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JOHN VARGAS

A Mad Man and a Liar

The New Beverly

Movies have always been something that seemed to make things better for me. As a child, I really didn’t know why. Of course, I never understood what made a film good or bad. Indeed, I remember musing that all movies were “kinda” good. I mean, they all told a story, right? That by itself was a stunning accomplishment. I didn’t know how to tell a story.

It took me a long time to realize how wrong I really was.

When I was a kid, we moved around a lot. If you were to ask me to tell you about the house in which I grew up, I’d have to ask you, “Which one?” There are no memories of a treehouse or a swing, or even a brightly lit kitchen. There are simply too many houses and apartments swimming through my mind. The only constants were my brothers. My mother. My father. And my grandmother who lived with us my entire childhood. And the simplicity that comes with impoverishment.

That’s not to say we lived in abject squalor. The homes in which we lived were clean, my mother and grandmother saw to that. We always had shoes and clothes, though often they were hand-me-downs and thrift store bought. This may be why I refuse to buy second hand clothes now, no matter how “cool” it became. I work. I want new shit. I’ll donate what I don’t want to kids that grew up like me. We ate. Mostly. Most of the time. My grandmother was a genius at making food out of almost anything left over. It might taste a little gamey, but it filled you up. Also, beans are cheap.

Every now and again, it might be a few months, might even be a couple years, we had to move. Mom and dad couldn’t make rent, so we would find another place in another part of the San Gabriel Valley. My mother was very sensitive to the fact that every time we moved, we’d have to adjust. Heavily. New school. New friends. She knew how hard it was, and I think she wanted us to have at least some sense of normalcy.  So, she lied to our schools as to where we lived. We lived at our cousin Ricardo’s house, as far as the school district knew. They were much more stable than us, and in my childish estimation: rich. They weren’t really, they were just middle class. But, at that time, middle class seemed like the good life compared to the transient gypsy life I was used to in my youth.

Incidentally, a friend from Spain once told me that the name Vargas is a surname used exclusively by Gypsies in his country. Makes a lot of sense, actually.

While this arrangement of lying to the school district to keep us going to the same school, no matter what part of the county we lived in, gave me a bit of stability at school and amongst my friends, it made weekends hard. We might live five or six miles from my friends. Six miles is basically Tibet when you’re eleven or twelve. So, I was at home all weekend. Just me, a television and seven channels of VHF and one channel in UHF: public television. Beyond that station, who the fuck knew? Aliens and Bigfoot communicating, for all I knew.

The television, and the movies I discovered, became my big brick house at the end of the cul-de-sac.

This is when I began to fall in love. The movies I watched in those years made me love movies more than anything else I had witnessed. It’s where I discovered the genius of Buster Keaton, the zaniness of Jerry Lewis and the zany genius of Chuck Jones. Anything that played, I’d give a chance. I remember a lot of old crime dramas, later to be known to me as film noir playing late at night. I would lay on the floor, sideways, watching these movies I cannot remember today. Later, as I studied films more seriously, some of them seemed too familiar. They had embedded themselves in my mind.

Public television would have documentaries on the old geniuses: Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Bros. They seemed like giants then. Like beings that we were sure existed, but few of ever saw. These movies didn’t play very often, or at all, as I remember, but I remember them as the giants they were. Ethereal. Surreal. Too amazing and perfect for this world. I still believe they are.

My weekends were made a lot less sad now.

With the surprise of a second hand VCR one day, the world seemed to open up to me. I could rent any VHS I wanted! No matter the rating! Okay, I couldn’t go into that little room separated by an obviously impenetrable beaded curtain (though, I did peek in, I WAS in the throes of puberty), but if I wanted to rent a rated R movie, the Korean dude that ran the place could give a shit. He probably had no idea what movie I was renting anyway! I couldn’t afford the movie theatre, and it was too far away anyway. But I could totally afford the two or three bucks to see whatever mafia movie I wanted (I had a theory that all mafia movies were works of genius, I was wrong).

Even pops was getting into it. One of the best memories I have is of him coming home with a six pack of beer and a Cheech and Chong movie. I couldn’t tell you which place we were living in, but I remember that vividly. It was a moment of humanity I saw in him that was so rare to me. I even remember him smiling that drunk smile.

The love affair has yet to die. As an adult, I still love movies. I love movies so much, that I hate almost all movies now. Every summer, my heart dies a little, knowing that so many millions were squandered on so many huge superhero movies bereft of originality. Lacking in substance. And completely missing the point.

If I want to be honest with you, if I want to be honest with myself; I would have to admit that Quentin Tarantino had a sizable impact on my life.

A lifetime ago, when I was in my twenties, I thought he was the second coming of Sergio Leone. He was brash and audacious and a hero to all of us nobodies that wanted to make movies. He made it. Outside the studio system. I truly believe that he was one of the reasons why there was such a shift in film making in the 90s. It was a new era of independent film making, a younger brother to the movement twenty years earlier that created some of the greatest movies in history. This was our time now. We were going to change everything.

We almost did.

For that, I must thank Tarantino.

For this, I must tell him to fuck off: he killed my movie theatre. He killed The New Beverly. I didn’t own it, but I loved it as though it were mine. As though it were my home.

I remember going there for the first time. I had a girlfriend at the time, who’s brother went to film school with a guy who’s dad owned this movie theatre. And they only played old movies. Or at least movies that past their first run, but always interesting movies. No big budget schlock bullshit. We went to see John Woo’s “Hard Boiled. “ It was my first introduction to him and this theatre. I loved them both. The place was packed with people that had obviously seen this movie many times over. The level of enjoyment in that room was astounding. A sense of community and family with strangers in a huge darkened room. This is why revival houses are the best. We are there, all of us, to see something we all have already enjoyed and loved. On the big screen. As it was meant.

