I was an impostor at the Silent Movie Theater this Tuesday evening. This was the second screening in Writers in Treatment‘s Reel Recovery Film Series, Billy Wilder’s amazing 1945 film The Lost Weekend. Our Metblogs colleague has already written about this series in her posts More on the Reel Recovery Film Fest and The All-Addiction Film Fest, so we might consider mine an extension of this mini-blog series.
My first impersonation was of our colleage, who was unable to attend, but had already purchased will-call tickets, and suggested I go instead. I would note that I never claimed to be anyone else than your own Lulu, but simply stated I was picking up the tickets under the name Travis Koplow. Substitution in name was a minor prologue to wrapped layers of simulacra (however, dissimulation is anathema to your author). Accompanying me was my dearest native informant, who happens to be something of a SMT aficionado and member.
The night was interesting, largely because the anonymous crowd was interesting in unexpected ways. The attendance overall was pretty sparse, maybe filling half the theater, which is often brimming during other film series. This sparsity had little to do with the general appeal of the film, but rather with WIT’s publicity strategy which lists the series on its own page but not in the SMT’s general schedule. It is hard for me to guess exactly what motivations underlay this; I think WIT wants to reach out to a specific audience who “needs” this film series; but at the same time, organizer Leonard Buschel made a point of noting that the series was a fundraising effort by WIT. The latter goal seems harmed by less broadly targeted audience outreach. […]
In general, the SMT comes up with interesting, quirky, and off-beat film series and events, and the audiences are diverse, fascinating, and generally hip without too much pretension. This night came with free cupcakes and coffee, different from Monday’s hot cocoa night, or (as one would certainly hope) the Tecates handed out for the Punk Rock series. All this a block from Melrose, right near Cantor’s Deli, in the Fairfax District. This screening was a different world again.
As a start, while I pretty much match the SMT standard demographic as a middle-class white guy with too much education (I skew old on most things nowadays), I was interestingly atypical for the screening. The audience seemed to be about 3:1 female/male, for reasons unclear to me (it may have evened out slightly among the stragglers). The age distribution was broader than you’d find in any given “regular” movie theater, but much like other SMT films. The audience was also far less lily-white than an artsy theater in my neighborhood tends to be, probably majority latino at this particular show. None of that would be unexpected if I had driven a couple miles to the south or east to see other sorts of films, but it was quirky in a different way than an average SMT showing of a 1945 film classic.
Things started to get strange–at least strange to me as an impostor (or observer-anthropologist)–when the background piano music which is a mainstay of SMT showings, played on this occasion by James Fuchs, morphed into a sing-along of 1970s sentimental rock standards (Elton John, The Beatles, Billy Joel, shading into more recent Tori Amos). The audience/singers were enthusiastic, albeit mostly not quite knowledgeable of the lyrics, and the whole thing seemingly became some sort of secular church hymnal. That’s an unfamiliar world to me, at least since I last attended my Methodist minister grandfather’s sermons when I was a tween (i.e. not for 30 years). As the hymnal died down, the audience buzz turned to recovery chatter, with the audience perhaps situating themselves relative to the event.
… Oh, and did I mention that the event and audience were being filmed by a video crew? Are we famous yet?
Prior to the screening itself, Leonard Bushel gave an introduction to the series, and especially to WIT’s work, with just that bit of Catskill’s dog-and-pony schtick thrown in for good measure. Vernon Scott introduced the film itself, and the relevance and greatness of Billy Wilder. Such introductions are another mainstay of SMT, which always makes attendance there so much more of a cultural experience than is just seeing a movie at a theater chain.
So now we get to the genuinely strange part. The basic story of the film is of an alcoholic writer who is wrecking his life and causing pain in his all-too-caring and persevering brother and girlfriend. That summary might make it sound like some sort of Lifetime TV special, but Wilder’s film is nothing like that saccharine sentimentality. The film is both brutal and thoughtful, but not merely caustically despairing in the style of many more recent addiction films (it ain’t Requiem for a Dream, as much as I also admire Aronofsky). Throughout the film, the audience reacted very vocally, and basically in a manner that most audiences would find wildly inappropriate. This is where I knew I was an impostor in the audience, or again, at least an outside observer. The hidden bottles were subject of hoots and cheers, an episode of alcohol O.D. hallucination (with admittedly dated special effects) was incidence for loud laughing (I believe not for its lack of realism, but for its ready identification by audience members). There was an (apparently) glaring contrast between the solemnity of the portrayed subject and the levity of the audience reaction.
It seems like there is an analogy here with a similar reaction that some audiences have with horror films and action films. Cheers for bottles of liquor in this audience felt similar to the cheers one hears at times for the killer in a horror film, or for the vigilante cop in an action film. In both cases, there is obviously some cathartic point of identification involved; I do not imagine that an audience, many or most of whom had experiences of addiction and recovery much like those in Wilder’s film, feel genuine levity about the topic. But they do come to the act of viewership in a manner different than I can.