' Cinema Romantico: The Glorious Darkness of the Movie Theater

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Glorious Darkness of the Movie Theater

I've written the above phrase many times before but have never really delved into detail or offered up a precise defintion of what makes an un-illuminated cineplex so wonderous. The feeling swept over me a few days ago yet again when I gave myself an Oscar Sunday present in the form of a fourth theatrical viewing of "Atonement".

Movie theaters are dark during the actual movie, as we all know, but how does that darkness assume glory? How does sitting in a dilapidated seat, your knees possibly pressed up against the seat before you, some moron checking his or her cellphone a couple seats over, take on such magic? How does the munching of popcorn and rustling of bags containing said popcorn sound more eloquent, more romantic than the lapping waves of the Pacific against a California beach? How is that I took two and a half years of Spanish and can hardly remember a word of it but I still recall precisely what the woman sitting beside me in the theater at M. Night Shymalan's "Signs" looked like? And how was the Landmark Century Cinema on Clark & Diversey more special, more intense, more transcendent last Sunday during "Atonement" than St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan when my sister and I visited it last August?


When you step inside St. Patrick's Cathedral you will find dozens upon dozens of people situated in pews communing with something bigger and more powerful than they and witnessing this conjures up thoughts of sitting in the movie theater and waiting for the show which I have come to see start. These peaceful preludes have been taken away to some degree thanks to the hideous Movie Watcher Network and the pre-movie movie ads. This isn't always the case - it wasn't at the theater where I saw "Atonement" on Sunday - but I have learned to combat it through use of my trusty Ipod. (Favorite Pre-Movie song: "What I'll Remember Most" by Over the Rhine.)

Finally, the lights dim, the screen pops to life and, if you're lucky, it gets off and running straight away with the luminous sight of that green screen and the words worthy of Tolstoy: the following preview has been approved for all audiences by the motion picure association of America. It doesn't even matter if every preview is for a movie that looks like crap - and a lot of them do - because 1.) They only last a couple minutes and 2.) It's part of the experience. You listen to the National Anthem at a baseball game even though you've heard it 3,447 times before because that's the way it works.

And once all the pre-movie festivities have concluded it's on to the good stuff. The situation is what determines my course of action at this point. In most circumstances I ensure I'm completely settled in my seat, adjust my glasses, fold my hands in my lap, and get properly focused on the screen before me. If it's a movie I've been anticipating for some time than I get really focused on the screen. What do I mean by really focused? Hey, look, you either understand what I'm saying or you don't, and I sincerely hope you do. And if it's a movie I've already seen and have returned to see again because I adore it so much - like "Atonement" on Sunday or, say, a revival of "Casablanca" - I close my eyes and say a quick "thank you" to whatever deity may be upstairs keeping an eye on things.

People watch movies to escape and I do, too. But my definition of escape differs quite a bit from everyone else's. Receiving what I expected when I plunked down my hard-earned money for a ticket does not assist in my escape. The greatest escape comes via a film that not only sees my soul, not only touches it, but understands it. A movie that has no interest in keeping both feet on the boring, old earthly plain.


A movie like "Atonement" leaves the earthly plain behind. I don't just get lost in the narrative, I vanish into its woodlands and marshes - never to be seen again. I don't just drink it in, I get drunk on it - smashed, sloshed, stumbling about incoherently and clinging to a bottle of Glenfiddich aged 15 years. A movie like "Atonement" doesn't stay on the screen. No, the screen wraps itself around you and science and physics are rendered meaningless as the movie itself succeeds in in merging with you. The darkness of a movie theater becomes oh-so glorious when you lose sight of the fact you are in the darkness of a movie theater.

During the last 15-20 minutes of "Atonement" last Sunday, and this is a true story, a slight vibration of some kind spruced up and caused my movie theater seat to shake to a slight degree. I noted it and then was gone again - off into the sea of Briony and Cecilia and Robbie. I wasn't the only who felt it, though, for as I left after the final credit rolled a woman outside the auditorium was asking her fellow theater-goer if she too had felt a vibration below her seat during the last 20 minutes of the movie. And if so, what had it been?

Yes, what had it been? Well, I'll tell you. Last Sunday the darkness of the theater turned so glorious the earth literally started shaking.

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