10 Films in 5 Hours: Notes from BamCinematek All Night

Back in the good old days my brother and I would go to the local cineplex on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and watch as many as five movies in a five hour stretch. Typically we'd see one film in its entirety, bracketed by random snatches of other films that we didn't pay to watch but were easy enough to sneak into. It was our way of sampling as many movies as we could for our money; the cinematic equivalent of the all-you-can eat Asian buffets that my value-obsessed mother compulsively takes us to. So when BAM unleashed the latest of what has become an annual tradition, the BamCinematek All Night series, I took it as an opportunity to relive a bit of my moviegoing past - and best of all, I didn't have to break the law. As part of its sprawling CinemaFest still going on now, BAM opened up all four of its theaters from 11:15 to the early dawn, each playing as many as three features back-to-back. The films were programmed to a different theme for each screen: Diana Ross, Scientologist actors, marijuana-inflected narratives and 2000s arthouse cinema, respectively. Fueled by a 16 oz. Red Bull (pictured below) I spent five hours hopping from one theater to another, just to see what kind of impressions and comparisons would come up. Here's how it went down (I only wish I had thought sooner to take photos of the screen to illustrate my points):

11:30 PM - Top Gun (dir. Tony Scott), Cinema 2: Before They Were Scientologists

Arrived 15 minutes into the film, middle of initial action flight sequence. But this film is really easy to jump right into - the 80s rock guitar just juices you for it. Never noticed before that the famous shot of Maverick's F-15 flying upside down above the MIG is a process shot. Crowd snickers at bald guy yelling "Goddamn it Maverick!" - feels like an over-familiar "old guy yelling at young hotshot" cliche. They also howl at "Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash"

I remember this film getting a lot of flack for being basically a celluloid video game, but with video games you can actually make sense of what you're seeing - it's one continuous frame of action.  Here there's a great dialectic between the aerial footage and the fixed frame close-ups of the pilots in their cockpit. The aerial footage is all over the place - there's barely a sense of orientation as to where planes are in proximity to each other - they're just flashes of multimillion dollar military equipment flinging through the air. It makes the viewer cling to those close-ups for mercy, and those close-ups pin the viewer into the human side of the experience. For better or worse this is a landmark influence on blockbuster action filmmaking, something about exploiting audience excitement through incomprehension.

Tom Cruise vs. Val Kilmer: the battle of the big teeth. There's a lot of sweat in this film - sweaty faces in cockpits, sweating in locker rooms, sweating while trying to make a move on a girl in a bar.  Bar scene features pastel neons, soft lighting from underneath. Trademark Tony Scott shallow focus shots, depth of frame in interiors further obfuscated by fog machine haze.

The audience is supersensitive to the notoriously perceived homoerotic context of this film - man-to-man glances, one guy's arm casually behind his co-pilot. "Your butt is mine." "I want butts!"

Interseying that the characters all have nicknames - highly reminiscent of Howard Hawks films. But is there really a sense of the Hawksian? It's sort of about a guy learning to work with others, which is a major Hawksian theme, but the point of view is from the maverick outsider, not from within the ensemble, and it ends with the outsider retaining his sense of self - community can be picked up or disposed of any time.

Midnight - Smiley Face (dir. Gregg Araki), Cinema 4: All Night Bong

Haven't seen this film before. The pacing is way slower than Top Gun; you realize how every scene in Top Gun has a specific aim, about as narratively complex as a Power Point presentation. The beats to the dialogue here are syncopated, after getting used to the beats in Top Gun I'm practically falling through the gaping lapses between lines here. The colors are popping bright, practically Technicolor. Shot on digital, there's a slight stutter to the frame rate during fast movements.

Exaggerated sound effects of Anna Faris gulping, but it seems the film isn't ashamed to go for hyperbole. Faris is hilarious - she's not movie star beautiful, here, but looks like someone plucked from a mall: slightly fleshed out cheeks, vapid eyes.

Lots of squares and rectangular frames for some reason - tiles, offices. Possible visual counterpoint to her loose, raggedy performance, her slovenly stance.

Faris' freak out episode - Araki pulls out the stops - shaky handheld, abrupt noises, horror movie behind the back stuff, iris dissolve. It's like the go-for-broke punk eclecticism of his earlier films but less politically abrasive, more in the spirit of pothead free-for-all. It's really disarming in its playfulness.

