Recently I wrote about a great double feature movie night when I showed Night of the Lepus and The Thing with Two Heads. However, there is a flip side to being a host of a movie night; when everything you’ve planned somehow turns out to be the wrong decision.
I had one of these nights a few years ago. It all started when a friend of mine, the famous Cynthia Plaster Caster, was asked by Tribeca Films to be a ‘Style Setter.” This is an ingenious idea where they find people in major cities who are either well known or well connected and they give them advance copies of an upcoming film; they are then expected to have a party where the film is shown, guests are asked to post comments on their social media pages, take photos of the festivities at the home screenings, thereby generating a buzz for people to see the film. Cynthia asked me if we could use my home living theatre to have a screening of the film “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.”
The word from people who had seen the film at art house screenings was that it was hysterical. It’s a documentary about an Appalachian family related to the famous mountain dancer Jesco White, the star of the short film “The Dancing Outlaw.” I’ve seen that short film and it is very funny. Jesco, in-between fighting with his wife outside their trailer, dances on pieces of wood, drinks moonshine. But he is dedicated to a rare and unique form of dancing that was born and has been passed down through generations in the White family.
Cynthia had her list of people who she wanted to come see the film, some of which had never been to a video night at my house. One of the guests was bringing her sister whom we were all warned was very uptight and conservative. We all needed to be on our best behavior, no talking about sex, try not to swear, etc. Already it was going to be a stress filled evening.
I usually show two films when it’s a Saturday night, plus a couple people were coming later so I thought something to fill an hour or so would be good. Recently, my friend Dan gave me for my birthday a copy of Connie Steven’s 1974 TV movie The Sex Symbol.
In it Connie plays a thinly disguised Marilyn Monroe. Rumor has it that she was so proud of this performance that she tried to get it submitted as a contender for an Academy Award. Connie tears the scenery to bits as she stumbles around drunk, sleeps with man after man; all the while Shelley Winters as a thinly disgusted Luella Parsons trashes her on her TV show. I’d only watched the first ten minutes of the movie and it was non-stop camp. I thought, this is going to be perfect. Plus, I had been having a series of TV movie nights, all of which were pretty successful. The TV movie is its own style of filmmaking and it lends itself to group watching.
People arrived, drinks flowed. I got the first group of people to settle down and I started by showing a vintage Soundee, called Satan Is a Woman.
I love this song with it’s over the top male baritone singing about the woman who did him wrong, but for some reason no one else thought it was anything special. After it was over, dead silence. I can’t remember what I put on after that, but it equally fell flat on the floor where people poked at it with their shoes. You’re batting a thousand with these clips…” was one comment.
I thought I better get the first feature on. So I started “The Sex Symbol.” The first ten minutes were great. Connie throws a screaming tantrum, her assistant calls her a drunk and a vodka bottle gets thrown through Shelley Winters’ image on the TV. The famous composer Francis Lai (A Man and a Woman, Love Story) wrote the theme which actually gives the beginning the feel of a big budget movie, however the overall quality of the production is up there with a Marshall Owen, Counselor at Law episode.
Everyone was engaged as Connie (aka, faux Marilyn) sleeps her way up the celebrity ladder. However, after a half hour it really started to drag like a Ford Pinto trying to get up a hill hauling a trailer full of bowling balls. I looked over at the timer on the DVD player and it was at 40 minutes. Usually TV movies time out around 72 minutes. ‘This opus couldn’t possibility be over in a half hour…” I thought. Connie was just rolling around on bed after bed, spilling vodka all over the silk sheets and (gasp) showing her breasts. Yikes, and the uptight sister that we all supposed to be on our best behavior for was sitting front and center. Then it dawned on me; this wasn’t the TV movie but the theatrical version Connie was trying to get into the running for the Academy Awards. Running Time 120 minutes! We brave souls trudged on but the rumblings started to get louder and louder… Finally, when I went to the kitchen to fortify myself with another glass of wine, Paul and Chris followed me in there and cornered me. “ You’ve got to shut this movie off… everyone wants The Wild Whites…!” “I know, but Cynthia made me promise to wait for a couple people…” I said trying to save face. I knew this was a disaster. I went in to the room and said, ‘…there’s been a consensus to shut this off…” Many signs of relief, but a couple people said, ‘Oh, I want to see the whole thing…’ This movie might have been good with a couple people who really wanted to see Connie try really, really hard to be a dramatic actress, but everyone else was bored silly.
Even though some of the special guests hadn’t arrived I started the “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” Now it was time for some wacky hysterical, hillbilly hilarity. Bring on the drunks! I was looking forward to seeing some real domestic screaming from the White family. And we did… and then some.
The family is a mess: drug addicts, incest, broken homes, a meth making grandmother doing smack in her rocking chair. Their casual talk about robbing grocery stores and doing drugs starts out as amusing in that gonzo sort of way. The thing was as this movie went on it became less and less funny; it was just really sad. One of my guests got up after a few minutes and apologized because she had to leave. She explained her brother had so many of the similar drug problems she didn’t think it was funny and she didn’t want to watch it. “Usually I show fun movies. Come back again…” I said.
Each one of the Whites goes deeper down the hole of despair. This wasn’t your parents Beverly Hillbillies, these people had generational issues of poverty and substance abuse that were killing them one by one and destroying he people around them. Hysterical right… I longed for Connie rolling around on the silk sheets again.
That’s not saying that the documentary wasn’t well made and fascinating, but the subject matter was so bleak and depressing, but it was advertised as a ‘crazy’ wild romp from the producers of “Jackass”; people living on the edge. Woo-hoo cool. I felt like I wanted to take a shower right afterwards. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a Trend Setter. Because I didn’t have much to say about it afterwards; I felt a little embarrassed that I hadn’t known how intense the documentary was going to be. Everyone left soon after the film was over. Although some people were enthusiastic about the film making, overall it was a soul crushing downer of an evening.
So lesson learned: Always watch or at least preview your movies beforehand.