The king of midnight movies in SF: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
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Ask Jesse Hawthorne Ficks what his favorite movie is, and he won't hesitate: it's Ski School. Ficks, who programs and hosts the Castro Theatre's monthly Midnites for Maniacs triple feature, interprets "favorite" literally: the 1991 raunch-com might not surface on any highbrow top-10 lists, but it's likely no scholar loves Citizen Kane (1941) as much as Ficks loves Ski School.
"I've always been upset with people who talk about guilty pleasures," Ficks explained when I paid him a visit at the Ninth Street Film Center. As the Frameline31 box office manager, he was overseeing ticket sales from a room decorated with posters from past Maniacs selections The Legend of Billie Jean (1985) and Joysticks (1983). "There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If you love something, you should genuinely love it. You can have some of that campiness 'Oh my god, Nicolas Cage's acting in The Wicker Man  is so bad, it's hilarious' but you're not cooler than the films that you're watching. You're actually in love with the movies that you're watching. And you can maybe laugh at the movie, but ultimately there should be no mean-spiritedness in it."
Anyone who's checked out a Midnites for Maniacs event knows the depths of Ficks's cinemania. But even if you've never seen the gleeful host in action (typically he'll toss out trivia questions and reward winners with prizes like out-of-print soundtracks, sometimes in cassette form), you need only peruse a list of Midnites past to get a sense of his passion the "Aerobicize Triple Feature" (Staying Alive , Flashdance , and Heavenly Bodies ); a 3-D night that included the third Jaws and Friday the 13th films as well as the Molly Ringwald sci-fi nugget Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983); tributes to latchkey kids, punk girls, Dolly Parton, and the underage Jodie Foster; and May's "Vertically Challenged Monsters" night, which I can safely say will be the only time in recorded history that Gremlins (1984), Howard the Duck (1986), and Troll 2 (presented in rare 35mm prints) share a bill at the Castro. Or anyplace.
Troll 2, a horror comedy that was barely released in 1990, is a prime example of Ficks's programming technique. He doesn't pluck flicks from obscurity to amuse snarky audiences; he's hoping to entertain on a more meaningful level. "I was really concerned that people were going to come out purely to destroy the film as opposed to embracing it for all of its faults," he said. "No one can define that style of acting in Troll 2. It's not even bad acting. It's a different style. But I think it had more to do with people being embarrassed of loving something and being so guilty. Their film professors don't let them love Top Gun . Midnites for Maniacs is not just [about watching] films that we forgot, but also embracing them and loving them and rooting for them. Not beating up on them."
Ficks's personal tastes expand beyond underdog obscurities. When he's not overseeing box offices on the local festival circuit, he teaches film history at the Academy of Art College ("We have a nice exploitation chapter that's not in the [text]book"). He grew up obsessed with Freddy Krueger in Salt Lake City, where he started coprogramming a midnight series at 16. He also exploited the serendipity of geography to soak up as much Park City as he could. "I grew up at [the] Sundance [Film Festival]. I went to Slacker , and that totally changed my life," he said. "I worked at Sundance from 1994 through 2002. Every year, wherever I was, I'd go back to Sundance and work in different areas of the festival."
A self-taught cinephile, Ficks dropped a film history course at Portland State University after a professor misidentified The Untouchables (1987) as a Martin Scorsese film. After graduation he moved to San Francisco and began working at the 4 Star Movie Theatre, where he learned to be a projectionist and launched Midnites for Maniacs in 2002. At first the series chiefly drew from owner Frank Lee's impressive stash of martial arts films until a certain masterwork known as The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987) came along.
"I had been looking for 35mm prints at the time, and I ran into this Garbage Pail Kids print," Ficks remembered. "Frank let me play it, but he had no clue what it was. This very first screening of Garbage Pail Kids, we had 250 people and the theater only holds 198. It blew his mind! Garbage Pail did so well that he just started giving me free rein."
Ficks's cardinal rule for his screenings which actually start early in the evening, with the final film unspooling at midnight is that every film must be shown on 35mm. "You can have a billion ideas of 'I think we should do summer camp movies.' But the director of Sleepaway Camp  cannot be found, and he has the only print. So until I can track him down, there's no way to screen Sleepaway Camp. I know that you could screen it on video or DVD, but I think it makes it part of the challenge and the excitement that everyone's coming out to see an antique. You're part of the history."
Midnites for Maniacs made its Castro debut in January 2006, when a packed house cheered Ficks's triple bill of roller-skating movies: Roller Boogie (1979), Xanadu (1980), and Skatetown, USA (1979). "It was unbelievable, and I was thinking, 'Maybe only in San Francisco.' "
Ficks sees the city as big enough and full of enough diverse film fans to support all of its various midnight gatherings. He has only praise for Midnight Mass's Peaches Christ, though on occasion their events have fallen on the same night.
"Peaches is amazing at her performances," he said. "You can get caught up with a reenactment of the swimming pool [scene] in Showgirls . And it's unbelievable." He views San Francisco as "a true midnight culture. There are so many films in San Francisco at midnight. I think it's totally reinventing the culture."
And, for the record, what is it about Ski School that makes it this ultimate film fan's ultimate favorite? Talking about the movie which he'll probably never get to show at Midnites, since it's only available on video makes Ficks reflective. "I think I'm always interested in that movie you were obsessed with as a kid. We're the video generation. We have access to so many more films than anyone else before us. We create these weird personal theaters in our house, with these videos we can rewind and watch over and over again. So Ski School, and movies like it, I go to those movies when times are rough. They're just like a record, or like a song. And it's an hour-and-a-half song."
Ficks who said he's only walked out of one film in his life, As Good as It Gets (1997), for being "so middle of the road it didn't matter if I watched it or not" is determined to carry his Ski School philosophy over to his film series.
"I think when people come out to Midnites for Maniacs, it's way more important that they have a personal relationship with the movie. It really doesn't matter what I think about the movie it's most important that someone's coming to a film, [maybe even a film] that they've never heard of, and they're finding something really special." *
MIDNITES FOR MANIACS
"SUMMER CAMPy Triple Feature": Little Darlings (1980), Meatballs (1979), and Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976)
July 20, 7:30 p.m., 9:45 p.m., midnight, $10 (all three)
429 Castro, SF