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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.