Megaperplexed

O art, where art thou?

Remember back when the as-yet-undeveloped Pacific Amphitheatre was being sold to the citizens of Costa Mesa as a modest cultural jewel that would present Shakespearean plays and the like? The hulking venue did eventually feature Shakespeare's countryman Ozzy Osbourne, but that's about as close as it ever got to the varied and rarefied treats that were promised.

It's the same story with the county megaplexes. When centers such as Costa Mesa's Triangle Square or the Irvine Spectrum were proposed, one heard a lot of effluvia about how each would embody the spirit of a Renaissance town center, building a sense of community as citizens came together to share cultural experiences. And, oh, those megaplex hubs, wherein it was assured we would experience the width and breadth of world cinema! Art films! Independent films! Foreign films made by foreigners!

There are now, by my awkward count, some 424 operating movie screens in the county. Subtract the 27 screens still showing films that may well be out on video by now (Chicken Run, anyone?) and the 33 screens showing what by the broadest definition might be called art films (and this is including big-ass, TV-promoted productions like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Quills), and you know what's showing on the remaining 380 screens? Exactly 14 movies.

We're talking Cast Away, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Miss Congeniality, What Women Want, plus one other film for each of your fingers, each on dozens of screens.

Years ago, I predicted at the outset of the megaplex trend that it would culminate in Edwards Theaters simply running gum-flecked red carpeting down our blocks and installing a screen and popcorn machine in every home. It is not for nothing that I keep Nostradamus chained up in my garage.

I'm sure there's some fine stuff amid the 14 films we have to choose among, but there are others—including The Claim, The Gift, Sunshine, Vatel, Shadow of the Vampire, Boesman and Lena, and Requiem for a Dream, all now showing in LA—being squeezed out of the picture here. Some may make it down to OC after the civilized folk are tired of them, but others might never show here.

And these aren't grainy underground movies in which Joe Dallesandro dry humps a scabby monkey for two hours, but mainly films you can take Mom to, films heaped with critical acclaim, Golden Globe nominations and name talent.

I would have liked a chance to see Dwight Yoakam's directorial debut South of Heaven, West of Hell,but despite a cast including Vince Vaughn, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda, it never screened here before vanishing. I'd also like to see the Coen Brothers' George Clooney-starring O Brother, Where Art Thou? without having to fight freeway traffic for 25 minutes or more to go to one of the three theaters in OC where it is appearing, but such is not to be.

I am going to reminisce now. That is one of the prerogatives of age. Just as I once heard World War II vets' tales from the trenches and fighter cockpits, you'd better get used to old hippies with gripping stories of bongs and Beefheart albums because here we come.

Back when I was a whippersnapper and there were maybe one-twentieth as many county movie theaters, there was as much life in the alternative movie scene as there is now, maybe more.

Thirty years ago, the college campuses could be counted on for student organizations presenting surrealist and avant-garde film series. UC Irvine even had a credit course titled "Sociology of the Horror Movie" that was essentially 400 hashed-out students and instructors cramming into the science lecture hall to watch low-budget monster flicks (notably Blacula and Italian Mario Bava bloodfests). The smoke and the wine bottles rolling down the aisles would occasionally reach such a pitch that the professor, a stentorian absurdist named Bill Watt, would stop the film and thunder, "Okay, cut out all the horseshit!" I aced that course.

Before that, at Corona del Mar High School, some buddies and I started a Tuesday night film program—which was basically an excuse to use student funds to rent movies we wanted to see. In a not atypical evening we screened Zachariah, a hippie western starring Country Joe and the Fish in the school's little theater. Our student patrons got their 50 cents' worth in the first reel when there was all manner of cathouse-naked nudity. By sheer luck, the campus activities director—who was also policing a basketball game—only wandered in during the shoot-'em-up scenes, was satisfied that America was in good hands and left before the weed-smoking rutting recommenced.

The chief alternative house in the county was the Wilshire theater in Fullerton. It was first an art house showing European flicks and then a hippie palace showing underground films, which pretty much were two hours of Joe Dallesandro dry humping a scabby monkey.

Mr. Dallesandro was the star of such films as Andy Warhol's Dracula and Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, two films notable for the fact that Andy Warhol had virtually nothing to do with them. They screened at the Wilshire, as did Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope and Greaser's Palace and any number of other films by Goddard, Fellini, BuŮuel, Jodorowsky, et al.

One night while watching D.H. Lawrence's The Fox, which was pretty much your average drop-a-tree-on-a-lesbian movie, my friend Jon couldn't help but notice that Patty Hearst—at the time America's most famed fugitive—was sitting in front of him with another woman and a black guy.

Though known for their bank robberies and shootouts, the Symbionese Liberation Army also had time for petty larcenies. A few minutes into the film, the guy turned to Jon and said, "Hey, man, I'm gonna go find a liquor store. You want anything?" Jon thought a bottle of Jack Daniels would complement the film nicely and gave the fellow $5.

The man returned some minutes later with no booze and no mention of Jon's cash. When he asked about it, Jon was told, "Why don't you just consider it a donation to a good cause?" Evidently more persistent than the FBI was at the time, Jon got his $5 back. In the next day's Register and Times, law-enforcement officials confirmed that Hearst and Co. had been sighted in Fullerton.

Even mainstream movie houses routinely carried films like Antonioni's Zabriskie Point—a revolutionary manifesto chock-full of desert hippie sex and exploding appliances—even though Orange County was then a far, far more conservative place. Despite the censorious attitude of that time, I think we're finding out that there may be no greater censor than the "free" market when it is in the hands of profit-maximizing executives.

Man, it is hard pulling out of a hippie flashback, but I have. If we may infer a point from it, it's that there was probably a higher percentage of challenging films on OC screens then than there are in our present glut of theaters. One thing we never imagined when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey back then was that in 2001, a movie that original might not make it to OC screens.

Much as I'd like to blame the Edwards "I never met a theater I didn't own" dynasty and its hundreds of screens, much as I'd like to blame empire-building city governments that help slap up megaplex-hubbed centers faster than they can go bankrupt—the blame is ours, too. There is many a movie that has appeared in the county that I haven't rushed out to see, only to find it gone when I did get off my lazy ass a few weeks later.

You know how Oprah Winfrey gets droves of people to buy books? Maybe what we need is someone—Greg Stacy, where are you?—to be our local filmic Oprah, someone to say, "Look, you go see this movie, opening night, tonight, or I am going to come to your house and sit on you while we screen the director's cut DVD of Heaven's Gate. Okay?"

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