Monday, January 17, 2011

Livin' La Vida Ludovico: Diary of a CWRU Marathoid.

Yours truly, around 25 hours into the CWRU Marathon.

Ben Affleck is hoisting Liv Tyler into his arms for the third time…or is it the fourth?  Or the fortieth?  The two lovebirds look deep into each other’s eyes, the touch of their finely sculpted noses the only thing preventing their mugs from smooshing into each other.  Is this maudlin display of romantic goo the extent of their relationship, ‘cause it seems like that’s all they do.  But alas, these concerns are secondary, because there’s a planet to save.  And this galactic act of heroism will require the services of a gaggle of men….who walk in a straight line….in slow motion. 
Yes, I’m no longer an Armageddon virgin.  Let the mourning begin.
The occasion for this auspicious cinematic deflowering?  Why, the 36th Annual Case Western Reserve University Science-Fiction Marathon, of course.  Yes, this past weekend, I once again made the trek up north, to the recently frozen tundra that is Cleveland, all in order to park my rear end in a seat for 30 hours and gulp down great heaping filmic loads of spaceships, aliens, genetic experiments gone wrong…and apes.  My cohorts and I have been attending the CWRU Marathons for a good ten years now, but this was the first year in which I essentially made this crazed flight solo (all credit to fellow Columbus Marathoid Aaron Einhorn for braving the elements to attend his first one of these all-night Sci-Fi boogies, and to give me someone to commiserate with between films.  Check out his write-up here).
For those of you unfamiliar with the CWRU Marathon, it runs around the same weekend every January, beginning at 8pm Friday evening and continuing until sometime early Sunday morning.  Since the Case Western Film Society organizes the event, there’s never been a definitive programming philosophy, mostly due to the student staff turnover every few years.  As a result, the content of the lineups often varies wildly (see here).  Not that this is a bad thing; in many ways, you never quite know what you’re going to get at the Case Marathon, which gives it a quirky party atmosphere that the Columbus and Boston Marathons don’t always have.  Over the years, I’ve come to love the event for this atmosphere, but also for the often unexpected delights and obscurities that end up in the lineup, such as the post-apocalyptic lost classic The World, The Flesh and The Devil or the gonzo anime dreamfest Paprika.  And it’s a good thing that I can love it for these aspects, because there’s one truly divisive part of this event that has driven a few of my friends away from it.
I’m speaking, of course, about the crowd.  When my crew and I attended our first CWRU Marathon in 2001, we were stunned by the sheer volume of talking that went on during the films.  Now, audience callbacks have always been a part of the Columbus and Boston Marathons, but for the most part those audiences know when to shut up and when to offer some reasonable heckles.  The Case crowd, on the other hand, shouted callbacks throughout the entire 30+ hours.  At times, it was as if one group of hecklers fell asleep, only for another group to clock in for their shift.  And no, we’re not even talking about good hecklers: the Cleveland audience is probably the least funny film crowd that I’ve ever been a part of. 
To be fair, the crowd has improved a lot over the years.  Part of this might have to do with the ban on alcohol that went into effect eight years ago.  Part of it is probably also due to generational change.  But a general audience philosophy still exists, that being:

1. Any black and white film must be bad.  Why else would it be showing?
2. Any serious film not made in the last five years must be bad, and well worthy of heckling.  Unless it’s a stone cold classic, at which point it’s only mildly heckled.
3. Any fanboy-related film made in the last five years (see Serenity, Mystery Men, the J.J. Abrams Star Trek) is considered sacrosanct.  Audience reaction should be limited to riotous applause and/or laughter for poorly written climactic moments.

On top of this philosophy, there exists a definite breed of attendee, one I must single out for special mention, one who at times has infiltrated both the Columbus and Boston Marathons as well.  I speak, of course, about Guy With Naturally Loud Voice Who Shouts Out Whatever Crosses His Mind During The Film.  Said jester (or jesters) now constitutes the bulk of the truly annoying callbacks at CWRU; during this year’s screenings of The Day the Sky Exploded and It! The Terror Beyond Space (see rule #1), one megalophonic wag offered a constant running commentary for the duration of each.  It’s doubly ironic that this awful sub-banter continued unabated, even as the Film Society’s faculty advisor took it upon himself to stop the film during Day the Sky Exploded and threaten not to restart it until someone who had been using a laser pointer ceased to do so.  Heh, heh…
But, hey I still love the event, and I could go on for hours about what happened this year.  Instead, entirely befitting a gathering in which consciousness is often fleeting, I give you the highlights and lowlights:
-This was not only my virgin trip into Armageddon-land, but also my first viewings of Michael Bay’s Transformers and (in a surprise screening) Battlefield Earth.  The cumulative effect of seeing these three in a 14-hour span felt like an aggressive attempt to reprogram my brain (Hooray for the U.S. military!  Hooray for the underappreciated little guy!  Hooray for fast cutting!)  Ironically enough, while I struggled to stay awake during a few of the films that I really wanted to see, I sat wide awake for the duration of the Bay/Travolta triple bill.
-One of my favorite parts of the CWRU Marathon is Strosacker Auditorium’s well-maintained 16mm projector, which provides the filmic slate with ample doses of vintage cartoons and promotional shorts.  Highlights this year included Goofy in the Jekyll and Hyde guises of Mr. Walker/Mr. Wheeler in Disney’s Motor Mania, and Elmer Fudd and his dog in An Itch In Time, which memorably concludes with Mr. Fudd’s cat shooting himself in the head.
-The inclusion of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits as the second surprise film was a welcome addition to a schlock-heavy lineup.  However, the inclusion of Abrams’s Star Trek as the third surprise delivered a TKO to my weary brain.  One Orci/Kurtzmann script per 24 hours is more than enough for me, thank you.  On the plus side, its presence allowed me to take a guilt-free two hour nap, so I got that going for me.
-Somehow, I hadn’t watched David Cronenberg’s reboot of The Fly in its entirety for thirteen years, a fact that dawned on me about five minutes into its screening as the final film of the Marathon.  All these years later, I was struck by the enormous amount of pathos that Jeff Goldblum elicits, and by what an epic tragedy the film is.  I know that over the years, Cronenberg has denied using the film as an AIDS metaphor, but nonetheless it serves as a classic treatise on the rapid, destructive power of a disease, the flip side of the ironically optimistic New Flesh ethos of many of his other films.
And so, as Geena Davis blew away Brundlefly, I stumbled out into the Cleveland night for my voyage back to Columbus.  Perfect, the CWRU Marathon ‘aint.  But sometimes perfect is overrated, and I know that for all its flaws, I can’t wait until the next all-day, all-night sci-fi fest in a year’s time.