I’ve come to talk to you tonight not about politics, or the Department of Ed, or any of the other topics usually covered here on this site – no, tonight, you and I are going to lament the passing of a dear friend, one who has shared in our collective consciousness for over a century, and has brought joy, laughter and inspiration to innumerable individuals. I’m referring, of course, to the death of the American movie theatre experience. It had been on life support for half a decade or so, languishing and sputtering away, and after last night, I think it’s time to close its eyes forever.
Let me begin by saying that I have always been, and always will be a fan of movies. Notice I didn’t say “of the cinema,” because that’s just a pretentious way of saying, “I like films that no one actually understands, but I am too fearful of being mocked by other pretentious assholes to say that I didn’t actually understand them either, so instead I’ll call them art.” David Lynch has forged an entire career catering to these people. No, movies are something different entirely – one of the last great shared entertainment experiences left in our dying culture. If you think about it for half a minute, the entire concept of the movie theatre is sort of odd: you pay money to sit in a darkened room with a few hundred other individuals so that you can watch a recording of actors on an enlarged screen. Now, watching live sporting events I can understand – 90% of the event is the stadium experience in the first place; the hot dogs, the beer, the high fives, and the human bond that is created though the feelings of euphoric elation, (or crushing defeat). Sports, and likewise live concerts, are a visceral, active activity, full of sound and fury. Watching a movie, however, really shouldn’t be. I mean, at one point, it was –audiences screamed, laughed, or cried during the appropriate times, and then they were courteous enough to shut the hell up and let everyone else enjoy the rest of the show. Unfortunately, the entire process of watching a movie in the 21st Century has been completely stripped of any and all enjoyment. Allow me to elaborate.
This Saturday, a friend and I decided to go and see the new “horror” movie, Paranormal Activity. I put horror in quotes because not one millisecond of the film was even remotely frightening. Now, this isn’t a movie review site, and I’m not going to belabor the point, suffice it to say that the movie certainly doesn’t live up the hype surrounding it. Fine, I can live with that – I’ve seen plenty of bad movies in my day. But that’s not what bothered me about the whole event. What really, really irked me was the absolute frustration I felt with what should be simply the periphery of the movie-going experience.
First of all, it was impossible to buy tickets online to this movie. For whatever reason, we had to drive 20 minutes to the theatre to even find out if there were tickets available. I realize that people survived by using the box office for almost a hundred years, and that online ticketing is a fairly new process, but I can’t think of one logical reason why, if the process is in place for 99% of all other movies, the theatre would opt out for one film. We arrive at the theatre, stand on line for fifteen minutes and ask for two tickets.
No matter how I type that out, it seems absurd to me, like a cow regarding a rusted engine block in a cornfield (if you understand that reference, then you and I need to get together for drinks).
$22 for two people to sit in a room and watch a movie. I don’t want to get all Grandpa Simpson here, but when I was younger, you could bring a family of four to the movies for 20 bucks and still have enough change left over to buy snacks. But I’m not stupid – I understand the effect of inflation, and cost of living increases and all that, but really? $22? For a movie that was made on a $13,000 budget? Ok, fine, whatever. You can’t put a price on selfish pleasures.
So we move to Stage One of the Theatre Security Checkpoint, where a bored –looking woman rips the ticket in half, hands me the stub and I shove it, forgotten, into my back pocket. This action would later turn out to be a mistake. Because, according to International Law, one cannot fully enjoy a movie without six pounds of stale popcorn slathered in “butter”-flavored industrial lubricant, we head off to the concession stand.
A word or two about concessions. When I was a kid, you could buy three things to shove into your mouth at the movie theatre: Popcorn, Candy, and Soda. That’s it. This triumvirate of snacks should have been good enough, but not for the average, modern theatre-goer, oh no. Now theatres are offering corndogs, pizza, chicken fingers, ice cream, nachos, vitamin water, and cappuccino. Cappuccino. At a movie theatre. Can we as Americans not go 90 minutes without a $7 flavored caffeine fix? The people who buy cappuccinos at movie theatres are the exact same people who eat sushi at baseball games. I stick to the tried and true classics – large popcorn, two medium sodas. The popcorn, which tasted as though it was popped during the Eisenhower administration, was served in a cardboard tub large enough to qualify for a zoning permit, and the “ medium” sodas, I’m pretty sure, had their own ecosystem complete with tidal movement. The snacks themselves weren’t the only thing Supersized, because as soon as the concessions girl stopped bantering with her idiot co-workers long enough to fetch them for us, she presented us with the bill:
$18.50. For popcorn and sugar water.
