Fed up with no media coverage, the film palace owner fantasizes revenge. 1,940 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The Casbah’s one-year anniversary was approaching and it was time to do something drastic. The next film booking would have to be a unique program. I devised a Plan A… and a cold-blooded Plan B.
But, first, I began checking the availability of prints. As a completely non-digital venue, our options were extremely limited and getting more so with every month. Then I set a face-to-face meeting with Flicker Weekly’s film reporter Tony Fortunato so this run could, finally, be decently promoted. However much the newspaper game seemed to have changed, I knew the best way to a journalist’s heart was still through his stomach, with perhaps a secondary route through his liver. I also knew that writers always accepted anyone’s invitation that ended with the words, “My treat.” So I went through several recent issues to see what was the newest, trendiest, silliest restaurant in town and made a reservation for two.
The next week we sat at a small table in a large room where the portions were miniscule and the prices gargantuan. But the drinks were enormous, too, and I had arranged with the waiter to make sure that Fortunato’s kept coming. The journalist began our dinner by launching into a long list of reasons why nobody cared about my theater or its programming.
“Those damn black-and-white movies. They’re so corny,” he railed.
“I understand that my tastes may not always align with modern movie buffs,” I admitted. “What I find instructive or refreshing, they sometimes simply find esoteric or obscurantist or dare I even say…”
“Boring,” he interjected, reaching for his second violently green cocktail.
“Yes,” I said, smiling thinly. “Well, I think I may have the solution. The perfect mix of artistic genius and popular entertainment: Orson Welles. His great last unfinished masterpiece, The Other Side Of The Wind, is finally getting a release and, while I don’t expect to be able to book that, many of his other films are readily available. And there are some other rarely screened curiosities that I’ve been working to find. For example, the early shorts he made as a student, or in conjunction with theatrical productions – The Hearts Of Age and Too Much Johnson.”
“Too Much Johnson,” Fortunato repeated, and laughed. “Yeah, like that’d be a problem.”
“Yes,” I said. “And, as I said, while I don’t think we can provide anything on the order of The Other Side Of The Wind, I think there are a few rarities that even you might find worthy of a story. I know, for example, there’s now a very good restored version of Chimes At Midnight which I don’t think has been exhibited locally. And, quite thrillingly, I have a bit of a lead on Where Is Parsifal?, an unutterably dreadful comedy from 1985 with Tony Curtis and Erik Estrada of all people. But it’s never been shown, at least not in the U.S., and I think a booking would really excite my audience. And yours, of course.”
“Oh, you think so, do you?” Fortunato snarked.
He finished his second drink. The waiter soon arrived with a third, and then looked to me. I protectively put my hand over my small glass of sherry and shook my head to signal no.
“Whatever you think about our earlier programming,” I told Fortunato, “you have to admit that Orson Welles is not only a genuine cinema titan but still a bit of a celebrity. Even the vastly untutored know who…”
“He was the fat guy, right?” Fortunato said. “’Rosebud.’ All screwed up over his sled. Jeez, get over it, bro. And then he did all those TV commercials. ‘We will sell no wine before its time.’ Right, like he wasn’t probably guzzling Paul Masson’s Burgundy as soon as they crushed the grapes. Fat old drunk. I liked him on ‘Pinky And The Brain’ though. He did the voice of the Brain, right?”
I looked at this cultural arbiter, with his coarse hands and flushed face and blubbery lips. I finished my last bit of sherry. I looked down at the table for a long time. Yes, it was time for Plan B.
“Of course, you may be quite right,” I said pleasantly. “Welles may not be the best hook here. You may have put your finger on it precisely.”
“’Course I did,” he said. “Wait, what?”
“Well, I mentioned Where is Parsifal? And perhaps that should be the real focus of our next programming. Not Parsifal itself, per se, but unseen films. The censored, the censured, the abandoned, the lost. The movies that people assume don’t even exist anymore. The films that, maybe, should never have existed in the first place.”
His dull eyes briefly brightened. “You mean, like, perv stuff?”
I waved for the check.
“I have managed to obtain some films – well, let’s say they’re for people with special tastes,” I said, signing the bill. “I’m not sure if I even dare show them publicly for legal reasons. But I can show them to you right now, privately, if you like. I’d love to get your opinion. I have them over at the theater, and there’s no show tonight. We won’t be bothered while we watch…”
He was already nodding, hungrily.
Since hE had walked to the restaurant, we took my car. A good thing too, as I doubt he could have made it the five blocks to the Casbah. That last drink had hit him hard.
“Let me ask you,” I said, permitting myself a thin smile as I parked behind the theater. “Have you ever heard of Hollywood’s Al Montillado?”
His hand gripped the bannister a little too tightly as we went inside.
