When I was 11, my friends and I rode our bikes to the two-screen suburban movie theater in our town to see this new comedy called “Airplane!” I then rode my bike back about 10 more times until the movie left town, pedaling furiously in anticipation of the single funniest thing – movie or otherwise – I had ever seen.
Unlike other films the 11-year-old me thought were a hoot (Tim Conway and Don Knotts’ “The Private Eyes?” Really, 11-year-old me?), “Airplane!” holds up. If that sounds like an idyllic memory, well, it is one, because you always remember the things that, for whatever reason, blew your tiny little mind.
“Airplane!,” the ramshackle, anything-for-a-laugh 1980 comedy from the once-mighty movie team of David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, kicks off this year’s Portland Summer Films season on Sunday in Congress Square Park. The movie, a brilliantly goofy pastiche of everything from airline disaster films to corny Hollywood romances to “Saturday Night Fever” (fans know the scene I’m talking about), combines poker-faced deadpan (“serious” actors Peter Graves and Robert Stack play it straight in the midst of the madness), and the dumbest possible wordplay. (“Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious – and don’t call me Shirley.”) In the pre-VCR days, part of the movie’s re-watch-ability was the hunger to catch all the jokes you missed because you were giggling like a moron. Plus, it revealed that theretofore stiff character actor Leslie Nielsen was actually a comic genius hiding in plain sight, something Abrahams and the Zuckers immediately seized upon in their “Police Squad” TV series and subsequent “Naked Gun” films.
“Airplane!” is the perfect kickoff for the annual communal film fan gathering in Congress Square. For four years now, Portland Summer Films founder and executive director Michael Henderson has programmed a roster of eclectic, guaranteed crowd-pleasers every Sunday from June until August. The movies are free, projected (with surprisingly good picture and sound, it must be said) on a screen in the newly renovated park, which serves, on these summer nights, like Portland’s own sunken living room. Old favorites (and one recent blockbuster closing things out on the final August evening), all presented to Portlanders looking for an old-time drive-in experience – minus the cars.
“It really comes back to nostalgia for the drive-in theaters of the 1970s,” explains Henderson. “That’s the reason for the classic films, or even movies that weren’t obvious great films, but ones that are having a retrospective year that I realize younger audiences don’t have a reference for and think, ‘My God.’ ”
This year’s slate of Portland Summer Movies is informed by that love and desire to share. Said Henderson, “It’s based on my own experience and love for films from directors I love like Alfred Hitchcock (1956’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” screens on July 29) and Woody Allen. (As for Allen, this year represented by June 10’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and his section of the trilogy “New York Stories” on Aug. 19, Henderson is quick to point out with a sigh, that he remains a huge fan of the filmmaker – if not the man.)
In addition, look for the signature blend of beloved classics like “Rebel Without A Cause” (July 22) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (Aug. 12), musicals (July 1’s “Little Shop of Horrors” and July 8’s 40-year anniversary screening of “Grease”), and movies that the young Henderson thought were just super cool. In the latter camp, look for director John Badham’s dated but still tons-of-fun Cold War thriller “WarGames” on Aug. 5. Said Henderson of the Matthew Broderick-starring film about a hacker accidentally almost starting World War III, sure, the technology might be out of date, but the specter of nuclear war has become timely again, unfortunately. This year’s series goes out with a big, “Wakanda Forever!” bang with Aug. 26’s game-changing superhero blockbuster “Black Panther.”
As ever, the Portland Summer Films series is an irresistible, flickering little oasis for Portland film fans and families. All films are rated PG-13 or below, the screenings are free and are selected with care and affection, and the idea of sharing a great movie under the Maine night sky is one of the little cinematic pleasures of which idyllic movie memories are made. Henderson advises getting to Congress Square early to get a seat (the films start at dusk), or to bring a folding chair of your own. There’s a “carry in, carry out” policy for food and drink (no alcohol, please), and Henderson notes that local food trucks and vendors – knowing movie fans’ appetites – often flock to the park. (He especially recommends the various hand-roasted s’mores from Portland’s own Marshmallow Cart.) And, being Maine, some bug spray’s probably not a bad idea.
The series (co-sponsored by PSF, Mensk, and Friends of Congress Square Park), remains one of Portland’s most purely delightful movie traditions, just the sort of weird an wonderful summer diversion Maine movie fans dream about. For the full schedule, check out the Portland Summer Films website (portlandsummerfilms.com) or Facebook page (facebook.com/PortlandSummerFilms).
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Starts Friday: “RBG.” The life and legal career of the indomitable Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the subject of this rousing, inspiring, deeply necessary documentary.
Friday: “Paddling Film Festival.” Head up to Bean’s in Freeport at 7 p.m. for this traveling festival of short films all about the joys of pushing yourself through the water with a stick that is wider and flatter on one end than the other.