27 October 2010

Silver Screen Attractions

Going to see a movie in a theater can be a costly, frustrating hassle.  Even without concessions, my wife and I can blind buy a DVD for the cost of attending a screening these days.  If we like the movie, great; now we own it.  If we don't enjoy it, we can always trade it in and recoup some of the money.  Once you buy a theater ticket, that money's gone.  The best you can show for it is a ticket stub.  If you need to dash off to the bathroom (as I tend to do, thank you, Crohn's disease), there's the embarrassment of walking past people and then there's the passage of the film you miss because no one's going to pause the screening for you.  And, of course, there's always the chance that someone is going to violate the once-respected norms of attending a theatrical screening by taking a call on their cell, or texting, or carrying on a conversation with their buddy.

There's always someone, it seems, who is intent on recreating Mystery Science Theater 3000 wherever he goes.  (I say, "he" and not, "he or she" because, let's face it, women don't generally crack a lot of jokes for the benefit of an uninterested audience.)  Go to see an all-audiences movie, and there's the risk of dealing with the laissez-faire parents who believe their ticket admission included free daycare for 90 minutes.  Go to the restricted film, and there are bound to be the just-turned-16 crowd who are there to celebrate being at an R rated movie more than they're there to actually watch the movie.  And let's not even go into the 3D fad, with its stupid, expensive glasses.

It may surprise you, if you've read this far, to know that I am wholeheartedly a fan of seeing films on the big screen.  For all the cost and hassle, I maintain that the difference between seeing a movie in a theater vs. seeing it at home is akin to going on safari vs. going to the zoo.  The theater is the natural environment for films.  Movies are filmed with deliberate gags and stunts all timed to excite and tweak an audience.  Watch a comedy in silence sometime and see how much silence is actually put into the movie following key lines.  That's there so that a live audience can laugh without missing the next line.  Contrast that silence with the reaction of a live audience, where laughter begets laughter.  I've watched many a comedy both with a crowd and by myself, and there's no question that movies are funnier with other people laughing.

"Wait a minute; the movie is the same whether one person laughs or a hundred laugh," you say.  True.  Remember that bit about whether a falling tree makes a noise if no one is around to hear it?  We've always said yes, that the noise is not dependent upon an audience.  What we failed to address was what effect that falling tree has on different audiences.  For instance, if you're in the woods by yourself and a tree randomly falls down, that would be pretty damn spooky.  If, however, you're with your buddies and it falls on one of them it has the potential to be hilarious (provided no one is seriously injured).  It's not the presence of noise that matters, but rather the effect of the tree having fallen at all.

In the Louisville area, we're fortunate to have Baxter Avenue Theaters, and their biweekly midnight movie series.  You know all those concerns I listed about seeing a movie with a live audience?  Toss them all (except the part about needing to run to the bathroom during the movie).  These screenings are all of older, cult favorite films that draw dedicated fans.  No one shows up for the sake of having somewhere to be; these crowds are there for the movie.

"What's the big deal about seeing an old movie in a theater?" you ask.  Has anyone told you you ask a lot of questions?  Anyway, there are a few reasons why this is appealing.  Firstly, as I said, the theater is a film's natural environment.  Seeing a movie there is like seeing an exotic animal in the wild.  Today, there's the Great Escape Oldham 8 in LaGrange, and 15 minutes away, across the county line is Tinseltown Louisville, a Cinemark complex.  But when I grew up the nearest movie theater was Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road in Louisville, a good 40 minutes away.  Mom wasn't big on movies; she took us to animated features and things targeted at families, but she had no desire to take us to more mainstream fare.  I'd go to school and hear about classmates being taken to see Ghostbusters, and while they intrigued me, I never bothered to make a point of asking to see them because I knew it wasn't in the cards.  I finally got to see it last Saturday at Baxter, and my inner child felt like he was finally catching up with his peers twenty years later.

When the Oldham 8 opened in 1995 I couldn't have been happier.  I was old enough to go to movies on my own, and having a theater that close negated the fact I couldn't yet drive.  Many a Friday night, my friends and I would get together for the last matinee-priced showing (before 6:00), then go traipsing around LaGrange.  Often, we'd wind up back at my house after stopping off to rent some more movies, and we'd stay up all hours of the night with our mini-marathons.  We had a few that stand out even today, but by and large it was the theatrical screening earlier in the night that was the highlight of my evening.  I'd go see movies I didn't even know anything about just for the sake of seeing something new in those days.  I had no idea what to expect with Event Horizon; even without seeing it since that night I can still vividly recall most of it.  I have no doubt that I enjoyed Paranormal Activity so much last year because the audience we saw it with was completely into it.  Waves of squeamish tension would crescendo with gasps, followed by embarrassed self-conscious chuckling.

I loved it in those early days, because they had a screen in the lobby, just above the ticket-taking stand, that kept looping trailers for forthcoming features.  The screen is still there, but it's been years since it's been used.  I'll never forget standing in line in 1996 and looking up to see the teaser trailer for Star Trek: First Contact.  I had to be nudged to keep walking in the line, because I was mesmerized.  It would be another three years before mainstream audiences stopped dismissing trailers as a forced irritant and began to actively seek them out (thank you, Star Wars: Episode I).

It's funny when I look at the list of movies I've seen in a theater.  Several of my all-time favorite movies aren't on that list, because I came to them after they'd had their run.  Some of those were released before my time; others were the movies my classmates got to see that I didn't.  It kills me that I've seen Meet the Fockers on a big screen, but not Lawrence of Arabia.  Thankfully, Baxter is there to give me a second chance at some of those older movies.  Two years ago, I finally got to see Dick Tracy after years of watching it on VHS and later DVD.  Last year, I got to see Batman, which I did see during its initial release.  But it's a favorite of mine, and I found there was a special little thrill in seeing it with a live audience just as into it as I was.

Which brings me to the other appeal of these midnight screenings: not only is the audience attentive and enthusiastic, but it often includes people seeing the movie for the first time.  We've taken my cousin to a handful of screenings, and there was a bit of a thrill for me to be the one to introduce her to Who Framed Roger Rabbit in a theatrical setting.  It was released seven years before she was born, so it was a rare opportunity for her to see it as I got to see it as a youth.  That same night, there was a young mother with her little girl, and while I don't know if the child had seen the movie at home or not, her mother was clearly there for the sake of sharing with her daughter a movie-going experience that she'd had years before.  It's a way to cheat the passage of time, and share the experience with a younger generation.  I hope one day my cousin will find herself reminiscing about these screenings and value the experience as much as I have.