In the spirit of “one person’s ceiling is another person’s floor,” I remember my dismay at the end of a delicious movie I went to alone in the 1980’s, L’Etoile du Nord, starring Simone Signoret. After the credits rolled, I felt full, the way you do after a good meal. “So perfect,” I was thinking, till one of two patrons sitting on my right, a good twenty years younger than me, turned to the other and hissed, “that sucked.” They didn’t walk out, but they’d thought about it. There’d been “no special effects!” It was the era of Close Encounters, and to a lot of people movies were a sum total of their effects.
A decade earlier, in 1976, I’d signed on, with my husband and friends, to run a neighborhood movie palace, the St. George Theatre, in what turned out to be despite our best efforts, its last year of showing movies.
You could say I lied in the first paragraph, because, during that year I walked out routinely from whatever we were showing any particular week. That year doesn’t count though; when you’re operating a theater, what’s on the screen has to exert a powerful, almost centrifugal force, to keep you in your seat. Otherwise you’re thinking of re-stocking the concession stand or figuring payroll, or writing that giant check to Con Edison to keep the lights on and the movie actually on the screen.
Just as I can’t remember more than one movie I paid to see on which I walked out, I can also only remember a handful of movies I watched from beginning to end, while we were trying desperately to keep the St. George’s gilded doors open. Taxi Driver, Blazing Saddles, The Man Who Would Be King, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I now realize that, despite the fact that we were a “buck fifty” house, showing second-, third-, fourth- or even fifth-run flicks, a lot of these movies have ended up in the Library of Congress list of notable films. That I didn’t walk back to the lobby during any of these, but curled up with popcorn and was transfixed, shows what movies can do, in the right time and place. Hollis Frampton, a Structuralist filmmaker of the seventies and an early mentor of mine maintained that, “A good movie should make you forget the balance in your checking account, a bad toothache, or the love you just lost.”
To which I’d add, at a time when I yearn to walk into any theater anywhere, the thought of walking out on a movie, even a bad one, is foreign to me...!
Here’s a really interesting scientific examination of how the brain manages what S.T. Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief,” that is, how we buy into fiction.