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Watching Movies: Circumstances Matter

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Watching Movies: Circumstances Matter

One of my favorite bits in the movie Slacker comes near the very end, after a barkeep rushes some patrons out of a bar so that he can close it down and go home. He gets in his car to leave, starts the engine, and then with a nod of his head he signals to an attractive female standing outside to get in, presumably to hook up for a one-night-stand. She obliges, and next we cut to the couple in bed at early dawn. The guy is still crashed out, but the girl is already awake and sitting up. She slips her bare, comely legs into a pair of cowboy boots and walks out into the morning like some vagabond spirit. As she’s leaving the house (here is the part I like) she passes by a guy crouched over a small television set, intently watching an old movie, smiling and rocking back and forth. We don’t know for sure, but I like to think that he has been up all night and is watching his third or fourth movie. I recognize this guy because, well, that’s me, or rather, I used to be him because I haven’t been that guy for a long time now. I used to stay up all night alone, smoke cigarettes, and watch old movies with a private enjoyment. I’d rock back and forth and watch early Wild Bill Wellman movies, or Eddie Cantor making whoopee, or just whatever came on Turner Classic Movies. This was back when I had cable and worked the night shift, before the wife and family I have now, before I grew out of my twenties and realized that, yes, I do indeed require sleep.

Nowadays, I hardly ever sit through an entire movie alone. At home, I find myself walking away from a movie at every opportunity, and I rarely travel away from home to a movie theater. Of late, I mainly use movies as a sleeping aid. To be more specific, I use the DVD commentary tracks that are (thankfully) so common now. Back when I had cable television, C-Span was my preferred dozing agent. Give me a boring Senate committee hearing, or some panel of reporters and editors at a navel-gazing journalism and ethics symposium and, man, I was out like a baby. But now, audio commentaries do the trick, and I often put them on, close my eyes, and drift away listening without ever watching the movie. To get me through a movie these days, I need an audience of people. I need my friends. A while back, there was an excellent post here at the House about horror movies and violence. The ensuing comments thread was of a very high quality. I was a little awestruck, and I couldn’t say much. It was all very interesting, but I hadn’t seen the recent films they were talking about. I felt like Henry Hill in Goodfellas.

“Henry, you don’t talk much.”
Henry: “I’m just listening.”

After that post, I decided that I needed to watch a horror movie and went to the video store. I just couldn’t put myself in the mood to watch teenagers getting tortured and killed in Europe, so at first I was tempted to go for a classic with a commentary: Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with very effective acting) or Last House on the Left (never really seemed like a horror film to me). But no, I needed something new. I’ve always had a predilection for zombie flicks, so I rented the remake of Dawn of the Dead. My wife dropped out of the movie after about forty minutes. She used to love horror movies. She took me to see Hellraiser III on our first date, definitely not my idea, but somehow, since she became a mother, she is more squeamish when it comes to watching some bad shit go down. I stuck with the movie for another twenty minutes before I got restless. It was okay. The second rate acting slightly improved upon the third rate acting in the original, but otherwise it didn’t stand up to the 70’s masterpiece. I could take it or leave it. I felt completely neutral toward it. The thing I felt most palpably was the missing presence of a teenage audience on a Friday night. This stuff was a lot more fun back when your friends were laughing and groaning, or when your sweetheart was clutching your arm. Or hell, at least give me a Saturday night dollar-movie crowd, like the good and rowdy ones I knew when I lived on the south side of the tracks. Those people up on the screen were idiots for walking backwards in the apprehensive dark, and the crowd around me would sure enough let them know it. Often an empty beer bottle could be heard rolling down under the seats across the concrete floor, pausing momentarily at someone’s heels, until they lifted up their shoes to let it complete its journey to the bottom. The conditions and circumstances of seeing a movie matter.

I think I’ve had this conversation with my wife and just about every one of my friends:

Friend: “I haven’t seen such and such movie.”
Me: “Yes you have, it was Brixton Square about eight years ago. It was late afternoon with about a dozen people inside the theater. We sat up front.”


“Yeah, you’ve seen it. It was over at A’s mother’s house with X and Y. In the upstairs guest bedroom. I was sitting on the floor, you were sitting on the bed.”

