Midnight Screening

Lots of movies and TV shows take place in Los Angeles—but they never depict the traffic accurately. On TV, characters just drive around Los Angeles with wild abandon, as though that’s a thing you can do there, like you can in regular places.

In real life, the traffic in L.A. is soul-crushing. When you finally get where you’re going, parking is your new problem. This is enough to ruin what could otherwise be a fine trip, and if it makes you decide not to go to L.A. at all, I wouldn’t blame you, not one damn bit.

But there is a movie theater in L.A., a small, unremarkable-looking place called the New Beverly Cinema, with several special qualities: It’s a revival house, showing old movies; in the age of digital, it shows movies in projected 35mm film; and it’s owned by Quentin Tarantino. In celebration of the release of Mr. Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, the theater was showing each of his films, in order, at midnight on consecutive Friday nights.

There was only one thing to do: a pilgrimage to the New Beverly Cinema to see Inglourious Basterds, one of my favorite films of all time.

On the way to Los Angeles, I found an abandoned building in the desert that literally had my name on it.

Abandoned service station in the desert named Jeremy’s

There was one more stop I had to make, and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll appreciate it: the Neon Retro Arcade in Pasadena. This is a legit ’80s style arcade with vintage video games, a few pinball machines, and the same soundtrack that was playing when I spent my childhood in places exactly like it.

Not quite exactly: here, you don’t need quarters. You pay ten dollars per hour and all the games are set to free-play. Apparently they have a larger collection than will fit in the space at one time, so the games rotate, but there was Defender, Joust, Moon Patrol, Pac-Man, Centipede, Asteroids, Robotron: 2084, Gravitar, Donkey Kong, and much more. I asked about my favorite, Tempest, and they’ve got one, it just wasn’t in the rotation at the moment, dammit.

I was so good at a lot of these games, back in the day. Not so much any more, though it started to come back to me.

L.A. traffic isn’t so bad when you’re headed to a midnight movie. I arrived more than an hour early, to find a line stretching down the block and around the corner. I already had my ticket—I wasn’t driving to L.A. and getting a hotel room without that taken care of—but I’d hoped arriving early would let me snag a good seat. So, apparently, did everyone else.

New Beverly Cinema sign showing Inglourious Basterds playing

The theater is smaller than at your typical multiplex, and the lobby is even smaller—the line for popcorn (with real butter) and soda has to stretch down the aisle of the theater itself. The front row was entirely claimed before I made it in the door. I ended up closer to the back of the room. Most of the people there had clearly been there before and knew how to score good seats.

Before the feature there were trailers—but not the usual ads for upcoming films. These were vintage movie trailers, hand-picked to get the audience into the mood for the feature, and these are a regular part of the show here, along with the little cartoons that are so old you can see decades of scratches on the film. In this case, we got trailers for three World War II movies to get things started: the original Inglorious Bastards, from which the Tarantino film got its name; The Dirty Dozen, with Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and more; and Kelly’s Heroes, starring Clint Eastwood, an apparently well-known comedy from 1970 I’d never even heard of. These aren’t modern, remade trailers; they are as old as the movies themselves, and have the scratches and splices to show for it. It’s not just a movie theater, it’s a museum!

My main complaint about digital projection is that it lacks the resolution to support the screen size. Standard digital projection, after all, is basically the same resolution as the television in your living room, blown up to the size of a house. Even 4k projection is still just 4k blown up to that size, and isn’t that impressive. But while I’d seen The Hateful Eight in 70mm, which dwarfs even the best digital projection, it had been years since I’d seen anything projected in 35mm, and I’d begun to wonder if I was letting nostalgia make me remember better quality than actually existed.

Still of Hitler from Inglourious Basterds
Nein, nein, nein!
Still of the Basterds from Inglourious Basterds
The Basterds.

Sitting in that crowded, sold-out auditorium, watching a movie I’ve seen so many times that I barely even need the subtitles, that doubt was put to rest. The contrast and tonality, the richness of color, the little glow in the highlights—movies really did look better back in the day. Not quite as sharp when projected, but much smoother. And, of course, there are the projectionist cue marks to remind you you’re watching a movie, not a TV show.

Every time I watch Inglourious Basterds I have that David Bowie song in my head for days, as I replay each scene in my mind over and over. It’s perfect from start to finish. How else do you sell out a theater showing a seven-year-old film at midnight that’s mostly not even in English?

Still of Shosanna from Inglourious Basterds
I can stare for a thousand years.
Still of Shosanna applying war paint
Putting out the fire with gasoline.

That’s the main complaint I’ve heard about this movie: it requires too much reading of subtitles. Only about a third of the film is in English—but if you watched the original theatrical trailer, you may not have realized it going in. It’s a story that, in the end, hinges on language, and having the actors speaking English when the characters are supposed to be speaking French and German would not work.

Still of Perrier LaPadite and Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds
The Jew-Hunter.
Still of the party scene in Inglourious Basterds

Mélanie Laurent didn’t even speak English when she was cast as Shosanna, but learned English for the role despite the fact that she has only one English monologue—the reveal that Shosanna speaks at least a little English is key to explaining the beginning of the movie. A turning point in the plot comes with a British officer speaking German almost, but not quite well enough to pass as a native. Another comes with Hans Landa unexpectedly speaking Italian.

If you want to appreciate this movie, embrace the subtitles.

Still of Wilhelm from Inglourious Basterds
Poor Wilhelm.
The Bear Jew
The Bear Jew.

Leaving the theater a bit after 3am and driving back to my hotel, I was struck by the lack of traffic. If L.A. traffic were like that all day long, I’d visit more often.

Hugo Stiglitz title from Inglourious Basterds