So far, the night has cost me $40.50. If I had gone to Walmart, (not that I would ever set foot in the Magical Kingdom of Unbridled Consumerism), I could have bought three movies on DVD, four 2-liter bottles of soda, and two boxes of microwave popcorn for almost the same price.
“But Valannin,” I can hear you say, “you’re not paying for the movie; you’re paying for the movie ‘experience’!” Really? Because here’s what I experienced:
After collecting our rations, we attempted to make our way to the theater, where we temporarily stopped at Ticket Checkpoint #2. This time, a surly man with communications device in his ear made us show our stubs yet again. Now, let me point out that I’m already in the theater. I have spent the equivalent of a day’s pay (at the current minimum wage rate) on tickets and snacks. And I have already shown my ticket at the door. In fact, I’m pretty sure that despite the level of incompetence the first ticket checker may exhibit on a day to day basis, she certainly wasn’t going to let us into the main theatre area without doing her job. The ticket is buried in my back jeans pocket, and I’m holding the 1100 pounds of provisions, so my friend was charged with the task of rooting around in my ass pockets for a scrap of cardboard that someone has already checked. Finally, the Ticket Secret Service was satisfied that we had not counterfeited the ticket stub (although, at those prices, that seems like a tempting option), and we were let through – where we would stand on another line. No big deal – we weren’t there long enough to complain, and soon we headed to the theatre door –
Where our fucking tickets were fucking checked one more fucking time by another fucking moron with a walkie talkie. (By the way, no matter what line of work you are in, if you habitually carry a walkie talkie, and are not an active law enforcement officer, then you are, in fact, a douchebag.) I, being the ever curious soul that I am, enquired to Serpico as to why we needed to go through a third ticket check. His answer? “The show is sold out, and people try to sneak in.” Sneak in? From where? You can’t even get into the main lobby without a ticket. Is this movie so entertaining that hordes of theatergoers are camouflaging themselves as decorative shrubbery in an attempt to gain access?
Finally, we are inside, and manage to secure two seats in the direct center of the auditorium. I take the whole theatre seating arrangement very seriously – traditionally, the back of the theater is for teenagers who want to grope each other and engage in other nefarious activities, and the front is for morons who walk in during the first ten minutes of the movie. We sit, construct a rudimentary support structure for our silo of popcorn, and settle in to watch the previews, which, in this particular case, were ten times better than then actual movie.
Remember when, ten minutes or so before a movie, there’d be nothing to do but stare at the red curtains, listen to the horribly piped in music, and perhaps engage in conversation with your movie-going partner? That’s not good enough for 21st Century Americans. Before the previews, there were ten or so minutes of non-stop, pulse-racing advertisements for local businesses interspersed with ads for the theater we were already in. Yes, nothing gets me in the mood for a good horror movie more than a woman with a speech impediment beseeching me to visit her nail salon. If we aren’t entertained (or solicited to) every second of every day, why, there’d be full-scale riots and a complete breakdown of civilization.
Ironically though, even the ten minutes of car ads and music videos aren’t enough to prevent this, as civilization collapsed a long time ago, as evidenced by the human side show that performs concurrently with the movie. The guy in front of me spent the first 20 minutes of the movie texting on his Blackberry, in blatant disregard for the five separate announcements telling people not to do this very thing. Seriously, there was a sign in the front of the lobby, another sign at the door to the theater, a video, and two audio announcements telling people to please, pretty please, put your cell phones away. Consider the level of intelligence one must have to spend $11 on a ticket, only to waste one-quarter of the movie communicating with someone who isn’t actually in the theater about what they are going to do when the movie is over. People aren’t interested in what they are experiencing at the moment or what others are attempting to experience – it’s all just background noise for their own selfish endeavors.
