WHAT, WHERE, WHEN: Captain Milkshake, rarely-screened 1969 Hippie Anti-War Film, Andrew’s Video Vault at the Rotunda, 8 PM TONIGHT!
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I lived in the San Francisco Bay area for most of the ’90s, and with their numerous repertory movie houses, one could hang out at the movies every night. The Pacific Film Archive, The Castro, The Roxy, The Red Vic, the UC Theater, The Fine Arts — I slouched for hours in their seats, catching scores of double features of noir films, foreign oddities, indie documentaries and weirdo one-offs that I’ll probably never be able to track down again. Moving back to Philly, it was tough to think about leaving all those long nights in the dark behind. There’s certainly heroic work being done by the Secret Cinema, Exhumed Films and the International House, but sadly the city doesn’t even have one full-time independent theater that serves the sort of cinematic smorgasbord that theaters doled out nightly in San Fran. And going to the movies was really what I did consistently, attending like it was an unpaid job. Back in Philly, I sort of felt like an alcoholic who relocated to a city without a bar.
On at least one night a month, you can consume movies en mass locally. The second Thursday of every month, tucked away at Penn’s Rotunda, is Andrew’s Video Vault. Local filmmaker Andrew Repasky McElhinney has turned his back on the obvious to book the most far-reaching and uncompromising schedule of double- and triple-features imaginable, all grouped together in ingeniously eccentric themes. Altman films brush up against ’30s blaxploitation, slasher films play with art house classics and occasionally, non-distributed films from major directors sneak into the Video Vault screening to debut in Philly (in January you missed Forest Whitaker do a hysterical Charlie Rose impersonation all through Abel Ferrera’s 2005 film Mary.) The Vault’s selections are certainly as daring at any bills that played TLA South Street Theater back in the day. These nights reflect the curiosity of rabid film lovers, people willing to shift gears and absorb whatever is being thrown at them next. This month is a triple feature of three very different films about the military and war. My lower back is getting numb in giddy anticipation.
The triple bill features two under-seen films from a pair of Hollywood’s great macho filmmakers, Western giant John Ford and John Huston. Opening the program is Ford’s 1934 film The Lost Patrol, a creepy horror show set during Britain’s war in Iraq, where the film’s taut 73 minutes are spent watching the characters get picked off, one-by-one, by unseen desert snipers. Closing the show is Huston’s 1967 adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel, Reflections of a Golden Eye. See Elizabeth Taylor tramp around bedeviling her Army Major husband, a Don’t-See-Don’t-Tell victim played by Marlon Brando who poorly hides his lust for Jackie Brown’s Robert Forster. In between these two is the obscure gem Captain Milkshake, a 1969 counterculture film shot independently in the military-centric city of San Diego.Captain Milkshake has everything you’d want in a late-60s anti-war film, yet due to legal problems, it has rarely been seen outside of its short run in 1970. It’s among the very first American films to address the Vietnam War while the conflict was still raging. We’re introduced to Paul (Geoff Gage), a flashback-ridden soldier on leave when he is introduced to the new world of free love, Mexican grass and unending psychedelic light effects by Melissa (Andrea Cogan), a sexy war-protesting blonde. You’ll blush at the film’s earnestness as Melissa prattles on about being given the freedom to love without ownership but, that smug smile might leave your face when Paul argues with her commune roomies about the war. Their talk of terrorists and resource raiding have a familiarity that’s more than a little saddening.
Politics aside, it’s more my personal fetishizing of all thing late-60s that makes this film such a sheer pleasure to sit through. First, there’s the soundtrack filled, with Bay Area giants like the Steve Miller Band and Quicksilver Messenger Service, as well as two live appearance from David Lindley’s L.A. based group Kaleidoscope (yep, there he is, strumming away on one of his exotic stringed whatevers). Then there’s lots of random location footage, showing normal folks wandering around in their off-the-rack clothing and pulling up in their old bench-seated cars. And who can resist it when a ’60s filmmaker gets all freaky, allowing superimposed images to meld across the screen like a Fillmore light show. A visit to the cinematic bad trip tent is always a good trip for me. All this is probably less respectful than the film deserves. Director Crawford’s script is not as under the hippies’ sway as one might think, and if square soldier Paul can relate to their disgust at the war, he still feels alienated by their manipulations. Despite that, it’s hard to know if Crawford realizes just how pompous and annoying his Abbie Hoffman stand-in thesp (David Korn) is, all beard and bluster as he plans the big weekend protest rally. To top it all off, the films employs an unusual scheme in turning the film back and forth between color and black-and-white, saving the Technicolor hues for visions of ‘Nam violence and shimmying at the rock club, then reverting back to monochrome while listening to Paul’s racist relatives at the dinner table. Despite a certain clunkiness is execution, Captain Milkshake is an impressively ambitious film, and now that I’ve seen it I won’t be able to consider late-60’s political films without acknowledging it. There’s the purist in me that bums that the type of programming the Video Vault specializes in can’t be done on film anymore, but there’s a value in puzzling over these scraps of the 20th Century with an audience of others that can’t be oversold. Sometimes it’s the mood you sense in the theater, sometimes it’s that idiot in the lobby who just didn’t get it at all. But honestly, the best home theater will never summon the power of seeing a movie with the public, where the image is bigger than life, where you can’t take off you pants and lose consciousness and you must keep paying attention because the projectionist won’t rewind.
Andrew’s Video Vault 8:00pm @ The Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia,