Movie theater programmers aren’t just tastemakers, they’re leading the fight to preserve our cinematic heritage. Daily Grindhouse honors these unsung heroes of cinema with the series KNOW YOUR PROGRAMMER, where we talk to staff members at some of North America’s most celebrated theaters and film festivals about their time in the exhibition trenches. This week we kick things off (no pun intended) by interviewing Dan Halsted, head programmer at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and founder of the 35mm Shaolin Archive:
KATIE: I think that the Hollywood is one of the coolest theaters out there, because you guys have all of these great series– there’s the Grindhouse Film Festival, and Kung Fu Theater, and you’ve got the Polyester Pulp series going on…
DAN: Yeah, I’m really stoked about that.
K: Did you put that together?
D: Yeah, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I was finally able to get all the prints necessary to put it together. The first movie [was] CHARLEY VARRICK, which is one of my favorite movies of all time.
K: Well, it says on your site, and it’s true– the film noir revival of the ‘70s is kind of obscure now. People don’t really remember [it] very well, except for, like, CHINATOWN.
D: Exactly. There’s a few mainstream versions I guess, but there were a lot [of movies] that were basically updated film noirs, well-written pulp crime movies. They weren’t on DVD for a long time, now most of them are but for a long time you had to find bootleg VHSes to even watch a lot of them.
K: But you’re showing these movies on 35mm, and you’re a film collector yourself. Did that come before you started working at the theater or did it follow from [being there]?
D: Well, I’ve been a projectionist forever, and then I worked at the Hollywood as the technical director. Portland’s a pretty unique market, because we have tons of independent movie theaters here. [It’s] probably because it rains all the time, so people watch a lot of movies.
So there were already a lot of theaters showing repertory, but no theaters showing what I really like. So I started renting out the theater to do that, and I [quickly] realized that most of the movies I wanted to show didn’t seem to exist on film anymore. The distributors were long gone. Then I found the world of print collectors, and that’s where I could find most of the movies I wanted to show, except for, of course, kung fu movies. What I really wanted to show were kung fu movies, and that’s where it became really hard to find anything. That’s when I went out on my own to try and find and save as many kung fu 35mm prints as I could.
K: Speaking of– I’ve heard this story before, because we brought you to Chicago last year for a kung fu double feature, but can you tell the story of finding the prints at the Shaw Brothers theater? It’s such a good story.
D: There was a guy who was selling some kung fu trailers on ebay, which is pretty rare, and I bought then and they were all in really good condition. They had the heads and tails still spliced on and everything, really good color, just generally really good shape, which you never see. He wouldn’t tell me where he got them, but one of the trailers had a movie ticket inside that said “Shaw Theater” on it. So I did some research, and I found out that there used to be a Shaw theater in Vancouver, BC. I had a theory that the prints probably played there, but I doubted that they ever actually spent the money to ship them back to Hong Kong.
So I got a key to the theater, and I went up to Vancouver, BC with my wife. The theater had been closed since 1985, and it was on Hastings Street, which is legendary because [overall] Vancouver is a really nice city but Hastings Street is like their Skid Row. The whole time we were there, there were people shooting up and smoking rock outside [the theater]…it was amazing how many people were out there.
But anyway, we went inside and there was a stage in front of the screen, We pulled the panel off of the stage, and there was tons of film underneath. Over a thousand reels. They were in total disarray. We had to pull them all out and go through all of them to figure out what was there. We ended up shipping out over 8,000 pounds of film from that theatre.
K: And there were some classics in [that collection]…like the print of MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE we screened, I forget exactly what you said, but there aren’t many prints of that around.
D: Most of the prints [I found] there are the only known 35mm prints, and almost all of them are the only known prints in the Western Hemisphere. There might be some kicking around Asia….
K: Stashed under a stage somewhere.
D: Totally, yeah.
K: That’s so amazing. Now, would you say that kung fu movies are your main area of interest, cinema-wise?
D: It’s definitely my favorite genre of film, and they’re the films I most love showing to audiences. Most people haven’t seen them, and everybody likes showing a movie they love to a friend, and so showing a movie you love to a few hundred people is really exciting. It’s really fun.
I do all the programming at the Hollywood– we show first run movies, and I pick up some second-run stuff, and I do other repertory bookings, like I just did a John Carpenter series. We showed THE THING, and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and those movies are really fun, but most of the people who are coming know [the movies] already. It’s a lot more fun to unleash something on the audience when they don’t really know what they’re getting into.
K: [I find] the whole world of kung fu movies hard to navigate because there’s so many of them. It’s hard to know beforehand which one’s going to be really good and which one’s going to be boring or whatever.
D: Hundreds and hundreds were made, thousands even, from the early ‘70s or late 60s through the mid ‘80s, what you would call the old-school kung fu period. So of course there were hundreds and hundreds of bad movies made. They were a quick moneymaker for producers– just get some Chinese guys together and quickly shoot a movie in Taiwan for no money and pretend that Bruce Lee was somehow associated with the production. So it’s fun for me to do [Kung Fu Theatre], because that way people don’t have to navigate through [the trash].
K: You can guide them.
D: Exactly. And with the Kung Fu Theater and the Grindhouse series, I have a pretty dedicated audience. And I think a lot of that is just an unspoken agreement that we have where you’ve never heard of this movie, but I’m guaranteeing that it’s worth your time and your money to come check it out. And when the audience comes, I get to keep doing it, and it works out for everybody.
K: I wanted to ask you something about the Grindhouse Film Festival, actually. I was reading the Hollywood’s website, and you make a point of saying, “some of these movies are sexist, some are offensive, some are really, really violent…don’t freak out..it’s ok.” What’s that all about?
D: (laughs) That wasn’t there until recently, that was required of me. Last year I showed CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and I really went out of my way to warn everybody [about it]. I put signs on the door saying, “this movie contains scenes of extreme violence and animal cruelty.” I introduced [the movie], and I mentioned it again, and it was in all the emails and everything. I even told the crowd, “I don’t want the angry emails tomorrow, this is your warning, you can go to the box office right now and get your money back” and some guy still complained. So I was like “fine, I’ll put this on the website, I guess.”
K: Well, I feel like you do have to say that sometimes. You have to tell people “look, this was a different era, boundaries were being tested, and sometimes they were tasted in ways you might not find palatable. But that doesn’t make this movie worthless, so just be cool.”
D: Exactly. And CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is an extreme example. Normally, the people who come don’t complain. It’s the people who would never even [show up to a screening] who complain, like, “I don’t like these violent movies.” Which is fine, totally fine. I probably don’t like the kind of movies you like. It’s weird, this feeling that all movies need to cater to someone’s particular taste. That drives me crazy. But there are definitely a lot of people who feel that way.
K: Oh definitely. I did a screening of INTREPIDOS PUNKS here in Chicago, and afterwards people came up to me like, “that movie had a lot of rape scenes in it,” all mad. And I said “well, it’s an exploitation movie, it’s about punks rampaging through the countryside, and they had to put in as much nudity as possible to sell videos and that’s just…kind of…how they worked that all out.” I don’t want to justify [a rape scene] per se, but you gotta let some stuff go. You can’t be hyper-sensitive.
D: What some people don’t seem to understand is a big draw for exploitation movies from that time is that they were dangerous movies. That’s something you don’t really see anymore, but for a while they really did cross lines. And I think that’s a big [part of their] appeal. I say that the Grindhouse series, it’s like a film school where its a study of exploitation movies. I admit that some of the movies go too far, but if you’re going to study those type of movies, you have to show them.
I remember I brought William Lustig to town once, the director of MANIAC, and I was talking to him about how I wanted to show the movie FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. It’s a home invasion film about a Black family, and one of the characters is super racist. So I was telling Lustig, I was like, “I really want to show that movie, but I’m really concerned about playing it for an audience”, and he looked right at me and said, “if you’re going to call it the Grindhouse Film Festival, you have to show that movie. It’s your responsibility. You can’t shy away from that.” So I always go that [when I’m unsure].
K: You’re like, “look, William Lustig told me I could…”
D: Totally, he said I have to [laughs].
K: [laughs] It seems like the ‘70s movies aren’t in vogue at the moment, everybody’s obsessed with VHS right now. Do you think the grindhouse aesthetic is going to come back into vogue, or is it all ‘80s from now on?
D: I don’t really consider myself someone who’s really even up on all that, you know? I just kind of like what I like and I’m lucky to have an audience here in Portland that responds to the things that I like. The ‘70s movies are still playing really strong here…
K: So you don’t really concern yourself with it.
D: Well, there are still tons of movies that [my wife] and I have on VHS, rare movies, so we still watch VHS. But I find the obsession with it a little obnoxious because it’s not a very good format. It’s not like 35mm, where you’re getting a special experience. It seems a little weird to me when people get all nostalgic and act like it was better, when it was never a very good format anyway.
K: Well, I like the idea of snatching movies out of the trash before they’re gone forever. And there are movies that only exist [on VHS] and I think its interesting to look for those, and find the best of those, and bring them to peoples’ attention.
D: That’s a good point, movies that are only on VHS. That’s true.
K: So I think there’s validity in that, but you’re right, it’s not an inherently great format. It looks like shit most of the time.
D: [laughs] It’s funny…there are a lot of kung fu movies that I have on VHS, and then they get remastered on DVD, and I buy the DVD and it’s got great color, and it’s got subtitles, and it looks beautiful or whatever. And I watch it and I feel like something’s missing, [so] I’ll go back and watch the VHS instead. But I think a lot of that is dubbing versus subtitles, which is a whole other thing. A lot of movies I like, I really like them better dubbed.
