Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Enter the 43rd Chamber of Midtown
We all have a starting point for our enthusiasms. A "ground zero" if you will. The place where we discover some small part of what makes us tick. It could be something as trivial as discovering your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant, or something as monumental as losing your virginity. It is exhilarating to get those small glimpses into the real you that snowball over time and provide you with a lifetime of pleasure.
In the fall of 1996, while on a trek through midtown Manhattan to locate a VHS copy of a film I had obsessed over for the past three years, I happened upon a place that would have a major role in shaping my budding interest in obscure action cinema. That place was known as The 43rd chamber, once located at 681 8th Avenue Midtown. Alas, the chamber is no more. It changed locations sometime in the early 2000's and closed soon after. I now know that I didn't happen upon this place by accident, and that my quest to find that elusive movie I had been looking for was more of a calling or a Holy pilgrimage.
Actually, I'm exaggerating. I found the place by accident while looking for an inferior video store. It's always much more fun to assign some sort of epic significance to such mundane occurrences, but the impact of those occurrences can never be underestimated.
The year was 1994. As a teen living in Lithonia, Georgia I happened upon a movie that would hold great significance for me in the years to come. The Movie was True Romance. It was written by Quentin Tarantino, which had very little significance for me at the time as I had not yet seen Reservoir Dogs and did not know who he was. However I did recognize the name of the films director, Tony Scott. He had made The Last Boy Scout just two years prior. I was a huge fan of that film, so I figured True Romance might have something to offer.
While watching it I noticed something quirky and off center going on beneath the surface. The main character, Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), worked in a comic shop and went to see martial arts films at a local grind-house. He then meets a hooker who subsequently falls in love with him and accompanies him on a road trip after he violently frees her from the clutches of her pimp.
Had someone stolen thoughts from my subconscious while I slept, burned them to celluloid and projected them on a giant screen? Though Clarence was obviously mentally unbalanced I felt an odd sort of kinship with him that I could not articulate. All of the pop culture references sprinkled throughout the film had me convinced that this was made by people who were "in the know," so to speak. They had access to things that piqued my curiosity.
There was one particular moment that dug its claws into my brain and stubbornly borrowed its way into my very soul. Clarence and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) were watching what appeared to be a badly dubbed Kung-fu movie. A closer look showed Asian guys in trench coats and shades perforating each other with semi-automatic pistols. "Squibs" filled with fake blood exploded all over the actors like popped corn. One character had his torso severed from his lower body with a katana. I stared at the screen mesmerized. "What the hell is this?!" It was quite unlike any kung-fu movie I had ever seen. It combined the gun play found in American action films with eastern sensibilities. What was this strange oddity? Where could it be found? I simply had to know.
I knew that the name of the film Clarence and Alabama were watching had to be listed in the closing credits. While perusing the endless parade of words that floated upward on the TV screen, I found it: A Better Tomorrow Part 2. The hunt was on. I was determined to find this movie, but I had little to no information. Who made it? Who starred in it?
I then headed to Suncoast Motion Picture Company in Northlake mall and scoured the shelves. My eyes passed over a lava red VHS cover with the words The Killer emblazoned at the top, as well as a pull quote from film critic Leonard Maltin. Beneath the title were Asian guys pointing semi-autos at each other, looking very similar to the images I saw in True Romance. "Could this be it?" I thought to myself. That the title did not match the one listed in the credits of True Romance seemed inconsequential to me at the time.
The director of the film was John Woo. I remembered that name from the trailer for the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target. I was starting to connect the dots in my mind. This John Woo guy is obviously of some note. After all, Leonard Maltin and the makers of True Romance were openly cosigning him.
I didn't have enough money to buy the film so I headed down to the Blockbuster Video on Wesley Chapel and rented it. After watching it I liked it well enough, but I still felt a certain level of disappointment. I had seen nothing approaching the insane carnage of that one scene in True Romance. That I had just seen a film that was infinitely better than the one Clarence and Alabama were watching was of little consolation at the time. Shows how much I knew.
