Monday, September 05, 2005

Kansas City Konfidential

One good thing about having this blog is that some things finally get to see the light of day. I wrote the following article for the magazine Cashiers DuCinemart for their 10th anniversary issue, which was about Midnight Movies in the 90's - it didn't end up in the issue, and it hasn't seemed right for anything else film related that I read on a regular basis, so here it is...

Kansas City Konfidential:
The Midnight Underground with
Gary Huggins & the Chucky Lou A/V Club

In the glare of daytime, there is no indication of Kansas City as a mainstay of film culture; while the city can certainly boast about being the starting place for some notable names (try Walt Disney, Carl Stalling, and Robert Altman for a start), things have been a tad slow in recent years. While KC does host several film festivals throughout the year (the Filmmakers Jubilee, KC FilmFest and Halfway to Hollywood Film Festival, now the Kansas International Film Festival) and has a couple theaters that handle ‘art films’, there is a dearth of revival/repertory theaters – save for the Englewood Theatre in nearby Independence, MO and even they have slightly altered their schedule to present recent release films. As for the midnight-movie… whereas the midnight screening was a regular staple of several area theaters during the 80’s, the practice has practically died out in the New Millennium.

“Practically dead”, in this case, does not mean ‘completely dead’. In the tradition of the time honored trope of the dead rising from the grave, there exists some signs of life of the midnight-movie phenomenon in the Kansas City area – specifically in Mission, KS the first Saturday night of the month. That's when the Chucky Lou A/V Club presents another slice of cinematic culture from the weird and obscure side of the tracks. Named for a cross-dressing groundhog (the subject of a very strange 16mm short), the A/V Club has been entertaining brave souls hungry for an altered movie experience for the last few years.

The figurehead for the Club is one Gary Huggins, a cultural Jack-of-All-Trades in the KC area - Huggins became a cult figure in the Kansas City music scene with Big Jeter, a hillbilly-cowpunk band/performance group with members with names such as 'Big Jeter' (Huggins) and 'Gladiola Ditchwater' (Rita Brinkerhoff, local artist and Huggins' partner in crime) that performed clever songs that danced on the fine line between parody and brilliance... it's not your everyday pop band that can do a decent version of "THE GREEN SLIME” Theme. Huggins is also a noted collector of films, which kicked off the idea of the A/V Club.

"Three or four years ago, I didn't have anything," says Huggins, "I was trying to get rid of everything I had and just keep the essentials... then one night, an ex-girlfriend calls and says, 'There's a dumpster full of film trailers that you should take a look at - it's not too far away from where you live.' I figured that she was talking about something that a theater had thrown away, like HAPPY GILMORE. She got one trailer, for DARBY O' GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE - so I figured that was a good sign."

The building that was throwing out the trailers was the National Screen Service building - in the old days of drive-ins and independently run theaters, Kansas City was a distribution hub. Continues Huggins, "NSS had been sold and the company that bought the building made movie tie-ins, stuff like Harry Potter collectible cards. They needed room, so they threw out this completely priceless and rare film. They had a dumpster, 18 feet long and 6 feet high - they filled that up!"

"I went down there - it's totally dark and cold - and the first thing I found, sticking out - [the trailer for] THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK," he gushes. "And then under that was NANAMI-INERNO OF FIRST LOVE... it's just amazing, one of the best trailers I've got - really incredible editing, much better than the actual film; split-screen, crazy imagery - all the berserk imagery of the film is crammed into this trailer."

“So I start digging – there were tons of blaxploitation and incredibly rare stuff like THE INCREDIBLE WORLD OF BATWOMAN and Roger Corman’s FANTASTIC FOUR… and this was just that one night.” Huggins immediately called up friends to help in the salvage operation. “You could only dig so far before the walls would collapse on you, so we were just skimming off of the top,” Huggins recalls. “For about a month, everyday in the morning, we’d go down and try to save what we could before we’d go into to work and it’d be a totally new load – they were filling it every day. It was so depressing, ‘cause we knew whatever we didn’t get out of that think was gonna be buried in the ground the next day – we got what we could. And then some prints started turning up and I ended up with those and it just sort of snowballed, so now there’s just way too much film in my house.”

