Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on June 19, 2011
Last Mother’s Day I wrote a piece titled Modern Movie-Going Punishments. It got a big response. Clearly, a lot of people have had to deal with negative experiences when going out to see movies on the big screen. Readers also added to the list of rude behaviors, two of which we felt obliged to add to the illustrations on that past post to make ‘em official (these being the sick person who doesn’t think twice about spreading germs, and people who yawn loudly throughout the film). Many who chimed in said that the list was a reminder of why they no longer go to movie theaters. It now seems fitting to use Father’s Day for the long overdue counter-point offering you a long list of why you should still go to movie theaters. As with last time, my heart-felt thanks to my good friend John Adams for providing all the illustrations that accompany the list below.
Again, this is as subjective a call as the broad term of “Bad Movies” in my previous post, but anyone reading this knows what I mean: there are more movies out there than you’ll ever be able to watch in a lifetime even if you spent that lifetime watching over a half-dozen movies every day. It’s a rich legacy with lots of gems, and these include repertory programs that highlight the classics, independent movies that are born of singular passion rather than scripts farmed out by committees, foreign films that offer you a window into other cultures, cult favorites that march to a different beat, fascinating documentaries that expand your horizons on any of many topics, locally curated programs that serve the needs of the communities they serve… and the list goes on. In all of these categories you can find challenging and rewarding cinematic experiences that are geared to the passionate cinephile – and in all cases your enjoyment only stands to be enhanced by watching it as it was intended: on the big screen.
LOCAL ART HOUSE EXHIBITORS
Multiplex theaters that are programmed strictly based on monetary projections and weekend box office grosses have their antithesis in locally programmed arthouse theaters. These are the cool and hip joints that will show you unrated films, unique documentaries, older films, and much more. The film series I program has been around since 1941 and shows over a 100 films a year. A lot of people in my area were first introduced to heavy hitters from the realm of foreign and independent cinema thanks to the curatorial talents of my predecessors. We keep our prices low, and this despite still paying the big bucks to ship in heavy film cans from all around the world to bring our audience unique and quality programming. But because of my campus location it is largely overlooked by the media and population at large, and it is also assigned bottom-of-the-totem-pole status by some distributors who won’t return calls. I know of many other arthouse exhibitors who share in similar frustrations. The point is, we exist, and many of us are sometimes not given proper coverage or attention. I turn these questions over to the reader: are you seeking us out? Are you supporting us? If everyone decides to simply bit-torrent or Netflix what they want to see, many cool and existing small exhibitors will disappear. This would be a tragedy. Why? Read on.
Film venues that still do reel-to-reel 35mm projection have access to archive prints, and these are usually in excellent condition and being run by experienced projectionists. Celluloid purists can even still experience the bliss of 70mm prints in certain areas (I’ll never forget seeing the 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Seattle Cinerama, or the 70mm print of Playtime at The Telluride Film Festival). Projection may be a dying art, but there are plenty of places and venues where it is still revered and practiced. If you still have a single-screen venue in your area, chances are there’s also a person in the booth. This will also be the case at just about every film festival you can attend.
Places that are run by movie lovers for movie lovers go the extra mile to avoid abrasive commercials before the films and, instead, add fun things to their pre-show entertainment. The Alamo Drafthouse, for example, routinely screens fun shlocky trailers and vintage MTV videos, among many other things. I knew of one mountain community run by locals that used to have magic tricks before the show. At my film series we’ve done costume and dance contests in front of screenings of The American Astronaut, paired up a really bad locally shot student film with a screening of the so-bad-it’s-hilarious The Room, and routinely raffle out posters and other prizes. In my area there’s a beautiful natural amphitheater that precedes 35mm film screenings with live concerts – and they recently even flew out the real Dude for a screening of The Big Lebowski. When done correctly, there are no limits to what can be done to increase the potential for a fun and memorable evening out to watch a movie on the big screen – especially if you know where to go.
THE RIGHT AUDIENCE
If you’re watching a cult movie, you want a rowdy audience. If you’re watching a somber and thought-provoking film it’d be best to have a quiet and respectful crowd. And so it goes with all manner of optimal permutations to choose from. There is no doubt that the right crowd will add to your enjoyment of the film. When you’re watching a scary film and hundreds of people gasp at the same time, it adds to your adrenaline rush. There’s also a reason TV comedy shows add laugh-tracks or live-studio audiences: they’re trying to mimic that magic of a bunch of people clearly having a great time because, yes, it’s infectious. Laugh tracks are fake and are often used to hide bad gags that really arent’ funny at all. When you are with an audience, whatever reaction happens there is real. It’s not just magic, it’s chemistry. We release all kinds of different pheromones and smells when we’re scared, happy, or sad. In a theater, these mix and hover above us like a chandelier. We are, after all, social creatures – so even if you go into a movie alone, when you experience the same story with a bigger group you are, in fact, connected with that tribe. I would argue that we as humans need this the way fish need water – it is in our D.N.A. to want to be part of something larger.
The film festivals that I travel out of my own immediate area to visit are Sundance, SXSW, and The Telluride Film Festival. The official Sundance catalog is the size of a phonebook with 40,000 people making a yearly pilgrimage to Park City every January to watch movies and do business. This makes it America’s premiere bazaar for industry networking and shmoozing – and the huge selection of films they bring covers all categories. It is fearlessly programmed, does not shy away from controversy, and is well known for its selection of documentaries. Sundance has a clear eye on the future, has provided a myriad of different ways in which to support young filmmakers, and also knows how to party.
Speaking of parties, it’d be hard to find a bigger one than SXSW, which also caters to the multi-media crowd and, of course, all the music lovers who descend on Austin to watch any of over 2,000 bands playing there in March. I really enjoy their quirky selection of films, which is also strong in the doc dept, and the people programming it definitely have a healthy appetite for humor and music that mixes well with all the attendant festivities.