Flash forward to 1995. My family had relocated to New Rochelle, New York. Tarantino fever had taken hold of me in a big way. During my last year of high school, Natural Born Killers had been released to great controversy and Pulp Fiction to great acclaim. I had seen and adored both, and Quentin had became my new favorite filmmaker. While watching an MTV special I discovered that he was the writer behind True Romance. Ah! I knew there was something about that movie. That's what I couldn't put my finger on. My interest in True Romance intensified ten fold, and I again was on a quest to track down a copy of A Better Tomorrow part 2.
I was like a movie geek version of Indiana Jones. Instead of searching for historic artifacts of great cultural significance, I was seeking out obscure action flicks. In the quest for my Holy Grail, I trekked by foot up to the Blockbuster video on Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck, New York. I asked for it at the counter. They told me that they didn't have a copy available for rental but I might be able to order one from their catalog. I was directed to a huge binder that contained thousands of pages. I found A Better Tomorrow Part 2, but the price was astronomical. This was when the DVD format was just over the Horizon and only certain titles were priced to own. Everything didn't go directly to sell through, so you usually had to wait a good while for certain films to become affordable.
Again I was thwarted, but that scene never left my brain. It stayed with me throughout the high point of the "Wu-revolution" which was peaking at the time. Throughout 1995, Wu-Tang Clan began carpet bombing the Hip-Hop landscape with a series of solo releases that would increase the visibility of their brand. When Only Built 4 Cuban Linx dropped in August of '95, I went from being a fan to a devotee. The album was like a concentrated pop culture sampling of everything that fascinated me at the time, containing bits of dialogue and music from various sources. Chief among them was John Woo's The Killer.
I made another trip to Blockbuster and rented every John Woo film I could get my hands on. I found the original A Better Tomorrow as well as Hard Boiled. I dubbed them all onto one VHS tape at SLP speed before I returned them to the store. I then watched my homemade "greatest hits" compilation obsessively. The gun play was otherworldly, far surpassing that of many of my favorite action directors at the time. It was so good that It nearly put me in a state of denial.
Fast forward again to fall of 1996. After picking up a book called Ultra-Violent Movies I learned that Mr. Woo had quite a few more films to his credit. I saw a title that intrigued me: A Bullet In The Head. It sounded insane. I just knew it wouldn't be available at any of the retail chains. I asked around and someone suggested that I take a trip to midtown Manhattan. He told me about a store called The Karate Center that specialized in "karate flicks" and that they might have what I was looking for.
Immediately after I got off work, I boarded the New Haven Line of the Metro North Railroad and headed to Grand Central Station. From there I took the shuttle to Times Square. I had no idea where I was and even less of an idea of what I was looking for. I stopped and asked for directions. A guy taking a cigarette break in front of a bodega told me about a spot called The 43rd Chamber. He pointed me in its direction and said that I couldn't miss it.
After trudging along for a few blocks, I saw it in the middle of the desolate but fun wasteland that was pre-Disney Times Square. Bright lights reflected off the paneled walls of the store and beamed out through the windows into the New York night. Lining the walls were rows and rows of pastel colored VHS boxes. I apprehensively walked in, unsure of what to do or say. I saw posters of old "karate flicks" lining the walls. Here, at long last, was the emerald city.
I asked the guy behind the counter for A Better Tomorrow 2. He reached up to one of the shelves and pulled down a plastic VHS case with a black and white copy of the films poster xeroxed on an insert placed on the front. He told me it was ten dollars and that if I got two more he'd sell me all three for 25 bucks. I then asked him for City on Fire (the film that inspired Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs) and another John Woo film, Once A Thief (which had recently been remade into a made-for- television film for the Fox network). He then recommended another one named Full Contact. It also starred Chow Yun fat and was directed By Ringo Lam (who also directed City On Fire). He ensured me that I would like it.
I walked out of the store a bit dazed. I had a book-bag filled with VHS tapes. I stopped and bought a DJ Clue mixtape from a street vendor and headed back home with my bounty. I had finally done it. I obtained my prize, and discovered a treasure trove of goodies. What else lined those shelves? What had I stumbled on to?
From that moment on, Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes even Sundays were not complete without a weekly trip to The 43rd Chamber. I also finally found The Karate Center, which was located across the street from the Port Authority. The color copied covers on their tapes lead me to believe that their bootlegs were of better quality than those at The Chamber. I couldn't have been more wrong. Karate Center tapes were awash with grainy images, bleeding colors and tracking problems (I once purchased a tape that appeared to be recorded over a homemade porno).
