Monday, July 18, 2016

The Late-Hour Comforts of the Movie Loft

Activists aren't born that way.  There has to be some traumatic event that they spend the rest of their lives pursuing to avenge.

Way back when I first settled into a new apartment--sweet liberty with a rent check, the man-and-his-castle away from the dorms--and had that new improvised home-theater den, I found myself lured by that question...The one that just about everyone asked when they got their first place, their own TV to go with it, and were now their own parents to dictate their own bedtimes:  Great, can I stay up and watch late-night TV now?
The forbidden-fruit temptation we were told as school-night kids through the 70's and early birth-of-cable 80's was that rare movies and classic reruns, like elves, only showed during that magic time after the late-night talk hosts, when everyone else slept, and if you set your VCR, you could maybe catch one.  Grownups, who of course got to stay up all night, knew about them, but being grownups, either didn't think it was important, or kept it to themselves as one of their grownup-secrets.

The change to a new world without bedtimes never hit us until we got out of the college dorms and into our new solo places.
And then--after we got that new flatscreen that was going to change our apartment life forever--we lonely single guys set ourselves in the recliner, readied the remote, Coke Zero and microwave popcorn, surfed the channels and  World and national news.  News ALL night, on every network affiliate.  Straightforward important news on the CBS affiliates, and funny quirky news on the ABC affiliates, where the hosts and set crew were all chummy, laughed at the headlines and at each other's jokes.  And the independent UHF stations, which were now affiliates of Fox and CW, were showing infomercials, if they didn't have Seinfeld reruns to fill the void.  (Reruns from before 1994 had long since vanished off of free television.)  A few years earlier, before NBC jumped onto all-night news for its affiliates, we would have been able to watch antisocial-looking cowboy-hatted gamblers staring at their cards, for all-night championship sessions of Texas Hold-Em Poker that lasted until the 5am morning-affiliate news--We didn't know whether it was just one game, or a championship, whether they were just looping episodes at random, or whether they just didn't have homes or lives to go back to.

I knew something, whether it was progress or television, had forever betrayed my childhood:  What was the point of becoming a grownup if there was now no longer anything worth staying up past your bedtime for?
Growing up in the 70's, if you wanted to describe something Humphrey Bogart would do, you didn't talk about "old movies" or "classic" movies, you talked about "the Late Show" movies.  Because that was all they were--Pop-overexposed oddities from another time, that kept corny traditions of gangsters, cowboys, detectives, and bathing beauties diving into swimming pools alive as a cultural mythology, and that TV stations showed as an excuse to let local businesses pay the station bills, for lack of anything else to show at that hour.  And now that the VCR and Turner Classic Movies culture had hit in the late 80's, and these "silly" movies, once the stuff of Carol Burnett Show parodies, all had names, reputations and classic moments for us to take a second look at, there was no more need for stations to treat them as useless filler anymore.
When I started a blog, the first simple question I wanted to ask was "Hey, where'd they go?"  And I soon found the question was one it would take a year's worth of columns to answer.

Way back before TCM gentrified the old classic movie onto tier-cable channels and took it out of the hands of the common man, every city once made a deal out of their time-filling movies--It was the station's identity.
Those in the NYC/New Jersey area, on Sunday afternoons, prime time and late nights, would hear the Max Steiner strains of Tara's Theme, as WOR-9 would present the Million Dollar Movie.

And in Boston, there was the happy, comfortable theme and cozy cluttered hobby-den sets of the Movie Loft.

