Friday, September 3, 2010


So, a couple of weekends ago, Art Boy and I invented an impromptu holiday. We called it National Goof-Off Day. It was a Sunday morning, and we decided to celebrate by doing nothing of any significance—he took a day off from his art commissions, I performed a keyboard-ectomy, and we took off for the illicit thrill of a morning matinée at the Aptos Cinema.

In case you hadn't noticed, Aptos is now in the sixth month of its wonderful Weekend Movie Classics matinée series. Showtime is 11 a. m., Saturday and Sunday (and Monday, on long holiday weekends). A mere $6 gets you in the door, but the unalloyed delight of seeing a vintage movie as God intended, on a great big screen in the dark, is, as they say, priceless.

We went to see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with James Mason as Victorian-era mad genius, Captain Nemo, prowling the ocean in his hand-built submarine. Jules Verne is the godfather of Steampunk, and the folks at Disney spent plenty on the lavish interiors and steaming, pumping mechanics of the good ship Nautilus, and all her underwater adventures (including an eerie, pre-CGI giant squid attack). And who can blame Nemo for his sacred mission of blasting the evil, death-dealing warships of mankind out of the pristine oceans?

Of course, time changes perspective, which is part of what makes watching old movies so much fun. When I saw 20,000 Leagues on late-night TV once, as a 20-year-old college student, I remember thinking Kirk Douglas was kind of sexy in his striped Spandex T-shirt. This time, I found his hammy, eye-rolling machismo a bit much, as the shipwrecked Yank harpooner (although to be fair, he didn't get much help from the script typing him as the two-fisted Ugly American who'd rather fight than think—and yes, he is the hero— but, forget it, Jake, it's Disney, and you can't expect emotional depth). Even less PC is a tribe of black cannibals on a tropical island, shaking their spears and shields. Ugh. And while it's cool that Nemo's crew farms the ocean floor for their food, I hated to see the Nautilus divers herding magnificent sea turtles off to the galley.

It's also kind of funny in a ghoulish way, how the movie appropriates the idea of nuclear energy as the power source for the Nautilus. Released in 1954 (less than a decade after Hiroshima), it includes a scene where a man gazes into the atomic energy core of the ship's engine, "protected" by an old-fashioned diving helmet. In the climactic nuclear blast, our heroes, fleeing in a rowboat, gaze up placidly at the mushroom cloud like they were watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Well, this was the era of "duck and cover" drills, after all.

It's interesting to see how Disney cannibalizes its own over the years. Parts of 20,000 Leagues seem to have resurfaced in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Nemo at his organ obviously inspired the scene of Bill Nighy's great, squid-headed Davy Jones in PotC 2, playing the keyboard with his tentacles. (Although both hark back to Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, so there's nothing new under the sun—or the sea.) And haven't we seen Johnny Depp hot-footing it over the sand pursued by a tribe of irate natives, as Douglas does in this film?

Another fun thing about Aptos' Weekend Classics series is the sense of community among the intrepid audience members. It's like we're a cult. Out in the lobby before the show, one guy cheerfully explained how 20,000 Leagues, Thunderball, and Sea Hunt on TV inspired him to become a lifelong scuba diver. As the lights were coming back up at the end, a woman in back called out, "Who else was rooting for the squid?"

Coming up this weekend is The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of my all-time favorite swashbucklers, with the incomparable Errol Flynn. (Captain Blood is my absolute favorite Flynn movie, But this is a close second!) Shot in 1938, in a lavish early color process called Three-strip Technicolor, it's jam-packed with action, romance, noble ideals, forest skulldugery, boisterous camaraderie, and some of the most rip-roaring nose-to-nose swordfights ever filmed between Flynn and villain Basil Rathbone. (In real life, Rathbone was the expert swordsman; he excelled in making Flynn look good!)

Robin Hood plays at 11 a. m. on Saturday, Sunday, AND Monday this Labor Day weekend, so don't you dare miss it on the big screen; you'll never forgive yourself.

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