I just had lunch with my 17 month old neice and I asked my brother if he was going to take her to see the new Toy Story movie. He said she is too little and it would be annoying for him since she doesn't have the attention span to watch a 90+ minute movie. I then started to think about my life-long relationship with the theater and the simple magic of going to see a movie at a movie theater.
I love the way everyone comes in and picks their seat. The eventual hush that comes over the crowd as the lights fade. I used to stare at the light just above my seat and watch it dim until it was almost dark, but not quite. And my favorite part was that split second of complete silence in a room of 250 people (or so) before the opening music begins. This is especially the best during the Star Wars movies when the blue writing comes on the screen that says "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...". The silence there is golden before the fanfare of the John Williams score along with the Yellow Star Wars logo traveling deep into space.
My parents tell me the first movie I went to in the theater was Meatballs. A quick IMDB search tells me this movie was released in July of 1979, so that means I was about 22 months old. I take some pride in the fact that the first movie I saw was a starring vehicle for the awesome Bill Murray, and even cooler, was rated R. My parents were always very liberal about what I was allowed to see and what I wasn't and for this I am eternal grateful to them. They didn't treat me like a child, as long as I understood the difference between real life and make believe, and I did. I also knew if I ever acted out in any way they would make me leave the theater
I realize the problem with going to the movies today is A) It's very expensive and B) with how great some home theaters are (with surround sound, BluRay, and HDTVs) going to a movie seems like difficult especially with a screaming baby who may bother those around you. Although, I know what it's like to listen to screaming kids during movies and I HATE IT, but there is a time and a place to be in a movie theater with a bunch of screaming and crying kids too. I agree with my brother, and think 17 months is too young. I see how my niece is and she cannot sit still for 90 minutes, and I also remember the crying babies in the theater with me while I saw Grindhouse and 28 Days Later. But, at the same time, I have a slight recollection of seeing Fantasia and Pinocchio in the theater during a rerelease in the early 80s. Now that memory is slight, but I have a distinct memory of getting into a popcorn fight with whatever friend I was with during Pinocchio and my mother telling me to stop and there is something great about seeing a kids movie with a bunch of children while you are a child yourself.
This has caused me to to think about some of the great experiences I've had in the past of going to the theater. I've had many in my life, and felt this was a great way to try and chronicle them:
My first theater memory ever is driving away from a movie theater after seeing The Empire Strikes Back. I have no idea if I had seen the first Star Wars yet or not. But I have a distinct memory of driving away from the theater and my brother saying "I can't believe Darth Vader is Luke's father" as I stared out the back of my parents car and watched Movieland in Yonkers disappear out of the back windshield. I have no memory of seeing the movie, but I have a distinct memory of fondly looking back at the theater while he spoke. Empire came out exactly 30 years ago last month, so I must have been 2 and 3/4. I have a separete memory of finally seeing the original Star Wars in the theater when it was rereleased in 1982 with my brother as my mother allowed him to take me into one theater while she went to see An Officer and a Gentleman in the other.
In 1984 a new occurance happened while at the movies that I'll never forget. A movie scared me. The movie was Gremlins and immediately upon being introduced, I fell in love with Gizmo. The brown and white Mogwai sung songs and looked like the most cuddily pet you could possibly imagine. He sang songs, and could even speak a little. What 6 1/2 year old wouldn't want one of these for himself. Eventually he multiplied and a bunch of other Mogwais came along. They got hungry and tricked Billy into feeding them after midnight (even though that was against the rules). Billy got them some chicken and even offered some to Gizmo who sadly refused. Gizmo knew 6 1/2 year old Mitch was about to close his eyes in a movie for the first (and only time) in his life. The Mogwais went into cocoons and transformed into the devilish Gremlins and first attacked Billy's mother. She fought them off with basic household appliances, and this scene did two things. It scared me so much that I actually put my fingers in front of my eyes so I wouldn't see what happened next. The blender scene bothered me but I was able to watch it. But when she put that Gremlin in the microwave and turned it on, that was too much for me. I hid my eyes and asked my mom if I could leave. She looked down at me and asked if I was sure. With my eyes still hidden from the screen I shrugged. She said "why don't you just take a walk." She took me outside and in the lobby of the theater she said there was nothing to be afraid of since it was only a movie. She asked if I wanted to go back in and finish it. I asked her if it was OK if I closed my eyes again. She said of course. So bravely, I walked back into the theater and sat down. I finished the movie, and did not hide my eyes once. In fact, I loved it. I didn't even scream when Stripe melted at the end. I had conquered my fear of the movies, and made a vow to myself that I would never hide my eyes again. I think I've held up my end of the bargain to myself. There have been many times I've winced from something I've seen, but I've persavered and kept with it.
