Losing (and Finding) It at the Movies
I’d like to take a moment to reflect upon the fine art of riposte au cinema, or talking back to the movies. It’s one of those pursuits, like driving and sex, that most people attempt to do but few actually do well. It is not to be confused with talking at the movie (like when the audience is screaming at Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around before the killer shish-kebobs her), talking about the movie (“Woody Allen was so much better during his Bergman phase, such weltshauung”), or talking throughout the movie (which is just plain rude). Rather it’s that great synergy that only happens when you gather together a group of good friends with sharp wits and killer timing to riff on films that, even in the best of them, are often unintentionally hilarious. It takes brains, chemistry, and a true love of the movies to pull it off, but in the end there are few bonds as pure and strong as those between wiseasses in a darkened room.
Therefore I’m pleased as all get out to have discovered Dennis Hensley’s Screening Party, a chronicle of the lives of six remarkable people and the movies they mouthed off at.
Imagine a cross between Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Friends, but without the robots, then scratch that because it’d just be Lisa Kudrow talking to herself, and imagine something better. For a series of articles for British Premiere magazine, Hensley put together a floating monthly movie party consisting of himself; his roommate Tony, a singer in all-male musical revues; their friend Marcus, a former attorney who became an AIDS activist after testing HIV-positive; Lauren, an Irish-Chinese fitness instructor struggling to break into standup comedy; Ross, a local video-store clerk; and the upstairs neighbor, Dr. Beverly Beaverman, a fortysomething psychologist with a murky past, a degree from the Internet, and a habit of referring to herself as “Dr. Beaverman.”
At each party Marcus bakes movie-themed goodies (severed-limb shaped Rice Krispie treats for Jaws, Sharon Stone devil’s-food cupcakes with miniature icepicks and red-icing labia for Basic Instinct), Ross brings his encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia, Dr. Beaverman brings her strict Freudian analyses, and everyone comes armed with quick and acerbic commentary on the movies as Hensley tape-records every moment:
During the refrigerator scene in 9 1/2 Weeks: “I bet I know what she’d do for a Klondike bar. But where the hell are you gonna find a goat in Manhattan?” (Tony) During the Goldfinger segment of the James Bond marathon: “I don’t get how a hat decapitates someone, even if the brim is a blade. It seems like the top of the hat would keep the blade from going all the way through.” (Dennis) “Dennis, in a few movies you’ve got Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. I suggest you start suspending your disbelief now.” (Ross) On Al Pacino’s truly unfortunate attempt to dance in Cruising: “He’s going to blow his cover. Everyone’s going to be like ‘Cop!’” (Marcus) “Even the guy getting fisted is like, ‘Damn, that guy can’t dance.’” (Dennis)
While it may seem like the idea of writing about people watching movies is like, to use Elvis Costello’s phrase, dancing about architecture, Hensley keeps things moving with a talent for synopsis that I’d kill to possess and by selecting movies that are seared into the collective minds of most Westerners—Saturday Night Fever, James Bond pictures, Pretty Woman, The Bodyguard, Taxi Driver, and a field trip to see Mariah Carey’s Glitter, with Tyra Banks in the audience. Love these movies or hate them, and this gang is about evenly divided throughout, Hensley’s bunch picks them apart with laserlike accuracy. At the end of Flashdance, after Jennifer Beals’ character has her happy ending thanks to Michael Nouri’s string-pulling, Dr. Beaverman snaps, “So, in other words, it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman yto get a leg up, so to speak, by using a man.
In fact, it’s encouraged. The message is, for a girl to be Rocky, she needs a man. And I do not approve. Dr. Beaverman does not approve.” I adore Dr. Beaverman. But Screening Party is not just about picking on the movies. Throughout the book Hensley maintains a running metanarrative about the six partygoers themselves that is warm, often sad, and always engaging.
We follow Lauren’s up-and-down relationship with her boyfriend Barry and her first nervous stabs at standup. Ross makes a Z-budget movie (when he needs an actress to play a stern, frightening principal, Dr. Beaverman steps up to the plate) and deals with the discovery of his mother’s breast cancer. Tony struggles to find work, including six hellish weeks as the personal assistant for an unnamed volatile TV star.
Dennis works through a frustrating relationship with Shawn, a beautiful but flighty dancer in the road company of Saturday Night Fever: The Musical. Throughout it all, the members of the Screening Party help each other through their trials with love and humor. It’s kind of like MTV’s Real World, except, you know, real. Such is the true and oft-unexplored power of the movies. More than just overpriced eye-candy or a good venue for making out or even the repository of dreams, the movies are perhaps the closest thing we have to a universal collective experience, a bridge that connects us no matter how diverse we may otherwise be.
When I picked up Screening Party, I was in a deep existential funk, between personal crises and the purely depressing content of the last few books I had read for review—books about the baseball strike, the impact of 9/11, the Kobe earthquake, and a private-eye novel about killers who use spiders and flay people alive; I’m amazed people even talk to me—and now I feel better. After inviting me in with the shared language of movies, Hensley’s book made me laugh out loud and really feel for the “characters,” and any book that can turn my day around like that is a definite keeper. Hensley asks for his readers to share their own Screening Party stories, and while I have many, I would probably only send a request: please, someday, have the Party do The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. That would be a book in itself.