Living Thing: 20 Years Ago Inside An Indiana Movie Theater


As you get older, you begin to measure moments as fragments caught in time.  Memories become a bit more distorted but the emotion is as clear as ever.  I know that this has been a heavy year in a myriad of ways, but I began to realize as it's concluding that it's another marker for me.  Another significant moment that stretches out, reaching back into the nostalgia plane that most might find eye-rolling.  But for those who are curious about humble beginnings, read on.  I will do my best to keep the self-indulgence to a minimum and make it interesting for those who are... interested.

Sometime in early November of 1997, my close friend and I went to see a movie at a suburban multiplex.  It was one I worked at briefly, as a matter of fact.  I worked there for three months, sweeping up popcorn and cleaning up people's garbage.  I don't remember all the movies that were playing at the time, but I can still hear R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" playing in a loop as the closing credits of SPACE JAM let out.  Then the following year, I tried a number of new jobs.  I worked briefly at a grocery store, for my dad's telephone company, and even endured a week of telemarketing.  However, I wound up going back to a job I wish I hadn't left in the first place and would eventually find myself staying at for a couple more years:  Box Office Video.  I began writing reviews and handing them out to customers.  I befriended a local screenwriter that knew a lot about classic cinema and once met David Mamet.  There was also this thing called the Internet that my dad was connecting through via a dial-up modem and a CD-Rom courtesy of AOL.  But there was an event coming and I didn't sense it immediately.  

In fact, the movie I was expecting to go see with my friend Matt was the new Quentin Tarantino movie, but that wasn't opening until Christmas.  Instead, we ventured out to see the much-buzzed about BOOGIE NIGHTS, knowing very little other than it was about pornography.  Having worked at a video store with a back room (complete with curtain), I was familiar with the genre despite never really enjoying the experience of watching much of it.  However, I was hearing two things about BOOGIE NIGHTS:  that it had the energy of Tarantino and the camerawork of Scorsese.  I even remember Tarantino appearing on a talk show, proclaiming his love for it.  His endorsement was all I needed so my friend Matt and I sat down for two and a half hours, not believing what we were seeing.  

It's at this point I should tell you, that if you were to ask me two of my favorite experiences watching a movie in a theater, two of them belong to my favorite director:  Paul Thomas Anderson.  MAGNOLIA is a story in of itself, but the film that preceded that in 1997, was every bit as special.  It's still far from my favorite, but it might've been the first time that I sensed and heard hatred from an audience when the closing credits began.  The man in front of us proclaimed "That was the worst movie I've seen since PULP FICTION."  Funny, I think Matt and I said it was one of the best films we've seen since PULP FICTION, which was another film we saw together for the first time, and our lives would never be the same.  For me, BOOGIE NIGHTS is now representative of that transitional period where I was consuming all I could find when it came to movies.  I would watch them constantly, talk about them incessantly, and start writing down my thoughts.  One of my co-workers and close friends, Kim, was also a huge fan of BOOGIE NIGHTS.  Honestly, I knew she was someone special when the first day we spoke, she told me that her favorite movie was probably WILD AT HEART.  Something about BOOGIE NIGHTS connected my friends and I to the energy of Paul Thomas Anderson, not really realizing the kind of filmmaker he would later become.  I'm sure nobody could predict that the director of MAGNOLIA would go on to direct the upcoming PHANTOM THREAD.   And at around the same time as BOOGIE NIGHTS, audiences weren't pleased that director Quentin Tarantino didn't give them a fast-paced ultraviolent piece of pulp when he adapted Elmore Leonard to create his best film, JACKIE BROWN.


My love for both JACKIE BROWN and BOOGIE NIGHTS at the time is also responsible for another significant moment:  the first time I called WGN Radio during Roy Leonard's show.  His co-host of the movie segment, Nick Digilio, was defending Tarantino's deconstructing of violence to a caller named Ed.  I even remember the majority of that hour-long year-in-review segment because I recorded it onto cassette tape.  The way my dad would record football games onto videotape was akin to how I would record live AM radio onto cassette tape.  You can bet that I recorded the first time I called into WGN in December of 1997.  I told Roy that I had my own top ten, and his enthusiastic reply was "We've never had a caller read their top ten before, so let's do it!"  Honestly, I am shocked that I was the first.  And no surprise at all, many of my choices were similar to the ones chosen by Nick.  As many of you know, I had been listening to Nick and Roy for about seven years, but I finally had the courage to share my opinion and taste now that I was developing my own scripts and working at a video store.  The following year, Nick would go on to host his own show, and I became a regular contributor for quite a while.  My phone call was quick, but I made sure to defend Tarantino and give a special shout-out to BOOGIE NIGHTS.  From that moment on, I truly think that any time that Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino release a new movie, it is an event.  I know people go nuts for sports and STAR WARS in a similar manner.  For me, there is nothing that matches my anticipation and excitement for a new film by those two directors.  They make me grateful to be a cinephile.  

