Thursday, March 20, 2014

Programming the Perfect Movie Marathon

by Patrick Bromley
There are a lot of rules.

If you ever read Nick Hornby's great High Fidelity or saw the also-great movie adaptation from 2000 starring John Cusack, you know that the main character Rob has some very specific ideas about the best way to make a mix tape. As a former tape maker myself, it's one of many, many passages that speak directly to me and articulate my own unwritten, unspoken guidelines for creating a successful compilation:

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

These are not just rules for making mix tapes. These are rules for life. Or at least for programming movie marathons.

Here's something important to consider up front: there is no such thing as the perfect marathon. There is a marathon that is perfect for you, but as soon as you begin to program for an audience of more than yourself you are subject to every other person's taste, patience, stamina, etc. You can try all you want to provide the best possible lineup and you may even come close, but it's never going to be perfect. That's ok. Perfect is boring, especially when there's too much of it.

For the last several years, I have celebrated my birthday by programming mini marathons for a couple of friends. Along with choosing the lineup for #fthismoviefest and our annual Scary Movie Night (and now the 24-hour Basement Massacre), this is one of my favorite things to do. I love to curate. This is not because I think I have expert taste (I have my taste) but because I love considering how different films will interact with one another. I love to choose a couple of titles, try to place them in the "correct" order, then find out that lineup/order won't work and have to replace a title or shift things around. It's not just about showing specific movies. It's about creating an overall experience.

It started on my 30th birthday, when my wife wanted to have a party or celebrate in ANY WAY but I resisted every one of her suggestions. Finally, she threw out the idea of renting a small space and screening a movie.

At this suggestion, I perked up.

But because anything worth doing is worth doing way too much, I wasn't interested in just picking one movie for everyone to watch. That's not an EVENT. Better to choose three movies, because then you're giving everyone an experience (and because you [I] suffer from mental illness). You're exposing them to movies they might not otherwise see, and the way the different choices talk to one another gives the collective of selections a different energy and meaning.
Though there has never been an official "theme" to these marathons, I've always stuck to picking movies I thought are great but underrated or under-seen. The lineup for the first year consisted of Streets of Fire, Joe Versus the Volcano and Wet Hot American Summer. This was a learning experience. Streets of Fire had the biggest audience because it was first and most people weren't interested in sticking around for two more movies. And while it played well enough -- it's full of good music and cool retro design and even the people who weren't into that stuff could giggle at what they saw as '80s camp value (they are wrong) -- it failed to function as much more than just providing some insight into the kinds of things I love (and, by extension, who I am as a person). And no one gives a shit about that.

Joe Versus the Volcano would have gone over even worse had enough people still be in the audience. It's a beautiful, quirky, funny movie and one of my favorites, but it was the wrong movie for a group of this size and in this setting. It's quieter and its laughs are more eccentric and character-based than joke driven, so it required a smaller audience or at least one more interested in watching the movie than having a party. Didn't make it a "bad" choice, just the wrong choice. Wet Hot American Summer was last and went over well to those of us that were left, but it was a small group by then. It probably should have gone first, but I couldn't just reverse the order because Streets of Fire could only go first. Because did I mention that I had created an arbitrary rule that there had to be at least one choice from each of the three full decades I had been alive? This continued for another few years until I ditched it. See? There are a lot of rules.

The night was a lot of fun. It also opened my eyes as to what works and what doesn't when programming this kind of thing for a mixed group not made up entirely of movie lovers.
By the next year, we scaled the event back and started just having it at home for a very small group of our closest friends, all of them movie lovers (because you don't alter what you program; you cut the dead weight in the audience). This was how I introduced my friends to The Mist (in black and white!) and The Nines and The Brothers Bloom and Velvet Goldmine and Splice and Stardust and Night of the Comet and Southland Tales and a bunch of other stuff. Not all of it was a hit. That's not always the point.

Gradually, the number of movies I would program was scaled back as well. For the first at-home marathon, I showed six movies (two from the '80s, two from the '90s and two from the 2000s, because symmetry is how I get through the day). That was a long one. The next year it was five, the next year four, the next three, where it held for a few years. Having kids makes it difficult to watch six movies in a row -- at least until they are a little older and can watch them with you.

