From Pulitzer Prize-Winning Movie Critic Stephen Hunter Comes A Brilliant, Freewheeling, And Witty Look At The Movies.
Evanston, Illinois, was an idyllic 1950s paradise with stately homes, a beautiful lake, a world-class university, two premier movie houses, and one very seedy movie theater -- the Valencia.
This was the site of Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter's misspent youth. Instead of going to school, picking up girls, or tossing a football, Hunter could be found sitting in the fifteenth row, right-hand aisle seat of the Valencia, sating himself on one B-list movie after another.
The Valencia had a sticky floor, smelly bathrooms, ancient popcorn, and a screen set in a hideously tacky papier-mache castle wall. It was also the only place in town to see westerns, sci-fi pictures, cops 'n' robbers flicks, slapstick comedy, and Godzilla.
In Now Playing at the Valencia, the author of such bestselling novels as Havana and Pale Horse Coming has compiled his favorite movie reviews written between 1997 and 2003, bringing to the discussion the passionate feelings for cinema he discovered in the '50s, a time when genres were forming, mesmerizing stars played unforgettable characters, and enduring classics were made. While filmmaking has changed tremendously since Hunter first frequented the Valencia, the view from the fifteenth row, and the thrill of down and dirty entertainment, has remained the same.
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Simon & Schuster
November 30, 2005
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Excerpt from Now Playing at the Valencia by Stephen Hunter
Stand on a hilltop in this widest of open spaces and look a hundred miles in every direction, and there's not a human construct in existence except the vehicle that brought you there.
But John Wayne is here. You can feel him in the wind, you can see him through the mirages, in the clumps of cottonwoods, you can sense him where the streams cut the rolling land. He's here in the landscape.
The skies are magnificent: No artist born since 1900 could capture the subtlety of tone fused with the vastness of scope. The green of prairie, unnatural this late in the summer, runs toward forever. Antelope actually play. Buffalo actually roam.
It's a land for big men, almost a cathedral. In The Searchers, Wayne's greatest film, the Comanche chief Scar called him "Big Shoulders," and only an emptiness like this, vaulted by a sky like that, seems capable of accommodating those shoulders, that distinctive, graceful way of carrying so much muscle and authority, the look of ferocity that came so quickly to his face and warned all and sundry to steer clear or face lethal consequences. Ask Liberty Valance: He found out the hard way.
Indoors, John Wayne is even more prominent. Here in Ingomar, Montana, population 125 people, 17,650 cattle, 20 bison, 2 llamas, and 247,532 prairie dogs, the town center is an agreeable old bar called the Jersey Lily, where the beer is cold, the steaks tough, and the beans plentiful. On the dust-blown streets it always looks as if a gunfight is about to erupt, but inside it's warm and friendly. Discouraging words are not heard; folks smile a lot more than they frown and will generally drink to or with anyone.
But here's the cool part: If you close your eyes after a beer or two, or a bean or 700, you can see him standing there at the end of the long stretch of bar. He's wearing that pinkish bib shirt, that leather vest, that dirty pale-tan hat. He's got beef everywhere on his body, but not fat. The gun, worn high on his hip in working cowman's practicality, not low after the gunslinger style, is the Colt Single Action Army .38-40, with the yellowing ivory grips. The eyes are wary, rich in wisdom, impatient with pilgrims, tenderfeet, and blanketheads, possibly incapable of expressing love because they are so fixed on duty. He is what for decades was a vision of the ideal man.
Now it gets even cooler: Put down that beer, relax those eyes, and you can see that it's not a writer's florid fantasy. The Duke is there, as I've described him; well, a full-size movie cutout, from the days when the studios advanced their products by sending such cardboard images of the star to stand sentinel in the nation's movie houses. Somehow the Lily got oneýit's from early-seventies Wayne; I would guess Chisum or Big Jake or possibly The Train Robbers.
But that's not all. Look in the other direction, and he's there, too. His portrait hangs at the bar's other end, though it's not the classic Duke from the pictures, but the mature, prosperous rancher Duke, with a lot of miles on him, but a sense of abiding peace in his eyes as well. You're in a bar but you're also in a sacred glade, a place of worship, pilgrim.