Another feature of...
Mark a.k.a. Apostic
B-Fest '99 -- You May Never Look at Bad Movies the Same Way Again
Rather than writing subjectively about the individual movies shown at B-Fest '99, this article is about why events like this are special entertainment experiences. You won't find anything here selectively slamming Zardoz or Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; there're plenty of words written about the pain of these features already. Nor will you find entertaining instances of hilarious comments during the movies because the author can't recall all the good ones nor remember who said what. Instead, the following is a personal analysis of why B-Fest is profoundly different from trying to do this at home. Finally, the author is trying to be objective about a subjective event and apologizes in advance for the resulting dryness in this article.
All that out of the way, let's get down to cases here, pilgrim. There IS a difference (and it's NOT the sound system). Watching VCR movies at home on your TV by your lonesome is not the same as seeing them in a dark, occupied theater on a big screen from a film projector. Having read this, you may be thinking, "Well, duh, Mr. Wizard, don't you think that's rather obvious?" Yes, on a purely intellectual level, it is, but not on a psychological level, and due to the magnitude of this psychological effect, it deserves some analysis. Therefore, let's take a look at the psycho-technical (vice psychotronic) and social effects of a B-Fest.
Among the technical aspects that affect the psychology are the image definitions, the size of the images, and the nature of seeing real film from a projector. The author must acknowledge that he has no experience with DVD, but technical comments on VCR tapes may apply to DVD as well.
Unless you've grown up in a world with nothing but high definition TV, you'll know the difference between seeing projected film and an image on television screen. The key word here is definition. If you lay a white doily onto a white tablecloth and film it with enough competence, odds are you can see it clearly on the film. In most cases, if you were to use a video camera to record the image, or if you use a film chain to capture the filmed images for an electronic video medium, individual lines of the doily are blurred by the scan and tend to fade into the tablecloth. This is very true if your video system uses the format associated with the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC -- also stands for "Never Twice the Same Color"); PEL users may experience a similar problem. Therefore, seeing the movies from honest celluloid film is an entertainment bonus for B-Fest, where half the movies are in black and white and none of the features are direct to video productions.
Most people reading this probably don't have a gigantic TV screen. Assuming you've been blown away by an impressive movie ten times the size of God at a theater and then wondered, after watching it at home on your TV, what the big deal was, then you already know what the big deal was. Even your home movies can seem like epics when you blow them up. When watching films by Ed Wood, Jr. and Russ Meyers on this scale, the tackiness and pretentiousness is amplified as we well, contributing to their "bad entertainment" value. Also, please note the difference in aspect ratio. Watching a wide-screen production hacked down by pan-and-scan can be as annoying as watching a colorized movie. As previously stated, knowing this on an intellectual scale is one thing; sitting through Destroy All Monsters presented in original Toho-scope (2:1 aspect ratio) as it fills out your peripheral vision is quite another. Letterbox presentations on most home video screens may be complete, but they do not compete. (Some readers may point out the differences between a modern theater's high quality sound system and most home systems, but this does not really apply to B-Fest features).
Mild imperfections are important, too. A few years ago, semiconductor technology caught up with and surpassed vacuum tube based amplifiers. In purely acoustic terms, the improvement in quality was the absence of noise from the tubes, which added a slight background hum. Some tube amplifiers also clipped off some of the peaks of sound at certain frequencies. Ye Olde Stereo Faithful often complained about the quality of semiconductor sound, saying it wasn't as rich or powerful as tube amplifiers. Some also missed the slight hum, which they said made the output sound "warm." In an experiment sponsored by semiconductor aficionados, the missing hum was added to a semiconductor circuit and some selected clipping was imposed, and lo, it sounded "right."
You can make a similar observation about seeing a film from a projector and seeing it from a VCR. Despite the fact that most VCR movies are (usually) flawlessly projected film with a high quality video image tube pickup, seeing these films directly from a real projector with all its slight mechanical imperfections is a more old fashioned experience. It looks and sounds "right" for movies that were produced before movies had to compete with things you could see on TV or pick up at your local Blockbuster. One good example of this imperfection is when the slack on the incoming side of the lens (the sound loop) goes badly on the projector, distorting the sound. Sure, the audience begs to have it fixed immediately, but its lingering effect gives the viewer an experience closer to what the original audiences had.
It may be conceded that this is nostalgic argument; however, experiencing a bad movie from our jaded, technologically advanced view misses the feel of the same bad movie (or any movie) presented with technology closer to the original. During an event like this, one is tempted to muse that the projectionist's skill is becoming a lost art. (Do the high school AV geeks of today still have to learn how to thread a projector and set the sound loop?) You can make of the importance of this what you will. In any event, there probably won't be a demand for subtle projector flaw simulations added to VCR tapes of older movies any more than there is a general demand for live sound flaws in CD recordings of live concert events.