And darn it! I know that I’m usually right. It’s funny, I have a pretty poor memory in most regards. My wife can remember the names and houses of all her second grade friends. I can barely remember a couple of my highschool teachers, but if I can remember the movie at all, I will remember where I saw it and who I saw it with. Go ahead and test me. The same applies to where I was sitting while reading a particular book. Often I remember the circumstances of seeing a movie more clearly than anything in the movie. Most film criticism is rightly focused on the movie itself. The purpose of this essay is to clear a little spot of ground for the circumstances that surround watching a movie, the things that affect so strongly how we see it. Before I proceed any further, maybe I should beef up my argument that circumstances matter a bit more, in case some of my readers aren’t on board with my premise. A good friend of mine always gets annoyed whenever I describe a film as a good chick flick, or as a good guy flick. There is no such thing, says he. A movie is either good or bad, period. Then I say that genres should be taken on their own terms. We’ve been arguing about this for over a decade. My best rejoinder would be an extreme example I use to make him admit that circumstances are indeed relevant. Let’s pretend for a minute that Airport ’75 is an excellent film that achieves greatness. I contend that it would not be an excellent film, it would in fact be a horrible film to show as an in-flight movie on an airplane. Again, circumstances matter.

Songs and movies are like ships that move in and around and through our lives. They gather memories and associations like barnacles. Favorite films that we’ve seen many times become crusted over with past remembrances, unless by chance some new circumstance is powerful enough to eradicate some part of our old selves. If you doubt this, just look at Matt’s Five for the Day: Branded post. Read the comments and then tell me that movies don’t come along at certain points in our lives and brand us emotionally or make our brains resonate with synaptic energy. At the risk of boring my readers, here I must descend through a little of my own movie-watching history. I can’t go as far back as Odienator, to birth, but you will think it’s far enough, I’m sure. I’ll leave aside the fast changing circumstances of movie going that were before my time, the days of newsreels and programmers, the days before 1948 when The United States vs. Paramount Pictures Inc. broke up the studio-owned theater chains forever. What days those must have been! I also missed the golden age of the drive-in, although for a time in the late 70’s every movie I saw was at a drive-in in Walnut Creek, California. I was a late comer to Star Wars, seeing it near the end of its long run at a drive-in twice. The first time double-billed with The Shootist, the second time billed with Laserblast. When I was a wee lad, I saw The Towering Inferno while in my dad’s cabin aboard the aircraft carrier Midway. This was my first big perception vs. reality moment. The pretend fire I watched on the small black and white monitor was much scarier that the real deck fire that crews were rushing to put out somewhere above me. The movies we saw at our community center in Japan made a searing impression. We spread our blanket on the floor and watched: Car Wash, Baby Blue Marine, Let’s Do It Again, The Longest Yard, Nickelodeon, Bad News Bears, The Thief Who Came to Dinner, both of Richard Lester’s Musketeers movies, From Noon Till Three, The Fortune, Cinderella Liberty, Silent Movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, W.C. Fields and Me, The Sting, The Last Detail, and a bunch of Disney stuff like No Deposit, No Return, Mary Poppins, and Gus. This was all before I realized that movies were made things. I was one of those people Joe Gillis was referring to when he said “audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” For the kids, we got our Saturday morning cartoons projected. Mostly lame Hannah Barbara toons like Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, Atom Ant, and Secret Squirrel. We had one Warner Bros. cartoon, “The Dover Boys”, which we watched over and over. They even showed a few old time serials. But for us boys, the grand highlight, the very best of all, were the NFL films narrated by the great John Facenda, whose voice was like some blind poet. The Homer of the NFL. We would gaze in awe at the epic battles fought by larger than life heroes, as the camera zoomed in tight to follow the long arc of a perfectly thrown spiral pass, staying with the ball as it flew against a backdrop of blue sky, down through a multicolored blur of spectators, and landed gently in a receiver’s outstretched hands. We never saw the real football games on television, and afterwards we would reenact the scenes just like it was another movie with characters and a plot.

Later, when I was a teenager, I regularly attended midnight screenings of one of the most circumstantial movies ever: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It felt fresh and liberating to feel at home in a movie theater, to treat it like it was your living room, to dress any way you wanted, and to hurl out loud obscenities in public. I think some small envelope was pushed the first time I ran up to the front to spin the world and I ran my hands across that big magic silver screen. It seemed noteworthy to see a small corner up close, with its tiny black holes, its glitter, and its many mysterious stains.