I have to give The Telluride Film Festival a special shout-out as the one film festival that has most inspired my own programming selections. They bend over backwards to bring obscure and archive prints. They lovingly curate a much smaller selection of titles than might be found at other festivals, but it’ll still be more than you can ever see even if you stack up on six films a day – and in part because it is a smaller selection, I always feel like the Telluride programs are tightly packed with gems. They include silent films alongside live music, as well as repertory titles spanning all the decades. Of course, they offer plenty of new foreign and independent movies that go on to great acclaim, but it’s the oddball stuff they bring out that highlights the rich legacy of cinema history that really excites me. They recreated a Cinerama screen, have brought in 70mm projectors, and their last showcase of 3-D films spanning the ages – all the way back to Méliès and Lumière, was incredible. There are also free 35mm screenings in the downtown park and a beautiful and casual setting that is refreshingly void of the paparazzi and voracious industry types that have umbilical attachments to their cell phones. I also like that they don’t give out prizes, by downplaying competition (you can’t have winners without losers, after all) they emphasize a more convivial approach
Most film festivals out there are all doing their part to keep the passion for cinema alive in many different ways.
Anyone who read my Modern Movie-Going Punishments is well aware of the many pitfalls that await customers who have to suffer any number of rude behaviors by those around us. To paraphrase with liberties what Jean-Paul Sartre said, Hell can be other people. All of us probably know the discomfort of biting our tongue and trying to “live and let live” when we’re sitting next to either a yakker or someone playing with their cellphone, only to cave in and blurt something out like “please be quiet” or “could you turn that off?” At which point you risk your life turning into some variant of Duel with escalating tensions, all of which distracts you from the film you came to see.
This does suck, but there are places that have attentive staff and ushers who will deal with the miscreants so that you don’t have to! In my venue I have an usher inside every show, making sure the volume is right and helping people find their seats. My projectionist has a laser pointer that he’ll shine on people who use their cell phones during the film. The fact is, if you find the right venue, you can have a much more enjoyable experience when you go out than when you’re watching the same film months later on DVD in your living room. I find it infinitely harder to keep family and friends quiet when I’m watching a film at my house because these are people who know me, they are not threatened by me, and they outnumber me.
This category speaks for itself. If you have a film society, or a non-profit film venue, or maybe a museum or any other such place providing cinematic resources, there’s a good chance you’ll get to interact with filmmakers who come out for question-and answer sessions. Here’s a small sampling of filmmakers who I’ve brought to my venue: Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter), Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), Cory McAbee (The American Astronaut), Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi), Trent Harris (Rubin & Ed), George Butler (Pumping Iron), Charlie Kauffman (Synecdoche, New York), Terry Jones (Life of Brian), John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). On my last spring calendar alone we brought Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) and Ondi Timoner (Dig!). All of these events were free and open to the public. There are probably venues near you providing a similar service.
Cinema is the greatest art form of the 20th Century, and continues to reign supreme here at the start of the 21st Century too. Sure there are video games and multi-media platforms that are changing the landscape, but movies continue to be the predominant bellwether of our time. In the hands of talented individuals they give life to our dreams, aspirations, hopes, and nightmares – and, yes, it’s good to know what those nightmares are, as they can serve as useful warnings. Films provide us with a window into the past, the present, and they also often presage future happenings. They allow us to see how others live, be they in different economic classes or cultures. Films are important. They can change our worldview. They can change your life. With this in mind, when you watch a film, shouldn’t you do it right and watch it as intended by the artist? If they made a short film with the intent of having you watch it on your cell phone, that’s fine – watch it on your cell phone. But most filmmakers I know want you to watch their work on the big screen along with a big crowd.
I’ve already mentioned the many cool and different events that are put on by film societies and independent venues, but it’s important to stress how these organizations bring the community together. Much like the movements in progressive areas to shop local so as to keep the independent merchants who live under the shadow of monolithic companies alive, local film exhibitors offer specific services you will not find from the multiplex. For example, in my area all the local film exhibitors were one day approached by the local public pool to put on a “Dive-In” cinema screening of Jaws. (Some call it a “Flick & Float.”) The sight of children, teenagers, adults, and seniors all floating around on innertubes under a night sky while John Williams’ famous score played over the speakers was something I’ll never forget. In that one moment, all these people from different walks of life who pass each other by on the streets as strangers were suddenly united as one big happy family, and having a blast.
Non-profit film venues come in all shapes and sizes. Some have multi-million-dollar annual budgets with multiple screening rooms and/or historic buildings under their aegis, with big committees that help overlook a variety of specialty programs. Others, like mine, have a yearly budget that is smaller than the yearly paycheck for one software engineer. Either way, the great thing about non-profits is that they’re more likely to bring in deserving works that many multiplexes would never dream of screening because they’re unknown, or too risky, or too challenging, or simply not rated by the MPAA. Non-profits still have to worry about their bottom-line, of course, just like everybody else, but they’re not obsessed with stuffing their pockets. In my case, I routinely book films that I know will lose money, but I book them anyway because they have merit and will reward those who take a chance on them.
The operative word here is “chance.” A chance is an opportunity. It is also a risk. It is something you take every time you go out there and mix with the world to see and share in a film at a theater in your area. If you never take chances, your world becomes diminished, made small by the views of a well-worn path. If you do take a chance, you risk rubbing up against any of many irritations already covered in my Modern Movie-Going Punishments (link below). My hope is that you will take that chance, and take it often, and that you will, instead, be blessed by any or all of the Modern Movie-Going Rewards listed above.
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