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Intermisson: On Movie Theaters

My push to see all the Best Picture Nominees is sending me back into movie theaters themselves – something which is making me weirdly nostalgic.  Because I’ve been kind of depriving myself of going out to a movie, and I’ve realized that in the days of DVDs and streaming video, I kind of miss that.

For a while, when I was a child, my aunt managed the movie house on campus at the University of Connecticut. I don’t remember whether we ever used this to get in free – although my aunt did score me a couple of movie posters from the place, including the poster for Snoopy Come Home which had pride of place in my childhood bedroom. That is probably where I saw my very first movie, at the age of three – my parents took me to see a screening of Fantasia, thinking that “okay, it’s Disney, it’s a cartoon, this is perfect.”  But – just like many parents over the years who probably thought exactly the same thing – they forgot about the “Night On Bald Mountain” sequence.

Reportedly, I spent the entire sequence staring wide-eyed at the screen, and my parents kept worriedly asking me, “are you okay, Kimmy?” and I would whisper back “uh-huh.”

College Cinema had already closed by the time I was in my teens, otherwise I’d probably have gotten one of my summer jobs there. Instead I ended up at the local multiplex in my own town, which was one of your bog-standard multi-screen theaters showing the big blockbusters.  I worked there two summers in a row, bookending my freshman year in college, usually at the concession stand doling out popcorn and Goobers to guests.  Occasionally I was an usher, which involved not just ripping the tickets but also doing the “movie walk” – our manager took the notion of “keeping order” very seriously, so ever yfifteen minutes, I had to enter each theater, walk all the way down the center aisle to the front of the theater, and then walk back up the aisle and leave.  Ostensibly this was so I could check on things in the house and speak to any troublemakers, but the manager insisted on the walk the length of the aisle to remind patrons that we were watching.  For some movies, I would time this so as to catch my favorite scenes – when we had Terminator II I always did one of my early walks during an early scene, when Schwarzenegger’s character first arrives in our time and stumbles into a dive bar, intimidating the patrons into giving him clothes and a motorcycle, just so I could see him make his exit.

That was also the year I was sent into the theaters to make a special announcement; one of our guests had parked in the fire lane, and was in danger of being towed. The manager sent me into each theater to announce that the driver needed to move their car or else.  When I got into the Terminator II screening, I improvised a bit:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have an announcement: the white Toyota with license plate 12345 is illegally parked.  Please move your car….or I’ll be back.”

That was all in small town Connecticut.  When I got to New York….that was different.

During my freshsman year, I lived two blocks from Cinema Village, which back then was a second-run and revivial house. The schedule seemed to change every couple days, and I’d get the poster-sized calendars every month – whoever was making the selections liked to schedule two films per day, run back-to-back, and you could buy a double-feature ticket and just pick which film you wanted to see first and just stay for the next one.  I saw so many old films there which I’d always heard about but never saw.  Sometimes without planning it – one college friend was shocked to learn that I’d never seen a Marx brothers movie. A few days after I told him that, I was in my dorm room one Saturday when he came by asking if I had plans for that afternoon.  “Not….really.”

“Good. Get your shoes on.”

“…Why?”

“Cinema Village is showing Day at the Races and Night at the Opera today.  You’ve never seen a Marx brothers movie and I need to do something about that.”

After freshman year, college caught up to me and I wasn’t able to get to Cinema Village after that; by the time I graduated it had turned into a more independent-movie schedule, and by then I was living closer to the Angelika. I actually have the Angelika to thank for introducing me to one of my favorite films – one brutally hot day in the 90s, my air conditioner was busted and I went to the Angelika, figuring that I could just see a movie for a couple hours and cool down. I didn’t even care what I saw, I figured that anything at the Angelika was going to be good, so I just wandered in and picked something that was about to start.  And that’s how I ended up seeing Smokea beautiful little adaptation of a Paul Auster short story.

And then working in theater cut into moviegoing time for ten years, and then movies got more expensive.  Every so often I’d see something in the huge multiplex here in Downtown Brooklyn, usually when friends were rounding up a group to see something like the latest Star Trek film or something like that.

But lately I’ve been trying to change that. I got a membership to the Brooklyn Academy of Music solely for its film center, so I could get discounts on tickets. I also signed up for the email newsletter for a couple of indie houses in Williamsburg, one of which hosts Saturday morning cartoon screenings – I keep meaning to go, but haven’t yet.  There’s also an Alamo Drafthouse that finally opened up in Brooklyn – within walking distance.

I also discovered there’s a smaller indie house in Bushwick that  just opened up, which seems to combine all the best elements of my favorite houses – it looks like it will have a combination of first- and second-run films, like Cinema Village; it will serve food like Alamo, and cheekily names its burger the “Royale with cheese”; and it’s only seven dollars a ticket. I can see myself heading there a lot.

And there’s something about seeing a film in the theater, you know?  The filmmaker has chosen their shots specifically to be seen on a big screen, and specifically for the viewers to be watching in a darkened room.  If you’re watching at home, it’s too easy to multi-task, to be checking your email now and then while you watch. In a theater, you have nothing to do but watch the story.

I have a whole plan mapped out over the next week, trying to get all the films in before Oscar night. I’ve also got seven different theaters I’ll be visiting, dotted throughout Brooklyn. I sincerely hope that this will be the beginning of more of a habit.

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