None of this has been a suggestion to the readers to throw away their VCRs and get film projectors. This is saying, when you get a chance to see a classic old movie from a film projector, do it now while you still can. Like going to a wild animal park, you get the sensation of seeing the feature in its natural environment.
After musing over the technological differences and their associated psychological effects, it is time to consider the social effects of seeing these films in a well-populated theater on a B-Fest schedule. When this author first heard about B-Fest and saw the open invitations to attend, his compromising answer was, let me save some money and time by running these shows in the privacy of my own living room many miles away from Chicago. He can tell you all, now, after the fact, the following: "Kids, don't try this at home." The home version will miss some of the effect of the crowd and its variety, the sense of anonymity, and some of the indoctrination.
As an example of the effect of a movie on a crowd instead of an individual, there's a fine Harold Lloyd silent comedy (obviously not shown at B-Fest) called Safety Last. During one sequence, Lloyd's character is dazed and wanders around aimlessly. His confused stumbling leads him to several close calls with narrow ledges and, after regaining his senses, some frantic, dangling stunts on the hands of a large clock about a hundred feet off the ground. If you watch this at home, you may nervously marvel at the showmanship of a man very close to plummeting to a certain death; watch it with a crowd, and that nervous energy transmutes into screams of hysterical laughter.
Entertaining movie badness seems to have that same transmuting effect in a crowd as well. Most people reading this have found their own fun while watching a bad movie at home, and entertainment like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the various bad movie sites on the WWW have opened up the communal aspect of watching a bad movie for the home market. When you amplify the audience participation from a small room to a theater, you amplify the intensity of the fun and the sense of "it's all right to laugh at this" as well.
There is also an increase in the variety of audience commentary. If you watch a bad movie by yourself, you may have your own musings, but a joke told to oneself is not as potentially funny as a joke told by a stranger. Watching a bad movie with a few close friends will give you some fresher humor and the delight of sharing a hopefully witty observation, but odds are your close friends aren't going to surprise you as much as a theater full of strangers.
For example, one of the favored commentators during B-Fest '99 was someone with a slide whistle. I don't know who it was (and I'll probably get a jillion letters telling me who it was), but I'd love to shake his hand; the man was an artist and the crowd loved it. Those rare, carefully selected additions with the slide whistle had a classic silent movie or cartoon effect. For example, he played a decreasing the pitch when a character was too obviously experiencing disappointment. The man on the screen not only looked crestfallen; he sounded it, in a very cartoonish way. I suspect that most close friends who gather for a bad movie night would not think of a slide whistle or other sound props until they experience it at something like a B-Fest, where the various backgrounds blend into a fertile soil for growing rich commentary.
Despite being in a crowd, viewers who feel like commenting on the films are still granted some anonymity. Regular users of computer bulletin boards and chat rooms know how that sense of anonymity encourages people to express things they wouldn't normally say to another person's face. You get the same effect in a dark theater. Even if you know the people next to you, there's still plenty of other people within earshot who will never know you and, frankly, don't care. Furthermore, unlike "proper" theater experiences where your verbal contributions are a sin against your fellow man, those same contributions to events on the "B-Fest" screen are a given, so you get the novelty of guiltlessly speaking your anonymous mind in a real movie theater. As an added bonus, this author never heard a racist nor sexist comment made; no one seemed to be abusing his or her free speech by forgetting to be responsible with that freedom, and hopefully that standard will continue.
Finally, after camping out in a theater for twenty-four hours, there is a sense of indoctrination. A close comparison is military training, which conditions the recruits to be less individualistic and more team oriented. It does this through long, relentless denial of individualism, such as manner of dress, modes of expression, choice of meals, and sleeping in private.
Does indoctrination happen at B-Fest? Let me put it this way. One of the last films shown at B-Fest '99 was Girls Town, which I had never seen. If you were to ask, immediately after it was shown, if this was a good movie, I honestly couldn't tell anymore. Intellectually I knew it couldn't be good, but I was enthralled by it emotionally and spiritually. After prolonged exposure to mean spirited films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Zardoz, and Reefer Madness while subsisting on junk food and lacking sleep, Girls Town honestly felt fresh with a fun sense of originality. It was solid entertainment. I loved it. Mamie Van Doren, Paul Anka, and Mel Torme were all great in it. Four stars. Check it out.
I know intellectually that if I had seen Girls Town on its own, I would've been so moved. When you can no longer tell the difference between crap and quality, you have been indoctrinated. Now, sell all your possessions, go get a crew cut, put on your B-Fest '99 T-shirt, and bow before the Mighty Jabootu, who has broken your puny little spirit. And see you at B-Fest 2000.