“There are so many kinds of innocence to be lost at the movies.” – Pauline Kael
At first, I was very hesitant to address the tragic events that occurred last week in a multiplex movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. For all the heartfelt sentiment and good intentions pouring out and onto the Internet from the film-going/ film-blogging communities, the discourse didn’t feel right to me in the aftermath. I wanted no part in it.
Forget the gotta-be-first feeding frenzy of broadcast and cable news networks. Or the utter (if completely unsurprising) insensitivity from one particular entertainment outlet. I’m only referring to the cinephiles now.
All the talk of the supposed sanctity of the movie-going experience provoked my inner-cynic, which admittedly doesn’t need much prompting.
I was incensed by the knee-jerk reactions of people whose writing I respect and read regularly. Too much nostalgia in the air.
Anyone who has been to a multiplex in the last decade or so could not possibly ignore the crude bombardment of advertising; Broadband and cola ads, promos for garbage TV programs and yeah, the dismal and unending slate of tell-all coming attractions. The distractions come from within the theater as well, the audience itself – most commonly, the self-important glow of a person’s face illuminated by his or her cellphone.
As if the images on the screen should have to compete with something so small and insignificant.
Who could possibly look past all of this, and still, at the end of the day, make a statement as grand as, “Theaters are my church“?
That Friday night after the news broke, I had resolved to stay in and put on a movie. Not a severe departure from most of my Friday nights, but it was my plan and I had every intention of sticking to it.
First, I waffled back and forth between Taxi Driver and Dressed to Kill. Then, I made it into the first two scenes of Marnie, before I thought I had better revisit Strangers on a Train for educational (writing) purposes. DVD in hand, I realized all my previous considerations were far too nasty, and I narrowed things down to either The Red Shoes or Notorious, only to try about five minutes of Mystery Train. Then, finally, I felt pretty good about my final decision – French Cancan – only to eject the disc after reaching the menu screen.
I gave up.
Before going to sleep, I read over Christopher Nolan’s statement. Woke up, had my coffee, and started writing a post about Stanley Kubrick’s improvement from Killer’s Kiss to The Killing, thanks to ace collaborator Jim Thompson. Something something the importance of a writing partner something something… I scrapped the piece almost immediately, and that brings us up to speed. Right here, right now, this very paragraph.
A good night’s sleep and a fresh cup of coffee helped quell my ire and cynicism. I thought about small towns and the people who live in them. How their only movie theater option might be the multiplex at the nearest mall.
I thought about my inability to settle on a movie to watch in my bedroom. How my issue wasn’t what to watch, but really, where and how I was watching it.
And I thought about the cinephiles. How they were right to say something had been violated for them.
During college and for a brief time after, I attended press screenings and reviewed movies. Probably as a direct result of this experience, I see nothing odd about going to a movie theater alone. Nearly every weekend I go to Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) cinema for a matinee screening, and yes, I usually don’t meet anyone there.
I arrive early, plant myself middle-middle and read a book until the lights go down. It’s not the most social activity for me, and I guess some people who don’t understand how I feel might find the description a bit depressing.
When the soundtrack pops to life and the image hits the screen, the audience drops out and focuses in. Even if you arrive with people, and whatever affect the strangers around you may have, cinema – the act of taking in a movie, as it is said – is a solitary experience.
La Loi. Deep End. Four Nights of a Dreamer. The Devil, Probably. Tree of Life. Body Double. The Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. Damsels in Distress. Johnny Guitar. Daisies. Notorious.
I’ve lost count of everything I’ve seen at BAM, not to mention the array of films viewed at New York’s other fine rep. houses scattered across the city. I tend to forget what an embarrassment of riches this city has in terms of cinemas, how many places we, cinephiles, have to call home.
Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it was David Lynch who said you haven’t seen a movie unless you have seen it in theaters. If that’s a slight exaggeration, it’s still not so far from the truth.
My high-school film teacher, Mr. Howe, once asked me if I had ever seen Lawrence of Arabia before. I told him I hadn’t, and he said that was good. I should refrain from watching it on Turner Classic or on DVD. Lawrence of Arabia could only be experienced in a theater.
“It’s the only way you can feel the desert,” he said. And if you don’t feel the desert, than the movie doesn’t work.
So I waited for four years. Toward the end of my senior year of college, AFI’s Silver Theatre held a screening of Lawrence of Arabia in 70 mm, and I knew my wait was over. I took the bus to Silver Spring and went by myself.
It was a midday screening on a Monday or Friday, making me the youngest in attendance by at least 30 years. There couldn’t have been 20 people in the theater, maybe closer to 10.
The film had me completely memorized, from the opening scene of Lawrence speeding on his motorcycle. I felt the desert.
In our loving tributes to the cinema, we should be careful not to drown out the real issue of last week’s tragedy: America’s problem with gun control, though unfortunately, that’s a lesson destined to be swept under the rug until it rears its ugly head yet again.
Next week, I promise to return to something more directly linked to screenwriting. Forgive my indulgence, but when awful things happen, I have always turned to the movies as my most reliable source of comfort.