I have been saying for years that I need to see a Weird Wednesday movie at Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. How can I resist a free movie, even at midnight? I used to have the excuse of a day job with regular hours, which made midnight movies impractical. However, since I’m freelancing right now, that excuse won’t work. I’ve had to resort to the excuse that I am not as young as I was and it’s hard to stay up that late and enjoy a movie. Yeah, that’s pretty lame too.
Last week I was unable to refuse. First of all, I may be returning to work full-time in an office, so I may have only a limited time left to see midnight movies during the week. I don’t want to look back and realize how dumb I was to miss such a good opportunity. Second of all, the movie was one I wanted to see at any time of day: Hells Angels on Wheels, the 1967 biker film directed by Richard Rush, starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Roarke. I am a big fan of Rush’s dark comedy The Stunt Man, and I’d just seen another Rush film starring Roarke at QT Fest, The Savage Seven. Then I heard that the film’s stunt coordinator, Gary Kent, would be at the midnight screening. I had nothing scheduled for Thursday morning, and I took a little nap on Wednesday afternoon to prepare. I was ready for Weird Wednesday.
I started the evening at Shady Grove, where The Beau and I attended an Austin Bloggers meetup. I fortified myself for the night ahead with cheese fries and chili (and salad, in a feeble attempt to eat something remotely healthy). I knew that if I went home before the movie, I would never motivate myself to drive back downtown to Alamo. So I had packed my laptop and a library book in the trunk of my car, and after dinner I headed for Halcyon, a downtown coffeehouse with free wireless. The other advantage of going to Halcyon early was that it was in walking distance of Alamo, so I could find some good parking near the theater.
Halcyon turned out to be a decent place to work, with tables that were a good height for laptop use, a power outlet right near the table I chose, and … well, it was noisy, but I managed to tune out the scary Eighties music and the sound of the coffee grinder. I’ve worked in coffeehouses enough lately that I can tune out a lot of coffee-making noises. Eventually I walked over to Alamo Downtown, in plenty of time to grab a seat near Brian and chat with him about Austin movie stuff.
Weird Wednesday is the pet project of Lars Nilson, a film programmer at Alamo who has an amazing knowledge of all kinds of movies. At Best of QT Fest, when Quentin Tarantino drew a blank on a Seventies actress’s name or an obscure Sixties film, Lars piped up with the right information. Before Hells Angels on Wheels began, Lars stepped up to the Alamo stage to prepare us all for the film. He introduced us to Gary Kent, telling Kent that “you were in every great movie ever made,” and noting that Kent has also had small roles in Targets and Phantom of the Paradise. Kent was a charming man who had nothing but praise for Richard Rush and Hells Angels on Wheels, calling the movie “the creme de la creme of independent filmmaking at the time.”
I like having Lars introduce a film for the same reason I liked Tarantino’s intros: I feel like I actually learned something about the movie. Maybe the difference is that I don’t know much about these movies, whereas if someone introduces a Billy Wilder film, I know most of the background info and am aware of the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the information, and have higher expectations for hearing something new about the movie. I knew that Hells Angels on Wheels was one of cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs’ early American movies, but I wouldn’t have noticed the unusual style he used in this film if Lars hadn’t pointed it out — Lars claimed it was a signature style of Richard Rush that he called “critical focus.”
Lars told us that “Jack Nicholson in this movie is the patron saint of ‘keeping it real’.” He told us that the cast of this movie is chock-full of directors: Jack Starrett (Hollywood Man, The Dion Brothers), Bud Cardos, Bob Kelljan (and you know I had to look these names up … I’m a relative newcomer to stunt-heavy Sixties and Seventies films).
“They say a lot of filmmakers learned from Roger Corman, but a lot of the good filmmakers learned from Richard Rush,” Kent asserted. Kent had worked as Jack Nicholson’s double on four different films, and had more or less exaggerated his experience as a stuntman to get work on this movie. He told us that the lead biker who embraces Adam Roarke at the beginning of Hells Angels on Wheels was Hells Angels founder Sonny Barger, and that the lead actress in the film (Sabrina Scharf) later became a California state senator. Finally, he pointed out some other stunt professionals all sitting together in the audience … turned out that Bob Ivy, a stunt coordinator who played the title role in the film Bubba Ho-Tep, was sitting directly behind me. (I didn’t realize that Kent had been the stunt coordinator on that film, either … he’s still going strong.)
The theater was surprisingly full for a midnight showing — I would guess about 80 percent capacity. After a few of the usual vintage trailers (one for Rush’s Freebie and the Bean, which I am feeling oddly tempted to rent … it’s not available on DVD, but Vulcan has the VHS tape), Hells Angels on Wheels was underway. The 16mm print was in pretty good shape, a little reddish at times but not annoyingly so. Lars hadn’t told us that Kovacs was credited as “Leslie Kovacs” in this film, which most of us found amusing.
Hells Angels on Wheels was a good solid biker movie — I think I actually liked The Savage Seven a little better, perhaps because it has a more solid and compelling storyline. I know I am probably not supposed to be paying attention to the plot in a biker movie, but something has to hold together all the sequences of a bunch of guys riding from Point A to Point B, with the occasional chicks hanging on the backs of their Harleys. Hells Angels on Wheels is full of long road-trip sequences; as if the director decided to follow some bikers around for awhile to see if anything happened.
As I mentioned, the story is thin: Jack Nicholson’s character, Poet, more or less runs into a gang of Hells Angels and after a rough beginning, ends up making friends with the leader, Adam Roarke’s character Buddy. He also falls for Buddy’s girl, Shill (Sabrina Scharf). Buddy only wants Shill periodically, and doesn’t seem to care for her much, so a weird sort of love triangle develops. One problem I had with the film was that I didn’t like the female lead in Hells Angels on Wheels at all … she was extremely flaky. One minute she was moved practically to the point of tears by Jack Nicholson declaring he wanted to marry her, the next minute she was throwing Adam Roarke a pipe to fight Nicholson with. I did like Roarke’s character a lot, even though he was supposed to have “ownership” issues with people. He’s just so damn charming. I liked him in The Savage Seven too.
The ending of Hells Angels on Wheels is terribly abrupt: I won’t spoil it for you, but I honestly could not believe the movie was ending right then and there. It was almost as though the movie had just run out of money and had to wrap it up immediately. Everyone in the audience blinked and looked around; I wasn’t the only one who was surprised by the end. Well, it is called Weird Wednesday, after all — what did we expect?
I notice some great titles coming up for future Weird Wednesdays, such as Revenge of the Cheerleaders (with a young and allegedly nude David Hasselhoff) and Kingdom of the Spiders (directed by the aforementioned Bud Cardos and starring William Shatner). You can view the full list of June and July films here. Weird Wednesday also has a MySpace page.
Will I go to a Weird Wednesday film again anytime soon? I liked the experience a lot, but it does mess up my schedule so it’s difficult to get work done on Thursdays, even when I’m freelancing. Watching movies at midnight is tough for me, because even with a nap I feel sleepy and off-kilter. And I dislike parking downtown alone and driving home at 2 am with the drunk rush, although I’ll do it if necessary.
In short, I’m still a lame little wimp, so I doubt I’ll ever be a regular at Weird Wednesdays. But if the right film comes along at the right time, I’ll certainly go again. Brian suggested I also try Terror Thursdays, the new Alamo Downtown weekly midnight movie that also has free admission. I notice they’re showing Parents in July … if I’m not working in an office by then, hopefully I’ll be there. Meanwhile, I think I ought to watch my DVD of The Stunt Man again soon, to see if I can catch that signature Richard Rush “critical focus” look, and to get my Adam Roarke fix in.