“He worked in the editing department at MGM back in the 1960s,” I explained. “And he was bit of a magpie. A snoop, too. He was always poking around, looking in forgotten little corners, prying open unmarked canisters – and then sneaking things home. He found two reels of Greed even the studio didn’t know it had. A complete print of London After Midnight. When there was a fire at the studio in 1965, hundreds of one-of-a-kind prints were lost forever. Or so people thought. But many were already tucked away in Montillado’s garage.”
Fortunato only grunted.
“I see you’re not impressed,” I said. “But to a true cinema lover, well, those are two of the rarest films in existence. But Montillado kept it all a secret. He was afraid that if he told anyone about his finds, they’d take them away. Honestly, he wouldn’t even let someone transfer his treasures to safety film. Which was foolhardy because, as you know, that old nitrate stock is perilously unstable unless it’s at just the right temperature and humidity. Too little one way, it’s a pile of vinegary mush. Too much the other, and it spontaneously combusts.”
“I thought this was about porno,” Fortunato said.
“Ah yes, the erotica,” I said, leading him into the movie palace’s inner sanctum. “I want to show you something in the projection booth. So yes, Montillado just locked his finds away and it remained his own private little cache of classic cinema. But the man wasn’t a true aficionado, you understand? He was simply a collector. It wasn’t the aesthetic worth of the film that interested him; it was how rare it was. So, after he left MGM, he began using his contacts at various labs and dubbing houses to pick up other work prints, discarded footage, trims. That’s how he got his copy of The Day The Clown Cried. That was the first film he wanted to show me when we met. He was a little more embarrassed about the other things.”
“The porn stuff.”
“Right,” I said opening the projection booth. “That’s what I want you to see now. Odds and ends. Little secrets. Special gifts. The complete shower footage from Psycho – unblurred. Outtakes from Gypsy and ‘Splendor In The Grass and The Great Race where you see far more of Natalie Wood than you should. Scattered frames from Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon that are probably still illegal in most states. Montillado even got his hands on a couple of hard-core films from Ed Wood, which I can’t say strengthen the case for Wood as an artist. But they do have a certain sense of mise-en-scene which the rest of his work lacks.”
“It stinks in here,” Fortunato said, coughing. “Awful.”
“That’s the nitrate film,” I said. “I told you, it’s pretty unstable. Did you know the old theaters used to have special metal safes for prints, with separate lead-lined chimneys going up to the roof? That way, in case the films did suddenly go up one evening, they wouldn’t burn the whole theater down. But the safe here was so badly rusted, I never thought of using it. I probably should, though, just to be careful since all of Montillado’s stuff is piled up here. Although I shouldn’t worry too much; at least my fire insurance is paid.”
Fortunato said thickly, “Either let’s see the movies or not see the movies, whatever. I don’t feel so well.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Let me get you settled while I thread them up.”
I pulled over an old oak desk chair and plopped him into it. It took a while. He was unsteady on his feet and stumbling in the dim light. But a bit of a push, and two more quick movements, and it was done.
“Hey,” he said, pulling on his left wrist, now firmly manacled to the projection stand. “These are handcuffs.”
“Well, where’s the key?
“Haven’t the foggiest, actually,” I said carelessly.
I don’t think Clifton Webb could have delivered the line better.
“Look,” he said, suddenly starting to sound sober. “This is a pretty good joke.”
“Isn’t it?” I said. “I was particularly fond of ‘Al Montillado.’ Of course there’s no such person. I’m the collector who’s spent years hoarding bits and pieces of crumbling old movies. Never something as great as Greed, of course. I suppose that was pushing things a bit. As was ‘Al Montillado,’ but then I didn’t expect you to have read much Poe. Actually, I don’t expect you’ve read much at all.”
“I guess maybe I deserve that,” he said, trying hard to smile. “I guess maybe I even deserve this. But…”
“No,” I said, taking a breath. “No, you’re wrong. You don’t deserve this. You don’t deserve any of this. Not the Casbah anyway. Not the movies it screens. You don’t deserve them and neither do the mewling children you write for. None of you understand these films. At first I thought if I brought back a palace like this, you’d all come. I thought if I showed you those wonderful pictures again, you’d appreciate them. But none of you did. They’re just old movies to all of you. Isn’t it funny how we call old paintings ‘masterpieces,’ and old music ‘classics,’ but old films are just ‘old movies.’ Something used up and out of date. Honestly, none of you would care if this whole place burned to the ground. And now,” I said, walking out of the booth, “it will.”
Fortunato tried to free himself by pulling furiously at the projection stand, itself bolted securely to the cement floor. They built things to last, in those days.
“For the love of God!” he shouted.
I myself do not smoke. But I had bought a nice new stainless-steel lighter just for this occasion.
“No,” I said, striking a flame and tossing the Zippo over my shoulder as I departed. “For the love of Godard.”