We all have different criteria for the way we program things. When I was picking the movies for last year's Basement Massacre (it needs a new, better name), it was a mix of stuff of I had never seen (Black Christmas, Curse of Chucky, Dark Night of the Scarecrow) and stuff I just felt like watching again (Sleepwalkers, Dead Silence, Nightbreed). Yes, it would be easy to program 24 hours of "classics." That would be completely boring to me. It is great to marvel at a masterpiece for two hours, but if you watch 12 of those in a row you're only having the same experience again and again. Marathons have to be full of highs and lows and weird tangents and stuff that challenges you and stuff that's just fun.

I generally try not to program bad movies on purpose. The "lows" of a marathon must come organically, usually from a film I haven't seen before programming it or from something that just unintentionally falls flat. I have, on one or two occasions, deliberately shown something I know to be bad. One year we watched Troll 2. I'm not a monster.
But a big part of the joy of programming movie marathons is getting to experience them alongside everyone else. It's different with a mix tape. I could preview those ahead of time -- listen to them as I drove around and see what works and what doesn't and then make the necessary adjustments. I'm not going to watch three or four or 13 movies in a row just to see how they play together. It's got to be a surprise to me too.

My birthday is coming up again in about a week. For a number of reasons, I don't think I'll be hosting a marathon this year. That doesn't mean that I haven't been trying to come up with lineups just for myself. I don't need to share them with anyone. I don't even need to actually watch the movies. Just creating the lineup is half the fun, like a baker who enjoys the process of combining ingredients as much as eating the finished cake.

The marathon I've been kicking around -- probably inspired by my recent revisiting of Darkman for our podcast -- is a superhero marathon, only one that doesn't include any of the obvious Marvel or DC movies. But I run into an immediate obstacle here, as almost all of these movies are the same: they set up an origin, give someone super powers and then defeat a big bad at the end. Past birthday marathons have worked (or not) because I would choose movies from all different genres. Horror marathons work because there are so many kinds of movies and subgenres inside the umbrella category of "horror." But watching 10 superhero movies in a row would be numbing after a while, would it not?

Just for fun, let's try it out.

11 a.m.The Phantom (1996, dir. Simon Wincer) Like High Fidelity's Rob says, you gotta start with something killer. This is a great way to kick things off because it's bright and fun and zips right along. It's the kind of movie that makes you feel like doing a whole marathon won't be so difficult after all. Bonus points for fitting under my usual "good movies not enough people like or have seen" theme.
1 p.m. - Punisher: War Zone (2008, dir. Lexi Alexander) Now it's time to kick it up a notch. In many ways, this movie is not great -- the screenplay is full of cliches, the performances are insanely broad and the attempts at sentiment are embarrassing at best. But it's very visually striking and so crazy fucking violent that it will take the marathon into a totally different direction. If The Phantom is an old-fashioned two-fisted adventure film, this one is fun for fans of hard R-rated #HeavyAction. It's almost as far from The Phantom as you can get while technically inside the same genre.

3 p.m. - Swamp Thing (1982, dir. Wes Craven) Continuing to follow Rob's Rules, this is the point at which we cool off a little and quiet things down (in tape-making terms, this is the first appearance of an Elliott Smith song). I've never been a huge fan of Wes Craven's Swamp Thing, but a) it's a movie I'm interested in revisiting and marathons are always a great excuse to do that and b) it has a different energy than any of the other movies in the lineup. While not exactly a horror movie, it's as close as any of the selections comes. It also has a much more laid-back vibe than something loud and in your face like War Zone, making it a good palate cleanser. Bonus points for being put out by Shout! Factory, which was almost the theme of its own marathon this year.

5 p.m. - Sky High (2005, dir. Mike Mitchell) Because the basic plot arc of so many of these movies is so similar, it's important to keep changing things up as much as possible. Sky High -- which earns bonus points for being criminally underrated -- gets things back to lighthearted fun and offers many rewards for fans of superhero/comic book genre. The casting is smart, the script is funny and the action is inventive. If Swamp Thing brings your energy down (and it probably will), this one will perk you right back up. I defy you not to smile through this whole thing.
7 p.m. - The Shadow (1994, dir. Russell Mulcahy) The primetime slot is where I would usually program something bigger -- more well-known, more popular, whatever. But because I'm mostly staying away from MU and DCU titles (and because this is a hypothetical marathon designed just for me), I don't really need to do that. Instead, I'll slot Russell Mulcahy's '94 adaptation of the classic radio drama The Shadow here because I haven't seen it since its theatrical run and it's the movie I'm most looking forward to revisiting. I can remember digging the Old Hollywood aesthetic and Alec Baldwin's leading man charm but not much else. Perhaps it's a movie to which the last 20 years (and the glut of comic book movies) have been kind. Bonus for being put out by Shout! Factory.

