“She” turns out to be five years old, but she could be me! Or just about anybody I know, with the possible exception of Trevor Noah, who admitted to Stephen Colbert that he actually likes being sequestered. Everyone else seems to miss being out in the world; in social media, “the movies” come up a lot in a fantasy sense of “what I’m gonna do when this is all over.”
With all the pre-pandemic talk of nobody going out to catch the brief appearance of The Irishman at precious few actual theaters a few months back, and the current flap about how this enforced imprisonment at home will surely kill movie exhibition once and for all, it might be curtains for the theater business. Or is it? When our personal and very individual liberations finally do occur, popcorn in the dark with a safe six feet between viewers may well be the new obsession; you heard it here first.
Yes, and from someone who spent a year of her life running a movie palace, Staten Island’s St. George Theatre, back in 1976, when, believe me, amongst 2,672 seats there was likely to be at least six feet between scant moviegoers who showed up one week for John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King. Here’s a backward glance:
There were movies that were right for a movie palace in an urban setting — and then there were the movies we wanted to show. Romantic entrepreneurs, we should have passed on The Man Who Would Be King. John Huston’s adaptation of a story by Rudyard Kipling starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine was wrong, wrong, wrong in a neighborhood that craved Taxi Driver, Shaft, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We booked King anyway, an expensive mistake that cost us a nearly empty auditorium for a week — but gave me an afternoon.
In that year of trying to keep the St. George Theatre’s doors open, I seldom watched a whole movie. I caught glimpses of whatever was on screen, as I passed from my office to the restroom, the candy stand or the manager’s office. As I walked back and forth, I felt I had seen the movie, especially if it wasn’t very good. When it was good, I lingered for stretches by the concession stand with a small buttered popcorn.
The Man Who Would Be King was the exception. It was lush, a tale of two adventurers in search of treasure. The tones of the movie are reddish gold, they matched the theater itself, the brocade and gilded statuary, especially when the light from the film shone on all that gold leaf. The characters in Kipling’s story are eventually undone by their own greed and a hunger for power, something I could barely imagine, struggling as I was to pay our rent on the theater and our house.
Two people bought tickets for the show. Counting me, that made three of us in a 2,672-seat theater — talk about social distancing! I settled into my perch in the empty balcony. I would never sit there again or feel that free again, as we slipped, one week at a time, through what was to be a disastrous year. But in my memory of that afternoon, I am completely happy. I ate my popcorn right down to the grannies at the bottom of the box. Huston’s adventure story was the movie for that moment in my life, filled with the right blend of desperation and bravado.
1. The movies as a business and pastime were only about ten years old the last time a pandemic ravaged America:
TILL INFLUENZA ENDS
Closing of Theatres Leads National
Association to Stop Shipping Films.
Copeland Says He Is Ready to Stop
Public Gatherings if Situation
2. Parts of this post appeared in 2015, at which point Clifford Browder remarked:
I grew up on British movies of the 1930s — yes, way back then — that glorified the Empire and those who fought for it. I never thought about the native peoples and their point of view...those movies didn't want you to. It wasn't about politics; I and boys like me just wanted to be immersed in an exotic world with lots of adventure, casts of thousands, etc., and the "good guys" always win. Your movie is of a later date, obviously, and more critical. But those old movies — often Technicolor epics by Alexander Korda — were fun. But they wouldn't fly today.