My Dad had the patience of a saint. Throughout the 70s and 80s, to the best of my knowledge, my Dad made certain I saw every movie I wanted to see. Many times he wanted to see them too, and off to the drive-in we'd go. But, Pops did not have a desk job. He spent more than his fair share of hours on his feet. Despite that, I knew there were a few times when all he wanted to do was sit on the couch and relax. But, if I wandered around the house butt hurt because I wanted to get to the drive-in, about 30 minutes before the box office opened, we would be in the car heading out to see a couple of flicks that he may not have really wanted to see.
But, I never fully realized how often I put that man out until the "Midnight" movie craze arrived in Cape (which generally started at 11:00 instead of midnight). Although I was able to drag him to see Bakshi's Wizards and Romero's Dawn of the Dead, sometimes he just didn't have a late night at the movies in him and he would agree to drive me down to the theater to see the late night picture. This, I now see in retrospect, had to have been a somewhat onerous endeavor for him, because, although it only took about 3 minutes to drive from one end of my hometown to another, I'd starting pacing around the house, anxious to get there, around 10:10. So, although he knew it wasn't necessary, he'd drop me off well before anyone was going to be in the box office. This meant, he really couldn't just go home and go to bed, because, of course, he had to make the drive back to pick me up; meaning, it was roughly one in the morning before he could call it a night.
And yet, he'd do it. He never said a word or suggested in any way that it was the epic pain in his ass that it must have been. He'd make sure I had enough extra to get a soda while I was there and when I'd wander out of the Esquire theater in the middle of the night, I'd see his car down the block in front of Beard's Sporting Goods. There he would be half asleep, and me, having had a Coke in the middle of the night would regale him with the plot of the movie, the cool parts and funny lines and although all he really wanted was to get some sleep, he'd ask a question about this, or wonder why it ended the way it did. But, I think, only once did I explain the movie so vividly that I think I saw in his eyes that he had wished he had gone instead of staying home watching Star Trek hoping to stay awake so I wouldn't have to walk across Cape at 1:00 AM.
That movie was Dark Star.
In the late 70s, unless you lived in St. Louis, or certainly LA, where there existed the small art or revival houses which would show the older flicks, you couldn't say with any certainty that you would see a specific movie...ever, because the idea of renting a movie (or streaming it) was beyond fantasy. But, thanks to all the single issue science fiction magazines that arrived in the wake of Star Wars, trying to emulate the success of Starlog magazine, I had learned of the existence of the movie Dark Star in a fairly lengthy article in one of these magazines (magazines I owned because, in addition to getting me to the movies, Pops always made certain to feed my habit by letting me pick up these magazines from time to time when I'd go with him to the supermarket to get the weeks groceries). But, in spite of knowing ABOUT the film, I couldn't say with any confidence that I might actually get to SEE the film. But, then in the middle of December 1979, I opened the Bulletin Journal newspaper to find Dark Star was going to play that Saturday night. I was so excited about seeing it that, to this day, I have the newspaper ad in a scrapbook.
Part of the appeal of the movie to me was Dan O'Bannon. When I read the original article about the film, it was mentioned that O'Bannon was born and raised in St. Louis, MO. Just two hours up I-55. This was fascinating to me because, up to that time, I just assumed I had no choice but to stay in my little town, but, then I thought, well, if O'Bannon could go to film school then I could too. Although, in the end it was ultimately me who kept me out of film school - something I wish I could change. But, as a young kid at the time I was just trying to wrap my head around the prospect that a somewhat "local" guy could make movies. And not just make movies, but make them with John Carpenter. It felt like a game changer!
So, because I was pacing the house like an expectant Father, my Dad drove me down to the Esquire with my two bucks for a seat and a couple of bucks for a drink. I was standing outside the theater at 10:15 PM on a bitterly cold December night. The manager looked like a student from the nearby University and she saw me shivering, with a glob of snot running down my nose no doubt, opened the door and told me to wait inside "before you freeze to death." I forget what the movie that was still playing, but, she took my money and said I could go ahead inside and watch the rest of the film, which was very kind of her. But, I told her I was okay to wait in the lobby where I was mesmerized by the lobby cards for The Prize Fighter, a beautiful little film that proved that Tim Conway worked just as well with Don Knotts as he did with Harvey Korman. I'd start from the left and head to the right and then start all over again. I seem to recall the film had already played in Cape and wondering why the cards were still up, but, loved looking at them in any event.
