Old Movie Camp

girl“So what did you do this month?” my aunt asked me on the penultimate day of August.

I thought long and hard about my answer. I could say I worked, which I did for a week on a freelance project (summertime is usually quiet work-wise, so that was a nice surprise). I could say I wrote, which I do every day (you’re welcome). Or I could say went to the beach, which I did once last month and enjoyed, until I dropped my iPhone in the ocean.

(Editor’s Note: I didn’t really drop it, I left it in the pocket of my bathing suit when I took my two-year-old niece swimming. Then, for some reason, it stopped working. And the Apple Store refused to give me a new one, despite my efforts to frame my niece for the crime.)

But I didn’t say any of those things. Instead, I gave my aunt a totally honest answer.

“I saw movies,” I said. “I saw a lot of movies.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” she replied. “How many?”

“Forty,” I said matter-of-factly. “I saw 40 movies in August, all in theaters. And all of them were at least 20 years old.”

If this were a scene on The Danny Thomas Show, it undoubtedly would have involved a spit-take. Had it been in a movie trailer, it would have been the “Record Scratch Moment.”  But this was real life, and my aunt is far too nice to register what I imagine was abject shock.

Look, I’m not one of those people who does strange things and doesn’t realize those things are strange. I fully acknowledge that this is not the behavior of a well-balanced adult with a diverse collection of interests and an active social life. But I’ve never claimed to be – nor aspired to be – any of those things, and anyone who’s spent more than two hours in my presence will agree that I’ve achieved my goals.

1940's mens knit fashion, Bestway, pulloverMy aunt has known me for almost 44 years. She knows I used to wake up at 3 a.m. to watch Marx Bros. movies on The Late Late Show when I was 11. She knows I spent most of my high school years dressing in sweater vests and pleated wool pants to emulate the style of 1940s movie actors. She even helped me decorate our garage for a classic film-themed Halloween party when I was a freshman in high school, complete with cardboard cutouts of Bela Lugosi. My point is, she’s aware that I’m not normal, and she has generally been supportive of that for the better part of four decades. But still, she seemed surprised.

Why?” was her only response.

“Why not?” was mine.

For most people, moviegoing is something you do on a date, or with your spouse or friends on a weekend night. Seeing 40 movies in one month by yourself is the kind of thing that can earn you an involuntary psychiatric hold. And I’m pretty sure my aunt hasn’t gone to see 40 movies in the last 40 years. But it’s different for classic film fans in New York City, where, on any given day last month, there were no fewer than three – and sometimes four, five or even six – repertory screenings that would otherwise be must-see.

There was the 64-film Summer Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction at Film Forum, which earned the lion’s share of my discretionary dollars; the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Fasten Your Seatbelts: 20th Century Fox, a 16-movie salute to the legendary studio; the Film Comment Selects tribute to director Hal Ashby, also at FSLC;  A Time For Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and weekend classics at IFC Center in Manhattan, Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. And I didn’t even make it to the outdoor screenings at Bryant, Tompkins Square, and Brooklyn Bridge parks, or to MoMA, Anthology Film Archives, and any number of other specialty venues that jam-packed their schedules last month with fun, creative programming. Even with 40 notches on my cinematic belt, I still missed the majority of the Great Repertory Film Avalanche of August, 2013.

1937camppostcardThe conversation then turned to the amount of money I had spent on this unusual hobby.

“I’m a member at all the theaters that show old movies, so I get a discount,” I said. “And a bunch of the screenings were single-admission double features, which costs me less per-movie than I used to pay at Blockbuster Video.”

And then I realized I was defending my behavior, even though my aunt didn’t ask me to. And neither did you, but just hear me out: let’s say I paid $10 per movie (which is more than I actually paid, but we’ll factor in popcorn), my total cost for 40 movies would be $400. Let’s also say each movie was two hours (most were shorter, a few were longer, so it evens out). That means I spent roughly 80 hours at the movies in August, or the equivalent of two workweeks.

If someone told you they went on vacation for two weeks in August and only spent $400 on the trip you’d probably congratulate them. But what about those of us who hate taking vacations? What are we supposed to do? I get anxious when I do nothing, particularly if that inactivity takes place off the island of Manhattan. Going to the movies is my version of a vacation, and I spent two weeks doing just that last month – to the tune of about $5 per hour. Doesn’t seem so crazy anymore, does it? (Okay, maybe it does. But whatever.)

Plus, I spent $200 to replace the iPhone my niece ruined in the ocean (I have to stick to that story in case the guy from the Apple Store is reading this). That’s half as much as I spent on an entire month’s worth of classic movies – for one day at the beach. (And I got a sunburn on my scalp.)

