When I was starting High School, the one movie theater in my hometown shut down. It was an overweight maiden aunt of a building – past its prime and way too large to interest suitors. It was eventually subdivided into offices and only those who’ve been around a while remember its former incarnation. With it gone, seeing a first-run movie entailed a 20 mile drive to another city. That location was a peek into the future; it was located in a mall and was a multi-plex. Three whole theaters in one spot. Amazing!
This was well before the home video revolution. Cable was just a sail appearing on the horizon, and was meeting with quite a bit of resistance from investors since no one believed people would pay for television when they could get it for free from the broadcast networks. HBO, TCM, AMC – those were just groups of letters. For a year I mostly subsisted on broadcast TV movies with multiple cuts and plenty of commercials.
Then a group in town decided to start their own movie theater. The previous theater had been a palace fallen into decrepitude. The new one was a bunker. They found space in the basement of a cluster of shops, bolted down about twenty-five folding seats that might have been recycled from an old high school auditorium somewhere, and hung a sheet on the far wall as a screen. It was like watching a movie in your own basement on a large, flat-panel TV, only without the high-definition, the decent sound system, or very much comfort. But they were real, honest-to-goodness movies!
One movie I vividly remember watching in that dank basement was Joe (1969), a movie that is pretty much forgotten now. If you search for it on IMDb, you’ll find a hundred other entries before you get to it. It was Easy Rider from the viewpoint of the rednecks in the truck. Bill Compton, a businessman, discovers his daughter has run off with her hippy friends. He confronts his daughter’s drug-dealing boyfriend and accidentally kills him. In shock, Bill stumbles into a bar, and there is Joe Curran, holding forth loudly about the state of the country and the long-haired hippy freaks who are destroying it. When Bill confesses what he’s done, Joe is ecstatic. He’s been saying all the “different” people should be wiped out, and here was a man who’d actually done it. The two men begin a search for Bill’s daughter, but it morphs into a quest for revenge against the people Joe believes are destroying the country.
The movie was directed by John G. Avildsen, who later did Rocky, The Karate Kid, and Lean on Me, from a script by Norman Wexler (Serpico, Saturday Night Fever). It also featured a very young unknown actress named Susan Sarandon in the role of the daughter. It was quite successful in its initial release, grossing almost $20 million (with a cost of around $100,000), but it hasn’t held up well. It was not a subtle movie. The message is heavy-handed and obvious, with a fairly cheap twist at the end. What was interesting was the reaction of a good percentage of the audience who embraced the Joe Curran character sympathetically. In a sense, Joe was the spiritual father of Rush Limbaugh, the prototype for Fox News. While it may not have been a factor, the movie was in release when the National Guard killed 4 students at Kent State in May of 1970.
What continues to stand out in this movie is Peter Boyle’s portrayal of Joe. Joe was Archie Bunker without any laugh track, or redeeming features, and Boyle dove into the performance. It was an awesome accomplishment in his first major role. When Boyle passed away at 71 in 2006, he was mostly known as a comedic actor (which he did brilliantly in Young Frankenstein and on Everybody Loves Raymond) and as a dependable character actor in over 90 films and series, but with Joe, he carried the movie.
The basement theater only lasted a year and change. By the time it closed, I had my driver’s license so I could make it to out-of-town cinemas. But when I make it home, I’ll walk past the building and remember fondly my experience with underground cinema – not with the actual making of the movies, but with how they were shown.