. When I looked up, it still advertised the special engagement of a film that didn’t exist.
I moved in to get a closer look at the posters on display, and it only made things worse for me and my rapidly oncoming headache. The first poster was for Ronnie Rocket, with a bizarre metallic title design floating against a blood-red velvet background. The next poster was for Flash Gordon, although it wasn’t the familiar lightning bolt logo I’ve always seen used for the film. When I checked the credits, I figured out why. Nicolas Roeg was listed as the film’s director. I tried to dismiss the evidence of my eyes, figuring I just hadn’t heard about his attempt at the character. I knew in my gut that was a lie, but it was one I wanted to believe.
When I looked at the final poster, though, my feeble grasp on reality slipped away altogether.
The title DUNE stood out on the poster, psychedelic lettering against a giant skull-like painting of a ship of some sort. It wasn’t a poster for the Villenueve film or the Lynch film, though. The style of the artwork was disconcerting, organic and unhealthy. When I checked for an artist’s signature, I figured out why. It was signed “Giger.” Once again, my eye wandered to the director credit, and once again I was shocked by what I found there. Alejandro Jodorowsky was listed, and I also spotted the name Salvador Dali in the credits, sharing a spot under Production Design with H.R. Giger himself.
Again… I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to be overreacting. After all, Jodorowsky's Dune is a documentary, a great look at how Jodo's unmade screen adaptation of Frank Herbert's best-selling Christ metaphor has managed to influence the last 40 years of pop culture despite remaining unfilled. I'm in that documentary. There's no doubt whatsoever that the actual Jodorwsky's Dune remains unmade. But the poster I was looking at clearly read "Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky" at the bottom.
A strange shiver ran through me, part anger, part confusion, and no small part hope that these posters might somehow, impossibly, be real. All three were for films that had been rumored, discussed, even obsessed over, but none of which had ever been actually committed to film. One of the reasons I am fascinated by stories of films that almost got made is because I know exactly how hard it is to get even a terrible movie made. There are great films that are out there, half-formed, scripts just waiting to be discovered, and many of them will go unmade forever.
I’m a filmmaker myself... sort of. Sometimes. Or at least, I have been, and I hope to be again. My whole life has been devoted, in one way or another, to film and filmmaking. One of my hobbies, well before the Internet was a thing, was collecting details on films that were supposed to be made, but which crumbled before reaching the camera. I never knew why, either. I was fascinated by the various ways in which the process could break down and a good film (or a bad one, in some lucky cases) could be derailed.
Ronnie Rocket, for example, was one of those scripts that was practically legendary as being impossible to film. David Lynch tried to fund the thing for years. I know I first heard about it after Blue Velvet and before Wild At Heart, right around the same time he was trying to get One Saliva Bubble made as well with, if I'm remember it correctly, Steve Martin in the starring role. I’m pretty sure I was still hearing about it maybe getting made while Twin Peaks was on the air, when it seemed like Lynch was finally cracking into the mainstream, but with his signature voice intact. Eventually, though, Lynch seemed to give up on the thing, and it just became one of those trivia footnotes for hardcore fans. I actually stumbled across the script at one point and bought a copy. Reading it hadn’t clued me in one bit as to what Lynch had in mind, either. It was practically impossible to decipher, all surreal gibberish and strange character quirk.
The Flash Gordon was something new to me. I didn’t know Roeg had ever taken a crack at it. I was willing to bet, though, that it was a real project at some point. Whoever had set up this practical joke had gone to a lot of trouble to get the details right. In other words, I should look at all of it just so they got their money's worth. Obviously there was no way To The White Sea was playing, and I was willing to bet there wasn't even working projection equipment inside.
I moved to the firmly closed door of the theater and peeked in through the glass. It was a small lobby, only about two and a half times as deep as the concession stand itself. There was no one on duty tearing tickets or selling candy, popcorn, and soda. In fact, I hadn’t seen anyone in the ticket kiosk, either. Lights were on, and the theater had that air of readiness that is present whenever a business is open. A tug on the door confirmed that it was unlocked. Curiosity overcame me, and I had to step inside.
First, the smell of fresh popcorn. But not just any popcorn. There was something about this scent that punched about six different Proustian cues for me. It was like they added bonus popcorn scent to this particular popcorn, which already smelled great.
Second, the sudden impression that the lobby I was standing in did not match the architecture of the theater from the outside. How it was wrong, I couldn't quite pinpoint, but it was.
Third, the realization that I was the only person in the lobby at all. No one was behind the concessions counter at one end of the lobby. No one appeared to be in the kiosk I saw from outside.
