“A movie theater, on the other hand, is a beautifully simple machine for enhancing your attention. Between the dark environment, the impossibility of pausing the action while you go for a snack and the understanding that even a quick Twitter check will be met with murderous glares from your neighbors, theaters grant you the superpower of deep, unwavering focus....”
—From The New York Times, Opinion Today, Andrew Blackwell. Underlining is mine...
Marcus Loew, back in the high-rolling 1920’s, opined that, “People buy tickets to theaters, not movies.”
It was this kind of thinking that persuaded me, my husband, and a small cluster of young idealists to set up camp in an aging 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre, back in 1976. That is our saga in brief, and the reason for this continuing blog.
Just one more quote: “The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie...” — Walker Percy, The Moviegoer.
It was 2016, pre-pandemic. The movie I’d paid to see at an older theater in the West Village, (DeNiro, The Comedian) contains a remarkable performance, which makes it well worth viewing, even if it is, of itself, not a terrific film. I was sitting in the dark with strangers, digging into a large bag of recently-popped corn, staring at an illuminated screen inside the borders of which, in another world remarkably like our own, people several times our size torture and sometimes even love each other.
I believe I’d still think the movie worth seeing, if I’d watched it at home sitting on the edge of the bed, but I can’t — entirely — be sure. Because what Percy’s moviegoer is getting at is that he’s “in” the movie, and I suspect that only happens in a theater.
The first major DeNiro flick I can recall seeing, Taxi Driver, I watched in 1976, at our beloved St George Theatre. We showed the DeNiro classic in the eighth week of our theater tenancy, a week after Don’t Open the Window (aka Let Sleeping Corpses Lie), a 1974 Spanish-Italian sci-fi/horror flick, the kind of fare we were generally forced, by circumstances, to offer our audiences.
It was a big deal that we got Taxi Driver at all: generally speaking, important movies that were anywhere near first–run were out of our reach as a second– or third–run “buck fifty” house. I actually sat down in the middle of the auditorium, just beyond the overhang of the balcony, and watched it from beginning to end. This was something of a luxury, just watching the movie, since I was supposed to be scooping popcorn, selling tickets or writing checks to vendors. The light of the film spilling out on the golden statues left and right of the proscenium framed New York’s garbage-strewn streets and the paranoid delusions of a lone-wolf cab driver, softening my own personal blues about how to pay the carting service and the rent and just get to the end of the week. When it was over, I got up and went back to work. I knew that I’d seen a great movie, because, after real life hove back into view, washing away the dream state the movie had created, those characters were still with me.
But if it had been a lousy flick, as the moviegoer in Walker Percy’s novel, seems to be implying, I’d still have been “in” the movie, and happy, at least for the hour or so it lasted.
I’m afraid I only gave you part of what The Moviegoer had to say about the experience of being “in” the movies. Here’s the last part of the quote:
“...Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.”
Unlike The Moviegoer, I’ve had and continue to have both my Central Park/Parthenon moments, and the movies — both good and bad and everything in between--shared in the dark, with strangers.
Yes, I also watch perched on the edge of the bed, at home, but even with popcorn, it’s a detached experience. There’s always the possibility that my cell will chirp with news of a lockdown, or, worse still, we’ll lose the stream and whatever escape from reality has been offered will instantly vanish. This only has happened to me twice in theater-going, both times when the film broke, treating us to an image of burning sprocketed frames. Even in tech failure, movies the old way were dramatic!
Here are some bad movies I remember with fondness:
• Mommie Dearest (I love Faye Dunaway)
• Easy Rider (iconic film of my twenties, terrible the second time around)
• Gable and Lombard (we ran this doggie to an empty house one afternoon, but I was happy in the dark.
• Horrors of the Black Museum (at the Oakley Drive-In in Cincinnati, 1957). Watching from your car is still being “in” the movie somehow. Why is that?
• Three Coins in a Fountain
I shouldn’t count three coins — I was only six! At that point popcorn was the only thing I had any taste for. . .