Now I say this without any malicious, racist intention, but if you want to actually experience a movie, you know, by paying attention to the dialogue and completely immersing yourself in the story, it behooves you to visit a theater in a primarily Caucasian neighborhood populated by people over the age of 40. The black couple to the right of me simulcast a play-by-play for the benefit of all those around them who happened to be visually and mentally impaired and only spoke Ebonics. For instance, every time the male protagonist did something, the male color commentator (pun definitely intended) would intone, “That be fucked up, yo,” providing an extra dimension of cultural interpretation as to the character’s motivation. His girlfriend, or, perhaps more appropriately, baby momma, would counter the character’s actions, by giving insightful commentary as to what she would do if she were in the character’s situation. For example, in one particularly tedious scene where the female lead ran back up the stairs after being frightened by a chandelier, Baby Momma exclaimed, “I’d be out the house.” I really don’t know the reasoning behind the black community’s obsession with the conjunctive form of the verb “to be.”
In all fairness, though, it’s not just the blacks – it’s anyone who has been cursed by the urban, hip-hop culture. The girl behind me, a 20-something (age and IQ) Hispanic woman laughed obnoxiously before repeating back every word of dialogue whenever the characters said something humorous, which, to my mind, never happened , but to her, occurred every fifteen seconds. In addition, because her attention span was only slightly longer than that of a dead ferret’s, she must have missed the initial introduction of the characters, electing instead to collectively refer to them as “Nigga.” For example: if the male lead said, “We’ve got to get out of here,” J-Lo would snort, and then exclaim loudly, “Nigga just said we got to get out of here!” She did this no less than 30 times during the movie. If I had a gun, the opportunity, and a choice between killing her or Osama Bin Laden, my decision would be ultimately predicated solely on who was more obnoxious during the movie.
About three seats next to J-Lo was another young “urban male” who, not only walked in ten minutes late, but during any quiet or tense part in the movie, would mutter in a stage whisper, “This is boring yo,” and then play with his cell phone. Since he came in completely alone, and wasn’t actually with anyone in the theatre, this means that he was speaking to no one in particular. Perhaps he was hoping that, in his immediate vicinity, there would be another urban male who would reply, “Damn right, dawg,” and the two of them would forge a long-lasting and meaningful friendship based on their mutual contempt for anything that didn’t feature a continuous, unending stream of exhilaration.
It saddens me that these people cannot go more than ten seconds without anything less than total, constant, sensory stimulation. And if said stimulation could not be found at the very event they paid to attend, then they would seek out a temporary fix from handheld electronics. It’s as if the entire population of Americans between the ages of 2 and 30 are addicts in an unending pursuit of stimulus. To say he was distracting would be an understatement – after the tenth time he said “This is boring, yo,” I was planning to break off my armrest and beat him to death with the cup holder, you know, just to keep everything exciting for him. Fortunately with about 30 minutes remaining in the movie, he got up, left, and never returned. I’m completely serious. He paid $11 to see a movie and found it so interminably uninteresting that he actually left the theatre. Maybe he got a particularly electrifying text message alerting him to a more exciting movie in progress he could ruin for all those around him.
Just so you don’t think I’m solely picking on the minorities, sitting in the back of the theatre was a group of teenagers of varying ethnicities who decided that since this was a horror movie, they were going to scream at everything that happened on screen. Even if what was happening wasn’t remotely horrifying. A door opened? Scream! A man stood up? Scream louder! A shadow passed by the wall? Scream for almost a minute straight so that no one in the theatre could hear the next six lines of dialogue! I wonder if they would have screamed with the same intensity had I run up the aisle and forcibly drowned one of them in my jumbo cup of Coke. I’m thinking, no, as they would have been completely desensitized by video games by this stage in their lives.
Finally, the credits rolled and the movie had come to an end, (“Scream!” , “Nigga said ‘scream!’” ) and I was finally able to get out of the theatre and drive back to my apartment where I have 2 terabytes of movies that I have, uh, “backed up” onto my computer. That’s approximately 2000 movies. And the collection keeps growing. Thank you, Internet, for facilitating my hatred for humanity by allowing me to watch downloaded movies in the comfort of my own home, isolating me from our society’s cavalcade of idiots, and saving me hundreds of dollars in ticket costs. So, barring some unanticipated, momentous cinematic event, I’m staying out of the theaters completely. Sorry, Hollywood, you’ve seen the last $40.50 that you’re going to get from me for a long time.
And for those of you that are planning on talking, texting, or breathing too loud when The Hobbit comes out in 2011, keep in mind that I showed up to the premiere of The Return Of The King with a five-foot longsword. Not surprisingly, it was eerily quiet in my section of the theatre. I’m just saying.