Taking documentary films to the Outer Limits: Movies and TV

Automats were restaurants I’ve seen in 1930s films where instead of servers you had a vending machine like structure, but with real meals and food behind the glass windows.THE AUTOMAT (1922) filled in a lot I didn’t know about these eateries: they were a format associated with one company, Horn and Hardart, found only in New York and Philadelphia but so successful that in their heyday they served more customers a day than any other restaurant chain. They also lasted much longer than I realized, the final automat only closing in 1991. A fascinating look at how they worked, how they appealed to people across the social spectrum and how they fell (as more people went home to the suburbs for dinner, the customer base dried up). “There were baked beans and baked beans — and Horn and Hardart baked beans.”

THE ARISTOCRATS (2005) is a documentary about a notoriously gross, tasteless joke comedians tell to each other backstage or at parties (I’m not going to repeat it here), trying to put their own spin and style on it and stretching out the disgusting parts with new gross elements. This would make a great film to study if I were into stand-up, for example trying to figure out why George Carlin’s delivery had me in stitches. While I’m not into standup particularly, I still found it interesting and entertaining. Familiar faces include Tom Arnold, Eric Idle (I think), Eddie Izzard, and Phyllis Diller. “They have a midget uncle with three dicks coming out of his head.”

Robert Culp and Arlene Martel appear above in one of OUTER LIMITS‘ best episodes, Demon With a Glass Hand, with Culp as Trent, a man pursued by aliens for unknown reasons, knowing only that the clues reside in his mysterious artificial hand. Written by Harlan Ellison, it’s terrific (as is Ellison’s Soldier) but an outlier in the show’s second season, a poor follow-up to S1. The second season has some effective episodes but between budget cuts and shifts in creative personnel, more of them are third-rate and uninspired, such as Keeper of the Purple Twilight. Disappointing. “The silence of the infinite void has been broken.”

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