Prior to the ’70s, midnight shows were the realm of the occasional horror release and exploitation distributors who used the slot to attract night owls to seedy fare. But the midnight movie as we know it — as a Friday- and Saturday-night staple featuring cult films — came into its own as the ’60s turned into the ’70s.
The ‘60s saw a flurry of activity in underground film as Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and others made movies way outside the Hollywood system, films that took avant-garde forms and featured content too extreme for the mainstream. That didn’t mean there wasn’t an audience for them, though. Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls played New York for months, for instance, and in the latter part of that year, Mike Getz of Los Angeles’ Cinema Theatre — after having success in Los Angeles playing experimental films at midnight — hit upon the notion of sending a package of films on the road under the name “Psychedelic Film Trips #1.” They played at midnight across the country in theaters owned by Getz’s uncle Louis Sher, and they did well, making Getz something like the Johnny Appleseed of the midnight movie.
Still, the classic Lifetime movies were the rare piece of pop culture where everyone was in on the joke. As executives talk excitedly about the channel’s new direction, they’re well aware of the extreme curious passion for the low-budget, tabloid-themed movies of Lifetime’s early days. The overwrought acting; the incredible titles; the out-of-control drama; the plots that centered around all the terrible things that could happen, ever. Did we mention the incredible titles?
“Yes, I’ve heard every horrible event in almost everyone’s life I’ve met,” confesses Arturo Interian, the network’s vice president of original movies who started at Lifetime in 2001 and still gets idea pitches from strangers. “I’ll put it this way: People will tell you about some physical ailment they’ve had and it’s very awkward to say, ‘Well, you know, I’m sorry about your terrible limp. But it’s not really a movie.’ ”
“I get e-mails constantly from everyone that anytime something horrible happens, they just assume it’s a Lifetime movie,” Interian said. “It’s like, ‘Some cannibal ate his wife; Arturo, make this a movie!’”
—From “The Delightfully Weird History of Lifetime Movies,” Emily Yahr’s retrospective of the network and iconic franchise for the Washington Post. Over the last few years, Lifetime has made a concerted effort to distance itself from its “guilty pleasure” image. Yahr chronicles the network’s quarter-century history in her piece. Of particular note is the network’s relationship to women: even as it retools its voice and image, the network continues to be “a haven for movies about complicated female protagonists (still a rarity in Hollywood) as well as female directors.” About half the network’s films are helmed by women, a statistic that takes on particular weight when compared to the staggeringly low industry standard of around 6 percent.
Nonetheless, whenever I see masked and helmeted police in photographs and movies or on the street going after protesters, I wonder, as I did during a battle royal between peasants and cops in the summer’s class-war sleeper Snowpiercer: “Who are these hidden people?” It crosses my mind anytime I see a helmet swing a nightstick at a skull. The movies, especially dystopic science fiction, have gotten really good at siccing human drones on human beings or just showcasing warfare as stacks and stacks of computer-generated menace. Ferguson demonstrates how good life has gotten at turning into science fiction. That collapse of the real and the morally unreal took place in last summer’s Fruitvale Station, which dramatized the 2009 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant on an Oakland train platform. It opened the weekend before the president made his remarks about Trayvon Martin and race, and bears a subdued kernel of resemblance to the events happening now in Ferguson.
The door opened. Two men in suits walked in. The man in front was a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, thin-waisted, thick-haired fellow with deep-set, dark eyes and an icy glare. The precinct detective knew this man. He’d seen him around the precinct. It was hard to miss him. He looked, colleagues often said, how a detective in a movie looks. And he played the part well. His suits were tailored. He always seemed to be chomping his trademark cigar, whether at the station, on the streets, or at the bar after hours. He had a booming voice thick with a Brooklyn accent. He had a hearty laugh and a respectable handshake. He loved to buy others drinks and trade stories. He was the friendliest and warmest man many of his peers had ever met, and he was quick to cut himself down with abundant doses of self-deprecation. It was hard not to love Detective Louis Scarcella.