In 1987 right around my 10th birthday I had another milestone happen at the movies. I loved a movie so much that after the credits rolled, I didn't leave the theater and just sat there until the movie started again. The movie was The Princess Bride, and I had actually gotten to the theater late. I came into the theater about 10 minutes late, but it didn't matter. I was thrust upon an adventure filled with giants, sword-fighting, pirates and (yes, even) some kissing. I loved the movie immediately and still do. My mother was my date yet again, and she loved it too, but we didn't know how it ended. The movie ended and both of us were so excited, I asked her if we could see it again. She said, we could stay to see the beginning just so we knew how it began. I was so happy. She told me not to leave the theater or we might get caught and if I had to go to the bathroom, the deal was off and we'd have to go home. I did have to go to the bathroom, but that wasn't going to stop me from seeing this fantastic story again. We sat there alone as new people started to show up for the next showing. the lights dimmed, and i finally found out that the kid was home sick and his grandfather was reading him a story. My mother told me we were only going to stay the first 10-15 minutes, but for those reading this blog, I'm sure you can understand how it's nearly impossible to stop watching that movie. I begrudgedly allowed myself to leave after Westley gets caught on the other side of the Fire Swamp. To this day, I still think the movie is a little slower after that, but I may be jaded by my first viewing.
As I grew, I can't remember many magical experiences. I remember some great movies, and I remember some awful movies. For example, I remember seeing Leviathan with a bunch of friends and then we spent the hour after the movie scaring each other in the parking lot. I remember skipping school to go see Pulp Fiction alone because none of my friends had heard of it yet. I loved convincing my friend Chuck to come with me and see a small independent movie I heard was good on opening night called The Usual Suspects. I remember telling two old ladies sitting behind me to leave the theater if they hated it so much while they berated Eyes Wide Shut which I was completely captivated by.
Once I moved to Manhattan, I got into a craze of seeing older movies at places like The Film Forum, or Cinema Village. I stumbled upon Barry Lydon one afternoon and I had 2 hours to kill decided to see that. I didn't know it was over 3 hours long and was late for my plans that night, but it was worth it. I also decided to see True Romance in 2000 alone. I had seen the movie 100 times already but never in a theater. I remember a really pretty girl sitting in front of me alone and the entire time trying to psych myself up to ask her if she wanted to get a piece of pie once it ended and completely chickening out.
I started becoming addicted to the midnight screenings of "event movies" All the Star Wars prequels, Harry Potter, and Spider-Man (For the original Spider-Man, I took the day off work and went with a bunch of friends and my brother and I decided to stay through the credits and watch it again immediately like I did with our mother 15 years prior.) Also seeing Borat on opening night in Times Square in the front row and looking back at a sea of 300+ faces roaring with laughter during the infamous nude wrestling scene is unbeatable.
About 4 years ago, I joined Netflix and got content and lazy. Why spend all that money and go to all the trouble of seeing these movies in the theater when I can see them from the comfort of my home for a small monthly fee. This led to me not seeing any movies at all in the theater for a long time. Until New Years day 2008 my friend Jed called me and told me he was going to see Charlie Wilson's War. I had little desire to see that movie, but I wanted to see him and I like most of the actors in it. For whatever reason, I was brought back to my childhood. I stood at the light above me as it dimmed and watched it go dark. I felt that sense of excitement of jumping into an unknown story that I knew nothing about and got swept away for two hours. I left the theater and had another awakening of the great experience of seeing a movie on a large screen. Since then I have seen many movies in the theater and consciously recognized how great the act of going to the theater is.
But like everything, life happens. I don't know why but, it has now been at least six months since I've been to the theater. For whatever reason, nothing has appealed to me in the theater, but I'm starting to get that itch again. Toy Story 3 was just released and I know I have to see it. Part of me wishes I could bring my neice, but I know she's not ready yet. I hope I can be with her when she sees her first one, whenever she's ready.
I wish I knew what it was about the going to the movies that is so great. Is it being placed in a dark room where anything can happen? In a movie theater I have seen fantastic things like men being able to fly, and aliens visit Earth both friendly and not so friendly. I have seen the human spirit overcome impossible odds both in impossible ways like in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in beautiful, simple ways like in The Straight Story. I have seen people fall in love and seen people fall out of love (sometimes in the same two hours). I've literally gone to the moon and beyond. But with all this fantastic things, you never know what story is going to strike the right chord with you. That's why I keep going. To giggle, be amazed, to have my mind opened to new possibilities, to simply be entertained by a shocking twist in the third act or be inspired.