Let’s face it – the theatrical experience, as we know it, is changing, if not disappearing altogether. I’ve written about this before, but the short of it is that I’m an advocate for the theatrical experience and seeing movies the way they were meant to be seen. Movies at their best are supposed to be communal experiences, properly seen with a crowd, high on the possibilities of what is about to unfold before them.
But I’m also not so naïve as to assume that every theater and every crowd is the best. I’ve been to enough movies to know that sometimes it really is just better to have stayed home, in the comforts of your own chair, and experience it that way. It certainly makes it easier, and I won’t lie, many of the movies I saw this awards season were through screeners that I received as a member of the film critics’ society I belong to. Perhaps I may have had a different opinion on some of these movies had I seen them with a crowd, but that’s doubtful. I don’t think my opinion of THIS IS 40 would have changed had I seen it on the big screen, for example.
This weekend I went to the theater twice – once to present LAWRENCE OF ARABIA at the Alamo Drafthouse and once to see ZERO DARK THIRTY again. Seeing LAWRENCE OF ARABIA in the theater was revelatory, and every exemplary adjective applies. I think it should be a law somewhere that LAWRENCE OF ARABIA play in a theater at least once a year everywhere, because watching it at home simply can’t compare. What was especially wonderful is that fully half the audience hadn’t seen it before. I’m no snob about that sort of thing – Lord knows I’ve got enough gaps in my own movie catalog to be judgmental against anyone else – and it always makes me happy when I screen a vintage movie and someone hasn’t seen it before. Who knows, someone in that audience may have their life altered as a result. It certainly happened to me, back in 1975, when as a 5-year-old I sat down to JAWS for the first time and was forever changed.
The other movie I saw, ZERO DARK THIRTY, was almost the opposite experience. Not that the movie was bad – it certainly wasn’t, and seeing it again clarified some things for me about the movie. I’m convinced it’s a masterpiece. No, first, the presentation was terrible – the bulb was dim, and much of the movie was difficult to make out as a result. The audience was subdued and mostly didn’t react to the movie, but it’s not like ZERO DARK THIRTY is any kind of crowd-pleasing fun time. Sometimes those larger theaters make it difficult to see the screen adequately because the projector light is too dispersed. That was likely the case here, and for me it was a visually miserable experience, especially the final half-hour. To theater owners who read this – frankly, I don’t care where you extend your profit margin. Jack up the prices on candy, water down the butter, do whatever it takes. But don’t skimp on the projector bulbs, especially if you’re playing 3D or IMAX movies. No wonder so many people stay home. At this point, there are home theaters that do a better job in presentation than the movie theaters. That’s just a flat-out truth.
In the coming years, that difference will become ever wider. As some theaters go the opposite direction, allowing texting in the theater, throwing out what makes the whole experience holy for many who go, more and more people will simply stay home. 2012 was an uncommonly good year for movies, but they can’t all be that good. 3D isn’t the answer. High frame rate isn’t the answer. I think better movies are the answer. 2012 was full of great movie experiences. Seeing THE AVENGERS in a packed house, full of kids aged 7 to 70, cheering their heroes – that’s what movie going is all about. Sadly, we had a tragedy this year as well, and if the events in Aurora caused people to decide to stay home altogether, I can’t blame them. All I’ll say to that is this: you should live your life the way you want, without fear, and if going to the theater suddenly becomes a revolutionary act, well then I’m Che Guevara. I’ll never give it up.
To that end, I humbly list my five favorite theatrical experiences. To what purpose? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve made it a resolution to do more writing this year, but perhaps someone will read this and understand that it’s not one thing that will make it better to see movies in a theater – it’s a host of things. Better movies, better presentation, a better experience – all of these are factors. I don’t want to believe that the theatrical experience is dying, but the signs are certainly there. Feel free to share with your own favorite theatrical experiences below.
5. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Opening Night, 2009
I’ll always see a new Quentin Tarantino movie in a theater first. Never at home. And if I have my way, it’ll be opening weekend, preferably opening night. Tarantino movies aren’t meant to be seen in a sterile environment, and certainly shouldn’t be experienced for the first time in the safety of your own couch. They are organized chaos, and Tarantino makes movies that go straight to the communal geek brain. When I saw INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for the first time, it was the Friday night it opened, in a packed house, and the audience reaction and response was palpable. Sure, you can go into the context of the final act of BASTERDS, in that Paris move theater, but the flat truth of it is there is nothing as fun as watching history be altered and the good guys be victorious.
Never mind that there’s so much going on in that sequence – is it American patriotism or insurgent terrorism? Are they the same? – that crowd ate it up. I’m not one for people talking back to the screen, but this wasn’t that. This was pure moviegoing joy. Applause, laughter, cheering – those are the moments I live for. Tarantino is a master because he makes movies that everyone can respond to – they are visceral as well as thoughtful, and he’s simply getting better at it with DJANGO UNCHAINED. That’s another movie that on the surface is a crowd-pleasing good time, and yet also something deeper. For those who see QT movies at home for the first time, you’re doing it wrong (unless of course you’re coming to his earlier work for the first time).
4. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, BNAT 5, 2003
When I started this list, I decided to allow only one Butt-Numb-A-Thon experience on it. Otherwise it simply wouldn’t be fair. Butt-Numb-A-Thon isn’t like other moviegoing experiences, and it never will be. It makes bad movies good, good movies great, and great movies transcendent. That was never truer than seeing THE RETURN OF THE KING for the first time with that crowd.
I’m a common crier when it comes to movies. I imagine I always will be. I’m very empathetic to the emotions and power of cinema, and when a movie gets me, the waterworks always come. And boy, did THE RETURN OF THE KING get me. When Sam and Frodo are on the slopes of Mount Doom, with Sam gently trying to inspire Frodo for one last push, I utterly lost it. And then I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder from behind me, and someone passed me some tissue, and I still don’t know who. As Sam proclaimed, “I cannot carry it for you… but I can carry you!” I was there alongside with them, sharing that great movie moment with some of the best friends I have in the world. It really doesn’t get much better than that for a film fan.
For me, the multiple endings work, because I never want it to end. So as the movie slowly takes its exit from our lives, there is a deep ache for friends we’ve lost, loved ones who have moved on and yet a joy in the world renewed. It’s too early to tell if Peter Jackson’s HOBBIT movies will occupy the same space in my heart as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and to be frank I doubt they will; that garden is too well-tended. This is one of those memories I take out from time to time to remember that life can be pretty amazing at times, especially when it’s celebrated through art.
3. SEVEN SAMURAI, WorldFest Houston, March 1997
Too many people are intimidated by older cinema, especially black and white cinema, and very especially black and white foreign language cinema. To that I say it really shouldn’t be. There’s nothing intimidating or homeworky about SEVEN SAMURAI. It’s a movie meant to connect with an audience, with universal themes and characters. And yet, I didn’t fully understand this until I saw it with an audience at Houston’s WorldFest Film Festival in 1997.
SEVEN SAMURAI felt brand new to me, watching it with an audience for the first time. They reacted to Toshiro Mifune’s marvelous performance, laughing and cheering, and crying as well, as this unlikely hero finally found a place among his peers. The movie is so damn entertaining that it shocks me that there are people out there who are afraid to come to Akira Kurosawa’s films, intimidated by them, thinking that they will be difficult movies to embrace. They are not.
Kurosawa made movies for audiences, not stuffy critics and scholars. He believed that his films resonated with audiences on thoughtful and emotional levels, and while his later films explored the dark recesses of the human heart, Kurosawa had faith in his audiences. SEVEN SAMURAI is rousing entertainment, and yes, while it’s long, thoughtful, and character-driven, it’s also one of the most joyous movies in all of cinema. The samurai may have lost, but it’s not the villagers who have won – it’s the audience.
2. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Opening Weekend, May 1980
I knew it was coming, but boy, did I have no idea it was coming. There was no way I wasn’t going to allow the opening weekend of THE EMPIRE STRIEKS BACK pass without me having seen it. I was dutiful in not reading spoilers or story plot points – a bit easier in those days before the Internet, though I know now that there was a comic book out that spoiled the entire plot beforehand, had I wanted to seek it out – and so I had no idea about who Darth Vader really was, until The Moment.
I remember it vividly. I remember Luke, standing on the scaffold, with Vader telling him that everything he knew was a lie. And then he laid down a harsh bit of family truth on Luke – and the audience gasped. Have you heard 300+ people (this was in Houston’s Alabama Theater, which was huge by today’s standards) gasp simultaneously before? And hearing young kids my age scream out, “THAT’S A LIE!” while parents held them down? And those same parents were shocked too – they were as invested as their kids were. As for myself, I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. How could it be true?
Those next three years were an eternity for me. It wasn’t STAR WARS that shaped fans’ childhoods, it was the three years between THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI that did it. Because we had three years, with STAR WARS constantly on our collective minds, free to play with in our heads as we saw fit. If there’s anything I’d love Disney to take away from THE EMPIRE STRIEKS BACK its that absence really does make the heart grow fonder, and to shove so much STAR WARS down our throats in the modern age isn’t necessarily a good thing for the franchise. Sometimes these things need to breathe. Anticipation is a powerful thing.
I’ve written enough about this over the years, so if you’re interested in why this theatrical experience is so important to me, read that article. It’s all there. (Sorry about the formatting. It's an old article.)
So what’s the best time you’ve had in a theater? Was it recently, or in your childhood? Do you think the theatrical experience is still something to be cherished, or is it going the way of the dodo? I’ll always believe that it’s the best way to see a movie, and I’ll continue to go to the theater as long as there are theaters to go to. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Finally, I’ve made it a point to write more this year, and lists like this may not be very newsworthy, but it helps me to stay positive and active. I’ll do my best to keep it up this year as much as possible. Let me know if there are any topics you’d like to see in the Weekly Top 5 in Talkback below. I’d love to hear from you. As always, thanks for reading.