1930scamptoonspostcards3While others were wasting their time in hammocks (or various other “relaxation” contraptions), I was attending screenings of everything from D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERENCE (1916) to Ed Wood’s PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959). Of the 40 films I saw in August, more than half were entirely new to me, and I saw them for the first time in a theater. The other titles were old favorites I got a chance to revisit on the big screen with enthusiastic audiences. The majority (22) of the films were screened in 35 mm, which is almost unheard of in these days of digital ubiquity. Eighteen of the films had undergone some restoration and were screened in pristine DCP. Of the three silent films I saw, two had live musical accompaniment and a third (INTOLERANCE) featured an appearance by Carl Davis, the composer of the score. My August was like a month at Old Movie Camp, without all the bugs (except for the giant ones in ‘50s sci-fi flicks). Film Forum even had a campfire-style singalong at the end of MOTHRA. If only they had added S’mores to the concession stand menu.

I’ve always been a movie fan, but I’m on a mission to be more than that. I want to see as many films as I can, learn about them, write about them and interact with other people who feel the same way. Are some of those people weird? Yes. But so am I. And even though she only came to one screening with me last month (THE TINGLER in Percepto! at Film Forum), my girlfriend was waiting for me every night when I got home from the movies, usually with TCM on. All things considered, I think it was a pretty good way to spend a month.

After we had gotten done talking about me, I asked my aunt what she and my uncle had been up to in August.

“We took a two-week bus tour of Arizona and New Mexico,” she said. “And we watched Little Rascals videos on the bus. You would have loved it.”

Except for the “two-week bus tour of Arizona and New Mexico” part, she was totally right. And I bet she spent a lot more than $400.



INTOLERANCE (1916) at Film Forum (DCP)
w/ composer Carl Davis

IT (1927) at Nitehawk Cinema (“Digital,” actually DVD)
w/ live accompaniment by Mary Alouette and the djangOrchestra
Read my screening report here

THE UNKNOWN (1927) at Film Forum (35mm)
w/ live accompaniment by Steve Sterner

JUST IMAGINE (1930) at Film Forum (35mm)

THINGS TO COME (1936) at Film Forum (DCP)

THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (DCP)

LAURA (1944) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (DCP)

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (35mm)


SPOOKS (1954 – two-reel short) at Film Forum (35mm)
in double system (two-projector) 3-D

THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954) at Film Forum (DCP)
in Digital 3-D

GODZILLA (1954) at Film Forum (35mm)
Original Japanese language version

ANASTASIA (1956) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (DCP)

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) at Film Forum (35mm)

THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (DCP)

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) at Film Forum (35mm)

THE TINGLER (1959) at Film Forum (DCP)
In Percepto! and Psychedel-o-rama!

THE TINGLER (1959) at Film Forum (DCP)
Again, with my girlfriend!

PSYCHO (1960) at Film Forum (DCP)

HOMICIDAL (1961) at Film Forum (DCP)
w/ a “Fright Break” and “Coward’s Corner”

MOTHRA (1961) at Film Forum (DCP)
Original Japanese language version

HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (35mm)

Original European cut

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (DCP)

THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (35mm)

PLANET OF THE APES (1968) at Film Forum (DCP)

THE LEARNING TREE (1969) at BAM (35mm)
Presented by the Warner Archive Collection

BREWSTER MCCLOUD (1970) at IFC Center (35mm)
w/ guest David Gordon Green, director of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS

SUPER FLY (1971) at Museum of the Moving Image (35mm)
40th Anniversary Screening (read my screening report here)

THE ABOMINIBLE DR. PHIBES (1971) at Film Forum (35mm)

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (DCP)

THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (DCP)
w/ director Jerry Schatzberg

BLACULA (1972) at Film Forum (35mm)

DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY (1974) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (35mm)

SHAMPOO (1975) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (35mm)
w/ Gavin Smith, Editor, Film Comment

BOUND FOR GLORY (1976) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (35mm)
w/ Gavin Smith, Editor, Film Comment

3 WOMEN (1977) at Film Society of Lincoln Center (35mm)
w/ composer Gerald Busby

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) at Film Forum (35mm)

SWAMP THING (1982) at Film Forum (35mm)

BODY SNATCHERS (1993) at Film Forum (35mm)
w/ director Abel Ferrera

About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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33 Responses to Old Movie Camp

  1. Man, I’m almost glad I don’t live in NYC. I’d be doing this, too! Great write-up.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Joel. Honestly, August almost broke me. Every day was like a mini TCM Film Festival. I wish the repertory venues would coordinate their activities so they don’t end up killing me. But that would probably break anti-trust laws.

  2. First of all, this post made me giggle at least five times. Thanks for that 😉 My cousin did something similar with his iPhone – he jumped into his pool with the phone still in his pocket. He realized it right away and climbed out of the water in a panic. Turns out one of his friends told him to bury the iPhone in a tupperware container full of dry rice (the rice absorbs all of the water) for a few hours and I believe it worked fine the next day.

    I relate to you and your love of classic Hollywood A LOT. My eyes lit up when you mentioned that party you threw with the cut outs of Bela Lugosi 😀 I would have done the same thing and when I was younger, everyone kept telling me how weird I was because I loved old movies. What’s weird about that? I never understood it.

