The Big Screen

Recently, I attended a showing of Public Enemies — not a very good film, but that was the least of its problems. I noted in my review that the picture was conspicuously underlit. And sitting several seats to my left was a man whose cell phone rang on perhaps the loudest setting available for such devices. Did he answer it? Of course he did.

I’ve got a million stories like it, though they’re usually worse. I paid good money to listen to heckling during Michael Clayton and Babel; if you go to the movies to talk back to the screen, why choose those films? The sound cut out during several minutes of Dreamgirls. Children literally tumbled through the aisle during The Others. A man seated alone shouted exclamations of “Hell yeah!” and “Oh damn!” during The Bourne Identity; for whose benefit?

The advancement of cell phone technology is a blight so pervasive it’s impractical to try to count all the interruptions. Common courtesy is no match for America’s intractable compulsion to reach out and touch or be touched at a moment’s notice, for no particular reason. The next breakthrough will be the waterproof iPhone you can take with you to the pool, the shower, and out into the pouring rain so you can post a Twitter update explaining, “Time to buy an umbrella.” Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote in her Entertainment Weekly blog, “There’s no excuse for checking your phone in a theater unless you’re expecting a birth, a death, or a kidney transplant. And death can probably wait 90 minutes.”

A jerk at the movies

A jerk at the movies

The poor behavior and technical problems are either the exception or the rule, depending on where you go for movies. I used to frequent my local Whitestone Multiplex theater in the Bronx, NY, at one time my home away from home. That is the theater that produced every negative experience referenced above, save Public Enemies. I have ceased to go. Now I travel most often to Manhattan. You won’t find egregious misbehavior in art houses like the Angelika and the IFC Center — the occasional insolent blue light from a cell phone — which by their very nature attract patrons who have come to see a film, as the ones that run there cater to specialized tastes.

I enjoy such theaters and would patronize them more if I could afford them. Last winter, I attended the French drama The Class and Israel’s animated film Waltz with Bashir at Angelika and Landmark’s Sunshine Theater, respectively, and paid a combined $24.50. That’s more than $12 a movie. I bought a pair of jeans for less than that around the same time. The movies are long over, but I’m still wearing the pants.

These days I frequent the AMC theater chain. They offer morning matinees for $6 on weekends and holidays. If I recommend them, it’s only good common sense. I’ll wake up early to hop on a train for that deal. I take advantage of the elite status of New Yorkers; when a film opens in “select cities,” we’re always selected. I got a jump on early Oscar bait like Juno, There Will Be Blood, and Slumdog Millionaire at the AMC in Lincoln Square before they rolled out nationally and was among the first to be able to discuss them.

My how things have changed! I began collecting ticket stubs twelve years ago, in the hope that one day they might be worth something, or at least accrue sentimental value. But now I can use them to trace that rapid upward climb of prices. When I first saw Titanic in the Bronx on December 28, 1997, the price of a matinee was $5, flat, and that was for anything that started before 5 PM. Regular admission in Manhattan was a then-pricey $9.50. Flip through the pages and you’ll ascend, in quarter or half-dollar increments, to $8.50 for a Bronx matinee and that $12.50 price tag for a regular showing in Manhattan, which before AMC’s morning matinees had few discount tickets at all.

The prices have gone up, but the experience hasn’t improved. I’ve probably lived my entire moviegoing life amidst this decline. Twenty, thirty, forty years ago, back when the only advertisements were the coming attractions and cell phones were science fiction, was it so hard for audiences to sit during a movie and just watch it? Was there still wonder in the experience of going to the movies? Was I born too late for the golden age?


A weekend at home

I go to the theater less and less. I rent more movies on DVD than I venture out to see, delivered to my mailbox from Netflix, and I can’t say I’ve missed out on much. On the contrary, I’ve gained. For $9.72 for one month, less than the price of a single ticket in Manhattan, I can usually turn around about four films, watch their special features, re-watch them with their audio commentaries — like mini film schools on disc. Computers and televisions have advanced to the point where the advantages of a big screen are negligible, and you don’t have to worry about the jerk sitting next to you checking Facebook on his Blackberry or Blueberry or Raspberry, or whatever. In a single month’s time, for a dollar more than the price of a Public Enemies ticket, I watched Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, the true-crime documentaries Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2, and Robert Altman’s Nashville. The turnaround for new films from theater to disc is getting faster and faster. If I recommend Netflix or similar delivery services, it’s only good common sense.

The upshot is that the movie theater feels farther and farther away. It’s a remarkable time for the movies because they have never been more accessible or affordable, even if the city you live in has never been “selected.” I would like to be a purist. Oh how I would like to be a purist! To tell you that movies are best experienced on the big screen with a like-minded audience of cineastes waiting to be dazzled. It’s true, after all. I fell in love with the movies staring in slack-jawed wonder at Alex Proyas’s masterly Dark City. But I reaffirmed that love watching Tarsem Singh’s The Fall on a computer screen, and Sidney Lumet’s Network, and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, and David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels, and so on.

A great film doesn’t need extra square footage to astonish you, certainly not when you are compromised by factors out of your control. You only get one chance to see a movie for the first time; it is a sacred trust placed in strangers to respect the experience. Most do. Many don’t. Every once in a while you may be unlucky. If you are very unlucky, you will have missed your first chance to discover — to unwrap, as a gift — the sounds and images of a masterpiece. That is the true robbery. The ten bucks I’ll miss, but the experience comes once, and it’s priceless.