The Great Escape

WideScreen fest lets you stop thinking for a few hours

I don't know about you, but Christ almighty, I could do with some serious frivolity right now. Yes, it feels weird, even immoral, to have any fun at all while we teeter on the brink of World War III, not knowing if you'll make it through tomorrow without somebody chucking a canister of anthrax in your face or crashing a jetliner in your back yard. But then again, there's something to be said for eating, drinking and being merry. We can't just sit around grieving and worrying until our brains come dribbling out of our ears. We need some fun, damn it, and I'm not talking about tasteful, consciousness-raising fun where everybody sings a song, exchanges hugs and then donates a couple of pints to the Red Cross. I'm talking about big, noisy, slothful, mindless fun. American fun.

Happily, the annual WideScreen Film Festival has rolled back into the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach, and this bulging sack of cinematic junk food really hits the spot. Some of the films will annoy, some will inspire, and some you've already seen a million times on TV and video, but whether they're clunkers or gems, there's a good chance you've never seen them as intended: on a big, wide screen.

It all kicks off tonight (presuming you rushed out and grabbed this issue on the day it hit the streets: Thursday, Oct. 4), with Barbra Streisand's screen debut, Funny Girl. Yeah, I know; I don't care either, but things get rapidly better the next day with a screening of How to Marry a Millionaire, a 1953 comedy/musical/romance starring Betty Grable, Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe as three supercuties on the prowl for love. Inside-joke alert: Bacall mentions her crush on "that old man in The African Queen," referring to her husband, Humphrey Bogart. Isn't that sweet? The whole movie is cute as a button; enjoy it guiltlessly.

Later that evening, the fun continues with American Graffiti, a slice of cheesily charming early '60s Americana from George Lucas that featured a cast that would go on to great heights of sitcom and movie mediocrity. The following day brings Grease, a junk extravaganza that's sure to arouse your nostalgia for the '50s nostalgia that swept America in the '70s (read that last sentence again; you'll figure it out eventually).

Grease is an enormously amiable and silly-headed picture, featuring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John at the height of their evil powers. Sure, it's downright surreal watching these crinkly folk portraying teenagers (Newton John looks a year or two away from menopause), but the whole thing is so sweet you really won't care. There will be a singalong, with the lyrics at the bottom of the screen, and a costume contest judged by two special guests: the director, Randal Kleiser, and one of the stars, Jeff Conaway (still best known, even at this late date, for his role as Bobby Wheeler on Taxi, the poor bastard). So pull out your old Fonzie leather jacket or poodle skirt (or both—what the hell!) and then bop on down with your main squeeze to spend a few hours in the back row passing one piece of bubble gum back and forth between you.

The rest of Saturday is filled up with a juggernaut of fluff: Steve Martin's Roxanne, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist. Sure, Raiders and Poltergeist are kind of scary (okay, so Poltergeist is piss-your-pants scary), but this still qualifies as a suitably trashy bill, and it should be a nice change of pace to be scared of something that can't actually hurt you or anybody you love.

The whole shebang wraps up on Sunday with some big, honking epics. First off, there's Errol Flynn leaving no buckles un-swashed in The Adventures of Robin Hood, followed by Lawrence of Arabia, a lavish David Lean contraption that spends four mesmerizing, exhausting hours on the breathtaking desert vistas without ever granting us much insight into the true character of the famed Englishman who fought alongside the Bedouins in World War I. We're given hints of Lawrence's sado-masochism, megalomania and racism, but despite a charismatic performance from Peter O'Toole in the leading role, Lawrence remains a distant mirage from the first frame to the last. Still, every time O'Toole strides across the dunes and that incredible score strikes up, you'll be transported to another time and place. The show ends with Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones, a well-intentioned cinematic take on George Bizet's Carmen, using lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and an all-black cast.

Over the course of these four days, the festival offers trashy treats for all. So head on over, park your big, lazy American ass in a seat, and let Hollywood fill up your brain for a few hours. You've earned a break. Jesus, we all have.

The seventh annual WideScreen Film Festival screens at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Call (562) 985-7000 or visit www.carpenterarts.org/2001/widescreen.html for show times. $5-$7.
 
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