I walked across the lobby slowly, calling out to see if anyone was within earshot but out of visual range. Nothing. No one responded. By the time I reached the concessions counter, I was sure I was alone, and more confused than ever. There was a handwritten sign on the counter, next to a drink and a large tub of popcorn. This close to it, the popcorn smelled even better, and I was willing to bet that was real butter melting onto the corn even as I watched. The drink was so cold that the cup hadn't even started to sweat yet. And the sign seemed pretty direct. "Enjoy these courtesy of The Nostalgia.”
By that point, I was done. I wanted to just see the punchline, whatever it was, and then go home. But I also know that with pranks, if you get annoyed, you're the one with the problem. Nine times out of ten, any pranks my friends ever play on me will make me laugh, and they'll be done in the right spirit. But this felt different. This felt like it was so elaborate that it was confusing. Why would anyone go through this much effort to create something, and quickly, just to screw with me?
Irritated, I picked up the drink and the popcorn and then marched over to the door that supposedly led to the next room, the auditorium. Stepping into the doors with my shoulder, they pushed open, and then as I stepped through, they managed to swing back and smack me, goosing me out into the theater.
And in that theater, I watched To The White Sea.
Not just any movie, either. I watched a movie, from beginning to end, absolutely finished and color-timed and locked, and it was To The White Sea starring Brad Pitt circa 1998. It was directed by Joel Coen. This wasn't someone else's take on the material, which is frankly what I expected. This was the movie that never got made, the thing that cannot possibly exist.
And it was awesome.
Brad Pitt is onscreen for pretty much the entire film, but J.K. Simmons makes a heck of an impression in the film's opening, when he plays a Colonel who revs up the troops in the days leading up to that fire-bombing. Like Miller's Crossing, the film opens with a monologue that seems to perfectly sum up the film, and Simmons seemed to make a meal of that one short burst of dialogue. "Fire. We are going to bring it to him. Fire. This is what you've got to look forward to. This is what he's got to look forward to. We're going to bring it to him. To the enemy, you know. Up yonder, friends. Up yonder to the north. North… and fire."
Pitt's pretty much perfect as Muldrow, the "Nip Knocker," and we see in the film's opening how he stands aside from even the people he flies with. He's exceptionally good at what he does, and there's this great beautiful sequence early in the movie when Muldrow's in his plane with his crew and they're being shadowed by another plane. It's one of the most visually arresting sequences of the Coens' career, leading directly into the scene where Muldrow's plane is shot down and he's forced to bail out via parachute.
The film uses flashbacks to Muldrow's childhood to striking effect, and Carter Burwell's score is basically another character in the film. The actual fire-bombing of Tokyo is one of those scenes I'm not sure how someone pulled off. It is truly apocalyptic. Muldrow, trapped behind enemy lines with only a knife, his pistol, two full clips, a packet of fish hooks, some twine, one tin of C-rations, two flints, a compass, and a tiny silk map of Japan, has to first survive that fire-bombing, and like I said… it's a startling sequence. One thing that surprised me about the film is just how brutal Brad Pitt is. He plays Muldrow as an animal, and there's no attempt made to soften him. It might be my favorite performance from Pitt, but I'd need to watch it again before committing to that.
The movie is filled with indelible images. Muldrow savoring the feel of chewing on fish eyes. The murder in the midst of that flock of swans. That amazing cat-and-mouse between Muldrow and the blind man in the middle of the night. His capture and the subsequent escape from the truck. That crazy scene with all the goats. Roger Deakins and the Coens have always done great work together, but To The White Sea just made me weep from how gorgeous it is, all the way through.
I don't even remember walking out of the theater. I remember the closing credits. I remember standing outside in the sun again. But it wasn't until I was sitting in my car again that I really snapped out of the almost dream-like state of seeing that movie. I felt like a crazy person. I decided I had to bring someone else back to show them the theater and the film, and I went to pick up a buddy who lived just around the corner. By the time we got back, though, the block looked the way it always looks. No theater. And definitely no movie.
By the time I got back to my apartment, I had almost convinced myself that the entire thing was some sort of stress-induced hallucination. I went to check my mail, and then I saw the reason I felt confident enough to actually share this with you. There, waiting for me, was a calendar for The Nostalgia, a listing of upcoming movies and when they're showing.
In two weeks, over the Thanksgiving holiday, they’re screening John Boorman’s Lord of the Rings. All four hours of it.
So there's no way I'm not going back.
This, I've gotta see.
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