Faris' big Marxist monologue in the factory - weird cutting to pork products being processed - a deliberate nod to Eisenstein. And then cut to what Faris actually said, and it's a brilliantly delivered fit of fog-headed babble. I need to see this thing in its entirety.

12:20 AM - The Wiz (dir. Sidney Lumet), Cinema 3: Diana Ross Coming Out

Playing in BAM's largest screening room - I wonder if they made that decision after Michael Jackson's death. Walked in midway through Dorothy's encounter with The Good Witch and the Munchkins, in the middle of what looks like a supersized concrete jungle gym painted in blue, shrouded by darkness. Maybe it's the aged print, but this just looks ugly as sin. I guess the idea is for urban revisionism of this children's classic, but the sets look like they were transplanted from a stage production without any thought into how this might translate cinematically. It just looks cluttered and indistinct.

The audience is really into this; I'm grooving on their whooping, applause and singing along more than I am watching the film. Diana Ross is so miscast as Dorothy. Too old, too unconvincing as innocent teenage girl. Her facial expressions so exaggerated; she's going for Judy Garland but she just isn't Judy Garland.

12:32 AM : the crowd goes wild. MJ is on the screen.

"The Crow Anthem" Weird that people are so enthusiastic and cheery about a very cynical and defeatist song about inner city opportunity or the lack thereof. It must be because it's Michael - they're just into playing out the underdog psychodrama that's being projected onto his persona. His character, a sad-sack-of-hay trying to fulfill his potential, definitely has added pathos now that he's gone.

"Ease on down, ease on down the road" - I feel like I'm at Sunday service. The audience is rocking - people are dancing in the side aisles and hosannah-ing at the screen like it's a celluloid choir.

Which makes me feel a bit guilty to be focused on how shitty this film is directed. Even in the musical sequences, Lumet's compositions are fatally static, wide shots with occasional cuts to zoomed-in close ups. No camera movement, no energy. Can't he use a dolly?

1:00 AM - In the Mood for Love (dir. Wong Kar Wai) already over; I had seen it recently anyway.  Back at Top Gun. Finale. More deep oranges (Tony Scott loves the magic hour), more smoke-filled interiors with extreme foreground and background.

1:15 AM - Millennium Mambo (dir. Hou Hsiao Hsien), Cinema 1: BAM Cinematek Favorites

Run into Florence, who programmed this screening room. She says "Enjoy the greatest opening sequence of all time!"  Hsu Chi, looking sideways looking back, letting the moment unfold across a skywalk and cascade down a stairway, subtly undercut by a temporally displaced voiceover narration. Cut to a club scene, a fluorescent mist breathing in moments, and drugged out clubbers breathing in the mist. The stuff Mark Lee Ping Bin does with lighting is something close to miraculous (esp. given that he probably didn't have an extensive crew or set-up). Pockets of light that break the frame into microspaces of activity.

1:40 AM - Look Who's Talking Too (dir. Amy Heckerling), Cinema 2: Before They Were Scientologists

Walk into a truly weird shot of a mechanized automaton baby blinking its eyes and wrigging in an irridescent womb that looks like it was made of taffeta. Scenes are loose, largely improvised, looks like everyone is practically mailing this in after the massive surprise paycheck that was Look Who's Talking. Makes me recognize the remarkably tight design of an apparently aimless film like Smiley Face.

Abrupt cut from toddler to soft focus montage footage: the first fantasy montage sequence by a 2 year old. At least this film is not totally uninnovative. Other weird expressive moments - babies having flashbacks and nightmares. And such spellbinding baby dialogue as "Mr. Toilet Man likes to eat your doo doo and your pee pee."

Kirstie Alley's costuming is a disaster: weird bow on her head and overwrought floral pattern. Weird joke involving crack vial on the ground.  Weird apartment hallway dialogue. And somehow there's a strange feeling of authenticity to these scenes because incidents are so mundane - like we're listening to the screenwriter work through their issues, probably grabbing stuff from her life here and there instead of sitting down to shape all of this into a compelling narrative.

Print is developing severe audio problems. Time to bail.

2:00 AM - Back at The Wiz for the finale. Lena Horne bedecked in a star sequined dress, with blue-suited babies suspended in the backdrop. The set of the wizard's lab is so bare, so stark as to seem abstract. It could be meta, if only Sidney Lumet understood the meaning of the word. It barely works as camp.

