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You, Too, Can Be in Movies! 

Snuggle into the Bay Area's strange and sprawling alternative moviegoing scene, where anything goes and audience participation is mandatory

Wednesday, Jul 16 2003
I don't remember the title associated with my earliest movie memory (truth be told, I probably fell asleep before the trailers finished). I do recall a warm summer night, gravel crunching under the tires, the slightly musty smell of overstuffed pillows propped up in the back of the flatbed truck; I remember the crackle of the silver-gray speakers hanging from side windows and the flashing beam of the movie projector as my father and I weaved between parked cars on the way to the snack bar. I remember how happy people looked in their little drive-in auto camps: the folks with coolers and lawn chairs, roasting hot dogs; the teenagers curled up under blankets, giggling on the hoods of their cars; the kids playing on the jungle gym and racing through the darkness as pre-show cartoons flickered overhead. This was not my first movie, but the first to make an impression not as passive experience, but as event.

Later, in my teens, came The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Wall at the Strand, social scenes that required planning, preparation, and props, or, at the very least, mind-altering substances. It wasn't until my early 20s, however, that I discovered living-room cinema.

Cutting through an alley South of Market, I came across an open doorway, suffused by the flickering light of a film projector. On the door was a small, handwritten sign -- "SHADOWS" -- with an arrow pointing down a short stairway. Like Alice, I descended, discovering a small concrete room with 15 people crowded together in front of a projection of John Cassavetes' Shadows. The screen was a pitted and cracked concrete wall, painted white; the seats were old sofa cushions. Someone handed me a dixie cup filled with popcorn, and someone else indicated a hollow in the crowd where I might insert myself.

At the time I didn't know anything about Cassavetes as a director, but I learned that night. Shadows was the last of a monthlong series that included The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, and Faces; the following week would begin a series on Ingmar Bergman, again working backward, from Fanny and Alexander to The Seventh Seal. I went a number of times, not because I felt a pressing desire to see any particular movie, but because I enjoyed the experience -- the strange sense of community tucked away, below the street, in a concrete room, watching black-and-white images flicker on a wall.

The Bay Area is rife with participatory moviegoing adventures, some established enough to have crawled out of obscurity. The MadCat Women's International Film Festival, for example, which usually hosts movies under the starlight canopy of El Rio's back patio, began as a small get-together, but has morphed into an international, juried affair. And the Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In Movie Festival has been invading local parking lots for the last nine years.

Others are just getting started: "Spaghetti and a Western" at Aloft features pasta, salad, and garlic bread as well as prizes for the best hat, whistle, and scowl; "Midnight at Eight" is aimed at girls who love cult movies but need their beauty rest and is hosted by a female drag queen and her frisky sidekick at Femina Potens; the "ANSWER Film Series" of socially conscious cinema is presented by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) at Artists' Television Access; the film shorts shown in "Beer-O-Scope" enliven the Zeitgeist beer garden; and a wide range of horror/rock 'n' roll/action movies is offered in the Jezebel's Joint subterranean screening room, which can turn into a low-impact B/D playroom and emergency make-out nook after the midnight curfew.

But not every local film-watching adventure happens underground, or even in San Francisco.

With its grand lobby, gilded balconies, plush seats, velvet curtains, and "carved glass" entranceway, Oakland's Paramount Theatre offers more than breath-suspending beauty; Timothy L. Pflueger's design hearkens back to an era when moviegoing was inherently social. Outside the 2,992-seat auditorium are smoking lounges, sitting rooms, wet bars, promenades, couches, benches, and balustrades (conveniently located in two crow's-nests above the grand lobby, where the elegantly coiffed crowd might be quietly observed). To the creators of the Paramount Theatre, sociability was of key importance, and, thankfully, the effects of their conviction have not been lost over the years.

Even waiting in line to buy my $5 ticket for the summer season's opening night -- a screening of the 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate -- I am surprised by the congeniality of fellow moviegoers. Strangers strike up conversation, hold places for each other in line, share jokes and smokes as the sun slides behind the theater's mosaic façade. In the amber-drenched lobby, an elegant couple dressed in '30s-era evening wear greets us with sparkling smiles while, in the auditorium, Jim Riggs ruffles the keys and teases the pedals of the Mighty Wurlitzer. Some patrons saunter to the bar for a pre-show cocktail; others take their seats to clap along with the rousing Riggs. I climb to the top floor to peer through the porthole that overlooks the lobby, then run my fingers over the ornate walls in the balcony. With nearly half an hour before curtain, the auditorium is already more than half-filled, and there is a noticeable current in the air; the crowd is buzzing as if the world's greatest superstar were about to appear. Instead, a large standing roulette wheel is rolled out onstage. It's time to play Dec-O-Win!

I scurry down the staircase and take my seat next to a powder-cheeked grandmother who swears she saw The Black Pirate the first time around, near a 7-year-old girl and her all-natural "Earth mother," six rows behind a rowdy band of urban pirates waving toy cutlasses. The eclectic crowd falls silent as a young woman in silver and black satin slinks across the stage to spin the wheel.

"8-2-9-1," announces her dapper companion as audience members carefully study their ticket stubs. When someone finally waves his ticket in the air, the crowd applauds heartily. "Congratulations! You've won luxury accommodations at the Oakland Airport Holiday Inn." Laughter and more applause.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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