On one of my later excursions to the Chamber I decided to purchase an old chopsocky instead of the usual "heroic bloodshed" films. I hadn't actually sat down and watched one of those films since my early childhood in the Bronx, when Channel 5 would air them every Saturday afternoon as a "Drive-In Movie":
I considered their nonexistent production value and poor dubbing to be beneath my standards. However, The Wu-Tang Clan had rekindled their pop culture cred via endless sampling and referencing. My curiosity got the best of me and I picked up a copy of 5 Deadly Venoms.
During the montage that introduced each "Venom" and described his attributes, I heard a line of dialogue that was instantly familiar to my ears:
Toad Style is immensely strong
and immune to nearly every weapon
when properly used, it's almost invincible
Any Wu-tang fan worth their salt recognizes that as the intro to Da Mystery of chessboxin'. Again, a light bulb went on over my head and I felt like part of an exclusive club. That little fact wasn't something that just anybody knew. You had to be heavily into martial arts films to recognize that line. I initially found 5 Deadly Venoms to be slightly boring, but that did not stop me from devouring more "Chopsockies", particularly the ones produced by Shaw Brothers studios. I began discover stores that were similar to 43rd chamber all over throughout the city, particularly in Fordham and Harlem. None of them compared to "The Chamber" though.
When I first picked up a copy of The Master Killer (as it was known in North America), I had another revelation, this time followed by a flashback. I remembered the scene in the opening credits montage that showed water dripping on San Te's (Gordian Liu's) head. It occurred to me that I had seen this film as a child on channel 5's "Drive-in movie!" I couldn't remember the rest of it, but that particular moment instantly stuck out in my mind. I felt something almost spiritual taking place. Long dormant memories were coming back in strobe like flashes. I wonder how many more of these movies I'd remember something from.
I began to seek out books that would point me toward the very best that Hong Kong action cinema had to offer. I soon found one that was actually called Hong Kong Action Cinema by Bey Logan. It happened to be for sale at The Chamber. In fact, 43rd Chamber had various books and magazines for sale, including the now defunct publication Eastern Heroes. The place was simply amazing in its resources. The owner once showed me a photo collection of his celebrity clientele. Wesley Snipes, Samuel L Jackson, Paul Mooney, The RZA and Quentin Tarantino himself were all loyal customers of The Chamber.
In a few short months my collection of VHS bootlegs swelled considerably. After a couple of years I pretty much had every film I'd been looking for. My visits became more and more infrequent, but I never let too much time pass without stopping in and looking over the new merchandise. The guys that worked the register were always happy to see me.
Sometime in the early 2000's, The Chamber moved to new location. It was across from a barbershop on one of the upper floors of a building that was right across the street from the Port Authority. Soon after that it closed. It used to be that available and affordable copies of classic chopsockies and heroic bloodshed movies could only be obtained at spots like the 43rd Chamber. As the DVD revolution took hold and companies began to put out official versions of these titles, the niche value of such specialty mom and pop stores diminished. When remastered special editions of old Shaw Brothers classics are readily available at Wal-Mart, a trek downtown is no longer necessary.
That is truly a shame and a huge loss. Die hard fanboys of all shades recognize the value of a place like The 43rd Chamber. It wasn't just a video store, but a gathering spot for those of us who were into something that was off the beaten path. It provided shelter from the storm and nourishment during famine. It catered to a clientele that recognized names like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and John Woo well before the general public had any idea of who those people were. Go to a clerk in the DVD section of your local Wal Mart and ask him who Chang Cheh is. If you got anything other than a blank stare as a response, I'd be shocked.
If I'm not mistaken, the sign for The 43rd chamber is still up over that same store front. A relic of "old New York", just before Mickey and his pals ran the competition out of Times Square and set up shop. The Chamber is gone, but not forgotten. I am grateful for the role it played in evolving my taste in films. To the original owners and employees of The Chamber, if you are out there reading this, I'd like to say thanks. I will do my best to pass on your lessons to the next generation. I will only teach the secrets of the Wu-Tang to those most worthy.
Buddha's name be praised!