Phrase-making can be a lucrative profession; think Don LaFontaine, who, long after Thaddeus Suski died, proclaimed “in a world...” at the beginning of more than 5,000 movie trailers. LaFontaine got rich as well, and famous — in a world of voice-over. BTW, the movie In a World features a fictionalized LaFontaine. An honorable profession, voice-over: the man who introduced Pall Mall Cigarettes on radio and television retired on the catchphrase “...and they are mild,” but that’s another story.
Coming Soon! An entire roomful of signs bearing this and other hopeful bywords and useful cliches existed on the mezzanine of the movie palace Dean and I were involved in running in 1976, the 2,672-seat St. George Theatre in Staten Island. The movie exhibition business in those days needed a sign room to contain them all: Starts Wednesday, Starts Thursday, Starts Friday, New Release! Double Feature! and my favorite, a tasseled banner, Sneak Preview Tonite! It’s hard to think of our time at the theater without reliving the load-in, when the film canisters arrived. The marquee letters went up, and one or another of these plastic or cardboard showcards bearing a Coming Soon variation was replaced in the poster case by the inevitable Now Playing.
It was a time when people came out of their houses and apartments to sit together in a communal trance, in an auditorium large enough to rival Lascaux or the Luray Caverns, and watch Linda Blair’s head swivel three hundred and sixty degrees on her body — and, for a moment, believe it!
That’s what happens with good storytelling/ moviemaking. It’s called “willing suspension of disbelief.” The poet S.T. Coleridge came up with it, back in 1817, and it more or less means that I throw logic and caution to the winds, in order to enjoy an obvious piece of fiction. Nobody could enjoy a magic show without pretending that the assistant really is sawed in two, and there’s that novel you wish wouldn’t end.
The best demonstration of the fact that willing suspension works at the movies is that an audience watching Casablanca, most of whom are not completely colorblind, are in a world (to borrow LaFontaine’s cliché) that is entirely black and white. I’m happy when Dorothy lands in Oz, and the world blossoms into Technicolor (the 3-strip color process no less, in its first iteration), but at the end, I wake with her in black and white, safe at home in Kansas, and I’m still in the movie’s dream.
Perhaps my happiest moments at the St. George — talk about being in a world — involved movies so completely satisfying that I was able to forget the overdrawn checkbook I’d left back in my office under the stairs. There was Taxi Driver and its gleaming mean streets of Times Square, that I knew so well having walked through them, desperate myself. There was The Man Who Would Be King (when Sean Connery/(Danny) humming “The Minstrel Boy,” strides to the middle of a rope bridge he knows will soon be cut down, pitching him into a Himalayan chasm). Since the St. George Theatre, in its twilight as a cinema, was itself a kind of chasm for us, its temporary occupants, I can see why this is one of the only movies I watched from beginning to end, my legs tucked up in a cozy seat in the lower balcony.
I watched The Post two nights ago — I’m ashamed to say I watched it on i-Tunes, but then it belongs to last year’s Oscar picks, and somehow slipped through my cinema fingers in its year. Now you can’t find it in a theater. It’s a riveting movie, and despite the lack of fellow dreamers in the dark and fresh-popped corn, I went to sleep afterwards in a world of dial phones and manual typewriters. The movie awakened in me the desire to watch All the President’s Men again, which, I’m happy to say, we showed on the St. George Theatre’s bigger-than-life grape-soda-stained screen in the year of its release, 1976.
I’m a little worried about the line between fiction and non-, these days. Are we getting our willing-suspension fix often enough in a world that’s “post-truth,” whatever that actually means? How can we tell what to suspend, when there isn’t any difference between belief and disbelief? What's coming soon...or next? And as this pandemic begins to wane, what world, exactly, are we in?