It's definitely cliche at this point to cite those two cool movie nerds as lifelong heroes and favorites.  But I don't care.  You love what you love.  I know some names probably resonate just as strongly including David Lynch and many others, but 1997 cemented my love of movies that was only reinforced more when 1999 came around.  Even at the end of 1998, I found myself contributing to Nick's solo show with my own top ten.  There was anticipation for me to finally catch up with HAPPINESS, a film that I plan to write about extensively for its anniversary next year.  And honestly, the first time I saw RUSHMORE with Matt, I don't think it hit me initially that Wes Anderson was just as significant of an Anderson as Paul Thomas.  I just can't believe that 20 years have come and gone, but the anticipation for a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie is every bit as strong as it was when I sat down to see MAGNOLIA.  I know it's probably an easy-go-to at this point to say that I simply adore energetic camerawork, and BOOGIE NIGHTS still contains a group of characters that are as memorable as the ones in JACKIE BROWN.  The funny thing is that the moment I walked out of JACKIE BROWN, I was even more invigorated by what Tarantino did:  he didn't give the audience another PULP FICTION.  Again, I heard the murmur of a disappointed audience as Kim and I exited the theater.  But I couldn't stop talking about Robert Forster and Pam Grier, two names I wasn't as familiar with at the time.  

Within two months, I had seen two movies that mainstream audiences hated that I absolutely loved.  BOOGIE NIGHTS, JACKIE BROWN, and of course, WGN Radio, were responsible for my current direction:  a love for not only cinema, but great writing, engaging conversation and great music.  Hearing Nick defend both movies made me feel less alone, but reading Roger Ebert's immense adoration for both titles was every bit as affirming.  Two decades later, I would lay movie podcasting to rest in hopes of returning to the written word instead.  But I spent a long stretch of time analyzing movies because of people like Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.  They were gateway drugs and to hear them reference other influences or recent titles immediately made me run to the video store to seek them out.  I know both directors take their time shaping future projects, but there is no greater anticipation for me than seeing PHANTOM THREAD on the big screen.  I know that much like what Tarantino is working on with his Charles Manson picture, expectations will be subverted and I will find myself enraptured by the vision on screen.  You can certainly find imperfections throughout all of PTA's work, but I very well might be oblivious to them due to unabashed love for every choice he makes as a director.  His movies make me feel a tremendous amount of appreciation and emotion, even if it takes a couple of viewings for it all to sink in.  I welcome that experience time and time again.  I have friends who are going to see THE LAST JEDI over and over again, but I have no doubt that my love for PHANTOM THREAD could be equally matched.  Call me a fanboy if you like.  And yes, it's a bit expected at this point to be such a rapturous fan of his work.  But I think I owe him and Tarantino a lot for what they did to my impressionable young adult brain in 1997.  Not to mention the fact, that this past year I met the man himself, and even made a well-timed joke about BOOGIE NIGHTS directly to him.  

I wrote PTA a letter in the same way I did for Tarantino 20 years ago.  I have no idea if either letter will ever be read.  I tried to make it succinct, but a version of "thank you" to guys like them go beyond just one page.  In addition, I consistently thank Nick Digilio of WGN Radio as well.  To hear his support and respect even as recently as this past summer, being a guest on his show, is also a bit surreal for me.  The aspiring movie freak of 1997 never expected that 20 years later, I would be a member of The Chicago Film Critics Association, voting on critics' choice awards and enjoying screeners.  This was the year that I upgraded my TV set to 4K HD too, in hopes that a PHANTOM THREAD screener would appear in the mail box.  Alas, it very well may not and that's truly understandable.  I owe my favorite director the pleasure and respect of seeing his latest on the big screen first and foremost.  I wish I could've sat down and had coffee with my favorite director, not as an interview or for a podcast, but to spend time talking about movies and the joy they bring to our daily lives.  But I honestly will take the few minutes I had in thanking him for his talent and endless creative vision as a storyteller.  There are dozens of great filmmakers and probably even better ones that have existed for years and years, but Paul Thomas Anderson remains my favorite.  And hearing "Livin' Thing" by Electric Light Orchestra, still gives me goosebumps.  Because I immediately think back to the first time I saw it, and how both Matt and I applauded with joy at what we had just witnessed.  I still feel sorry for the other moviegoers there that boo'd.  Great art will probably always be divisive and the audacity of making it in the first place is something I will always cherish in this lifetime.

James Laczkowski