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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 27
The All-Time Greatest Summer

Poltergeist
Conan the Barbarian
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Tron
Superman II
Return of the Jedi
The Road Warrior
Houston
Hutto, Texas
It was May 1982, and I was living in Alief, a suburb rapidly going to seed in southwest Houston, and had just finished the eighth grade. My freshman year of high school loomed three months away like some unspeakable eldritch horror, teen angst as written in some profane collaboration by S.E. Hinton and H.P. Lovecraft. As a means of escape, that summer I stayed in a small Central Texas place thirty miles from Austin with my father, which suggested its own unique horrors: the incessant church bells clanging townsfolk to worship (and interrupting my much-needed REM sleep) every Sunday morning, redneck wisdom proffered by some leather-skinned farmer pumping gas at into a truck that would've lost a collision with a scarecrow at Wag-A-Bag, others' insistence that children needed "outside" time instead of spending every waking moment reading some book with weird titles like Now Wait for Last Year or The Artificial Kid. Often I drove into Austin with my father and, with the allowance money I'd brought with me, I would see a movie during the afternoons while he worked.

During the summer of 1982, I saw an awful lot of movies.

Not just good ones, but great ones.

If you're a film geek -- and especially if you're a film geek who also happens to be a genre geek -- the summer of 1982 holds incredible significance. During the month of July alone, I could see anything from Poltergeist (playing at the Highland Twin) and Conan the Barbarian (playing at the Fox Theater) to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Bladerunner (at the Lakehills), and (the day before I had to go back to Houston) Tron (at Northcross). As a budding cineaste, I'd seen a lot of movies the previous summer; some, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, and Clash of the Titans, turned out to be classics. But the summer of 1982 saw the release of so many incredible pictures that at times I felt like my head would explode. It also turned out to be a watershed year for summer movies; though the next year would bring Return of the Jedi, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the summer after that, no summer since has seen a lineup like it.

The folks at my favorite theater, the Alamo Drafthouse, must have had a similar experience, because they have set the wayback machine to thirty years ago and released a retrospective of the movies that made the summer of 1982 incredible. The lineup is astonishing, kicking off with Conan the Barbarian (which, according to a friend of mine, sold out within hours of tickets going on the Alamo Drafthouse sale) and continuing on with The Road Warrior and on through other such blockbusters as The Thing and Tron to such lesser-known gems as Class of 1984 and The Sword and the Sorcerer. In terms of memorable movies it's a lineup I'd put up against anything coming out this summer.

I got the chance to speak with the Drafthouse's Zack Carlson (who tells me he's "aggressively avoided having a proper title at the theater") about the retrospective, why 35mm is better than digital, and why that particular summer was so resonant. (And of course what his favorite of the retrospective is. I can't argue much with his choice.)

What was the impetus for the Drafthouse's Summer of 1982 Retrospective? Was there any beyond the thirty-year anniversary?
Well, the thirty year mark made it palatable as a celebration, but I think an equally substantial reason for shows or series like this to exist is really just that there was a different class of blockbuster back then. A movie like Poltergeist was huge financially, sure, but it also endured. It's just fundamentally a great movie, and those are rare enough that people don't let 'em drift out of their memories. That's the case for pretty much all the films we're featuring. A movie like, say, Pirates of the Caribbean Pt. 4 or 12 or whatever will make a ton of money, yeah, but then it vanishes into the studio bank account. I doubt half the people who watched it could even give you a plot synopsis now.

When I first heard of the retrospective I was amazed at the number of classic movies made during that period. Did you have a selection process for your initial lineup?
Yes. There was initially a broader list, but we got together and pared that down to the titles that had made the strongest impact on us and people in general when the movies were released. There was a pretty obvious clump of nine very strong titles that we decided to feature as the core of the series, though we are running several smaller films as well to complement the blockbusters. Vice Squad was a smaller production but it's every bit as powerful as Conan the Barbarian, and hopefully people will come to see stuff like that and Class of 1984 where they might not have tried them otherwise. Moviegoers can always stand to be a little more adventurous.

For a number of film geeks, there seems to be an obvious omission from your schedule: Ridley Scott's Bladerunner. Why did you decide not to run it?
The truth is, we didn't decide that at all and we're still trying like hell to get it. We love the film and we're powering through every possible hurdle to get that show included. For the past couple years, Bladerunner has been mired in a bunch of legal garbage and some of the rights holders have so far refused to let it screen anywhere outside of L.A. and New York. It's a bizarre and unfair situation that we're combatting to the death. Don't count us out until the battle is over.

Fair enough. Beyond Bladerunner, what other movies would you like to have shown but decided not to?
We got everything else. The only exceptions to the lineup were personal favorites like The Last American Virgin, and those were only excluded because they'd run very recently at the theater in our other ongoing 35mm series anyway. Bladerunner is really the final challenge.

(Columnist's note: at this point, I'd be willing to make some sacrifice to the Elder Gods to make that happen.)

After the retrospective's initial announcement, you announced a number of lesser-known titles. Was this because of audience response to the programming?
No. It was really because we feel that the entire summer of 1982 was a great time for movies, beyond just heavyweight titles like ET and Tron. We feel that a movie like Escape 2000 was truly entertaining 1982 filmmaking even if it didn't annihilate the box office, so why not include it in our celebration? Ignoring smaller 1982 films would be like having a high school reunion and only inviting the most popular students. That sounds like a truly crappy party.

You're running film as opposed to digital versions of these movies. How difficult was it to obtain prints?
Playing these on 35mm film was a must, and the reason for that goes way beyond nostalgia. Any seasoned projectionist (Columnist's note: I was one in college) and/or true movie fan will tell you that a good 35mm print screened properly is still by far the clearest and best image you can get, and is way beyond the capabilities of the most advanced current digital projection. The only reason things have gone in the digital direction is because it's ultimately cheaper for the studios, so they've hyped it as an advance when it's really the opposite. We didn't want that industry fib to be part of this series.

Some studios have taken that to an illogical extreme and are hesitant to loan out their 35mm at all, which is a damn tragedy. But luckily, even the difficult ones seemed to fully understand the spirit of this series, and we were surprised at how quick and easy the bookings went through. The greatest triumph was with ET, which you may remember was re-released in 2002 with a bunch of digital crap thrown in that suddenly turned FBI agents' guns into flashlights and made ET himself look like Jar Jar Binks. That CGI-mangled version has been the only one available from the studios since then, and that was obviously not an option for these shows. It would've been heartbreaking. But, through a little persistence and reasoning, we were able to get the studio to loan us their archive 35mm print of the original, non-compromised ET. Whew.

What movie of the initial eight has received the most interest from patrons?
It's truly hard to say. I mean, it really seems that many individual titles have their own base of die-hard crusaders. There was a massive amount of electricity at the Conan show, which kicked off the series. But the next week was the giant Road Warrior show, where many fans showed up sporting full post-apocalyptic battle gear. Wrath of Khan is getting a whole bunch of attention too, and I have no doubt that The Thing is going to be similar. I can tell you this: when -- not if! -- Bladerunner comes through, it's going to be incredible.

Of the initial eight, what is your favorite movie in the retrospective?
Oh. Road Warrior. Of course. I mean, come on.

Copyright © 2012 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.


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