I remember, as a child, fantasizing about a future where I could just push a button and watch any movie I wanted.
Be careful what you wish for.
We’ve got a rough approximation of that fantasy now, with cable channels and streaming services offering thousands of films (even if most of them aren’t ones you’d ever want to see). But it brought a collateral damage that 11-year-old me could never have predicted.
The near-death of movie theaters.
And in a list of all the things I regret seeing pushed aside over the years — birthday cards, weekly magazines, big fat newspapers — movie theaters are at the top.
Their struggle began with the internet, but the pandemic put it into hyperdrive. The theater in the town next to ours closed then, during the first wave. It never reopened. The theater in the town where we live shut down, too. After years of promising to return, it finally gave up.
It’s since been gutted, and remains a sad hole in our downtown, like a missing tooth in someone’s brave smile.
I know some people — the sort who brag at length about their home theater’s sound system — are already saying, “Why would I spend $15 to go to a theater when I can watch a movie in my living room?” The fast, short answer — “Other people” — won’t convince them. “Other people” is why they don’t want to go out.
Well, they don’t know what they’re missing.
Community enlarges our pleasures. (Honestly, don’t you get a bigger thrill out of going to a concert than listening to a live album?) Yet, sadly, communal events have been fading for years, as we increasingly hide from random interactions, hunkering down behind our phones. As if there were anything truly social about “social media.”
It’s a shame for a couple of reasons. First, going to a theater elevates any film, and your enjoyment of it. Watch the funniest comedy you can think of at home, on TV, and you might smile, at most. Catch a late-night broadcast of a horror film and however hard it tries to scare you, you know you’re still lying safe in your own bed, your dog snoozing on the floor.
But watch The Marx Brothers, or “Blazing Saddles,” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in a theater with other people, and you will laugh out loud. Just try to sit nonchalantly through a good thriller and you’ll find that “edge-of-your-seat” can be literally true. (“Wait Until Dark” was shot more than 50 years ago and I’ve seen audiences still jump when Alan Arkin leaps out.)
In fact, going to a theater doesn’t just improve the movie, it elevates the whole experience. It makes memories. If I first saw a film on TV, or DVD (or, yes, VHS — I’m that old) I remember the film, but I often don’t remember the actual watching of it. Who was with me? What did we talk about? What did we do before, or after? Those memories have all but vanished.
But movies I saw in theaters — I can recall the entire experience in detail.
I remember seeing “Goldfinger,” at age 5, on a New England vacation with my family, in a drive-in, and all of it — being in my pajamas, sitting in the backseat, going through a big bag of cheese puffs — is still as clear to me as seeing Oddjob fling that bowler.
I remember every movie I ever saw in Radio City Music Hall, starting with “Charade” and going through “The Sting.” Even mediocre movies, like “Ice Station Zebra,” remain indelible. Because the Music Hall — with its grand stairways, and luxurious lounges — was indelible, too.
But I remember the little local theaters, too.
Like the one where I saw “Jaws” with a teenage friend, and we sat in the smoking section and he kept trying to chat up the girls in tube tops and Dr. Scholl’s sitting in the next row. (No luck.) Or the one in the mall where my mother and I went to see “Frenzy,” and squirmed in mutual embarrassment all through that graphic rape scene.
I remember seeing “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” alone, and then walking home in the rain, and thinking it was probably the most depressing night of my life. I remember dates with my not-yet-wife, going to classic Bette Davis double features in The Village. I remember taking our grammar-school son to the movie of “Eragon” — his favorite book — and then hearing out his bitter complaints about how they’d ruined everything.
I don’t think you make those kinds of memories with a remote in your hand and a “What’s on Netflix?” on your lips.
It’s not all grim news. The movie theater where I grew up, in Westchester, was slated to close a while ago. The community got together and bought it. It’s still showing movies, but now as a nonprofit. I have the privilege of programming a special series there, and every time I walk under that neon marquee and into the place where I first put down 50 cents for a Saturday matinee of “Destroy All Monsters,” I get a little thrill.
So I’m curious. What theaters thrill you, still? What are your movie memories?
Over the years I’ve written, I admit, about how bad the theatrical experience can be — the dirty carpets, the yellow gunk on the popcorn, the subpar projection systems. And when I have, I’ve always gotten a big response from readers, listing their own kvetches. (Most unpopular? Idiots on their phones, and soundtracks that are either too loud or too low.)
But now I’d like to hear some positive things. (Please share your thoughts where it says “Leave a Review or Comment,” below.)
(OCT. 11 UPDATE: The comments are collected here.)
What are the theaters, and theatrical screenings, you remember most fondly? What are the picture houses near you that are still managing to hold on, or the ones worth seeking out for special events? Is going to the movies as much fun as it used to be?
Maybe that’s too much to hope for. Although some exhibitors are making an effort (I love what Cinema Lab is doing at venues like The Village at SOPAC), many more seem to be embracing incompetency and/or teetering on insolvency. Local theaters — the semi-indie operations that do seem to have a personality, and a link to their communities — are, sadly, often the most vulnerable.
But at least we still have a few of them. And we still have our memories. And isn’t that, really, one of the best things that movies make?
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