When my parents split up, back when I was a young child, my father promised he’d visit my brother, sister, and me every weekend. To his credit, I barely remember a Saturday when he didn’t make the trip from New York City out to the suburbs of Long Island. He was as regular as clock-work. And remaining consistent with his consistency, almost every single one of those Saturdays we spent at the movies. Some fathers may have chosen this outlet because it was the easiest way to keep children both happy and quiet. My father, I know for a fact, took us because he loved the movies just as much as we did, if not more.
I remember one of the first Saturdays he came to visit. He picked my brother and me up from the local bowling alley, where we were doing what my mother loved best: bowling. Before we left the alley, my father told us about a new movie that had just come out with a lot of robots in it. He asked us if that was something we’d be interested in seeing. I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” while my brother, never one for fantasy films, expressed his interest in seeing something with Walter Matthau. My brother was eight at the time and his taste in films was obviously a lot different than mine and my father’s. That film about robots that my father was talking about was Star Wars and looking back, I realize, by saying the film had “a lot of robots in it,” he was doing his best to sell the idea of the film to his children because he most likely wanted to see it as well. I guess I know that because, as an adult, that’s exactly how I would present it.
The coin toss to decide which film we were going to see that day took place over an open copy of The Daily News, in which advertisements for both films were visible. I guess my father didn’t have a quarter on him because he ended up flipping a dime instead. And which ever way my brother called it, heads or tails, it went the other way and I won. We were going to see Star Wars.
There’s no need to discuss how the film affected me. We’ve heard all the stories about a generation obsessed and carrying that obsession into adulthood, only to be let down by third-rate attempts to carry on the saga that once held the entire world captive. We’ve all heard those stories “a long, long time ago.”
But something else happened that day. And if not that day, then either just before or soon after. The movie-seeing experience had infected my system like a virus. The thrill of opening day. The anticipation leading up to a film’s release. The coming attractions. Besides those yearly visits to Yankee Stadium, there was hardly anything more exciting.
Over those ten or more years he came to visit, we saw all three Star Wars films, Jaws 1-4, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, E.T., Back to the Future, Gremlins, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, Escape From Alcatraz, Vacation, European Vacation, Summer Rental, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and hundreds and hundreds of others. If it came out in the late seventies to mid-eighties, chances are, we went to see it.
The excitement before the start of a film would usually reach its climax just as we’d sit in our seats with our popcorn and our sodas, waiting for the lights to go down. During this waiting period, the chatter of the crowd sounded like a explosion of words caught inside a blender. Voices unified into one uncontestable hum of excitement added to the experience, creating an entire element composed “of, by, and for the people.” It was America shining in all its uncontainable glory.
One moment that still brings about a chuckle anytime I recall it occurred when we went to see a re-release of House of Wax with Vincent Price. My father had seen it when it was originally released and felt it was definitely something his children should experience. As an added bonus, the film was in “3-D,” which was something completely new to me. The level of chatter that day was at an all-time high because there was a group of teenagers in the audience that were most likely either high or drunk. As a ten year old, I was intrigued by the teenagers and tried to listen to what they were saying to each other. Because everyone else in the theatre was talking as well, I couldn’t really make anything out. Their voices, though the most powerful in the room, were still part of that collective hum. I did, however, hear the one teenager, who was growing tremendously impatient and finally yelled out, “Let’s go! Start the movie! I wanna see some ‘3-D’ tits!!!” I almost spit out my soda as he said it. Embarrassed that someone had sad the word “tit” in the presence of my father, I did my best not to laugh, though inside I was screaming. The gods above must’ve heard the teenager’s plea because soon enough, the lights went down and the sneak previews started. I don’t particularly remember much of the film. I’m sure I liked it. I loved Vincent Price as a child. And it was in 3-D as well. The sound of that teenager’s voice, however, still resonates inside my head: “I wanna see some ‘3-D’ tits!!!”
Once I went away to college, I saw less of my father, though I tried my best to continue our Saturday ritual of going to the movies. Then, after a year and a half of not doing much schoolwork, I failed out of college and returned home and got a job at the local movie theatre of all places. The pay was crap but one enormous benefit was that we could see any movie we wanted for free at anytime. To me, that was the equivalent of getting paid $50 an hour. On my days off, I would sometimes sit through three or four films in a row. During that period, I watched Fatal Attraction, The Princess Bride, How I Got Into College, Casualties of War, Skin Deep, Lethal Weapon 2, Dead Poet’s Society, Born on the Fourth of July, Back to the Future 2, Batman, and, again, many, many others. I took more than full advantage of this opportunity.