There were actually two Movie Lofts in 80's Boston, both hosted by local-celebrity Dana Hersey, back when local programming still created local celebrities.  WSBK-38, as the local UHF Red Sox station, hosted recent popular 70's/80's movies at during the 8pm prime time--While WCVB-5, as the ABC network affiliate, used its library of 30's-40's movies as late-weeknight pre-signoff filler, and would be more the place to find Ronald Colman in Random Harvest or Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.  
The movie host was the important part for any station, since most of us at that time in history just didn't know one old movie from another--Hersey, like TCM's Robert Osborne or Ben Mankewicz, was there to put a movie into context, and sell us on why it was unique enough or historical enough to spend two hours with.  Like the Mary Tyler Moore Show world of homemade stations putting on their own show, stations might have the local film critic moonlighting on movie-night introductions, or, like Hersey, just the station's voiceover announcer with a face, to give us that cool, comforting introduction to the alien world of Your Parents' Movies.  
Either way, it made old movies more democratic:  You weren't watching black-and-white late at night just because you might have been an insomniac or had no social life, you were watching because a few isolated people at the same dislocated hour had found that these things were actually pretty good, and now sought them out.  And to watch the station's announcer in a comfy turtleneck express some genuine enthusiasm about the hidden appeal of tonight's John Wayne western or Susan Hayward romance suggested that he had personally been converted in his moonlighting station-job along with the rest of us.  It can happen to anyone, and those of us who'd caught the disease knew how.

Of course, maybe nostalgia's making it better than it is.
It used to be the iconic image of the Lonely Single Guy, to be clicking channels in the late hours finding nothing but news and infomercials, because the mating females had passed us by in the herd.  But that was usually because there was nothing to find.
Local TV stations didn't have a higher purpose in airing movies, they just had to fill time or sign off early.  Most were used as an excuse for local businesses to buy time, if the more valuable 6pm news slot was too expensive--And to the 70's, the cliche'd joke image of the Late Show also translated as "Crazy local used-car salesmen making desperate fools of themselves"  Most fans raged at scenes cut or time condensed to give more time to the used-car hucksters, but that was a world before movies were preserved on disk, and it was less easy to shrug the tradeoff of "Whaddya want for free?"
But what late-nite local movies did do was UNITE the lonely people--the single guys, the desperate businessmen, the all-night firemen and ambulance drivers--in that time when the rest of the world was shut down, and give them some part-time dream to share the next morning.  If being up at 1 or 2am meant you could see Bogart or Cagney display the male image of the 30's or 40's, it was a sort of secret cult of those looking for enlightenment and searching through rare books to find it.  Like the Edward Hopper painting, it was an all-night cuppa joe and a story.

We don't have late-night movies anymore.  Movies are far too valuable corporate property to go selling to little stations, and most stations have long since abandoned local programming that doesn't make their news division look more competitive.  (WSBK-38, after being absorbed and orphaned by UPN, later brought their Movie Loft brand back in the 00's as a guy-manchild slob joke, with two slacker hosts introducing Adam Sandler "guy movies" from 90's Paramount, now that that was the reigning misandric/self-loathing joke about guys on couches with their loyal remotes.)
Late-night movie viewers are pretty much left to themselves to recreate those days from scratch.  We do, however, still have the three key ingredients:  We have couches and sets.  We have movies (on disk).  And we have nighttimes.

Whether it comes on disk, on cable or on streaming (if you can find it), a vintage black-and-white classic makes more sense after midnight.  The world isn't in Technicolor during the single-digit hours, that's something bright and happy and lit by sunlight.  Most people think their dreams are in black-and-white, or maybe they just remember them that way.
It's a bedtime story for those too old for Goodnight Moon, and for those no longer with anyone to tell them.  After the real world has gone to bed, like good responsible morning-people do, it's time for the Unreal world to spin some stories that are just a little larger than life, when you're in the right mood not to question it.

Don't believe me?  Try the experiment for yourself:  
Take the first 30's, 40's or 50's vintage movie off the library shelf that piques your fancy, and save it for midnight.  If you have a significant other, let them share it, and if you have kids, save it for that Magic Hour after bedtime...See if there isn't that extra bit of intimate emotional connection with the movie when the rest of the world isn't around to make its demands on your daily grownup life.
It may end up being just a little bit better.

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