That’s how it was in the theaters of my childhood, and at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island in 1976, which I had a hand in managing. Our screen may have been badly stained from some long-ago grape soda, but it was big enough for 70 mm. We dreamed big, and so did the better number of directors whose movies we showed: Lumet, Scorcese, Pakula, to name a few. Too bad Jane Campion was just starting art school that year, or we might have screened one of hers. Same goes for Spike Lee. But I digress.
What if there never are any more movie theaters? Movie attendance has been in steep decline for the last several decades. When Scorcese opened The Irishman on Netflix, with merely a nod to a premier in a limited number of theaters, he bypassed distribution to movie houses entirely, flirting with what may be a new theaterless era.Then the Pandemic happened, and well, you know the rest. This year’s Academy Awards will be the first to include films never seen in theaters. But.
In Marilynn Robinson’s novel, Lila, I stumbled with delight on the following:
“She went to the movies. Every payday she put aside the money it would cost her to go two times a week, and then she got by on what was left after the rent....When she was sitting there in the dark sometimes, when it was crowded, with somebody’s arm or knee brushing against hers, she was dreaming some stranger’s dream, everybody in there dreaming one dream together. Or they were ghosts all gathered in the dark, watching the world, seeing all the scheming and the murder, and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do for them. And then the dancing and the kissing and all the ghosts floating there just inches from a huge, beautiful face, to see the joy rise up in it. Like sparrows watching the sun come up, all of them happy at once, no matter that the light had nothing much to do with them.”
Going to the movies. A need so great a woman who works scrubbing a hotel’s lobby sets aside the money for two movie tickets, before she considers food. She needs to participate at least twice a week in a communal dream.
The huge beautiful face. My own husband’s boyhood memory of a two-story John Wayne. Let’s not lose track of scale; it means something. When I need epic proportion to help me cope with world events, I usually have an apocalyptic dream.
The pandemic has us grounded. I watch the latest horror on one of our tiny screens. Then I drop off. I’m walking south from the George Washington Bridge, which is somehow half unstrung, like a wounded harp. Something has happened. I make my way down the West Side of Manhattan, the highway a tumble of fallen rock, not a car or bus in sight. We’re all on foot and under heavy pack. My goal is South Ferry, where I’ll try to catch a boat, if there are any left, for home.
A movie in a shared space, on a giant screen, could have done this work for me, it might have given me the scale I needed to deal with the sense of crisis I had.
On the other side of this, whatever this is, are there movie theaters? There better be.