9 p.m. - The Rocketeer (1991, dir. Joe Johnston) This is probably too similar to The Shadow to play well back to back, but you can get away with that during this primetime block. Knowing that both movies were made during the early '90s when studios were experimenting with finding the next superhero franchise (all in the wake of Batman) and that both harken back to the 1930s and '40s makes them an interesting study in opposite approaches to similar pulp material. The Shadow goes all dark and noir-y while The Rocketeer keeps things fun and light. Both are good for a Saturday afternoon. Hopefully they work just as well on a Saturday night. Bonus points for being shown as part of F This Movie Fest 2.
11 p.m. - Super (2011, dir. James Gunn) It's getting late now, so you can let things start to get weird. James Gunn's brilliant Super is the perfect cure for several hours of Hollywood superhero movies, not just for its grungy, low-fi aesthetic but for the way it subverts all the tropes of the genre. While it is ultimately about the pain of a divorce, Super has a lot to say about vigilantism and the kind of person who feels justified beating the shit out of "bad guys" just because he wears a costume.

1 a.m. - Tank Girl (1995, dir. Rachel Talalay) As long as we're getting weird, let's put Tank Girl on when we're really starting to get bleary eyed. A post apocalyptic future in which water is the number one commodity, Iggy Pop is a pedophile, Ice-T is a mutant kangaroo and Malcolm McDowell has a hologram head keep this from ever being dull, even if it is obnoxious and overly-caffeinated in a very mid-'90s way. It's a rare superhero movie that both focuses on a female hero and is directed by a woman, which alone should earn it a spot. But the movie is really interesting, too, as it comes from a period when not a lot of these movies were being made and can experiment with the genre. Bad as the '90s were for comic book adaptations, at least directors were taking chances and pushing them in different directions. For better or worse, Tank Girl does that. Bonus for being put out by Shout! Factory.
3 a.m. - Doctor Mordrid (1992, dir. Charles Band/Albert Band) What would really work best at 3 a.m. is a Doctor Strange movie, but seeing as there is yet to be a proper version (a TV version was produced  in 1978 and Marvel claims to be making one for Phase Three) let's go with this 1992 ripoff from Full Moon Features. A lifelong fan of the character, Charles Band wanted to make a Doctor Strange movie but couldn't get the rights. Rather than accept defeat, he just created his own knock-off version starring the great Jeffrey Combs. This would be the one movie programmed that I have never seen, which gives it added appeal.

4:30 a.m. - Captain America (1990, dir. Albert Pyun) Because Doctor Mordrid is so short (77 minutes!), we get to squeeze in one extra movie. Though the 1990 Captain America breaks the rules slightly by focusing on a major Marvel superhero, its low-budget origins and status as one of the "worst" comic book adaptations make it good 4:30 a.m. viewing. It gets a lot of things wrong, like not having much of Cap in the suit and anything having to do with the Red Skull (who here is an Italian), but the movie is a good change of pace as a slightly goofy, old-fashioned tribute to a character for whom director Pyun clearly has a lot of affection. It approaches the material seriously and isn't goofing on any of it, even when it is kind of goofy. The movie has its problems -- many of which are budgetary -- but they're outweighed by its charms. Bonus points for being put out by Shout! Factory.