Some of that film got incorporated into the Big Jeter stage shows. That might have been the extent of it, until opportunity presented itself. Huggins recalls, “We had a couple of friends who worked at the Fine Arts Theater [now the Dickinson Top Two] in Mission, KS. We had the place and the access, so one Sunday night after the last showing, we would just have screenings.” This early incarnation was called Film Fetish, showing such dubious classics as BULLETPROOF with Gary Busey and THE GLOVE with Rosey Grier and John Saxon, to genuinely psychotronic fare like POSSESSION and MIDNIGHT CALLER with Cameron Mitchell. Huggins states, “I would send out e-mails; it was pretty much by word-of-mouth, whoever wanted to come. Once we had about 150 people come to this one screening of a trailer show. It was a really great hijacking of the theater to show something other than Miramax films.”

Film Fetish ultimately died – “The people I was doing it with lost interest. It was one of those things that was fun for a month or two and I wanted to keep it going. When I started the band, I got the idea to do it for real and rent a place, advertise and make it an evening where we’d pick a film and then play a song inspired by the film, and have 16mm shorts in the lobby,” says Huggins. This incarnation was known as “Big Jeter A/V Club”, a ‘secret’ gathering where audience members took an oath not to reveal what they had seen. This version of the Club was the most elaborate, with musical numbers before the show and with such fare as SEX AND ZEN, NIGHT WARNING, BOSS NIGGER, DOLEMITE, SHOGUN ASSASSIN; theme compilation shows like BANNED TOONS, MONDO 16MM and MIDGETS ARE FUNNY, and the crown jewel in the A/V Club’s history, a screening of the infamous SINGAPORE SLING.

Eventually the band broke up and The Big Jeter A/V Club metamorphosed into the Chucky Lou A/V Club. “It’s kinda been reduced to just me and Rita doing the show, so it’s just not enough time and not enough people involved to make it more ambitious,” says Huggins. Although Chucky Lou isn’t quite as freeform as Big Jeter A/V Club, the programming is still top notch, with events such as the twice yearly SLEAZE UNDER THE STARS, where the A/V Club commences in a nearby drive-in; and the annual AntiChristmas Show, where gifts are given to patrons brave enough to witness fare such as INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS or GOKE-BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL.

While the Club has not totally shied away from schlock like ATOR, there has been an effort to upgrade from ‘cheap’ films to serious fare – such as recent screenings of KISS ME DEADLY and BLUE VELVET as well as neglected gems like PRIME CUT. “That was always the plan,” says Huggins. “We were trying to build an audience and bring in some ‘good’ movies. Most of the ‘cheap’ movies are ones that are free – I own prints of them. We did an experiment where we showed THE LONG GOODBYE – nobody came. It seems like every time we show something that discourages people from shouting stuff at the screen, we lose money and nobody comes.”

“I wouldn’t mind discouraging that sort of thing all the time just because it’s mostly the people who aren’t that funny,” continues Huggins. “It’s so obvious and noisy and it really spoils the movie.” Huggins uses the example of the Club’s SINGAPORE SLING showing as an example. “Not to totally insult the audience, but most of the people who hit any show can’t tell the difference between good and bad [films], and so everyone’s coming expecting [the film] to be crappy; and when it’s something that turns out not to be, they don’t realize it. SINGAPORE SLING is its own critique; you can’t do anything but stare in open-mouthed… but people were trying to talk back – like the people in the audience were trying to tell the movie what the movie already well knew. It was really super-spoiling it, so after that, I was really hoping to discourage talk-backs.”