We don’t always watch movies for entertainment. The reasons we go to the movies can be as myriad and multitudinous as our reasons for taking any action in life. During the hot summer months, we might go to the movies just for the air-conditioning. We might want to get off the streets, or hide, or just sit down for a span of two hours. I have one friend who swears by the therapeutic, healing power of a good nap during a silent film. For him, going to a theater and sleeping through Wings, Pandora’s Box, and Fritz Lang’s Nibelungenlied acted as a gentle balm that soothed his spirit, and he counts it as a high point of his cinema going life. The circumstances abound. Seeing the musical Oliver! Outside on the grass at a campground will always be how I remember that movie. In grade school, they used to gather us up and make us sit Indian-style on a hard basketball court to watch things like Escape From Witch Mountain or the later, bad Pink Panther movies for reasons that I still can’t fathom. Our asses were sore but at least we weren’t in class. A cruise ship is a strange place to see a movie. I watched Green Card once (yawn) and Once Around not once but twice on a ship. It was a vacation from a vacation, with all those other supposedly fun things to do competing outside for your leisure. When I worked as a projectionist, oddly enough, I seldom watched the movies. It was uncomfortable to stand and look through that little window, and besides, it was an awesome job if you wanted time to read. I would just watch the end credits of everything before I threaded the film and set a timer for the next showing. People definitely have their favorite movie theaters. I wish I could go to more of them. The first time I saw an old 3 to 4 ratio movie on a truly tall screen was at the Walter Reed auditorium in NYC for a Robert Aldrich double feature of The Big Knife and Attack! It was a real eye opener. Size matters, and they don’t make theaters tall enough anymore even if they wanted to show old classics. The Castro in San Francisco is another great theater. Its sizeable gay community makes it the most ideal audience for watching old films I think. The crowd catches every innuendo and their laughter makes you notice things that otherwise might have slipped by. I always loved the little theater that my brother constructed when he was twelve or thirteen years old in his bedroom closet with some pillows, a sleeping bag, a TV, VCR and a snack tray. He would watch Bogie and Bacall, and all those 1940’s Warner Bros. films directed by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh. Good times in that cozy little sanctuary, I’ll bet. Falling in love with Ingrid Bergman and doing god knows what else. Maybe there should be a Mile High Club for movie buffs. What’s the weirdest place you saw a movie? I’ll have to think about that one. I’ve heard stories of people having sex in movie theaters, but outside of a porno house that’s just so wrong. I have done it at home, though. You know that the movie is good when you only screw during the commercials!

Circumstance even dictates which movies that we see in the first place. I watch different sorts of movies with different people. With one friend it will be your basic Hollywood mainstream blockbuster, with another group of friends it is always some kind of campy T&A from Something Weird Video, another friend likes avant guard and hates anything with a narrative. My brother and I can happily geek out on the same stuff, so it will be the oldest William S. Hart western we can find, or a super long Bible epic, or Ozu. I can’t think of another person who would get excited when I say “let’s watch 55 Days at Peking.” When I am all alone, I will soonest reach for a documentary.

Everybody knows that with live theater, every performance is different because the actors and the audience feed off each other, but what about something that never changes—canned goods—movies? I am not that fond of it now, but back when it came out I loved Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I saw movies for free then, and I must have sat through that movie eight or nine times. Every time the audience’s mood and reaction was different. They laughed or didn’t laugh at different places. Even in a mostly homogenous Midwestern multiplex, there is enough variegated humanity filling the seats to make each and every audience unique. It seems impossible to predict what an audience will react to, and movie producers will never unlock the mystery of an audience’s mood. What two atmospheres could be more split than a crowd at a radio screener for, say, a movie like Predator, with the Rock 100 the KATT-suited guy running up and down the aisles, and posters and T-shirts hidden under a few seats, and a 10:00 a.m. critic’s screening of the same Predator, with six or seven guys sitting as far apart as possible? I think that a truly great movie can triumph over the most adverse mood, and some good time friends can have fun and triumph over the worst movie imaginable, but there is a huge swath of middle of the road pictures that is highly susceptible to the circumstances of the viewer’s mood. If we are feeling fine, perhaps we derive more enjoyment than the movie merits. If we are in a foul mood, we sometimes don’t cut a decent movie any slack.

I will wind this down with a mention of maybe the most purely circumstantial movies of all, the movies that we haven’t seen. We all carry these movies around in our heads. Movies that we long to see, but are really just constructs in our mind. Perhaps they are conjured up by an alluring title, or fed by some passage of a critic’s prose that caught our imagination. If and when we ever see them, they might be better or worse than what we imagined, but they will always turn out to be strange and different. Sometimes the films we have yet to see are the best ones of all. So here, I end with a toast. Get your cyber glass ready. Here is to all the movies we haven’t seen, to all the audiences that have been and will be no more, and to the audiences to come. Those wonderful people out there in the dark. Cheers.