6:30 a.m.Dredd (2012, dir. Pete Travis) As things begin to wind down, let's return to the hyper violent lunacy of Punisher: War Zone from 18 hours earlier. An attempt to get the character of Judge Dredd right after the 1995 adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone (which could have worked in this lineup as long as it was slotted fourth or fifth), the 2012 reboot uses the same basic premise as The Raid: Redemption and succeeds on the basis of Karl Urban's faithful performance and nonstop brutality -- the perfect thing to wake you up as you head toward the finish. This will go great with sugary cereal.
8:30 a.m. - Darkman (1990, dir. Sam Rami) It makes sense to cap things off with the movie that inspired this whole marathon. It's always important to end with something fun and energetic. Darkman is both of those things. Further proof that these "fringe" superhero movies are better at exploring other genres (though Marvel Studios is getting better), this one works as a comic book, as an action movie and as an old monster movie -- only the monster is the hero. A great way to close out 24 hours, and you'll even end about 45 minutes early as long as you stay on schedule. It's very important to stay on schedule. Bonus points for being put out by Shout! Factory.

So? What do you think? I put it together mostly as a fun exercise that seemed like it would never work because of the theme, but in looking at the lineup and talking about each of the choices, it actually sounds like it would be pretty fun.

If anyone takes the challenge and does this marathon, let me know how it goes.

I'm bummed about not doing a marathon this year, but maybe just the exercise of putting together a lineup takes some of the edge off.

Or maybe it just gives me a case of marathon blue balls.


  1. On a recent trip to Peoria, I programmed a marathon for 25 high school students. I ended up following many of these rules.

    We started the morning with Space Jam (1996). Being high school students, this movie is older then almost all of them. I was a bit surprised that all of the kids had seen it, and that most had seen it enough that they had a majority of the lines memorized. I was even more surprised to find out how much they love Charles Barkley. They really got into it. Energy was up.

    But then we really slowed it down. The preverbal rug was ripped from beneath. Our 2nd movie was Missy and the Maxinator (2009). Full disclosure, I'm in this movie. Fuller disclosure, it's not going to be something you watch unless you are a parent of someone in the movie. The students begged me to let them watch it and foolishly I had promised them seven months ago that, "Sure. Everyone that makes it to State can watch it." Things were bleak. I knew after that, we need to go back to a simpler time.

    I then reach for The Sandlot (1993). A few students even cheered and I heard them tell each other, "This is my favorite movie of all time". This was something that was familiar to us all, which was very important because we would be arriving in Peoria about halfway through the movie. Of the 5 movies selected, I thought this would best survive the two day break we were all going to take before we get back on the bus. After two days of competition, we were back on the bus Sunday morning, finished watching The Sandlot, and on our way home.

    It was time for Best Picture Nominee*, Sky High (2005). While it didn't take home the top prize at the Joshcar's that year, it did receive Best Supporting Actor for Kurt Russell's brave transformation. As Patrick mentioned, I dare you to not smile during this movie. First viewing for a lot of the students. They all enjoyed it.

    Finally, we ended with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). A bus full of students is a very captive audience, but after such a long weekend, many fell asleep.

    I was happy with my selections. Overall, I think that it was a success. Now that some of Patrick's rules are more clearly defined, and I find some of my own, I hope next year will be even better.

  2. I’m going to be “that guy” and point out that Punisher is Marvel and Swamp Thing is DC, although both movies are somewhat outside the mainstream so I guess I get what you’re going for. (Tank Girl has also been with DC/Vertigo for the last few years, but it’s still creator-owned.)

    Still, great list. I’m almost tempted to try it myself. Not sure about SUPER, though. I found that movie totally bleak, and it depressed the hell out of me. If I were me (and I am!) I’d switch out SUPER for STAN LEE PRESENTS: MOSAIC to get another female superhero in the lineup, and pairing up the coming-of-age Mosaic next to the more, let’s say, world-savvy Tank Girl.

    And that screenshot from NIGHT OF THE COMET makes me so very, very happy.

    1. Yeah, I know both those properties are owned by Marvel/DC (as does Captain America). But like you said, they are mostly outside the mainstream and not part of the bigger "universes" that have been built in the last 10-12 years. So I was willing to overlook it.

      I get not loving Super (even though I find the last scene to be very, very moving). But the difference it tone and approach is exactly why I would want to include it. It doesn't feel like any of the other movies.

      I have to write a "Movies I Love" for NotC soon. Because I love it.

    2. The end of Super is great. Rainn Wilson really, truly brought the acting in that flick and when I'm not laughing at him cracking skulls, he breaks my heart.

      I strongly support the NotC column. That movie is so rad. Scream Factory is the greatest thing to happen to genre loving movie geeks in a LONG time.

