I Found It at the Movies

by Bill Chace

Having watched, taped, recited from, and obsessed over films for the last 15 years, I accept certain responsibilities. One is to praise independent cinema -- not because I think all independent films are great, but because a new John Ford or Martin Scorsese might actually emerge from such a vaunted pool of upstarts. Another responsibility is to protest the current state of foreign filmmaking -- in which once powerful auteur outposts such as France and Italy would now rather import American blockbusters, or seduce distributors with atmosphere-rich productions, than nurture native talent.

But I find the most demanding responsibility of being a film lover is defending the act of going out to the movies, as opposed to only screening videos, laserdiscs or DVDs at home. It seems quaint, especially since many still go out to the movies regularly. But if you're more than a casual buff, I'm guessing you'd avoid the cineplex and arthouse if you could. And for many years, I wouldn't have blamed you.

I can't think of any other cultural ritual that so consistenly distracts the spectator. There are the obvious annoyances: Floors that stick with the residue of four screenings; reel changeovers that are attempted too early or too late; first-run prints already scratched after the opening weekend; rowdy high-schoolers who choose your movie as the evening's hangout headquarters; and, of course, those who like to follow the sound of their own voices past the previews and into the opening credits.

Even worse is the dilemma over choosing a bad movie. You can't pause or stop tape, so do you walk out and demand a refund? Most moviegoers don't, opting instead to hold out for a climax that just might justify the admission price. And that hope is usually rewarded with the wasteful loss of $4 to $8, plus 1 1/2 to 3 hours of living life. Ask anyone who stuck it out through Alien Resurrection.

Is going out to the movies worth risking time, money and comfort? I've always answered yes, even though I usually went only because my job often provided free Cineplex Odeon passes. I just took it as my responsibility to defend this ritual, no matter how arcane and inconvenient it really seemed.

Then I had a perverse experience about 8 months ago. I went to a small cult-foreign-classic theater in Seattle's University District to see Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Weekend. I had heard and read about it --something to do with the Apocalypse and traffic jams -- and was slightly intrigued by the premise. But the deciding factor was that I had nothing to do on the Sunday afternoon it was being screened. So I went alone, settled adequately into a rickety seat, listened to the high-strung projectionist rave about the experience we were about to share and proceeded to absorb the most disturbing, boring, frightening and exasperating movie I have ever seen. One minute, I wondered if I could ever see the world the same way again, the next I wondered if I would be able to stay awake.

I still wonder what the rest of the audience felt. Only one out of 30 actually walked out, and that was after an hour of the film. When it was over, we shuffled out silently. If the others had hated the film, they were too numb to mumble about its faults. I suspect they shared my mixed emotions. But whatever the consensus, we shared more in that last two hours than I suspect we would have shared watching a fine film like Fargo. For good or bad, we had been challenged, and I suddenly remembered what going out to the movies could do to me that watching them at home couldn't.

A little later, I recalled a double feature of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy I had seen at a Hollywood revival house about 10 years earlier. I had already rented both films several times and watched them with reverence. So I was a little surprised to hear the audience laughing at certain displays of at Travis Bickle's paranoia. But soon I realized the laughter felt right because it was nervous, not shallow or smug. We had all encountered a type of Travis Bickle, and the uncomfortable reminders
generated by the movie found release, and relief, through a burst of giggles or guffaws. Suddenly, my perception of Taxi Driver had dimensions I hadn't even considered watching it on my VCR.

Even the experience of seeing a disappointing film can be redeemed by unplanned circumstances. Like a musician who saved me and the rest of the audience from the boredom of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones by playing his harmonica with Mick and the boys, circa '72. Soon, silence turned to whooping, clapping and singing along with a performance, and a movie, that didn't deserve such a lively response. A friend and his audience in Berkeley also saved The Clash's problematic Rude Boy by ignoring the film's muddy mix and philosophy and treating the experience as a gig, complete with their own jumping and slamming.

Of course, it isn't enough to remember how great going to the movies had ONCE been. So, I've spent most of my post-Godard weekends trying my luck again, and finding still other reasons why the experience can be so fulfilling. When seeing a preview of Quentin Tarentino's Jackie Brown in Seattle with a truly packed house, I thought the energy of different perspectives and expectations enhanced an already fine film. There were middle-class yuppies like me who studied the film silently, pleased that it wasn't a rehash of Pulp Fiction. And, in the row behind me, there was a group of black women who reacted warily, then warmly, to the interracial relationship portrayed by Pam Grier and Robert Forester. This reaction helped me to see the film as it unfolded, rather than in the context of Tarentino's earlier work.

Then there was the shared horror I felt with a mostly affluent audience watching Atom Eroygan's The Sweet Hereafter, as a bus carrying schoolchildren plunged to its doom without cutaways. I don't think I've heard a more unconditioned gasp of anguish from a film audience. And that, as much as the film's fine writing and acting, made me feel the tragedy almost as acutely as if a friend or loved one of mine had been affected by it.

Sometimes, the theater itself can enhance the overall experience. Maybe one reason I admired Kassie Emmons' Eve's Bayou was because of the intimate atmosphere of the arthouse in which I saw it. Not only were the seats and carpeting relatively new, the house featured a large lobby complete with couches, chairs, reading area and even piano. The accoutrments may seem a little obvious, but I felt less like part of a mob to be shuffled out in two hours and more like a moviegoer who's taste and effort was appreciated.

To be honest, not all the films I've seen in the last year were enhanced by the moviegoing experience. Frankly, I could have enjoyed great films like L.A. Confidential and Boogie Nights just as much at home. Then again, I enjoyed the evening I went out to see The Ice Storm because I had gone out to see it with a friend who helped make the evening worthwhile in spite of the film's disappointments.

Ultimately, going to the movie has to be understood as a risky activity. Even when you go to see a movie you've been looking forward to, any number of variables can undermine the experience, just as they can enhance it in ways you didn't anticipate. I'm just glad I rediscovered that what makes going to the cinema the greatest form of appreciation for the art form is in the acknowledgment that there are no guarantees.

About the author: William Chace is a former journalist and dedicated cineaste who has hitched his star to the burgeoning cellular communication industry. His light and sparkling poetry was featured in the Fall issue.

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Copyright 1998 by Henry Nicholls