Dunce Macabre

Rebecca and I arrived just in time for happy-hour prices. We each got a $2 pint of PBR and sat in a booth toward the back. We would have preferred to sit at the bar, but too many people had the same idea. I didn’t expect it to be this busy on a Tuesday, but there you go.

We were at the new Doc’s Clock, a couple of blocks from its old location. I don’t know why it moved. The owners probably lost their lease (which happens a lot) and managed to find another spot they could afford (which happens far less often). I’ve been told that most of the interior looks the same.

It’s a good look. Red lights illuminate the shelves with the bottles. A CD jukebox probably hailing from the 1990s sits to one side of the bar. Above it is a painting of a kneeling beefcake dude with a footlong shvantz and what looks a portion of the EU flag behind him. There is a divey vibe to the place, but a quirky and friendly one. If you want wood paneling, NFL calendars, and nightly fistfights, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

I made a mental note to come back here some day and get good and trashed. Take advantage of happy hour while it lasts and be too drunk to care about the higher prices after nine. It shouldn’t take much at this point in my life. Five or six drinks is enough to turn me into Ray Milland.

This is not the night for such shenanigans. Rebecca and I have just popped in before heading off to Alamo Drafthouse a block and a half away. They serve beer there, but no Pabst. I admittedly have my hipster side, but I’m far more of a PBR hipster than a craft-beer hipster, especially when they’re selling the latter for eight bucks a pint.

“Fuck that shit, Pabst Blue Ribbon,” a very wise man once said.

We were going to see Carnival of Souls, a movie Rebecca and I both loved but neither of us had seen in years. It was like going to a midnight movie though screening at a more sensible 9:45 pm.

Mission Street is less busy than Valencia on a Tuesday night. It has also held onto more of its past. Gates closed and locked for the evening have the same old stores selling identical knockoffs and plastic crap as dozens of others. Corner stores and taquerias have also survived gentrification in large part.

There have been casualties though. Apartments housing poor tenants have suspiciouly gone up in flames, sometimes with the people inside. Out of the ashes have come lofts and luxury condos too expensive for even middle-tier techie scum like me to afford.

We arrive at the local Alamo Drafthouse, which was once the old Mission Theater that had closed long ago and spent its intervening years as either a discount crap emporium or a Pentecostal church. Newly remodeled and boasting a full bar, it was an inviting place to walk into.

Rebecca had gone to see a movie there with some friends once, but this was my first time. We walked down to theater one and took our seats. There was a table in front of us with a menu and a pad to write down our orders if we wanted anything. It was all very civilized. A server came by, checked our tickets on my phone, and explained the ordering process.

At 9:45, a nebbishy emcee walked out in front of the screen to present the movie we were about to see. He had a disarming and lighthearted demeanor, like the kind of standup comic who is neither offensive nor funny. He enthusiastically sang the praises of the film. It was endearing to watch, but I also wanted him to shut the fuck up and show the movie already because I had to be at work the next morning.

A lot has been written about Carnival of Souls by people more knowledgeable than me so I won’t bore you with my assessment of the film. There is one detail I do want to mention though. The movie came out in 1962, the year I was born. Staring at the screen, I was reminded what a primitive place it was back then. It was still mid-century, post-war America. Cars were enormous and women who didn’t want to settle down were suspect. Also, so much of the technology I take for granted now simply did not exist. Oh I suppose they had computers of a sort, but they were the size of a house and didn’t do jack shit.

And yet it was an era that was living on borrowed time. Some of the changes were heartening, like the civil-rights movements. Other developments were scary, like getting an RCH away from World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’d make it through that only to have Lee Harvey Oswald and Vietnam waitng in the wings.

It is worth noting that my birth year was smack dab in the middle of the five-year run of “The Twilight Zone.” TV viewers, tired of the mundane, could tune in and watch mysterious forces knock people’s lives for a loop.

Carnival of Souls has been compared to “The Twilight Zone” and by this I mean a good episode and not any of that “Bewitchin’ Pool” bullshit. The broken reality here was of the menacing sort and zeroed in on an unlucky individual. The danse macabre toward the end has classically symbolized the universality of death (thanks Wikipedia!) but here it was something the protagonist had to face all on her lonesome. I loved it.

There is little surprise there. I watched an unhealthy amount of “Twilight Zone” marathons growing up and while a number of episodes now seem silly, the effect on me lasting. Many, and one could argue too many, of my own story ideas borrow from the show’s playbook. It’s magical realism of the semiliterate TV addict. I’m far too aspy to craft plausible human drama so I go for the mind fuck instead. Often with a gross-out element because that’s how I roll.

The movie ended and we were on our way home. I enjoyed the film immensely and part of that was the glimpse back into the time that spawned me. I knew it was neither a representational nor realistic depiction, but I was OK with that. I was too young to have my own memories from then so I have to go by what got captured on camera and didn’t get left on the cutting-room floor. And while the story was implausible outside its genre, the way people talked and acted seemed to ring true. But then again, I can only guess.

Of course the film was no mere artifact. The reason it has managed to hold up after 55 years is that it managed to do so much with so little. There was no star power and practically no budget to speak of.

However, it was the type of story it told that won me over. I’ll always be a sucker for malevolent forces being relentless and leaving a mark on the reality they wash over. It’s the kind of story I like and the kind of story I like to tell, albeit often less artfully and with more poo jokes thrown in.

We turn off Mission Street and start walking up 22nd toward Valencia. Streetlights hitting trees and houses cast a variety of shadows on the sidewalk. I look at the dark shapes and try to conjure an idea I can run with. I come up empty. There is no danse here, macabre or otherwise, just the mundane theatrics of the here and now.

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