The Music Box Theatre in Chicago is my favorite movie theater in the world. The theater and building itself has a storied history. The architecture and facades are stunning complete with aesthetic imperfections that give the theater life and character. The seats are notoriously uncomfortable, but the screenings they hold are so captivating that you hardly notice your discomfort. Best of all, it is within walking distance of my apartment. It made not be perfect, but it means a lot to me.
The Music Box Theatre first opened on August 22, 1929 and only contained 800 theatres. Keeping with the tradition of sheer opulence of that time, the theater was designed with a dark blue ceiling, twinkling stars, and clouds to simulate a night sky. And Italian courtyard façade surrounds you and puts the film patron that they are watching a work of art in an open-air Tuscan palazzo.
Unlike other film theaters at the time which included stages and orchestra pits so the facility can be used for various types of performances, the Music Box Theatre was strictly a movie house. When the Music Box Theatre came along, films weren’t exactly new but they a developing art form. Talkies were becoming more common and the equipment to not only make, but project film, rapidly changed. Nevertheless, despite the advancements in film technology and technique, the Music Box Theatre continued to maintain its Italianesque charm.
From 1977 through 1983, the theatre underwent a restoration and played sporadic foreign language in porno films. It was in 1983, however, that the theater started becoming the Chicago cultural icon it is today. The Music Box Theatre, that year, became a repertory film house that revived the double feature format. Over the years, foreign films were reintroduced and cult films were added soon after. A second theater was added in 1991. And other than the IMAX at Navy Pier, it is the only theater to screen actual 70 mm film. Playing over 300 films a year, the Music Box Theatre has continued being a haven for independent and foreign films since 1983. Having continued that tradition, the Music Box Theatre remains for me not only the best theater in Chicago, but the best theater in the world.
I have seen countless films and events at the Music Box Theatre. Not only do they get exclusive screenings to various foreign and independent films, but they hold a variety of special events all year round. They do annual sing-a-long events (The Sound of Music for Thanksgiving and Casablanca for Valentine’s Day), an annual 70 mm film festival (the best way to see 2001: A Space Odyssey), silent film matinees with a live organist (seeing Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! In that setting was breathtaking), and their annual Music Box of Horrors (24 hours of gore and mayhem). However, above all the different events the Music Box Theatre does, nothing gets me more excited than their weekend midnight movie series.
Their midnight movie series is a treasured tradition for me. Every weekend, on Friday and Saturday, the theater screens one movie in each of their theaters. Sometimes I’m in the smaller room, but the main attraction for me is usually in the larger theater. In their midnight movie series, they play the most esoteric, twisted, and obscure films of their repertoire. I love this tradition so much and I have seen dozens of midnight movies. From X-rated animated cartoons such as Fritz the Cat to bloody Italian animal films such as Wild Beasts and from 1990s techno-dystopia sci-fi like Hardware to an actual 1970s pornographic film such as 3 AM, the cult movies that make up the theater’s midnight movie tradition are a unique experience.
This past weekend, I went to a midnight movie screening with some friends to see a rare screening of a film that was described as a self-absorbed passion project a la Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The film was from 1976 and called The Astrologer. I didn’t know anything about this movie other than it was really obscure. It played a couple of times at some drive-in theaters and aired once on television in 1980 as the CBS late movie. It is only through these midnight screenings that the film has lived for as long as it has.
To say this was the most ridiculous movie I’ve ever seen is an understatement. Craig Denney directed and starred in his passion project about a circus psychic conman who learns that his abilities are real and uses them to fulfill his own wants and desires. For 96 minutes, the viewers are subjected to ridiculous acting, nonsensical sequences, and loads of questionable decisions that are void of cohesive storytelling and narrative technique.
This is a film where the whole theater is laughing throughout because it takes itself so seriously but is executed in ridiculous fashions. Some scenes last only a few seconds. Characters are introduced and appear integral to the story with no context of they are. Dialogue is strange and confusing. The acting is just terrible. And, the cherry on this self-absorbed cinematic sundae, the film ends with a Shakespeare quote from King Lear that screams pompous and contrived on a level one only really sees in student films. Quite simply, this is a remarkable work of art that deserves to be seen. Tommy Wiseau’s The Room¸ which is popularly considered the worst film of tall time (undeservedly so), makes more sense and is more structured than Craig Denney’s The Astrologer.
Besides the absolute ridiculousness of the film, that isn’t the only reason why The Astrologer isn’t as widely known. Denney had used music from the Moody Blues that wasn’t clears for the rights of usage. In one scene, the entirety of “Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon)” is used. In the scene, Denney’s character is sailing from Africa back to the United States on a chartered vessel. Pages from a calendar are superimposed over footage of Denney’s character walking around the boat and drinking beer with pages falling from the calendar to signify the passage of time. According to the film, he was sailing for three months from October through December and entirely shirtless sitting on the bow of the ship with the setting sun casting his image in silhouette as Justin Hayward sings. Pure fucking poetry.
“Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon)” was released nine years prior to the film’s production, in 1967, on the Moody Blues’ studio release Days of Future Passed. According to Justin Hayward, the song chronicles the passing of a typical day and was written in a field near his home on a beautiful spring afternoon. The track ends with an orchestral rendition of the chorus performed by the London Festival Orchestra and bridges parts one and two on the album version of the song. As ridiculous as The Astrologer is, the song fit perfectly well with that montage sequence and did have some amazing shots considering the film’s modest budget.
As I mentioned, midnight movies are a ballgame all its own. So, to cap this week’s blog entry, here’s a story. Most of the films I see there at midnight are ridiculous in their own right, but not on the same level as The Astrologer. For the most part, you’re watching the movie. Sure, you may laugh and make a quick joke to your buddy. Otherwise, its typical movie theater silence.
My buddies and I were unprepared for how terrible and laughable this movie was. We laughed like everyone else was, but we also provided our own running commentary quietly amongst ourselves. Imagine something like Mystery Science Theater 3000, but limited to us. And this isn’t uncommon depending on the film. Go see Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in a theater and you can’t hear a damn thing.
Well, I guess some people take movies so seriously that they had every intention to view The Astrologer as focused as possible. Granted, this was a rare screening of an even rarer film. But still, film is stupid and ridiculous. After the movie, some guy two or three rows ahead got up and asked us “Did you even SEE the movie?” We told we did, but we were making jokes quietly to ourselves. He said, “You guys aren’t funny enough for that.” We laughed and walked away kidding around suggesting that was probably someone related the director or whatever. This movie was made with such serious intensity, but is hilarious. And it is even more hilarious that someone came into this screening to watch with the same serious intensity as the director.
Midnight movies aren’t meant to be taken seriously. That’s why they are midnight movies. They are hand-picked for this cult status which is attained through a combination of aesthetic and technical attributes that is so fringe its funny. It is my favorite Music Box Theatre tradition and will remain so no matter what some pompous killjoy thinks.