The one thing main difference between this period and when I’d go with my family was that I was going to see these movies by myself. Suddenly, movie-going became a solitary experience. And since I would go on “off” days, like Tuesday or Wednesday, usually there was hardly anyone else in the theatre. I would have it mostly to myself. Immediately I took to this new experience, enjoying the solitude, as well as the peace and quiet before the film began. I found it comforting in more ways than one.
Coincidentally, this was around the same time I stopped going to church and in retrospect, the significance couldn’t be more apparent. When I’d go see a film, as a solitary man, sitting in a somewhat dark, quiet room, reflecting on my life as I waited for a film to begin, it was much like when someone enters an empty church and is able to kneel before God, reflecting in the peace and quiet of their surroundings. I didn’t know it then, but the cinema had become my new religion.
Although, I eventually grew up and quit that job at the movie theatre, the experience of going to the movies by myself continued throughout my twenties and thirties. In fact, once I moved to New York City, the selection of films increased, which meant I was going at least three times a week, sometimes four. I also discovered I wasn’t the only person that enjoyed going to the cinema alone. Apparently, it was a “New York thing.”
Quite often, I’d go to see a film on a sunny Tuesday afternoon and there would be others sprinkled about the theatre, quietly reflecting on whatever was on their mind. Again, the parallel between the cinema and church seems worth pointing out. In place of kneeling before a bloody man, hanging from a cross, people were sitting before a screen that projected ads for local restaurants or puzzles with jumbled names of movie stars.
But all that has changed in a big way. If you haven’t noticed, these days, before every film (at least in the multiplexes), commercials for television shows, movies still in production, and the latest CD release from the latest synthetic pop star are already playing as you enter the theatre. I’m not talking about the commercials they run before the coming attractions. I’m talking about the shit they’re playing twenty minutes before the film begins.
No longer can one sit in peace and contemplate his existence, before watching a story shot at twenty-four frames per second. We’re forced to ingest this obnoxious presentation of what appears to be the worst pop culture has to offer. And you can forget about bringing a book to kill the time because the volume is cranked way past “eleven.” Remember that scene in Back to the Future when Marty builds a gigantic amplifier and blows himself across the room? That’s how loud it is.
Which only helps to illustrate my point that these commercials not only disrupt the time that the solitary person once used to reflect, they also project louder than the opening day chatter that made opening day even more exhilarating. That collection of voices I wrote of earlier can now barely be heard beneath the earsplitting perpetration of products not worthy of our attention.
It’s sad. The only real solution to this dilemma, I suppose, is to show up just as the coming attractions are starting. But what about getting a good seat? Chances are, most of the good ones are taken already if you wait until that final moment. This is a troubling and harrowing situation that unfortunately, most modern day movie-goers are forced to confront.
True. There are still the small art-house theatres. And thank goodness for them. Not only do they recognize the significance of sitting quietly in the dark before a movie, the music they sometimes play usually coincides with the film you’re about to watch. They may play the soundtrack to the film or, if it’s an older film, they’ll at least play music from the time period the film was made.
Unfortunately, not every town has an art house theatre. And if they do, even though the selection they offer usually consists of the top-of-the-line indie films, there’s still only a small selection of films to chose from., which leaves the person that goes to the movies three or four times a week with the dilemma of sometimes finding himself at the local multiplex.
I haven’t heard any complaints from my father about any of this. And he still goes to the movies religiously every weekend. He’s a creature of habit to the very end. There is a possibility he makes it to the theatre just before the previews, missing those obnoxious commercials that have become nothing short of a hellish experience for his son. I doubt it though. He’s an ex-cop and very regimented. Chances are he gets there extremely early to ensure he gets good seats. That’s just who he is. It’s also possible he’s a more tolerant person than his son, although, in my defense, I feel as if I’ve provided a pretty good argument. Anyway, next time we speak, I plan on asking him how he deals with this albatross around our collective necks. As for me, I’m still going to the movies but I may be in need of a new religion. Any suggestions?
* Please, no suggestions. Not interested.