    I also prefer seeing movies by myself (both at home and at theatres). And, again, people will tell me I’m weird for doing so, but I find the whole process so peaceful when I’m on my own. I don’t *like* having chatty friends sitting next to me. I like being able to focus solely on the film and nothing else.

    Thanks for this Will — it was a great read!

  3. Rich says:

    I’m kinda surprised you never made it to any outdoor movies. To me, that’s my idea of old movie camp.

    • willmckinley says:

      I really do not like outdoor screenings. I find that the technical presentation is often severely lacking – they’re projecting from a DVD or Blu-ray (instead of 35 or DCP), the projector isn’t bright enough, there’s too much ambient light spilling on the screen, etc. I’m also extremely prone to distraction, which is why I usually sit up near the front of the auditorium whenever I go to the movies. I find that being outside with a million things going on totally takes me out of the experience.

      • Rich says:

        I find that the bigger the outdoor crowd, the greater the level of distractions. So while Bryant Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park can be distracting as hell, I’ve been to smaller screenings in Red Hook and Tompkins Square Park (among other places) where it’s less of a problem. For me, anyway.

  4. Sarah says:

    What a read. WHAT A READ!!!

  5. Lovely essay about what you did during your summer vacation! Movie camp! Movie camp! 🙂

  6. Jennifer says:

    Rub it in, why don’t you? I only saw 28 films in August, none of them in theaters. My defense is that I have a kid to parent and don’t live anywhere near a theater that shows old movies. You really ought to give Arizona a chance, LOL – they do have Old Tucson Studios, the Rex Allen Museum, and the Femmes Fatales and Fantasies gallery in Scottsdale.

    An entertaining read, as always, Will!

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Jennifer. No knock on Arizona. I would love to go on a tour of classic film related vacation destinations. Maybe that should be your next book? BEYOND CASABLANCA 3: CLASSIC MOVIES ON THE ROAD.

  7. nckersey says:

    A fun read. I wish I had known you well when you were a freshman in high school as I would have liked to have attended your halloween party! As you know, I do have diverse interests but I admire someone who can focus on one key interest that provides so many ancillary interests. Seems a lot easier to keep up with or something. Glad you enjoyed August.

  8. avmckee says:

    Great post! No offense to anyone, but for me, a movie theater is like my church; it can be peaceful, calming, thought-provoking, and spiritual. I always say that when I die, I want to be cremated, have my ashes put in a popcorn box, and spread throughout the theater!

  9. Kim Britt says:

    There SHOULD be an old movie camp for those of us who catch the old movie bug as kids and never again quite fit in with the rest. While you were emulating Andy Hardy in your attire I was putting my hair up in spit curls or shoving it into snoods a la Ann Sheridan. I would have killed for such a place as kid… A campy camp, what fun!

  10. Danny says:

    They showed Just Imagine on the big screen? That would have been something to see! Well, except El Brendel. Y’know.

    Anyway, you forgot the last line of the piece: “Anyway, you’ll never find my aunt’s body, and, if you need me, I’ll be at the movies.”

  11. Laura says:

    This was just great, Will. I love to travel but my other favorite way to vacation is watching movies — I spent most of Labor Day weekend watching as many as I could, though at home. But I’m heading up to the 3-D Festival in L.A. next week! 🙂

    Thanks for such an enjoyable read and sharing info on all the wonderful opportunities you’ve had for movie watching in NYC. Your list is impressive!

    Best wishes,

  12. hilisie says:

    Now for this level of movie viewing stamina do you require extra butter on your popcorn for protein? I don’t know how you do it man???

  13. LOOK at all those fabulous movies! What a wonderful way to spend an August.

  14. ccoleman3 says:

    Great post. A lot of excellent movie ground covered, decades and genres spanned. Sweet! Happy viewings for September!

  15. kelleepratt says:

    LOVE this, Will. Hilarious. It’s like the “12 Steps for Old Movie Weirdos” except none of us wants an intervention. (“Hi. My name is Will. I’ve seen 40 films this month…”) The Big Apple is clearly your enabler- you lucky bastard. I say, keep it going! (says the fellow addict.)

  16. kelleepratt says:

    Reblogged this on Outspoken and Freckled and commented:

  17. Vienna says:

    Great post! I only see the classics on DVD at home – always going to be second best to the big screen. You are SO lucky in NY. And no real TCM over here.
    By the way, why do Americans go to the ‘theater’ and not mean a stage performance? Here in the UK, it’s the cinema . I guess when movies started, the phrase Movie Theater came into use.

    Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Vienna. There’s no old movie channel on satellite in Europe? I would think that there would be. As for terminology, I’ve never heard an American use the term “cinema” when describing a place to see movies. But I have no idea why.

  18. Pingback: Half-Time at “The Complete Howard Hawks” | cinematically insane

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