As an angst-ridden loner child who always carried with him the vague feeling that he didn’t belong anywhere, going to the movies was a kind of sacred ritual that I purposefully experienced on my own. I would go to the movies several times a week through my teenage years, but things changed when I discovered the now-defunct repertory theatre in my home town, which was the only place adventurous moviegoers could escape to in order to avoid the mainstream Hollywood onslaught.
During a sweltering Kansas Summer in 1998, at the age of 15, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor opened up a world of demented filmmaking that expanded the possibilities of the cinema for me. I first saw Fuller’s 1963 film as part of a now-defunct repertory program in my hometown that few people attended, which was run by a guy named Jake, who simply programmed films out of a love for the cinema. Shock Corridor was one of innumerable masterpieces that Fuller made outside the Hollywood system, and it was artistically and politically far ahead of most of the movies I had seen as a budding cinephile during the mid-to-late ’90s. The film turns on its head all polite notions of political correctness, good filmmaking, good taste, and the pseudo-seriousness of all of the big-budget Hollywood trash that major studios co-opted from more modest B-movies from previous years (Michael Bay’s Armageddon came out weeks earlier, and literally made me physically ill for about three days). And no other movie punched me in the gut as hard, up to that point in my life, and nor had I seen work by any filmmaker (R. Fassbinder comes close) who had the balls to make such a tough movie. Fuller’s sledge-hammer, surrealist style in Shock Corridor filtered the world through a dark, cynical lens that ran contrary not only to early 1960s American society, but also to the world as I knew it as a movie-obsessed teenager growing up in the Midwest at the end of the 20th century. I was instantly hooked by Fuller’s hard-boiled style, his odd mixture of unintentionally arty surrealism, its chaotic subjectivity through the use of nonsensical moments, splashes of color stock footage, the sense of psychosis that permeated the whole work and gave the impression, as it flickered across the screen in a befittingly damaged 16mm print, that I too was trapped in the senseless, crazy milieu of its characters.
For those who are unaware: On its surface, Shock Corridor follows ambitious crime reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) as he sets out to solve the murder of a patient by having himself committed to the hospital where the killing happened, in order to solve the crime and win a Pulitzer Prize. He enlists his nudie-bar dancer girlfriend (Constance Towers) to pose as his sister, who reports Johnny to the authorities by saying that her “brother” raped her. After Johnny is committed, a slow descent into madness takes place, and Johnny goes insane. On another level, many of the darker parts of American society that dismayed and disturbed Fuller were critiqued in Shock Corridor in the forms of some of its most deranged characters. Barrett, on his quest to solve the murder, comes across characters who subvert the Patriotic facade of America during the Cold War years. One patient who may have witnessed the murder was committed after he defected to the side of the Soviets because he was disgusted by all of the bigotry that was forced down his throat by his parents. There is the scientist who was driven insane by the crushing guilt of having helped develop the atomic bomb; he has been reduced to a child-like state. And then there is the African American college student who was driven insane by all of the racism that he experienced on his college campus. All of these characters are victims of American political and social problems that Fuller attacked by saying that the country we live in is like one big insane asylum.
Growing up, I always had an obsessive interest in film, which deepened during the Summer of ’98 when I started showing up to regular screenings at the Wichita Center for the Arts’ film series, held during various times throughout the year. With the exception of certain well-known films, I was often the lone spectator in the theatre. Screenings were comprised mostly of 16mm prints of classic Hollywood, foreign films, cult classics, and the occasional oddball art film. That Summer, the film series also screened Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, one of the first non-English-speaking films I had ever seen. To this day, that film’s attitude towards the subject of suicide is oddly contemplative, strangely life-affirming. Weeks later, I saw Jay Rosenblatt’s experimental film Human Remains, which offered banal portraits of real-life fascist dictators, and had the effect of making its subjects all the more terrifying. A little later, I saw Happiness, and I realized that Todd Solondz was the master of American dark comedy. I was hooked. The town I grew up in as a kid isn’t known for its repertory film programs, and so the Center for the Arts’ film programming was a safe haven for a kid who was instantly drawn to all things subversive, transgressive, counter-culture. I could only watch so many big-budget Hollywood releases at the local mall that I could not relate to on any personal level, before retreating towards the flickering glow inside the Center for the Arts’ theatre.
