When I first heard about Django Unchained, I was overjoyed at Tarantino’s taboo choice of a slavery/revenge storyline ‘cause I remember what adults used to say about the movies that inspired it back when they were “new”. Those days – without the Internet – things didn’t move as quickly and movies stayed fresher longer, so “new” would be roughly the equivalent of 2008’s Iron Man or Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Catching a Shaft marathon five years after the release of Shaft in Africa was seeing Shaft when Shaft was “new.”
In addition to the usual back ‘n forth about Tarantino movies’ racism, violence, denigration of women, and dialog-heavy scenes, Django has inspired talk of whether or not it’s okay for whites to laugh at certain jokes (Djokes?) or revel in a fictional, slavery-themed film. And people should hear themselves talk! The fact that they could be taking a Tarantino movie seriously enough to assign blame, find fault, claim victimhood, and make false conclusions is asinine. Some of these cabbage heads are actually saying they enjoyed Django while walking out of the theater in protest against it. So while that’s all very pious, Django Unchained made me want to give my mom a big hug.
On Saturdays, my mom would announce to my brother, me, and any other neighbor kid within earshot that we were all going to the movies. Every child that could fit in her car was headed for the Holiday Cinema, which we knew as the “The 49¢ Theater” because the top of the marquee read, “ANY SEAT 49¢.” If you got into the car, you knew you weren’t coming home until that evening.
“It isn’t so terrible,” our parents must’ve been thinking. The place was only blocks away; it was cheap as hell and supervised; and it was located in what then passed for a respectable shopping center — if you looked at it through a bad hangover. Some of our parents qualified, so the Holiday was aptly nicknamed.
To call the 49¢ Theater a dump is no exaggeration: the place was a wayward jungle gym that changed exterior colors often enough to suggest upkeep. Yet the decision to drop us off or drive away was solely dependent upon what was on the marquee, and I remember my mom turning the car around only once.
Inside the single screen moviehouse, concession stand candy was stale enough to cut glass. The “young adult” behind the counter was always asleep, but in a way we knew was wrong. Every single one of the display counters surrounding his junkie-ass was cracked. The seats were either sticky or beaten into a permanent recliner position, and only the women’s restroom could be relied upon for functionality. The sinks were always flooded with inhuman-colored God knows what. Strange men we hadn’t even seen in the dark would come to – and light a cigarette.
We used to play Ding Dong Ditch on the projectionist’s door; years later we discovered that, had we not run off, he would’ve sold us drugs. Sometimes older kids showed up in groups – and most of them didn’t run from that door. It was bad for us if they were bullies, but it was okay if they were the older brothers and sisters of the kids already in attendance.
On a typical Saturday we’d see as many as four screenings. And because attention wasn’t always paid to what those films were or to how accurate the marquee was to begin with, we often saw movies we never should have seen and loved every minute of them. Marathon Man, Taxi Driver, I Spit on Your Grave: second and third run showings with months and years-old stuff playing beforehand, like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Up in Smoke, Midnight Express, Uptown Saturday Night, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Laserblast, Penitentiary, Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, and so forth.
Two months after Orca: The Killer Whale was released, the Holiday screened it roughly fifty times. Tommy Allison and I saw at least half of those. To us, it’s the greatest motion picture ever made for its accurate portrayal of vindictive ocean monsters.
Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby’s A Piece of the Action followed Orca’s long run; I liked that one because I enjoyed anything in which adults yelled at one another – who cares about what. (I’d go on to become a fan of Blake Edwards’ films as well, starting with S.O.B., because those adults had problems I wanted.)
The only information any of us ever volunteered about the 49¢ Theater to our parents was when its admission jumped to 99¢. That was a sad day, but we bravely carried on for another year ‘til it became an unmanageable $1.49 and the neighborhood youth was collectively insulted. Then, with VCRs and VHS tapes flooding the market, nobody cared, and soon the theater was on its way out.
The early video tape years were slim pickings, but we were amateurs with a lot of ground to cover. As more titles became available, no drug-dealing projectionist could’ve warped our minds faster: it was in our parents’ living rooms where we met the unholy John Waters, the unfuckwithable Pam Grier, and the wholly uncorrectable Dyanne Thorne, aka Ilsa – She Wolf of the SS. We freshly-minted teenagers knew of no cultural or racial strings attached to anything suggestive of or tending toward moral looseness. We made no excuses. It was a pause, rewind, and fast forward-free-for-all.
The 49¢ Theater closed and then opened under new ownership later, but it didn’t last long. Those reclining seats were remembered all too well for the sex that was had on them, so families didn’t flock there even after the seats were removed and “nice” films started being shown. Next came only Spanish-language movies, and then it finally closed for good.
I was lucky that my mom’s brothers were only 10 years older than I and that we liked the same movies. We dug Shaft, The Exterminator, Superfly and Dirty Harry; they worshiped George Romero so I did too. In the 70s, flesh-eating zombie flicks were dismissed as trash, and it’s with great joy that I embrace today’s zombie gore. After the demise of the 49¢ Theater, one of my uncles snuck me into a first-run American screening of Zombie, Lucio Fulci’s nudity-filled, splatter-fest masterpiece. No way my mom knew we were going to see that movie, but that was how I saw a lot of what are now referred to as “grind house” films. We just called ’em gore-movies, plot be damned. If there were karate dudes busting each other’s heads in or limbs gettin’ lopped off with hand tools, my uncles, and Tommy Allison, and I were accounted for.
That era of filmmaking – and the trash cinema that inspired Tarantino – made us feel like we were getting away with something. Django brings that feeling back for much of its target demographic. I’d like to see Django again, actually, but with my mom. She’s the one who turned us onto The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Of course, when she got out of the car with us to head into the theater it was always a cleaner one, which tells me she knew damn good ‘n well how gross it was in the 49¢. At least she knew what to expect going in — unlike some moviegoers.