Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hot Town, Cinema in the City
Its summer and that means that instead of sitting in my apartment watching movies I’m finally getting outside, relaxing in the cool green grass…and watching movies. Redundant isn’t it.

Every summer, for the past eight years the Chicago Park District puts up a huge screen in Grant Park, and shows classic films for free. It’s a very urban experience sitting outside on that classic park lawn with thousands of people watching great films.

Last night I saw “Double Indemnity”. It is a good choice for a park movie. There enough camp and story to hold your interest and distract you from the bugs try to fly up your nose. Barbara Stanwyck was her nastiest, blond, best snapping, “We’re both rotten”; only occasionally drowned out by motorcycles and ambulances speeding down Lake Shore Drive. Fun night, but it made me melancholy to think back on all the summers past and how the time is flying by. Some of my favorite and most interesting movie going experiences have been sitting in Grant Park.

For example:
SINGING IN THE RAIN: My first movie in the park. I met up with friends right before the movie started. I was unaware of ‘the rules’. Such as, get there early. We sat so far back on the lawn the screen looked like a 12 inch television set. But it was still incredible; positive energy flowed through the crowd with spontaneous applause after each number. Singing in the Rain became a huge city sing-along.

AUNTIE MAME: It was one of the most humid nights I can remember enduring; 95% humidity. Auntie Mame is long, almost three hours. Without even a hint of a breeze, the air was still, heavy, and I was soaked to the skin in my own sweat. However, the cool performance of Roz Russell drinking martinis seemed to cool everyone off. I’d never seen it before, and was completely dazzled by it. Someone had bought one of those chairs that is based on the premise of a sling and feels like you are wearing a diaper. I had been using it that evening. When one the straps broke, I fell back in a plop and poured a full glass of red wine right in my face. Life was a Banquet.

A HARD DAYS NIGHT: The crowd was huge; I think they said 80+ thousand people. It was like seeing the Beatles live. The crowd went insane after each number with people getting up and dancing on their blankets.

WEST SIDE STORY: I got so smashed during this movie. It was a lesson to eat heartily before drinking wine. During it’s long running time I lost track of how many glasses I’d had. By the time it was over I was blotto and weeping as the credits rolled. There were some wonderful crowd moments: I went to the bathroom and there was a line of Port-o-Potties. While waiting in line the Jets song started. “If you’re a jet you’re a jet all the way…" A spontaneous dance broke out between me and African-American Woman, then every one around us started to join. Then there were these young teenage girls sitting behind us. At the beginning they were complaining how they hated the movie. “Stupid movie” they kept yelling, but by the end they were holding each other crying.

PILLOW TALK: An average movie to see on television, but fantastic with a huge crowd. People were laughing so much that it sounded like there was a laugh track. You could hear the laughter as it rolled through the crowd and bounced off the Standard Oil Building.

REAR WINDOW: It was an enormous turn out of people that stretched almost all the way to the Petrillo Band Shell. It was packed where there wasn’t a spare space anywhere. During the scene where Grace Kelly breaks into Raymond Burr’s apartment it was completely, utterly quiet. Thousands of people spellbound. It gave me chills.

CITIZEN KANE: Now supposedly the founders of the movies in the park were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. As many of you may know Roger has been really sick with throat cancer. For the past two years they let him pick the movies in the park. The movies shown those years came from some book he wrote about the movies you ‘need’ to see. The problem was that they were all film study class films, The Hustler, High Noon, On the Waterfront, all good movies, but not really movies that inspire festive, high spirits. Well, the opening night of the festival Roger was there to introduce his favorite movie, Citizen Kane. (Citizen Kane is a great movie, but not a movie that you want to see while sitting in the dirt in a sling chair; it’s not very campy. People can’t yell “you go girl” or “woo-hoo”.) Com Ed, one of the sponsors that year gave out these big foam hands with the thumbs up. We were instructed that at some point everyone in the audience was supposed to hold the hands and yell “Thumbs up Roger!”

Well, Roger came out and did his speech about the movie and how wonderful the opening shot is “blah, blah, blah”. Then we did the ‘thumbs up Roger”, applauded his years as a reviewer, and waited for the movie to start. I was completely unprepared for what I was about to experience.

For some unknown reason the sound was turned up full blast. And it was DEAFENING. I grew up next to an airport and the Southwest Flight to Miami had nothing on the opening credits. I’M TELLING YOU LOUD. To top it off “Citizen Kane” is a loud movie. When it got to part where it jumps into the March of Time newsreel about Kane’s life and the announcer yells, “Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Kahn decreed his stately pleasure dome” I thought the windows on all the buildings on Michigan Avenue were going to shatter. It just seemed to get louder and louder. I remember at one point yelling in Jonathan’s ear that I couldn’t stand it for very much longer: “What?” he yelled back unable to hear me. By the time Kane’s wife, the opera singer, start fighting, the sound of her screeching voice made people gathering up their blankets and run out of the park as if there was a sniper in the bushes; People were taking the foam Ebert “thumps up” hands, frantically tearing them up and stuffing them in their ears. It was the most insane thing I’ve ever been through.