2:15 AM - Pineapple Express (dir. David Gordon Green), Cinema 4: All Night Bong Start of climactic drug den shootout sequence. The drug den is a bizarelly spacious set, allowing for more wider and varied compositions than Top Gun or even Millennium Mambo. There's an insistence on wide master shots, medium shots and an emphasis on compositional detail, the lived-in qualities of the setting.

There's a really flippant, plastic attitude towards action movie violence, playing with action movie tropes like how to break out of handcuffs or escaping through a ventilation shaft. Really feels like what a pothead would come up with after watching an action movie, and in so doing it highlights and breaks down a lot of those cliches. But it doesn't do so in a deconstructive way, rather it uses them as springboards to leap into even more absurd displays of violence.

2:40 AM - Back to Millennium Mambo again for the finale. Jack Kao, gun in hand, silently entering his own apartment.  Polar opposite consideration of the action scene than Pineapple Express. Mark Lee Ping-bin's orange glows convey warm humanistic flickering under a shroud of danger.  Followed by another sequence of someone scoping out an interior, Hsu Chi checking into a Japan hotel room. It's amazing how much mileage Hou can get from just watching people take in their surroundings.

Final image of snow drift - palpable yet fleeting. This film is basically a 125 minute journey to arrive at that metaphor for modern existence.

3:00 AM - Staying Alive (dir. Sylvester Stallone), Cinema 2: Before They Were Scientologists

Have pretty low expectations for this - the opening montage of a dance rehearsal is pretty cheeseball, especially with the credits in neon text - but the dynamism of the montage leads to some striking albeit blurry images on the iPhone:

There's a gritty corporeal realism, and an emphasis on physical action that's pretty distinct. Good sense of momentum cutting across matching action from one dance workout to another. This whole sequence is cut to Travolta's movement - and who can blame Stallone for wanting to do that. Few actors are as pleasurable to watch move as Travolta. Ha, one character even comments on this! "I love to watch you walk."

Remarkable cut from the end of the nightclub scene to the other end of a one-night stand. Sex just happened but is disposable and forgotten. The morning after starts with him saying he needs to go. This film is moving, moving moving. I'm inclined to revisit the rest of this some time... 3:15 AM - Friday (dir. F. Gary Gray), Cinema 4: All Night Bong Interior dialogue scene features those nintentionally heavy shadows that plagued much of 90s low budget indie filmmaking. There's a lot of South Central hood tough-talk here, but it's played for laughs - the pitch must have been "Menace II Society as a comedy."

Beautiful staging and blocking Beyween Chris Tucker and Ice Cube - Ice Cube lies down to press weight and the editing practically pirouettes to a point of view shot, using the barbells as an axis.  Then they spin around the front porch to sit down at two deckchairs. Very nice.

3:30 AM - Mahogany (dir. Berry Gordy), Cinema 3: Diana Ross Coming Out

I have a special interest in this film because it might include my very first film memory. When I was three I moved back to live with my parents in California. My first memory with them involves an evening in a one-room studio apartment, the three of us in bed with the TV on. I remember a well-dressed black lady being pushed into a fountain and the song "Do You Know Where You're Going To" playing. Later on I learned that the song was from the film, but to date I have not watched the film to verify if that it was Mahogany. I caught the last 45 minutes of this film at the All Nighter and I'm afraid I didn't see the scene that haunts my early childhood. (If anyone who's seen the film and wants to verify it, feel free - in any case I'm going to get around to rent it).

What I did see was some unprecedented footage involving sex between a black woman and a white man, told mostly from the perspective of the woman (one only has to see Monster's Ball to get a sense of how little we've progressed since then).

The relationships and the acting are brittle. Diana Ross resembles Judy Garland more in this film than she did in The Wiz. Berry Gordy seems hellbent on mashing up Fellini Dolce Vita superficiality with female self-determination a la Barbara Streisand vehicles. It's a cosmopolitan bitchfest tacked to an old fashioned Hollywood ending.

4:20 AM - Demonlover (dir. Olivier Assayas), Cinema 1

I shouldn't have saved this for last. Walked into Gina Gershon getting her throat slashed and head bashed in by Connie Nielsen. I've seen this film before and I know it's going to be all downhill from here in the disturbing events department, and at 4:30 in the morning I really could use a good night's sleep free of nightmares.

But it's been a fun five hours - like channel surfing but with my legs doing the work of my thumb.  Ample doses of cinema of all varieties, and a nascent interest in Sylvester Stallone as auteur. Thanks for the memories, BAM.