Last year I made a new friend who helped me remember that happiness is possible. He's my dearest Matty, and he loves the cinema. Early in our friendship I spent many evenings lost in the city because Matty'd just moved here, too. And while we're both pretty good at choosing the movies we'd like to see, neither one of us has a sense of direction.
I'm always the driver, and I've gotten so hopelessly tangled up in these streets that we've wound up miles from the theater -- I've accidentally found the airport, Hunter's Point, and Colma -- but so far we've never been late for a flick and neither of us has lost our temper.
Matty and I have uncannily similar tastes in movies, and I can't begin to tell you how excited I was when I learned that Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford at her most ball-busting, would be playing at the Castro Theater, i.e. The Most Spectacular Theater On Earth. At The Castro the popcorn is always fragrant and warm, the audience shouts at the actors onscreen, and each show begins with a live organ player who rises from the proscenium on a small hydraulic stage. To top it all off, I can find this theater without getting lost. So I phoned Matty about the show, and as usual we tried to rope in our other friends (who rarely share our tastes, who refused to go to A Star Is Born with us) and dragged them along.
If you haven't seen this movie, you should, right away. It's a western, or at least it appears to be one on the surface. The meanest, fightingest, most dominant characters in this western are female: Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). One character says of Joan Crawford's Vienna that he's "never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I'm not."
Johnny Guitar isn't a movie I love for the plot. Plot-heavy movies bore me as much as flat, straight roads and square city blocks. I love Johnny Guitar for its confusing subtext, it's strange exploration of gender roles, and for Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, who give seething performances. Their characters hate each other absolutely -- or are they in love with each other?
It's tough to say, and after the movie Matty and I left the theater confused on this point and thrilled by what we'd just watched. Our friends were simply confused. What, they asked, is Johnny Guitar REALLY about? Why do we like this movie so much? Where's the nearest bar? Once we'd secured our favorite drinks (Matty: Diet Coke; me: amber ale), we tried to figure out just what makes Johnny Guitar so good. Maybe it's that it's so rare to see powerful, dominant female characters in pictures made in the mid-1950's. Maybe it's that the villains are so easy to dislike because they condemn others for their lifestyle choices. Or perhaps it's just that certain scenes are so over-the-top bad, they're actually good. While Matty and I didn't end up converting our friends, I think they understood this much: every night we live in San Francisco is a lucky, lucky night; the Castro Theater is the be-all and end-all of old theaters; and feeling confused and a little bit lost can be a ton of fun if you're with the right people.