K; Kung fu movies and spaghetti westerns both, I would say that both of them can be that way…like the original DJANGO’s out on a nice DVD where you can watch it [with] subtitles or dubbed, and it’s a completely different movie [depending on which one you choose]. And you can only imagine some of the kung fu movies, if you could watch them subtitled, how the experience would be different.
D: I believe…I shouldn’t really get into it, but I think that the dubbing in the ‘70s…they did a really good job. They took it really seriously, and there’s some really good performances there and good voice actors. It changed in the ‘80s and got really terrible, so ‘80s Hong Kong movies I’d much rather watch subtitled, John Woo movies and all that stuff. But I totally prefer dubbing in the ‘70s. There are a lot of times when I’ll play a movie and the audience will groan when I tell them that it’s dubbed and I try to get people to embrace it but you’ll never be able to sell [some people] on that.
K: Yeah, I mean there are people who, just as a point of art house pretentiousness, say “Oh, I don’t watch movies that are dubbed.”
D: Yeah I know. Whenever I hear that, I say, “well ,do you like THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY?”
K: Thats a good point! Really good point.
D: Yeah I don’t think they really realize it…
K: There’s a certain type of movie, a grindhouse-type movie you might say, where [dubbing] can add something to it.
D: Right, but that’s hard to explain. I think for people who don’t come to the screenings, I think they think it’s all about making fun of movies or laughing at them or something, which is not what it’s about at all.
D: Sure, parts of it will be funny, and it’s fun, but we’re taking the movie seriously.
K: Do you have people who come and laugh [at the movies]?
D: Not really…well, sometimes. Sometimes there will be people where it’s obvious that it’s their first time there, and the movie will start and they’ll be laughing a lot. Like they think it’s supposed to be funny, so they’re trying really hard to make it funny. A couple times I’ve had to tell people to be quiet, but mostly they figure it out pretty quick.
I did hear, one time I was showing a kung fu movie…there were some people in the lobby there to see a different movie, and I overheard this girl say to her friends, “oh I came and watched a kung fu movie here once , but everybody took it really seriously, so I stopped coming” and I was like “Good.” I think that’s so insensitive. It’s racist, you know?
K: Yeah. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when I try to explain to people the kind of movies I’m into, and they say “oh, I love bad movies”. I take it personally.
D: I try not to let that bother me, because I know that’s what most people think anyway. Some people are always going to say, ”yeah, those are bad movies.” And that doesn’t even make sense to me. I don’t know where that divide happens, where people say “this is a good movie and this is a bad movie”, you know?
Somebody said that when I showed an Argento movie, and I was thinking, you know, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, every arthouse person would consider that a great movie, and Argento was one of the writers of that movie. In Italy it was different, they were just making movies. It wasn’t like, Leone’s making art films but Corbucci’s making bad movies, or whatever, they were all just making movies. I don’t really understand it.
The thing that I hate is when people say they like “foreign” films. That drives me crazy. When they’re like “oh, I cant stand the movies that you show, but I love foreign films”. And I’m like, you mean Italian films, like Lucio Fulci? Because those are Italian films. Or you mean like Chinese movies? Obviously what you’re saying is you like slow French dramas, which is a very small section of foreign cinema, That’s the thing that gets under my skin.
K: Yeah, that really just cuts off a huge swath of movies.
D: It’s so ridiculous. “I like foreign films.” What does that mean?
K: Exactly, what does that mean? Well, I just wanted to ask you one more question, its about kung fu movies– what is it about them that really appeals to you?
D: (laughs) I, uhm…
K: I know it’s a tough question, but…
D: Well, I’ve been asked that question a few times, and I never know how to answer it. At all.
K: Well, can I tell you what I like about them?
D: Yeah, tell me what you like about them.
K: I like them because they seem to me to be the Asian equivalent of comic books and superhero stories. Like, in Western culture, we have Batman and Superman, and they have the heroes of the Shaolin temple.
D: I dunno if that’s what I like about them…I just love [the mythology]. I always compare them to Westerns, the Chinese equivalent of a Western. Instead of a gunslinger wandering the West, you have the Shaolin monk wandering ancient China. It’s the same thing.
I don’t really know what this is either, but I was always a huge hip-hop fan. I grew up on rap music, I was obsessed with it in the ‘80s, and there’s this connection between people who love old school hip hop and people who love kung fu movies.
K: There totally is.
D: Kung fu movies were so popular in inner cities, you know? That’s really where they played, they played in Chinatown and inner cities. Black audiences love those movies. So I dunno what that crossover is but [there’s] something connecting those things. I don’t know what it is…it’s hard to say.
K: So maybe people should just come to Kung Fu Theater at the Hollywood and they can form their own theories.
D: Yeah, there you go!
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