E.T.: A huge, huge crowd, the second biggest to “Star Wars”. I stood up and looked back; it was people as far as I could see going all the way back to the end of the field. The park bathrooms couldn’t handle the crushing amount of people. At the end of the movie all the toilets had overflowed, the park district had closed them and they were directing people to the Millennium Park toilets blocks away. An ordinary looking woman (suburban type mom type) was just standing on the sidewalk crying and pissing all over herself as crowds of people streamed by her.

GUYS AND DOLLS: Every year they try to do a musical. Except for Sinatra’s singing, and Vivian Blaine funny performance, Guys and Dolls is a bit of a bore for me. But I’d never seen it on a big screen and sometimes movies I don’t like that much on television becomes magical in the park.
This was not to be the case with Guys and Dolls.

There is always the possibility of a rain out. Many an afternoon I’d be checking the radar to see where the clouds are to determine if we can see the movie before it rains. I don’t know where my head was this day. They said rain storms, but we were in complete denial. We’d gotten there early and ate and chatted as the sky got darker and darker, but it was the last movie of the year; we had to stick it out. It began to drizzle a little and some people began to pack-up; However, an announcement came over the sound system: The weather service says that the winds are moving the storm quickly past Chicago, it’s expected to rain for about 15 minutes and then blow over. The movie will continue as planned. So we settled in for an evening of pleasant entertainment.

As soon as the cartoon started, so did the rain. Then we heard from way in the back of the field a roar of screams as a huge sheet of water wafted over the crowd. Everyone dived for shelter under their blankets or umbrellas. It rained really hard for about ten minutes. There was nothing to do; we were stuck. We’d just sat there under our umbrellas trying to make sure that our cookies and dinner didn’t get wet. It was too late to move because we’d get even more drenched and we had a full picnic to pack up. We decided it was better just to stay put. Eventually, the rain let up and Guys and Dolls started. Again, they announced that the rain was going to be brief and the movie would continue. So we sat under our umbrellas and waited. Instead of it letting up; it got worse… and worse. It was a downpour. We huddled under our umbrellas while the rain drops sparkled in a Technicolor beam to the screen.

It kept raining. We weren’t the only crazy people there, maybe a few hundred others stayed too. Some huddled under tarps a couple people had make-shift tents; most likely former boy scouts. There was a nearby couple who just had a blanket, no umbrella. They sat there getting soaked. You’ve really got to be a Stubby Kaye fan to do that!

It rained some more. I would drink a half a glass of wine put it down and then it will be filled to the brim with rain water. My feet were becoming wrinkled and my umbrella could not stand the amount of water pooling up on it and was dripping on my chest. I bent over just slightly towards Gloria who was valiantly huddled under her umbrella and a big plop of water flowed off the top of my umbrella and poured directly into her crotch. “That was my only dry spot” she moaned.

By the time that Marlon takes Jean Simmons to Cuba the rain had stopped and a beautiful lake breeze drifted over us. Afterwards, it was really difficult trying to pack everything up. I had brought a big antique quilted patchwork throw made from bits and pieces of old curtains. It was soaked and heavy. In the cab on the way home I must have dripped a gallon of water in the back seat. The next day, I woke up horribly sick and I was having trouble breathing. I suspect my lungs had filled with water.
On one magical night a wonderful thing happened. For several years before the movie started they would show a short film by a Chicago filmmaker. I can't imagine how that must have felt for someone to show their film in front of that huge crowd. This night the short film started and it was a man talking about how his favorite summer thing to do is going to the movies in the park and how he and his girlfriend had there first date here. He then pointed from the screen and said, "I think she's over there... right now I want everyone to turn and look at her"... he then pulled a ring from his pocket and proposed from the screen to his girl friend. We all hoped that she would say yes, because can you imagine the humiliation. And she did say yes... That wins the prize for best proposal in my book.

So summer is here again. I'm hoping for more magical nights, although magic seems pretty slim these days. As I get older it gets a little harder to drag my blanket out there, then worry that ten minutes before the movie starts someone with a big chair will put it in front of me. Still this year the movies are back to being fun and interesting. I guess Roger has been too sick to pick them, the poor thing.
Anyway, Can't wait until next week when I get to see Dorothy Malone dancing in her cha-cha heels in "Written on the Wind".

Happy summer!


Anonymous said...

The Citizen Kane - or as you titled the email at the time: "Citizen Pain" - is forever burned in my brain... still one of the funniest things you have ever written - but I like this overall overview even better!


Aaron said...

I'd love to see another movie in Grant Park! I've been busy the last couple of months, but there are some I'd love to see...

My favorite part of "Citizen Kane" was Phoebe Tyler from "All My Children" as his first wife, glaring wordlessly at him across the breakfast table...

Mike Lynch said...

Love these funny/sad reminiscences, Johnny. Thanks for sharing them.

David said...

I love the idea fo Movies in the aprk but those crowds drive me mad. We were drenched during The Birds and I haven't been back.

Aaron said...

My first one ever was "Auntie Mame" six years was an incredible experience watching such a diverse mix of folks--entire families of all races, single gays and lesbians and groups of wise-asses like myself--completely enjoy, laugh at, and GET the movie.

Sorry you got wet during yours, David...but you know we love you moist!