      You could also do It Came From The 80's for Larry Cohen's insanity Q: The Winged Serpent. Actually I bet you could do a MIL or ICFT80s for 98% of Scream Factory's releases, now that I think about it.

    3. I can't even articulate how much I love Scream Factory. It feels like they read my mind, as they continually validate movies I love that have never gotten the proper respect (Lifeforce, Night of the Comet, The Funhouse and now Phantom of the Paradise). I will buy titles I have never seen just because they put them out and I trust their tastes.

    4. That other comment was intended to go here, yet apparently that was too difficult for me.

  3. Agreed to every single thing you said. Plus the fact that they're taking some older Carpenter classics and making them look better than I've ever seen or thought possible.

    I think it would only be good sense to blind buy whatever they put out. I hadn't seen Prison in at least 15 years, remembered it being "okay" but got it anyway because Scream Factory. I had a hellacious time. Is it a stone cold classic? No. But it does what it sets out to do while being a lot of fun in the process (with some excellently gory deaths).

    Lifeforce was outSTANDING -- I'd never seen the int'l cut with the Mancini score and that was pretty damn cool. The Howling looks flat-out gorgeous.

    I just started thinking about how it's great to see From Beyond get a little of attention that Re-Animator does or that the Night of the Comet interviews with Stewart and Maroney are so sweet...and then realized that I could easily keep going and write a few hundred words about each one of the twelve Scream Blus I have. Being as how this is YOUR site, good sir, I will fight said inclination and simply agree with you again. They're doing fantastic things.

    (Actually, that would be a worthy marathon: Scream Factory releases! Oh shit, why have I not thought about that before? Well, thanks for the programming notes; they're about to come in damn handy!)

  4. I want to do this marathon.

    A silenced marathon for the dearly departed. Hope you still manage to have a good birthday mate.

  5. Is that the Captain America where he fakes motion sickness not once, but TWICE in order to pull off effortless carjackings? Despite being a fan of the character that's all I remember from the movie (aside from the aforementioned Italian Red Skull). It would make my day if Winter Soldier references those scenes in some way.

  6. Yep thats the one, it gives it a shot but is just a little too TV movie of the week for me. Red Letter Media did a great send up of that movie earlier this week on their site you should check it out.

  7. Just like to second or third the emotion that Scream Factory is really doing amazing work reinvigorating old favourites and bringing attention to a lot of great classics I probably would never have given the time of day. I would buy everything they put out if I could afford it and I've never hesitated to "blind buy" a title that looked particularly interesting because I know they wouldn't put out crap. Three cheers for Shout/Scream Factory! You deserve all the money.

    You're bang-on about movie marathons being analogous to the mix-tape (wistful sigh - I guess we have playlists now?) and I think yours has the rhythm of a great one. Let us know if you do go through with this yourself cuz I'd love to twatch at least some of them with ya, buddy!

  8. I'm late to reading this!

    Reading these lines just made me tear up: "My birthday is coming up again in about a week. For a number of reasons, I don't think I'll be hosting a marathon this year." I have been witness to most of Patrick's movie marathons and the recipient of hundreds (?) of his 'mix tapes' (that's how he got me to date him in the first place!), and I'm thinking he HAS to program another mini birthday film fest this year. Who wants to come over? ;)

  9. Nice! Cap does steal a car in the new movie. I don't know if the joke was intentional, but at least for me viewing experience it was.

  10. I chose to read this again, because I, like you in the story you told in this column, am considering participating in my own small movie marathon for my 30th birthday. My theme is going to be, of course, the movies of 1984.

    I wanted to choose a variety of genres, with a few titles I've never seen, and a few that I know are sure winners. If you have any suggestions, feel free to throw them at me, but here's what I've got so far:

    Repo Man (never seen it)
    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    The Last Starfighter (never seen it)
    Blood Simple (never seen it)

    1. That's a solid list, with a good mix of tones and paces (that's the real trick of it all). '84 was nearly the year chosen for FTMF this year, so I have a few other titles I might include, but the lineup should really come from you -- what you love, what you want to see. I can't argue with any of what you've picked. Now just be sure to get the order right...

    2. Heh, I know, the selections should be personal. I guess I just wanted to make sure that the movies I hadn't seen yet were indeed good and worth seeing (at least, in someone else's opinion). You're right, though. It seems that order is key.