' ' Cinema Romantico: Dreaming of Going to the Movies...

Friday, April 10, 2020

Dreaming of Going to the Movies...

Growing up in a small Iowa town with no movie theaters in walking distance, we drove to them instead, taking Highway 6 on the north side of town or University Ave on the south side into West Des Moines. Those theaters had interchangeable names – the Valley 3, the Westwood 6, the Fleur 4 – that belied their status as significant totems of my youth. Whenever my mom would take me to see a movie, I would come home and act the movie out, like I never wanted to leave the theater in the first place, the memory sustaining me until I returned. And it was not until I got a car, in 1996, when I transformed into a devout patron of the cinema. I saw everything that summer, even “Chain Reaction”, and little did I know watching Keanu play slip ‘n’ slide on the Michigan Avenue Bridge that just 10 years later I’d be crossing that bridge constantly to see movies after work at the AMC River East. The spring of 1996 I drove through a pulverizing thunderstorm to see “Twister”, which was ironic not just because of the movie but because, well, while it’s inane to say I wanted to risk life and limb to go to the movies, I’d put up with a lot, like blinding sheets of rain and hail.

As I’ve aged, the moviegoing experience has worsened, theater chains trying to replicate home in the age of streaming, with recliners and food service, only causing patrons to treat the theater like home, demanding the movies meet them on their terms rather than abiding the code of cinema and meeting the movies on theirs. When the lights go down, phones are still scrolled and sometimes photos are snapped, not just by punk kids but adults too, like the mom at “Toy Story 4” who had her children pose IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MOVIE. That’s not to suggest I have renounced going to the movies. Once upon a time I was a movie theater manager and going to managers-only midnight movie screenings reminded me of the screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan once saying he wrote in discos to train himself to rewrite on noisy Hollywood movie sets. I was mortified at my first managers-only screening, of “Sphere”, to discover everyone talked, an oppressively cacophonous gaggle of movie theater managers offering ostensibly witty commentary the whole time, akin to several scattered pockets of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” captive robots rather than just one. (Hence my aversion to “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”) Like Sheane Duncan, it was valuable, teaching me how to find my own peace and quiet amidst couldn’t-care-less noisemakers.

Even so, the moviegoing experience has become compromised by more than just racket, epitomized in how I’m conscious of where the exits are every time I sit down and how any person who acts weird during a screening, or just walks in mid-movie and stands there, even if they most likely just entered the wrong theater by mistake, momentarily pulls me out of the movie. “We are vulnerable when we go to the movies,” Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy, “surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world.” That’s one of the best parts of going to the movies and I have hard, hard feelings about it being compromised.

The ubiquity of screens right in our hands and movies beamed directly to our TVs might solve that riddle. But if crowds were an enemy even before COVID-19, I still crave them. Though the experience of being alone in a cavernous movie theater, like I was for 2007’s “The Hunting Party”, is initially entertainingly novel, it just as quickly becomes odd and alienating. I’m an introvert, yes, an introvert-introvert, but the community of a movie theater, where everyone’s attention is up there [points at screen], feels energizing, the thrill of that audience gasp when the metaphorical house of cards in “Uncut Gems” just suddenly implodes or when, watching “Little Women”, at the Avalon in Washington D.C., realizing the guy sitting a row behind us was bawling his eyes out.

Who knows when we will go to the movies again? “There are so many films in the pipelines right now,” AMC President Adam Aron told the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, “there’ll be a tremendous amount of product in theaters.” Of course, Aron’s theater chain just had its credit rating downgraded, with default proclaimed as imminent. Phillips talked to Columbia College Professor Ron Falzone, who cited the familiar moments in the movie industry’s history when it all seemed imperiled, from the Spanish Flu to the advent of TV, evoking how cinema has always survived and will again. Perhaps, but in what form? The 1918 Influenza, as Richard Brody notes in his own consideration of the current dilemma, is what helped pave the way for the big studio monopoly and it’s hard not to wonder if this will become the impetus for Marvel and Amazon and Netflix to truly become our overlords. And that’s not to say nothing of independent theaters, like my local, the Music Box, of which I’m a proud member, where the profit margins are thin in the best of times.

The Music Box, as it happens, is where I spent last Good Friday, watching what turned out to be my favorite movie of 2019, “Her Smell.” If it was a claustrophobic, unsettling descent into the stale, filthy air of clubs and recording studios, it did not predictably collapse into fatalism but erupted into glorious exultation. Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) is risen! I left the theater and stepped into the bright spring sunshine, feeling exulted too, liberated even, from all the emotional sludge I’d carried into the place. I was cleansed. Everyone has tips for how to clear your mind when you’re self-isolating, but what if going to the movies is how you clear your mind?

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