On the way out, I grabbed a schedule. I couldn’t believe what was coming up in the next weeks. The Marx Bros! Taxi Driver! The Wild Bunch! A bunch of other movies I’ve never heard of before! This place was awesome! Also, it only cost $5! For a double feature! Are they insane, I thought? I had to come back.

This was to become a ritual for me, every two months, a new New Beverly schedule would come out, and I’d drive out to get it. Usually, I’d grab it on one of my many visits back. I didn’t even live in Hollywood at the time, I was still languishing in SGV, but I made the trip.

So many amazing hours spent there. So many amazing movies. Have you ever seen “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II”? Back to fucking back? In a theatre? I have. Several times. Yes. That makes me better than you. Admittedly, it’s daunting at first, but after the first hour, you realize how amazing this cinematic experience will be, and it is. This was the only place that had the guts, or insanity to do it. But they knew their audience, because every time I’ve done that cinematic odyssey, that place was packed.

It’s also where I saw on the big screen, for the first time, one of the greatest movies of all time: “Once Upon A Time in America.” The movie that made me realize that not all movies were “kinda” good, some are masterful works of art. A movie I had only ever seen on VHS, and never had a hope that I’d ever see it in the theatre.

The owner’s son, Michael, was nice enough to remember me, because my girlfriend had a brother with whom he was friends. I would ask him over and over again when was he gonna play “Once Upon A Time in America”? Michael said he was trying. Back then, they had a place where you could leave suggestions. It was a notebook and a pen. Every time I went, I’d write down this title. In large bold print. What do you want? I was in my twenties and full of myself. Now… Well, now I’m older.

But goddammit if he didn’t deliver. “Next month, John. Next month, it’s playing,” he said with a smile on his face. I knew what he meant, and I couldn’t believe it. I marked the date, made sure nothing else was gonna get in the way, and waited. It was the greatest movie experience I ever had. I’m not sure if I blinked during this four hour long movie. I watched it both times it played.

It’s been over twenty years since I walked through that  lobby for the first time, the scent of freshly made popcorn in the air mixed with the mustiness of an old theatre. The seat that was mine. Front row center. The screen was far enough away from the front row, that this made perfect sense, trust me. I carved my initials in the wood on the armrest, because I believed it to be my seat. So much so, that I’d get there an hour early just to make sure I was first to buy a ticket and claim my seat.

“Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino’s first movie, played there every Saturday at midnight, and I went a lot. I swear to you, I went once a month for a couple years. It was such a great movie, I thought. And to see it with a roomful of fans was nothing short of magic. All of us waiting, holding our breaths for the lines we loved, and exploding with laughter when they were finally uttered.

One night, I actually met Tarantino. He was there with a couple ladies. I was there with a couple friends, myself. My friend Rick was sure one of the ladies was someone famous as well, though I wasn’t sure whom she was. I said hello and told him I was a big fan. He was most accommodating and nice (this was right before “Pulp Fiction”). I turned to one of the ladies and said, “Also, my friend thinks you’re someone famous, too. But I don’t see it.” Tarantino laughed loud and heartily at the insulting young punk that was me at twenty five. I think that lady was Meg Tilly. So I was kinda right…

During the screening, I could hear that same uproarious laughter from him throughout the entire movie. As if he was saying, “Dude! I’m so hilarious!” But I didn’t care. I had met my hero. I was watching one of my favorite movies from my favorite seat in the world. So, I forgave him. I forgave a lot from him in those years. Even the movie “Four Rooms.”

That seat is gone now. Tarantino trashed it, I’m sure.

He took over a few years ago when the theatre was struggling. The owner, Michael’s father had recently died, and the place was in the threat of being bought out to put up some fucking department store, I think. I thought this was such a magnanimous gesture from Tarantino. By this time, I was over my hero worship, and lost interest in everything he did post “Jackie Brown,” his last great film. Even “Reservoir Dogs,” doesn’t seem to hold up at all. Now, it just seems juvenile and silly.

He updated the air conditioning made the facade look nice. So I forgave him his cinematic trespasses. I still went, Michael still had some control of the scheduling, so I still got to see a few more of the greatest movies ever made. It was nice. For a while.

Then the “grindhouse” came in. At first, only a few movies a month. Then, a few a week. Then, unbelievably, more. Cheesy, terrible 70s crime/horror films filled with so much camp, you’d think you were in the woods.

Then they closed. As if for repairs, they were promising to open again in a short time. But I doubted anything was being “fixed.” If anything, everything was being broken. Including the theatre’s spirit.

They were closed long enough to stage a coup de tat. Michael is out of his own family’s business, he isn’t scheduling the movies anymore, nor is he managing, to my knowledge. His dead father’s dream crushed by a massive ego. Tarantino is now using it as his own personal screening room to showcase movies from his own collection, that gave birth to his supposed brilliance. He wants you to go and see the genius in shitty movies. He wants you to understand what it is that made him so great. In essence, he wants you to watch him jerk off.

No thanks, Quentin. Movies have been and always will be too important for me. Enjoy your personal screening room that you charge admission to enter. I’m gonna regress into my childhood and watch movies the way I did when I was twelve: on television. And while I see so many people lauding the new regime, I only see the death of one of the best things Los Angeles had to offer. A little theatre. With small prices. That did but one thing: played the greatest movies of all time.

I know that nothing is permanent. I know now that permanence is destroyed by commerce and ego. I just wish this were not true.

Getting older sucks. You see everything you loved destroyed, bit by bit. The New Beverly was something I loved for over twenty years. And now it’s gone.

My love of movies will endure, however. No matter how terrible my life is, no matter how awful the people around me might be, movies always seem to make things better. If only temporarily.

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