Behind Scarcella stood his partner, Detective Steve Chmil, a stout man with a trim mustache, a brown comb-over, and skeptical, probing eyes. Where Scarcella seemed to seek the spotlight, Chmil was fine working in the shadows. The Robin to Scarcella’s Batman, cops around the borough joked. Scarcella and Chmil had come to assist on the precinct detective’s homicide case. He was expecting the company. Scarcella and Chmil were members of the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad, a roving, 40-man task force formed to relieve the borough’s murder epidemic. Precinct detectives faced dozens of robberies, burglaries, rapes, assaults, and shootings each month. The heavy caseloads made it tough to stay on top of a murder investigation for more than a few weeks. So homicide-squad detectives worked with the precinct detectives to help investigate murders. And perhaps no detective in New York City was better known for solving murder cases than Louis Scarcella.
—Albert Samaha, writing for the Village Voice about the embattled career of Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella. In recent years, many of Scarcella’s tactics have been questioned, and convictions made with his help have come under scrutiny.
“Our conversation turns to the movie Shrek. Nahal loves Shrek so much that she’s seen the first installment of the DreamWorks trilogy ‘at least thirty-six or thirty-seven times.’ Her obsession is, apparently, shared by many Iranians. The image of Shrek appears everywhere throughout Tehran: painted on the walls of DVD and electronics shops, featured in an elaborate mural in the children’s play area of the food court at the Jaam-e Jam mall. Once, from a car, I passed a five-foot-tall Shrek mannequin on the sidewalk; like his fellow pedestrians, he wore a surgical face mask to protect him from the smog.
“Nahal explains: ‘You know, it’s not really the original Shrek that we love so much here. It’s really the dubbing. It’s really more the Iranian Shrek that interests us.’
“The Iranian film industry has a long and illustrious tradition of high-quality dubbings. In the post-Revolution era, and the ensuing rise of censorship, dubbing has evolved to become a form of underground art, as well as a meta-commentary on Iranians’ attempt to adapt, and in some way lay claim to, the products of Western culture. A single American film like Shrek inspires multiple dubbed versions—some illegal, some not—causing Iranians to discuss and debate which of the many Farsi Shreks is superior. In some versions (since withdrawn from official circulation), various regional and ethnic accents are paired with the diverse characters of Shrek, the stereotypes associated with each accent adding an additional layer of humor for Iranians. In the more risqué bootlegs, obscene or off-topic conversations are transposed over Shrek’s fairy-tale shenanigans.”
An essay from Bissell’s book Magic Hours: A film crew and actor Jeff Daniels arrive in the author’s Michigan hometown to shoot a movie:
“As the sun sets behind the thick pine stand that perimeters the football field, the lack of extras begins to become a problem. To appreciate how crucial extras are to tonight’s filming, one must know several things about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. First, citizens of the Upper Peninsula are known as ‘Yoopers,’ an inelegant transliteration of ‘U. P.,’ as this underpopulated and fearsomely bleak stretch of land is known. The U. P. is separated from the rest of Michigan culturally and geographically, connected only by the Mackinac Bridge, an architectural marvel built as recently as 1957. The U. P. might be the most rural part of the country, as well as its least familiar. Some maps neglect to include the border separating the U. P. from Wisconsin, an accidental annexation that, if made official, would please the vast majority of Yoopers, who feel a stronger cultural identification with Wisconsin anyway. Finally—and in light of tonight’s scene, not to mention the whole film, this is a key point—for Yoopers, deer hunting has near religious significance. The first day of deer season is actually a school holiday—Deer Day, it is called—and the entire place is a hotbed of gun crazies and gun-craziness.”
Smith now says self-distribution was the goal as far back as the first week of production on “Red State.” “Day four, I was sitting on the set and I realized that it felt like the Little Rascals — everybody was doing it for love, we weren’t gonna get paid. And I thought, We’re gonna pull this off for 4 million bucks. And then we’re gonna sell it, get paid probably $4 million, if we’re lucky, and based on all my previous experiences in this business, that would be the last money we would ever see. I know what happens next. If I sell to Lionsgate, that’s $20 million [in marketing budget] tacked on top of my movie, and I have to make $24 million back. But then we know that’s not the case, because we know [the studio] doesn’t keep all the money, they only make 50 percent. So now my horror movie that cost $4 million to make has to make $48 million to break even? I’ve never made a movie that’s made $48 million, and it’s certainly not gonna be this one.”
“Fear has descended,” says James Schamus, the screenwriter-producer who also heads the profitable indie company Focus Features, “and nobody in Hollywood wants to be the person who green-lit a movie that not only crashes but about which you can’t protect yourself by saying, ‘But at least it was based on a comic book!’ “