The Conformist

Fascism can be so lonely.
Fascism can be so lonely.

As I wait for the judges gavel to fall I’ve been watching 70’s movies on Netflix. Last night was Bertolucci’s classic and it was as good as I remembered it being 40 years ago. In addition to the drinking, disco, drugs and drag back then, the other mainstay in our lives was movies. And there were so many good ones.

We saw “Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom” and “Swept Away” at the Lumiere; “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” and “Grey Gardens” at the Clay; and “Metropolis” and “Now Voyager” at the Castro. There was also “Chinatown,” “Taxi Zum Klo,” “Amarcord,” “Shampoo,” etc., etc. etc.

When my Mother visited in 1974 we took her to a little flat on South Van Ness where they screened movies in a converted front parlor. We sat on recycled living room furniture and watched “Lifeboat.” Mother was more intrigued by our Tallulah fixation than by the movie.

The movie's most vivid colors are in the party for the blind scene.
The movie’s most vivid colors are in the party for the blind scene.

We also took her to a midnight showing of “Pink Flamingos” in North Beach. John Waters’ films did not go into general release in those days so when they were shown in the City it was a major event. Lines queued around the block at the now demolished Palace Theater. We saw “Desperate Living” and “Female Trouble” there too.

Being fresh out of college, steeped in the Socratic method, we were very critical. Lesser titles like “Barry Lyndon” or “Tess” were dismissed as quotidian. When I watched them recently on Netflix, however, I was surprised at how lush and entertaining they really were.

In the 80’s, going to movies became less social and a drop off in quality began. I blame Nancy Reagan for that. She bemoaned the fact that films no longer had happy endings like they did back at MGM. With the advent of mindless mall movies, she got her wish.

The spontaneous conga line coiled around the inert protagonist.
The spontaneous conga line coiled around the inert protagonist.

I tried to stay current by going on my own but it became too emotional. I cried through “Footloose,” I cried through Madonna’s “Truth or Dare.” It wasn’t the movies that got to me, it was the isolation of being in an audience. It was more fun to be on stage.

Most of my friends could not be bothered with mainstream cinema but I convinced a few to go with me on the pretext of examining cultural phenomena. We saw “Jaws” and the original “Star Wars” at the mammoth Coronet Theatre out on Geary. One “Star Wars” turned out to be enough for me.

It was also at the Coronet that I saw “Grease.” Musicals were not my thing but my friend was wooing a young German “pen pal” so I went along when he visited the States. The kid was obsessed with Americana and the 50’s nostalgia craze. There was a vicarious thrill in watching the film with him. Plus, there was just something about Travolta. (He reminded me of my closeted first boyfriend.)

The naughty chauffeur recycled as a peroxided troll.
The naughty chauffeur recycled as a peroxided troll.

In my role as pop anthropologist I went with Mark to see Streisand’s latest vanity project, “A Star is Born,” in 1976. It was at the Northpoint down by the Wharf. We knew what we were in for so we smoked a joint beforehand. I was high enough to become engrossed by the cinematography and ignored the transparent plot.

About three quarters of the way through silence fell over the theater. The soundtrack had been a constant of dialogue, ambient noise, soaring strings, and Babs. Now there was this sudden hush. We could hear a woman sobbing somewhere behind us. Without a word Mark and I burst out laughing.

I have a feeling she was reacting to the coniferous sap on the screen and not the desire to be on stage. But you never know.

No green screen here. Back when they spent money on films, characters were enveloped by the scenery not standing in front of it.
No green screen here. Back when they spent money on films, characters were enveloped by the scenery not standing in front of it.

Next: Landline
Previous: The Copycats Are Out
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

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