Thursday, December 08, 2011

What Thou Lovest Well Remains, With The Possible Exception Of Fire Maidens Of Outer Space

Deep down, to this day, I love sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the movie curtains to swing aside. A huge screen is revealed and the lights slowly dim. Then life springs onto the screen—big, bright images—but more than images—this is what comes alive before me—a world made of light. I can’t call this solely a love of movies, not exactly. The whole theater is part of it. Even today, though there usually aren’t curtains and the screen is not that big, every time I go to see a film, I feel it is saving my life.

So I thought I would try to respect that primary, primal movie-going experience, and capture a small part of its phenomenology. This is how I’m going to do it.

I was lucky to live a couple of blocks away from a big old theater—the Westmont—in south Jersey—where 50 cent matinees played every Saturday at noon. Two movies, cartoons, previews. Most of the movies I’ve seen there, I’ve seen only that one time. Here is approximately what I remember from three of them (Note: I (emphatically) do not recommend these movies. They are probably explodingly awful pieces of dreck. But some part of them lodged in my brain and filled me with awe. Go figure.)

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

The set up: Astronaut guys go to a moon of Jupiter or Saturn and find girls in tunics and one old guy.

What I remember, more or less: The main thing with this movie is the use of one of Alexander Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances (the Gliding Dance of the Maidens), also known as Stranger In Paradise by Al Alberts and The Four Aces. I have a hazy impression of fire maidens dancing around an altar or temple-y thing to the tune. But my only big visual takeaway from FMOS is the monster. This was a tall guy in a black leotard and what I remember as a really messed up monster face, all contorted flesh and uncombed hair. That sounds like a beatnik but it wasn’t. Specifically, I remember how the monster gained entrance to the-whatever-it-was palace, temple, city. The (let’s say) palace is surrounded by an electrified fence, which the monster is afraid of. This keeps him at bay. Then (as I remember it) he sees one of the astronauts getting around the electricity by putting a ladder over the fence. The monster pushes a tree over and against the wall and sparks fly and the electrified part of the wall shorts out. Then he climbs over wreaks havoc. People get killed. But I was thinking “I am totally going to get over an electrified fence someday with that little trick.”

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Goobers (never Raisinettes), Sugar Babies (never Sugar Daddy).

What’s great about Fire Maidens of Outer Space? Aside from the title, that music. And, slightly, the cheesecake tunics the fire maidens dance around in. If you’re about 10 years old, male, and had lived a sheltered life by today’s standards, it was totally “Hotcha!”

Voyage to the Seventh Planet

The set up: Boy I still cannot tell you what the fuck this movie is about. I remember the poster had a giant rat-bat-spider on it that played a really minor role in the movie, and that’s about it. I gather it was about a crew of astronaut guys who land on the seventh planet. The seventh planet is, according to my count, the hilarious-to-13-year-old-boys Uranus. Which may be why it wasn’t called Voyage to Uranus (snicker). I think it started on earth, maybe with an ominous “What the hell is going on out there on Planet 7?” But, like a lot of these memories, I could be making that up.

What I remember, more or less: Not much. Astronaut guys land, getting out of their aerodynamic spaceship. It seems the Seventh Planet is basically a big Christmas tree farm. Weird, creepy, uncanny things happen, and they leave.

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Hershey bar with almonds, Mr. Goodbar, Jujubes.

What’s great about Voyage to the Seventh Planet? There were a few indelible images or scenes which, looking back, felt like some really disturbing surrealism was going on in this movie. I suspect what I thought was crazy, dream-like surrealism was probably total technical and artistic incompetence wedded to a $25.75 budget, but there you are.

So, at some point the crew reaches some kind of barrier and one of the guys puts his hand through it. It gets stuck and when they yank it out it’s frosted, blue, and frozen solid. AAAAGGGGHHH! You know, that could really happen in the cold reaches of the outer solar system. Then there’s the giant rat-bat-spider, which even then seemed to be both an unconvincing puppet and an utterly terrifying nightmare come to life. But the really indelible image that I took away from Journey to the Seventh Planet is the main alien: a super-brainy, mind-controlling blob. It looked like a bubbling vat of chunky Bolognese sauce, with an eye in the middle. Even now, I can’t look at a pot of tomato sauce coming to a boil on the stove without flashing back to the mind-controlling alien of Uranus (snicker). And how do I explain that to people? I don’t explain it. I don’t mention it, ever.

Giant from the Unknown

The set up: Alright, I couldn’t even remember the name of this one. I had to figure it out from googlizing vague descriptions. Giant from the Unknown is in black and white. A [giant] conquistador is brought back to life from suspended animation. He’s covered in mud and is wearing one of those conquistador helmets. He gets thrown over a waterfall at the end. The Giant from the Unknown (wouldn’t that be Spain though? I guess The Giant from Spain (I adore you) didn’t cut it), has a lot of outdoor filming in what is obviously really uncomfortable working conditions for the actors.

They’re out in the mountains and forest somewhere in northern California. It’s cold, it’s wet, there’s snow on the ground, all of which is palpable to me sitting in the theater.

What I remember: Pretty much the above, and possibly not even that much. I don’t remember any of the plot, any of the characters except for “el G. from the U.”, or much else. And yet the scenes of the damp hills splattered with snow and a couple of images still feel totally gripping. Again, the general incompetence, lack of continuity, plot holes, incoherence and low budget of the production is both why I don’t remember more of it (Hey, I remember ALL of Jason and the Argonauts) and also the origin of its allure and hold on me.

What I might have had from the snack counter in the lobby: Sno-caps, Boston Baked Beans.

What’s great about Giant from the Unknown? A lizard or frog jumps out of a rock when a scientist breaks it open. A fucking living reptile and/or amphibian, people. I had a discussion about this scene at school sometime after seeing the move. Was this fifth grade? Maybe. Anyway, we boys decided that this could totally really happen, because there’s a real scientific name for it: suspended animation. In fact we were sure it had happened somewhere, so the movie was based on scientific truth and real facts! To which: whoa. And, as above, the wet, dingy landscape and cold was an unintentional cinema verite background that chilled me.

There’s more, lots more: The Werewolf, mole men, giant grasshoppers, giant snails, westerns. Also The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Great Escape, Project Crossbow, Goldfinger, Dr. No, Cheyenne Autumn, The Three Worlds of Gulliver, and onward and upward. Movies are a mother to me.

You know what else I love. Waffles.

* * *

Michael Gushue co-curates the floating Poetry Mutual Reading Series in Washington, DC, runs the micro-press Beothuk Books and is co-founder of Poetry Mutual/Vrzhu Press, a poetry incubator that sponsors events, publishes books and builds community among writers and audiences. His work has appeared online and in print, most recently in the journal Gargoyle and the online journal Locuspoint. His books are “Gathering Down Women,” from Pudding House Press and “Conrad” from Souvenir Spoon Books. You can hear him read some stuff and talk to Grace Cavalieri on The Poet and The Poem ( He lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC.


Glenn Buttkus said...

I absolutely love this, Michael. As a life long movie buff, myself, growing up in Seattle in the 50's, there were seven old Vaudeville houses still showing movies, and each one was a rococo palace. For a decade later on I became a professional actor, and some of the magic of movies dwindled when I found out how they were made. But then I spent 30 years as a special Ed teacher, and the life sustaining "magic" returned, even in these Mall cheese boxes they call theaters now.

CLBledsoe said...

There's just nothing quite like seeing a movie in the theater.