Holden Caulfield, the original hipster, was a jerk at the movies. He hated them. He thought actors were phonies, screenwriters were prostitutes, and audiences who sniffled during weepies were “mean bastards at heart.”
Holden wasn't a sucker. He was something worse: a laugher—the kind of disengaged cretin who'd snicker through the rest of the theater's tears. As Holden admits, “I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I'd probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up.”
I thought about Holden this weekend during a supposedly sophisticated movie matinee. The LA Opera projected Italian horror director Mario Bava's 1961 Hercules in the Haunted World on a screen above a 23-piece orchestra and nine singers who made sad music of the dialogue.
This makes more sense than it sounds. The story hits all the notes of high tragedy. To save his true love, a Queen bewitched by her wicked uncle (a young Christopher Lee), Hercules must sacrifice his immortality and sail to Hades to find a cure. But his friend Theseus is also in love with Pluto's daughter Persephone, enraging the gods, and Hercules must convince his best pal to sacrifice his own happiness to save his own girlfriend and her kingdom.
Bava's movie is limbo between film and theater. His sets look like sets—he rarely had more than five figures to spend on making a flick—and the big boulders Hercules (Reg Park) flings at his foes are clearly styrofoam. Instead of chasing after realism, Bava embraces artifice. He tints the screen lurid hues of red, pink and green, and trusts that we'll meet him halfway.
If this had been an opera, that wouldn't be a problem. Play audiences expect to use their imagination. As my former editor, theater critic Steven Leigh Morris, once told me, the difference between a play and a movie is an actor on a stage can say, “Hark, there lies the castle!” and get away with pointing to a cardboard box. Put that same moment onscreen, however, and the people in the seats expect to see some good-looking turrets and a drawbridge.
The audience at Hercules in the Haunted World thought the styrofoam boulders were hilarious. They cracked up the first time Park opened his mouth and baritone Kihun Yoon began to sing. Soon after, most people settled down. But a third of the house continued to treat Bava's heartbreaking fantasy epic like a comedy. Guy gets boiled in lava? Hysterical! Lady gets her throat slashed? Priceless! People weren't laughing because Mario Bava was funny. They were laughing because Mario Bava wanted them to feel. (No one seemed to care if composer Patrick Morganelli and his singers had their own feelings hurt.)
The guy behind me munching Sour Patch Kids and wearing an ironic Hawaiian shirt kept up the chuckles for 91 minutes, long after I began to beseech Zeus to throw a non-styrofoam boulder at him. His stubborn laughter was an advertisement for his own superiority, like it's heroic to refuse to be “suckered” by a fake rock that's obviously fake. But there's nothing triumphant about being too cool to dream.
I was surprised that the opera crowd stayed on the emotional sidelines. Pragmatically, we'd all paid several times the cost of a movie ticket to attend, and even bothered to put on nicer shoes. But I wasn't shocked. Ironic laughter has ruined a half-dozen old movies I've gone to in the last few years, and it seems be getting louder. I've heard horror stories of audiences guffawing through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Thing, Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather—c'mon, The Godfather!? And perversely, the same crowds stay quiet during actual classic comedies. It's like modern audiences must one-up the past. But that's a contest where everyone loses: the filmmakers whose efforts go ignored, the hipsters who wasted their money, and the rest of us who wanted to enjoy a good movie without getting distracted wondering how to murder a yukster with a bucket of popcorn and a straw.
I wonder if CGI has conquered our imagination. In Bava's time, no one expected every prop to be perfect. His lava was made of boiling polenta—it's the panic on Hercules' face that sells the terror. But now that we can animate the incredible, we expect the credible. The emphasis on realistic special effects invites us to rate films like Holden Caulfield: true or phony? We're so fixated on the authenticity of the castle that we care less about the characters inside. And older movies, which make more demands, are feeling the heat.
At least opera singer Kihun Yoon may have been prepared for the giggles during his performance of Hercules. He also played Figaro in The Barber of Seville—a 250-year-old opera with the prescient line, “I quickly laugh at everything for fear of having to cry.”
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