A local denizen of the arts named Jake Eueker was the programmer at the Wichita Center for the Arts, and he is responsible for opening my eyes to all of the possibilities of cinema as I now understand them. On nights he programmed a really obscure movie that no one in town had heard of, I was often the only person in attendance. I dutifully attended screenings like a student who was there to learn some kind of lesson that I knew I was not going to get anywhere else. I walked five miles in the cold just to see Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend for the first time. I was the only patron Jake greeted by name. I often thought that my lone attendance was the only thing propping up the Center’s film series. The kind of romanticizing that cinephiles expound when it comes to sitting in the dark and connecting with a great film came from the regular screenings I attended. Years before I attended film school, my cinematic education started there.
Not only was Shock Corridor one of the first films I saw at the Center for the Arts, but it was also one of the first movies that expanded for me the the possibilities of cinema as an art form. Shock Corridor, like most of Fuller’s work, as I later discovered, made trenchant critiques of the society we live in, but it also pushed the boundaries, visually, towards a demented style of filmmaking that no one has matched since its initial release. Utilizing a limited budget (the film was made independently, when the Hollywood system had no more use for Fuller), the film was better able to convey the insanity that its main protagonist Johnny Barrett was diving into: Looking at the forced perspective of the film’s main set, the corridor that the mental patience whittled away their time in, allows the film to convey its sense of psychosis in strictly visual terms. Stanley Cortez, who was also the cinematographer for the equally brilliant and demented Night of the Hunter, used images and lighting for Shock Corridor that were often flat and high in contrasts between light and shadow, adding to the claustrophobic, institutionalized feel of the film.
After I saw Shock Corridor, I went to nearly every single screening that the Center for the Arts held for several more years. Within this time period, I was lucky enough to see Eraserhead, The Red Shoes, John Waters’ Female Trouble, Nights of Cabiria, 8 1/2, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Imitations of Life, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the vastly underrated and still little-seen films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira, and countless other foreign and independent films, many of which were screened in 16mm prints.
As I got a little older and became a little more dismayed with life in general, and after I got out of my hometown as quickly as possible, I stopped going to the Center for the Arts’ film programs. In 2002, the Center started screening their films using a video projector, a then-new novelty for regular moviegoers and a sacrilegious way to view movies in a theatrical setting. The visibly large pixilation projected onto the screen lacked the warmth of the 16mm prints that the Center previously screened. There was something lifeless about the act of watching a DVD or VHS cassette of a film in a theatre. Now, sadly, digital projection in movie theatres has become so ubiquitous that no one questions watching movies this way.
Beginning in 2003, I had stopped going to the Center altogether, and, soon after, they discontinued their film series. There was no other place within several hundred miles that showed the kinds of bizarre B-movie treasures and obscure independent and foreign films that Jake showed at the Wichita Center for the Arts.
Nine years after leaving my hometown of Wichita, KS, I accidentally came across Jake’s online obituary. He died of natural causes in 2012 at the age of 50. An article in the local paper noted his active involvement in my hometown’s small arts scene. He seemed to have thrived on providing cultural experiences through music, film, and visual art, for a town that is hardly known for supporting the arts. As a lonely kid who experienced the world by sitting in dark theatres, he was the facilitator of all of the beautiful, ecstatic moments I had while watching movies. I’m not sure if my eyes would have been opened to the possibilities of film as an art form, had it not been because of him. When I read that Jake died, one of the first experiences the news of his death recalled was watching Shock Corridor for the first time, the absolute ecstatic, intoxicating feeling that I had in a movie theatre while watching Fuller’s masterpiece, and of every other great experience I had, sitting alone – yet, not alone – in a darkened theatre.