The Church of Cinema

The movie theater is one of my special places. It is sacrosanct, a place that holds power for me. As I settled into my chair last night to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I felt a familiar contentment settle over me that had as much to do with the film itself as it did with the shared experience of watching a film with an eager audience all crowded into the same theater.

This is not a review of The Force Awakens, which was a delightful movie and one that I am loathe to over-think for fear of dispelling the magic of simply experiencing and being open to the story as a fan. Picking through the bones of The Force Awakens to catalogue whatever sins it may commit would, for me, be like a man dying of thirst complaining that the water he’s been handed came from the tap instead of a bottle.

But I made the choice to go to opening night for the movie not just because of my impatience, but because I realized I had a deep desire to memorialize the event and even, to some degree, to worship in the House of Cinema.

I realize that going to a movie has a fundamental ‘your-mileage-may-vary’ variably in its nature, and the experience is defined in many ways by things beyond your control, but in general my sense is that the moviegoing experience has quietly experienced a tectonic evolution over the past ten years. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived a nightmare scenario in the theater. This is not to say they don’t still exist, but that it seems less commonplace.

I went to my very first movie in 1977. I was four years old, and the film, as you might expect, was Star Wars. My dad took me, and though my memory is vapor-thin and fragmented to the point of seeming more like a dream than a memory, I do have the veneer of a recollection of that night. It was at first terrifying, loud and grand at a level orders of magnitude greater than anything I’d ever known. The screen was the domain of giants whose thunderous deeds reverberated loudly enough to send echoes across gulfs of time, resonating still in my brain now as I sit recalling one of my earliest memories. I spent the first handful of minutes skulking behind the seat, daring only the briefest of glimpses at the movie.

That fear turned, slowly, into wonder. In those two hours something was firmly fixed and defined in my brain both in the film I watched and the place where I watched it. I can, to this day, queue up the last ten minutes of Star Wars and sense a feeling I’ve not felt in a long time, a tendril of neuron links cascading through my mind that is connected to a long time ago in a movie theater far, far away. It is one of the through-lines that connects and equates the 42-year-old man in the mirror to a 4-year-old child.

I spent my formative teenage years in an idyllic small town in southwest Wisconsin. I have to reinforce here that I’m not trivializing the word "idyllic" here: In many ways I look back and marvel at the almost Little-House-on-the-Prairie perfect innocence of my boyhood home. A small town of 2,000 people on a quiet bend of the Wisconsin river, home to a thriving art and acting community that managed to keep a precarious-yet-oddly-harmonious balance with dairy farmers and factory workers, Spring Green is known to many people as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, the House on the Rock and the American Players Theater. To me, it’s that little town where I grew up.

In the heart of town, fixed between a corner bar and the “nice” restaurant in town, was and is the Gard Theater, a one-screen movie theater open some weekends and not others, depending on whether the theater had anything worth showing. There was no such thing as a new release at the Gard, and the movies that played were films existing in the dark period between wide release and home video. If you were watching it at the Gard, it’s because you chose not to drive the 50 miles to Madison three weeks ago to watch it in the multiplex.

The theater itself was like something out of a Frank Capra movie. It was all at once majestic and small, ornate and dated – the perfect place to watch a movie, and the worst. Its lobby (a term which here should probably be in quotes) was a room the size of a large living room, with a makeshift concession stand staffed by whichever entrepreneurial high-school sophomore had shown up first to interview for the position. The seats felt like folding chairs with maybe an extra layer of stuffing wrapped under crushed red velvet. The audio system was a series of box speakers hanging from the wall, and the projector had a nasty habit of melting the film.

It was wonderful.

I went to the Gard Theater on my first date, and I held a cute fifteen-year-old girl’s hand for the first time, through the scarier parts of Pet Sematary. Afterwards we walked two blocks through a perfect spring night and sat alone on the swings in the park under the stars, both of us timid and catastrophically innocent.

I went to a lot of movies alone, too. Not because I couldn’t find people to go with me, but there’s also something I genuinely enjoy about making the filmgoing experience itself the center of attention, and I can do that alone in a way I can’t with others. I remember seeing Schindler’s List in the theater [Editor's note: not a date movie.], and experiencing something during that movie that was profound and in an odd way all the more vital and personal because I was alone. Honestly, I think everyone in that theater was alone at that movie in their own way, and the almost reverent silence of the audience at the end of film, as though any words spoken would offend the thing we had just survived, haunts me to this day.

