Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Moviegoing Memories: You Had to Be There
They say of umpires, referees and offensive linemen that success is found in going unnoticed. The same goes for movie audiences. As any regular moviegoer knows, it only takes one asshole – with a cellphone, a grunting tic or a need to emote to everyone within 30 feet – to spoil an otherwise enjoyable cinematic experience or to make a tedious movie completely insufferable. Sins range from texting (Hey, iPhone Dude, how about turning off your highbeams!) to showing off one’s comprehension of the plot (Actually, buddy, you’re not as smart as you think, because I figured out he was Keyser Soze 15 minutes ago.) to acting as if the theater is a high school cafeteria (So, kids, you paid $10 to sit in a dark theater and entirely ignore the movie, why?). Yet every now and then a movie audience can enhance the theatrical experience. Usually it’s by being completely quiet – creating an exhilarating, palpable stillness – but not always.
As a jumpstart to The Cooler’s return to blogging action (after a real-world job induced quiet period), here are my three most prized “you had to be there” audience experiences:
If you read Part I of The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino, you know this story. It was Christmas Break of my freshman year of college, December 1995. I was home for the holidays, which just meant leaving one college town (Pullman, Washington) for another (Eugene, Oregon). It was a Friday night and the local theater was packed with teens and twentysomethings who, not quite a year removed from the debut of Pulp Fiction, were so hungry for a fresh bite of Tarantino that we were more than happy to sit through vignettes by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez in order to get our fix. Happy until the movie started, that is.
If you’ve seen Four Rooms, featuring four stories unfolding at a Los Angeles hotel on New Year’s Eve, starring Tim Roth as a Wile E. Coyote-esque bellhop named Ted, you know it’s one of the most uneven films of the past 25 years. The opening vignette by Anders, The Missing Ingredient, involves a coven of witches, a quest for semen and an extended topless performance by Ione Sky, and yet somehow it’s incredibly boring. The second chapter, Rockwell’s The Wrong Man, about some unusual sexual role play between a husband and wife, isn’t much better. Roth’s bellhop spends much of the Rockwell episode at gunpoint, and about midway through I could sense the audience was hoping that someone would pull the trigger and kill Ted the bellhop, thereby ending our Four Rooms misery two rooms in. Instead, it went on.
To describe the audience as restless at the movie’s midpoint would be to undersell it. I don’t recall anyone yelling at the screen in frustration, but I also don’t recall anyone being silent. People were mumbling, groaning, huffing and puffing. People were shifting in their chairs, shuffling their feet. I don’t remember anyone leaving early, but I also can’t imagine that anyone failed to consider it. You could almost hear people thinking of all the other things they could be doing on a Friday night. Stuffed with fidgety hormonal bodies, the theater was warm and the heat from our frustration was making the temperature rise even more.
Then the unthinkable happened. Along came Rodriguez’s The Misbehavers, starring a flamboyant Antonio Banderas as the father of two mischievous kids left alone in their hotel room but under the responsibility of the well-paid Ted the bellhop. Hijinks ensue. There’s a hypodermic needle, a dead body, a lit cigarette and then a floor-to-ceiling inferno. It goes from cute to clever to chuckle-worthy to crazy-funny in about 10 minutes. The audience, which had pretty much given up, was slapped back into consciousness. Suddenly were weren’t just watching, we were invested. People laughed. People cheered. (I know, I know: that’s a cliché. But people really did laugh and cheer. What do you want me to do?) People celebrated. We celebrated that we were enjoying ourselves, that Friday night wasn’t ruined, that there might be hope for this movie after all. And Tarantino was yet to come!
Thus you can imagine our surprise when Tarantino arrived with a whimper, or, more accurately, a whine. As Ted enters the penthouse suite, he is greeted by Tarantino’s Chester who – this shouldn’t have been a surprise – talks, talks and talks, and tries to play cool. It was entertaining enough as compared to The Missing Ingredient, but QT was losing his audience. We’d come to see Tarantino filmmaking not Tarantino himself. A rambunctious crowd fell silent and the energy was cooled by the air conditioning. The bubble of excitement created by The Misbehavers had burst. The fun was over. Or was it?
