Just as I was seriously contemplating whether or not to take up the challenge from a recent guest blogger (known in our comments stream as masterofoneinchpunch) to knock out a piece listing favorite moviegoing experiences/stories—that is to say, favorite memories not necessarily related to the quality of the film so much as the actual experience of being at the venue…I caught wind of this grotesque and sad story.
So very infuriating. So very, very tempting to launch into a more generalized and scathing and deserved attack on a particular culture of values—and no, I certainly don’t mean the culture of values that argues it’s ok to text inside a movie theater—that would only wind up somehow indicting the film that was being screened when this idiotic murder took place. So, because that would be exactly the wrong thing to do (indict the movie, that is), I decided instead to use this opportunity to answer masterofoneinchpunch’s request and turn my attention now away from an extended diatribe on tragic events and towards jotting down some of my best-remembered good times at the movies.
I have no doubt our readers will have some colorful stories of their own to share, or their most treasured memories of filmgoing that may be attached to a particular theater (either still standing or not); these are the first five that leapt to mind from my own history.
Roxanne Tri-State Mall, Claymont, DE
Oh, this theater and I go back a long ways. I remember waiting with my parents for what seemed like forever, in an incredibly long line that snaked from the box office all the way down the main hall of the mall and nearly out the door, to get into Conan the Barbarian. Two years later, I had my very first movie date there, and that movie was Beverly Hills Cop.
The theater, once operated by Sameric, is long gone, but the mall still stands—sort of, it’s a very disconcerting place to enter at this point—and my final visit there was with a friend to see Roxanne, Steve Martin’s cheerfully romantic and modern reinterpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac. As the end credits began to roll, I happened to look down the aisle…and saw a rat scurry from one side to the other. Game over.
King Kong Lives! Cinema 5, State College, PA
In college, I was part of a regular group that met in my neighbor’s dorm room (he was the Resident Assistant) to watch what we referred to as “Real Man” Movies. The films in rotation included The Right Stuff, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Jeremiah Johnson (that was a favorite, and repeated, request by one member of the group). We enjoyed adult beverages and smoked the occasional cigar. We also had great taste in movies even way back then, a fact easily verified because all of us (well, most of us) were appropriately worshipful of the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong. I say that with a limited amount of irony.
So imagine our joy when we learned that Dino’s sequel, King Kong Lives!, would soon be premiering downtown. And that the film starred Linda Hamilton, hot action babe from The Terminator. And that we were likely to see a flash of skin from the leading lady, since she wasn’t shy about that in the Schwarzenegger film, and since the precedent for that sort of gratuitous (if fleeting) flesh-baring had already been established in the De Laurentiis Kong franchise with the ’76 film, when Jessica Lange struggled—and failed—to keep her flimsy jungle gown secure.
The event would be black-tie only. Yes, we all wore tuxedos. The movie, as most of you probably know, is kind of an abomination. But of course we knew that would be the case going in, and yes, that fully-anticipated and nearly-subliminal glimpse of nudity from Ms. Hamilton had us in stitches for a long time to come. Thank you, Dino. Your legend lives on.
Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace Loews Meadows 6, Secaucus, NJ
Were you present when movie history was made? I’d already seen the first of George Lucas’ much-maligned prequel trilogy projected on celluloid—a funny-now story in itself because a friend and I had bought tickets far in advance, worried about a sellout, only to encounter massive traffic gridlock that resulted in us hurling our tickets out the window and then finding the nearest multiplex, certain the movie would be sold out, only to easily score new tickets—but this special presentation was a big deal, because digital projection was being touted as the future of film exhibition.
Some thought otherwise, and they were wrong. What I recall most about this screening was how striking the clarity of the image appeared to me, how rock-steady, how much like looking out of a window it seemed, especially whenever the majority of the image had been originated digitally rather than on film.
Now, as you probably know, digital projection is the norm, and has its own share of weaknesses resulting from theater owners’ disregard for or inability to afford quality, specifically with regard to projection bulbs (still!) dimmed down in an effort to save money, or subpar equipment being utilized in spaces that demand better. But to be present at the turning point? That was a genuine thrill that even Jar Jar Binks couldn’t spoil.
(**Fans of The Last Broadcast, breathe easy: Here’s where I’ll mention that the 1998 low-budget thriller was the first film to be projected using DLP cinema. The Lucasfilm prequel was the second—and the one that got the digital changeover mojo truly rolling)
Frankenstein (1910) The Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre, Jersey City, NJ
The Landmark Loew’s, if you’ve never been there, is a magnificent-looking palace that opened in 1929—its restoration has been long ongoing. Thomas Edison’s famously long-thought-lost-forever short version of the Mary Shelley tale was being screened as part of a Frankenstein movie festival, which was much-publicized because Alois Dettlaff, the Wisconsin man who had discovered the only surviving print, was notably reluctant to allow the film to be put in a projector anytime, anywhere.
Dettlaff was in attendance. He was introduced and walked out onto the stage…dressed up as Father Time. He began speaking about the thrill of acquiring the film, only to divert into some surly discourse about how contemporary society had, by permitting abortion, abandoned the “pro-life” values he maintained were clearly articulated by the Edison film. The gentleman who introduced him edged closer to him as his emotions got the better of him; it was the sort of thing we’re used to seeing at the Oscars on occasion, but there was no orchestra on hand to play him off.
I don’t see exactly any kind of strident anti-abortion message one can attach to the Edison Frankenstein; I suppose if you wanted to take the “man playing God” theme from the Shelley tale in general to be an attack upon medical science making women’s reproductive rights possible, that’s a line of argument I could see at work; I just didn’t see it as legitimately applicable to this primitive and liberally-adapted version of it.
Reportedly very reclusive and not well-tempered in general, Dettlaff passed away in 2005. Cranky as he may have been, it’s thanks to him I saw the first filming of Frankenstein on a very big screen.
Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man, IMAX 3D, AMC Empire 25, New York, NY
This was a date, and it turned out to be a very significant one. The movie? It’s kitschy, more or less, depending on your taste; the presentation was stunning. The 3D glasses actually had their own speakers. Other memories about this screening are a little bit of a blur, and the rest of what was precious about it to me I will keep to myself—if only to add it was a special trip, and it embodies my feelings about New York City, and it will be enough to say that one of the fringe benefits of going to the movies is how the magic on the screen can be a miraculous vehicle to help you appreciate all of the other kinds of magic to be found in the world.