And then there was opening night for The Force Awakens, when I was again alone at the movies. My kids don’t like movies, which is a tragedy I can’t completely articulate, and my wife can’t watch them in 3D, so opening night at the IMAX for Episode 7 was always just going to be me. My reserved seats were terrible – very back and farthest edge of the theater – but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there for the perfect showing, because as I think back on it, the flawlessness of the experience isn’t what really matters. In some ways, I like the imperfections: an angle that isn’t quite right, the inability to pause at will on the whims of an overfull bladder, people occasionally shuffling or eating a handful of popcorn at just the wrong moment. I suppose it’s the same sort of thing audiophiles get into about vinyl – an experience that can convey emotion and weight through the fabric of errors that make it somehow an all-the-more-human moment.

As the lights dimmed and the trailers wrapped, there was an energy flowing through the audience, and we were all in that moment at the intersection of anticipation and experience. I felt the weight of everyone’s longing, the waiting and wondering we had all worked through in our own ways, leading us to this moment, this place, this time when the story itself is infused with possibility. That’s a magical moment to me, a place unlike almost any other, a moment when all the things that distract and discourage us day-after-day don’t matter. Whether the person in front of me was conservative or progressive, young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, didn’t matter in the slightest. In a world where we are so often connected or divided by those things, this shared and unbiased moment, as the LucasFilm logo appeared, those divisions disappeared, and the world paused for a pregnant moment as the screen sat dark. Anything was possible, and we all held our breath together.

Comments

Fantastic article. I also went to see the new Star Wars by myself mainly because I didn't have the patience to wait for anyone else to go with me, it was the first movie I've seen in a theater alone in many years. You're absolutely correct about the theater experience becoming primary, however I noticed something was definitely missing when the credits rolled and I left the theater; I had no excitement about what I had just watched. If anything, my feelings could be summed up by "well, that was a thing I just watched." It wasn't until I was able to get online, read opinions and share my feelings that I really felt what I normally get when I see a movie with someone else. Maybe it was coming in with the baggage of high expectations or the nature of the movie, I don't know, I don't have this feeling when I watch a movie by myself at home. Maybe it's a consequence of living so much of my life online these days. Regardless, I did like the experience of going to the theater myself, I'll have to try it again.

Thanks for the article Sean!

I've seen a few movies on my own, but for Star Wars, it was a family experience. The highlight was my 8-year old daughter. We had spent the last few days watching the original trilogy. She had been what I call "Star Wars Adjacent" - she was aware of Star Wars, but had never sat down and watched the original films. When "Star Wars" and the music popped up, she raised both arms to the air and said "Yeah!" She left the theater wanting to be Rey for Halloween. Good times.

As a total cheapass I've never been a huge cinema-goer, but I do feel like I lost all of my nerd cred by failing to see TFA on opening night or sometime during opening week. When TPM came out I was camped out to buy tickets even though it was the middle of law school finals (!).

The one thing I didn't like about the in-theater experience was the overwhelming, incredibly loud, incredibly violent, and incredibly bleak and apocalyptic trailers that preceded the film. It signficantly compounded the mistake I made bringing my 5 year old son, because he was already traumatized before the film even began.

Ah, I missed this when you first posted it, Sean.

This is a very apt metaphor - I've been saying to Kittylexy for months now that I relate to Star Wars much like people relate to religion. I was more or less born into the faith (Empire was the first movie I was at, at 6 months old, though my crying banished me to the lobby - same with Jedi (Jabba was scary!)), and grew into a devout teenager, only to have a crisis of faith with the prequels that shattered that aspect of my life. I went from consuming every EU novel, story and game to barely making it to Revenge of the Sith. A few strands of attachment remained - KOTOR, and SWTOR primarily, but I had a very bitter feeling towards the prequels for betraying my naive faith. With the run up to TFA, and the film itself, I've felt born again into the faith - as big a fan as I was when I stayed up for 48 hours to see the special edition of ANH, or when I was 16 and priding myself on my ability to out-trivia everyone else in chess club. It's a more mature version of the faith, but still as fervent as it was then. I still want to know everything about the film, and have it surround me, bind me (and maybe even penetrate me), but I'm less brittle - more willing to hear other points of view, entertain the flaws, and even cherish them for making all of Star Wars more idiosyncratic.