1/26/10

Cinematic Titanic Live in San Francisco, February 2, 2010

An early precursor to Japanese tentacle porn.The “Parking” section of the Castro Theater’s website says that there isn’t any. Well, okay, it doesn’t really. It actually says that parking is so limited that there might as well not be any, and instructs its prospective patrons to use public transportation. For people who, like me, live seventy miles to the north, this isn’t helpful. I don’t live near any public transportation that goes that far, and even if I did, a bus/train/whatever trip of that distance would most likely require me to endure two to four hours (each way) of waits, stops, transfers and fragrant transients. I drove anyway and hoped for the best.

It would not be an understatement to say that the “no parking” thing was freaking me out the whole way there. I was half-expecting to pay fifty bucks to park three miles away. Fortunately, my vehicle positioning-based paranoia ended up paying off. I arrived an hour and a half early, and managed to find a spot on the street just a block and a half from the theater. I fed the meter all my change, strolled down to the local Wells Fargo for more, and returned to push quarters into it until the “time remaining” readout stopped increasing. I guessed that this was when the space would stop being metered (a guess I later confirmed with an usher) and sauntered onward, confident that my earliness had earned my pick of spots in the theater.

I was right, sort of. I ended up about a hundred feet from the door in a line whose end very quickly curved and disappeared around a nearby street corner. For half an hour I stood pressed against a hairdresser’s window, reading a novel while an usher came by every five minutes to make sure I was in the right line, and that I wasn’t blocking the hairdresser’s door. Eventually, the theater doors opened and we were admitted. I ran to the restroom while the crowd continued to flow in behind me. I was a little afraid that the seats would fill up while I was indisposed, but I shouldn’t have worried. Turns out the Castro Theater is friggin’ enormous, putting the Marines Memorial Theater (where I saw them last year) to shame both in terms of size and comfort. I settled into the second row, right in front of the organ. A few minutes later, an organist popped up from below the stage to play a continuous up tempo medley of showtunes, stopping only for a few seconds every fifteen minutes or so to allow applause and to catch his breath.

By the time the organist finished, the theater was all but full. Looking around, there couldn’t have been more than a dozen or two empty seats out of 1,400. The audience looked a bit different than last time. There were people of all ages and dress codes, but it was mostly a uniquely Northern Californian group of casually but cleanly groomed pseudo-intellectuals from their late twenties to mid-thirties—a demographic that, by the way, includes me. I suspect that this performance’s participation in the SF Sketchfest might have had something to do with this.

As this was the final night of the Sketchfest, co-founders Janet Varney, Cole Stratton and Some Other Guy Who Doesn’t Do Rifftrax Presents Commentaries took the stage to thank the crew members, advertisers and venues that made the comedy festival possible. Mary Jo Pehl appeared with a very funny Wikipedia-based introduction for warm-up act Dave “Gruber” Allen.

A word about the stage: The organ sits atop a hydraulic platform that rises for the pre-show music and lowers for the feature presentation, leaving a rather large hole in the middle of the performing area. When a riffer needed to cross to the other side, he or she skirted it carefully. Not Gruber. He leaned over the edge, hopped across the corners and generally pretended it wasn’t there. I spent much of the warm-up act making bets with myself about whether or not he’d fall in. He didn’t, so I guess I lost.

The warm-up act was a pretty even mixture old material and new. Gruber gave his dentist office copy of Highlights Magazine a political spin. He repeated his beatnik haiku act with J. Elvis Weinstein on bass. J. Elvis noted the theater’s archaic theater boxes and joked that they couldn’t start until Lincoln arrived. (Someone in the audience shouted, “Too soon!”) Frank Conniff came out to do a routine about J.D. Salinger’s tweets. It started about how he was a big fan, and had read all his books. (When a few of us laughed, he said something like, “You think it’s funny that I read books?” No, Frank. We thought it was funny because Salinger only ever wrote one.) Then he backed up J. Elvis’s Lincoln bit with a whole sequence of Frontier Facebook jokes referencing presidents from the nineteenth century. He reprised the Convoluted Man song from last year.

This brought us to the main presentation. Joel came out looking very dapper in a suit and tie to introduce the movie. He had a bit of trouble summarizing the plot (with good reason, as it turned out) but did describe the monster as “The Michelin Man after a fire.” He introduced all his fellow riffers, some of whom carefully skirted the hole in the middle of the stage to get to their seats, and tried to start the show. The show failed to start. The riffers bantered good naturedly about how they didn’t write anything for the unanticipated silence, and then the movie started a couple of minutes later.

Danger on Tiki Island relates the tale of an elderly biologist, his young, hot and extremely libidinous wife, and the virtuous young Peace Corps worker who accompanies them to an unspecified South Pacific island. Peace Corps dude stays in the local village to dig ditches and woo the lovely native girl, while the biologist and his wife move into the estate of a wealthy half-Spaniard who cannot consistently pronounce his own name. Also included in the estate: a huge, abusive man who dresses like the genie from Aladdin, plus an entire tribe of pygmies. Also included in the village: a ritual of sacrificing nubile young ladies twice a day to the aforementioned post-fire Michelin Man, who appears whenever the local forest sprouts tentacles and the moth puppets turn vicious. So many naked young women get ripped limb from limb that I found myself wondering where they all came from. (What, before the rituals began, the village was eighty percent females between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two? You’d think a constituency that size would have voted down the “Young Girl Sacrifices” initiative.) Anyway, it turns out there’s some sort of cyclical, nuclear-testing-based transformation going on, and somehow the genie man is to blame. Except that he isn’t the monster, unpronounceable-name-man is. But he doesn’t know about it. (Which “he” do I mean? Does it matter?) In the end, everyone (with a name) at the Spaniard’s estate dies while everyone (with a name) in the village survives. The tentacle trees and demon moths vanish without explanation. Then the whole thing wraps up like every good beach party movie should—with vigorous make-outs all round.

The riffing was funny as always, but it wasn’t as good as Blood of the Vampires or the live DVD version of East Meets Watts. Theater acoustics and sound levels may have had something to do with this. Movie sound quality wasn’t great (of course) but it was up so loud that sounds and voices got hard to understand whenever the orchestra, the actors and the riffers all got going at once. Less bothersome was the picture quality, which was also horrid, but at least you could figure out what you were seeing most of the time. Aside from a few DVD glitches, the picture quality was pretty much the fault of the original filmmakers. I don’t know about the sound problems. Possibly the volume of the movie relative to the riffers should have been adjusted. Possibly I would have been fine if I’d found a seat further back.

The show ended, and I pushed towards the bathroom again. It was a fifteen-minute wait to the urinal, after which I ran to the line to meet the riffers. In the lobby, however, it became apparent that the line started in the mezzanine, curved down the stairs across the entrances, then trailed back up the other stairs to the mezzanine with no end in sight. I’d brought a camera in the hopes of getting my picture taken with the Cinema Titans, but when I weighed this in balance with a) the book of signatures I already had from the last time they came, and b) the rapidly shifting atmospheric conditions of the Northern California winter working its magic on my sinuses, I decided it was time to go home. By some miracle, my route into the city that night had been entirely along two-way streets, so I easily found my way out and was home in less than ninety minutes.