Repertory cinema houses. That’s another thing the Internet pretty much took out.
At least half the rep houses in San Francisco have shut down in the 20 years since I covered this evening at the Werepad. I remember working at the Bay Guardian and data-entering movie times into the theater listings for the paper, marveling at how many opportunities there were in San Francisco to see classic, important, and cult films on the silver screen.
Up In Smoke: An evening of Reefer Madness at the Werepad.
by Summer Burkes, 02.02.99
On a deserted stretch of Third Street, in close proximity to a Hell’s Angels bar, a stretch of water unappealing to tourists and residents both, and some once and future crime scenes, the Werepad sits in obscurity amid a row of low industrial buildings.
Since it opened in 1993, the alternative film house has been titillating voyeuristic, irony-fueled youngsters each Friday and Saturday night by screening a variety of campy films. Actually a production company, the Werepad finances its own feature-length productions (the latest: Jacques Boyreau‘s Planet Manson) through donations taken at the door.
For moviegoers used to captive-audience prices, the stench of rancid popcorn, and lines worthy of the iron curtain, the lush, relaxing, quirky Werepad almost seems like a holiday from nightlife itself.
The dark, two-story-high warehouse space twinkles with Christmas lights, lounge lamps, strobes, weird globes, and projected visuals. To the right, a sizable movie screen plays a montage of vintage clips as a DJ spins everything from the Seeds to noise collages. A giant, stuffed abominable snowchimp hangs from the rafters, as does an orange star made from traffic pylons.
To the left, a lounge area with sparkly curtains and tinfoil ceilings (Warhol, anyone?) houses groups of hipsters and movie aficionados chilling before the show. Art (for sale) hangs all over the multileveled place; one open-walled “room” features a mirrored ceiling and a disco ball (the Werepad throws bimonthly-ish “salons,” too).
We arrive early to score a seat on the velvet couch; less lucky patrons compete for bean bags, cocktail tables, and spots of floor. Recent strangers sprawl out and lean on each other for support, as if everyone were renting the same oversized, ultracool living room.
Tonight, the featured film is Gasnier’s 1936 opus on the perils of God’s green, Reefer Madness. Another vintage clip counts off the seconds until screen time; a celluloid mushroom cloud goes boom.
Famed as one of the most hysterically toned propaganda films ever made, Reefer Madness proves to be even more reactionary than Red Asphalt or High School Confidential.
“The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you,” a voice booms, counting off common symptoms of addiction to the “scourge”: uncontrollable laughter, hallucinations, space standing still, inability to direct thoughts, and eventual insanity. “Marihuana — ” (Cheers.) “A VIOLENT NARCOTIC — ” (Jeers.) “THE REAL PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE — ” (Guffaws.) “REACHING OUT TO YOUR KIDS … OR YOURS … OR YOURS!” (Someone call 911.)
Between the hysterical laughter of the audience, the heckling that serves as echoic dialogue, the winter’s rain battering the half-plastic roof above us, and the visual overstimulation of our surroundings, it’s hard to discern the actual plot of the movie. S
ome kids with names like Jimmy and Johnny and Junior and Ralph live in a small town and frequent an ice-cream shop in which the dope-fiend piano player acts like Son of Sam every time he smokes out. The kids cave to peer pressure, and soon there’s jaywalker target practice, alcoholism, speed piano-playing, homoeroticism, women undulating in lingerie, attempted rape, murder, histrionic scene-chewing, dementia, and a trial at which the judge gets to say, “He was a fine upstanding American boy.”
The physically similar characters blur together, and the moralizing is as fast paced as a punch in the face. Which, incidentally, there are some of, too. It is the silliest movie ever made.
Youth crime has always been sensationalized, and as a backlash, teenagers have always ridiculed heavy-handed attempts to set them on the right track. (This is your brain on toast with a side of bacon.)
Although it’s hard to imagine anyone who smokes weed acting like the hard-core PCP freak-star of “When Suspects Can’t Be Hogtied,” it’s even harder to imagine Reefer Madness being financed at a time when Coca-Cola had just recently been stripped of its more powerful stimulant.
The movie’s tragic end could be ripped from any advertising campaign that maintains that recreational drug use has no middle ground: the Son of Sam guy eventually goes insane, and his girlfriend jumps out of a window. (If suicide isn’t relief from pain caused by HIV or glaucoma, I don’t know what is.)
After the credits roll and audience members trade favorite lines, almost as an antidote to the film’s hysteria, the house musical duo plays some vaguely Lou Reed-y songs on guitar and theremin. The moviegoers become loungers once again, and no one seems immediately ready to leave the situationist-friendly environment just yet.
Postapocalyptic images, U.S. Naval Academy training footage, and radioactive mushroom clouds threaten us from the screen. And somewhere else, uptight PTA parents worry and fret over leaves of grass.
This is the 37th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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