“I was hoping that we would build a really core audience that was big enough to keep it [Chucky Lou] going, and then every once in awhile show some sell-out moneymakers that would subsidize the smaller movies like KISS ME DEADLY that we couldn’t expect a big crowd. It’s kinda depressing, in a way, that the core audience has topped out at about 65 people – but reading about shows at other towns, that’s probably pretty good. I mean, even for cities like Seattle showing stuff like this; they’re happy when they get 30-40 people. So, really, it’s pretty good, but it’s just not enough when you show KISS ME DEADLY – it almost broke the A/V Club because of some complications with MGM and the shipping company… and then with BLUE VELVET (shown in Dec. ’03), nobody came! Nobody cares about David Lynch? That’s really strange…”
Huggins concedes that home video and the DVD consumer explosion might be a factor affecting attendance. “Having grown up before video, I’m still of the generation where I feel like you haven’t seen the movie until you’ve seen it in the theater, seen it really big. But I don’t think that’s the consensus anymore – that’s probably the most obvious explanation. That may be why we may be better off showing something like ATOR, which nobody could track down… or GOKE. It’s kinda sad that there’s not enough people in town who want to go to a movie – well, there are if you show EVIL DEAD, or something that people have seen before.”

“I should be grateful for enough people to come, and also grateful for the fact that I have enough prints and know enough people with prints of movies that you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to get. Otherwise, I don’t see how you could do it; you’re not even gonna break even if you show anything good… and the response of people who started doing this with me has been to slowly back away into the shadows… it’s just become me and Rita doing this,” says Huggins, frustration in his tone. “The last few shows were just nightmares; the projectionist just stopped showing up – film breaking, long delays – and then people just don’t want to come anymore. The post-show response for the last few shows has been, “I am never doing this again. This is a total fucking waste of my time.” But, fortunately, something like GOKE – BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL comes along – so that gives me a reason to do it one more month.”

In addition to the A/V Club, Huggins also programs films at the Kansas City Kansas Public Library – a slightly more mainstream selection than what is normally seen at Chucky Lou shows. And the A/V Club has inspired others to initiate their own programs – only with a poorer selection of films. Despite the imitators, Chucky Lou is still going strong – Huggins took the A/V Club on the road to Austin, TX in 2003 for a screening of the BANNED TOONS show, and 2004 kicked off with BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and an early ‘SLEAZE UNDER THE STARS’ event in March. But even Huggins admits that things may change soon. “There’s a screening room that someone is building in Kansas City that supposedly we’ll be moving to whenever they finish it – they’ve been working on it for about a year now. Maybe things will improve there, since it’ll be in a hipper location and we can do earlier shows – they won’t be at midnight anymore… I guess it’ll be the end of the midnight movie concept – it’s a nice idea, but sleep is important too.”

In July 2004, the A/V club did make the move to that location - the venue is called Screenland, now near the Crossroads Art District in Kansas City, MO. Designed as an alternative screening and event venue, it is more than accommodating to the film fanatic. The A/V Club kicked off its debut in the location with a screening of the popular EVIL DEAD 2 and followed up in August with the jaw-dropping THE CANDY SNATCHERS.

The A/V Club also released their first DVD - TRAILER TRASH, a dvd compilation of one of their most popular programs, a mind-blowing collection of trailers from well known films (ZABRASKIE POINT, EXORCIST II, BLACULA, DOLEMITE) to the obscure (THE TOUCHABLES, THE SADIST, TEENAGE GANG DEBS) including everyone from Sonny Chiba to Dom DeLuise.

For more information about the CHUCKY LOU A/V CLUB, join the Yahoo Group.

For info on TRAILER TRASH, check out reviews at DVD Drive-In ; Mondo Digital and DVD Talk . The DVD Drive-In review also has ordering information.

Sadly, the end of 2006, saw the end of Chucky Lou, as Huggins moved on from screening films to making them. His short, FIRST DATE, got accepted to Sundance, and he has done another short, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GRANDPA.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

we saw March of the Penguins at Screenland on Friday night--pretty good stuff. Also, we have two free passes to the KS International Film Festival this week. We can use them at any screening the 12th to the 15th. Do you know much about that festival? Any recommendations on what we should see? I'd appreciate any input, since I looked at the website, and I hand't heard of any of the movies--they're THAT independent;)