Finally, the film that had started at 9:00 ended and a dozen people walked out. I bought my soda and walked into the auditorium, which seemed huge. I grabbed my seat three or four rows from the front as the half stoned, half drunk college kids rolled in. I remember a guy and his date sat down next to me and he asked if I knew what this movie "was even about" and though I had not seen it yet, I feel I gave him a pretty accurate and concise synopsis.
And then....it began. The video transmission and the successful launch of Bomb 19 - I was hooked. Hypnotized as the strains of the song "Benson, Arizona" flooded through the auditorium. And not only was I mesmerized, but the entire crowed of rowdy college kids fell silent (except for the brutally funny parts).
Before we knew it, it was...
It wasn't until years later that I learned the whole story about the making of Dark Star...and once I knew all the trials and tribulations endured to make the movie, I loved it all the more. Because, it wasn't just a movie. It wasn't just this "thing" cobbled together to make a simple profit and then forgotten. This was a struggle to make the antithesis of Kubrick's 2001. This was the blood, sweat and tears, not only of Carpenter and O'Bannon, but also amazing people like Ron Cobb and Brian Narelle. The story of astronauts, sent light years from Earth to destroy unstable planets to pave the way for future colonization was art!
And - Art is Art!
As I've grown older, my love of this film has never waned. Sure, I love Buckaroo Banzai, The Blues Brothers and a thousand other movies. But, when I first planted roots in Southern California. When the die was cast, and Missouri was no longer home, the first film I put in my VCR was Dark Star. I needed to book end my travels. Although, remarkably, I was not happy to be in Southern California when I first arrived. And, I wasted almost two decades in an endless endeavor to get back to a place that, although it was still on the map, did not exist in any recognizable form to me. But, on that afternoon when the boxes were off the truck, and there appeared to be no turning back, I watched Dark Star and felt a kinship with Sgt. Pinback (beautifully portrayed by O'Bannon himself). A man who was not meant to be on the ship, but for a tragic case of mistaken identity, Fuel Specialist Bill Froug ends up in the place of Sgt. Pinback and is now trapped in space, light years from home with his attempts to make things around the ship a little brighter mostly frowned upon and his true name all but forgotten. Oh yeah - I could relate to Pinback.
I'm uncertain why we know so little about Cpl. Boiler, but, throughout the film, in between some of the most scathing gallows humor, we experience the quiet madness of Commander Doolittle, Pinback and Talby. Each suffering the insanity of their isolation in different and very distinct ways. The film is a comedy, but, almost 40 years since the first time I saw the film, the ending still takes a toll on me. I'm not certain I've ever seen the last shot of this film without choking up. This masterpiece is now as much a part of me as my arms or legs.
And, just like the excitement I felt, when I first saw the newspaper ad 38 years ago in a Cape Girardeau newspaper, the same thrill shot threw me when the New Bev posted the August schedule and I saw this....
So, I don't know if God himself could keep me from seeing this film again on the big screen for the first time since I was an awkward, nervous kid wondering what the world would ultimately hold. I won't get to take Pops to see a film I still think he regretted not going to that night...but when the strains of "Benson, Arizona" once again fill the auditorium, I will think of the years and miles traveled from the first time I heard that song until I reached my current destination. What a ride it's been - I guess I can't complain. If you are in the LA area, I can't encourage you enough to go. And if you do go...I'll be the weepy guy in the third row.
A million suns shine down
But I see only one
When I think I'm over you
I find I've just begun
The years move faster than the days
There's no warmth in the light
How I miss those desert skies
Your cool touch in the night
Thanks Dad...and thank you Dan O'Bannon for teaching us all to do what we have to do, and fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. You're both missed.
Miss you Pops.