As Tarantino’s The Man From Hollywood shifted into a story about a bet involving a car, a Zippo lighter, a cleaver, a pinky finger and $1000 in cash, the audience perked up again. We were invested again. We leaned forward in our seats again. Tarantino hadn’t lost his audience, after all. QT knew that after going over the edge on Rodriguez’s adrenaline rush, we were bound to crash. Tarantino cushioned the fall. We were in his grasp. We just didn’t know it until Tarantino began to tighten his grip.
When The Man From Hollywood climaxed with a sudden burst of cleaver-powered frenzy, the theater erupted. Truly, the crowd applauded as if at a live sporting event, as if we were part of the action – because that night we were. I’ve seen Four Rooms since on VHS and DVD and it’s hard to believe this is the movie responsible for one of my most priceless theatergoing experiences. But then maybe that’s part of the beauty.
Yep, you read that right. Not Scream. Scream 2. Once again, it was December and I was in college, but winter break hadn’t yet arrived. That’s crucial. The savvy Hollywood marketers were offering free screenings for Scream 2 on various college campuses, and one of them landed in Pullman. I’d seen Scream with friends when it came out, and we all had a good time with it, but I had no intention of seeing Scream 2. Not ever, and certainly not on the night of the free screening. See, it was finals week at Washington State, and, well, let’s just say I was a little behind on studying.
My friends, on the other hand, were not. They thought seeing Scream 2 sounded like the ideal study break. And so two of my roommates from the previous year pestered me until I broke down and agreed to escort them to the movie. We bundled up and walked to the theater, me complaining the whole way about how I really shouldn’t be doing this, that I had too much to do, that my friends owed me one. Soon we were filing into the packed theater, lucky to find three seats together at a one-screen movie-lovers’ hell that had once been a post office. Not only did this place lack stadium seating (still a luxury in 1997), it was the kind of place where people in the back of the theater had to hunch over if crawling out of their row during the movie in order to avoid being silhouetted on the screen. Meanwhile, there were no cup holders on the armrests because the seats were so close together that there were hardly any armrests.
But we weren’t there for luxury. We were there to blow off a little steam, though I sensed I wasn’t the only one in the theater who was a little preoccupied with everything else he should be doing for the next two hours. And then the movie started: It began with a scene in which a group of college kids walk to see a scary movie, one of the kids complaining that it’s finals week and he should be home studying. The symmetry wasn’t a mistake, nor was it lost on the audience. The room let out a warm knowing laugh, and from there Scream 2 had us.
Over the years I’ve attended various (midnight) screenings of classic or cult films in which folks in the theater try to get into the participatory spirit, shouting out their favorite lines or applauding the arrival of the hero, but this Scream 2 viewing marks the only time I’ve been in an authentically participatory audience. People screamed. People laughed. People clapped. But mostly people yelled at the screen, mocking the stupidity of the characters who were always walking toward certain death. True, we were supposed to do this; this was the intended response. But we weren’t satisfying an expectation. We weren’t rats stepping on a lever and hoping for more food. We got into the spirit of the movie because the movie got into us. It was organic. Unforced. Totally genuine. Even I got into it, shouting at the screen with everyone else in a room so loud I could hardly hear myself, never mind the dialogue.
If you want to know what this experience was like, watch Jarhead and take note of the scene in which a theater full of Marines goes ape-shit watching Apocalypse Now. It was like that.
I presume I don’t need to tell you: there was no cheering at this screening. On this December night, back in 1993, no one was restless. No one laughed. Save for the kid in my row who got up midway through, presumably to use the bathroom, I don’t remember anyone getting up from their seat during the 195-minute film. But here’s what I do remember, what I’ll never forget: The movie ended. The credits rolled. The lights came back on. Slowly, so slowly, people gathered their things to leave. Two rows in front of me, I watched a woman dabbing the tears off her face as she tried to put on her coat and shuffle down her row at the same time. Without meaning to, her husband had left her about 30 feet behind, and there she was standing mostly alone, lightly crying.
Then it happened. From the other end of the row, another woman walked up, reached out her hand and touched the woman’s shoulder. They shared a nod first. Then a smile. And then they hugged.
Two strangers. Two people who had done nothing more than share a movie in the general vicinity of one another comforted one another. And I thought: This is why I love movies.
So, Cooler readers, what are some of your most cherished “you had to be there” experiences at the movies, moments when the audience left as much of an impression as the film itself?