Image courtesy www.castrotheatre.com
As I was walking the hallway of the Metreon theater in San Francisco the other day, browsing the many movie posters for the summer’s coming features, it brought to mind an article that we read in one of my film theory classes about the movie-going experience. The writer had noted that the whole experience of cinema was much more than the film itself. Rather, it began with scanning the newspaper for the available films and their show times; included the transit time and process taken to get to the cinema; and even encompassed the cinema itself: its potential grandeur, the smells of the theater, the surrounding people, and the magical moment that the lights went down and the images of fantasy began to show on the screen.
Cinema as magic was a major theme in the experience of the medium, particularly in cinema’s earliest days, and probably through its golden age, when theaters often were comparable to cathedrals to the art, populist as it was. To attend a film in one of the old, grand theaters–even today, aging and much different than in their heyday–is still a distinct pleasure. It is, for instance, one major reason that in San Francisco, the Castro Theatre still has such a strong place in local cineastes’ hearts.
I have fond memories myself, from my childhood trips to the theater, almost all of which happened in at best medium-cool theaters around Gainesville, Fla. (but also the drive-ins). The standing in line, the smell of the popcorn, the trailers and occasional pre-film cartoons. And the movie posters. It’s the whole of the experience. And even in a given trip to the cinema, wherein the experience of the event is perhaps not at the forefront of the mind, the entirety surrounds us, part of the elements that comprise our overall sense of such a trip.
So, here I was, on a Friday afternoon, heading to see a newly released feature film, admiring the movie posters for the coming events and thinking about this whole experience. The Metreon is a common destination for me because of ease of access to public transit, its 16 screens offering numerous new films and frequent showings, and though its relative newness has worn off, it is spacious enough with its window on Yerba Buena Gardens and super-high ceilings to at least feel big at least, if not grand.
But it has also diminished significantly since its opening. In fact, the Metreon, as a Sony-oriented mall, despite its location adjacent to San Francisco’s shopping district and its very busy conference centers, is nearly dead outside of the theater. The theater is the only thing that has been commercially successful. Much else of the “mall” is gone, boarded up, or malingering. And the theater itself, in these economic downturns, is kept less and less up in appearances.
In the days of the fewer screens per cinema, the camera operator’s job was crucial and dedicated. Each reel had to be managed and fed, timed and prepared through the duration of the film. The lamp power, the picture quality, focus, timing, even the trailers were all managed by the human hand. And so when problems did occur, someone was on it to deal with the problem as swiftly and adeptly as that person could. And again, at the few single screen or fewer-screen theaters, no doubt that is still the case.
But with 16 screens and a skeleton staff for daytime viewing, plus several digitally projected films as well, how many people really manage the operation of the large, modern theater’s projection booths? Screen no. 15, way down at the end of the long hallway, where A Nightmare on Elm Street was playing, suffered weird aspect ratio problems, initially with a couple of trailers, but then very significantly when the film actually started. The screen tightened itself and the images compressed their horizontal, making the vertical bizarre, the whole film was tall and narrow. And it took action from myself and another filmgoer to complain to the roving manager to fix it (which he did.)
But really, my point is not to complain about the diminishing services at the Metreon. I assume that we have all been to a film or three that have had focus issues, film breakages, or some such nuisance. But it is the whole of the experience that I am interested in, and thusly, it’s fair to report.
The differences for us these days, with the newspapers’ dying format (which used to be the primary location for finding movie show times), is that the Internet is perhaps a more common source of this information. It is also an increasingly common place to purchase tickets, especially for potential sell-out movies. I have become fond of the electronic kiosk for buying tickets, not having to stand in line for a live person to tender one’s cash. I’ve even begun to experiment with the “movie watchers’ card” (though there are rather small returns on that).
Movie-going has been diminished, initially by the placement of advertisements for non-movie products playing before the films. I first experienced this in England in the 1990s and was quite aggrieved to see it become pernicious here in the U.S. as well. But the old days of the pre-movie slideshows (old days meaning perhaps the 1980s-1990s) have been replaced by the promotional video materials, little promos for new television shows, movies, whatnot, that fill the time and space before the film trailers begin.
And I’m still a fan of trailers, particularly during the early part of a busy movie season, like summer, in which one is bombarded with upwards of 10 trailers, but for movies that viewers haven’t really seen visuals for before (unless, once again, you look to the Internet for your breaking movie trailers) And I still enjoy the moment when the lights dim, signaling that the wait for the film is almost over. The whole of the experience depends so much these rituals.
For me, it’s still important and worthwhile to see films on the big screen. It’s the format for which they have been designed. They are diminished on television and so there is a clean logic in this preference to my mind. Even with the heightened cost of the experience, the crass commercialism of the products, the often disappointing results of the production, and the varying annoyances that arise either technically or through the rudeness of other filmgoers, it is still something that I much enjoy, and something to which I have dedicated much time and money.
Cinemas are rarely the temples they once were, though a study of modern theater design might be interesting, to see just what theaters try to achieve other than people flow, concessions sales, and maximum usage of space. A trip to a beautiful theater like the Castro or the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo still hold an aura of grandeur, or at least offers a richer experience beyond the film itself, perhaps imbuing the film experience with the same expansive feelings that the most tremendous of churches instill within their flock.
I’m not saying “Get ye from the multiplex” (though I could say that too), but rather observe the entirety of the thing, the advertising, the garbage and waste, the sticky floors, the noisy children, the cell phone heathen.
Movie-going has always been about more than the film; seeing a mediocre movie doesn’t necessarily equate to having a a mediocre movie-going experience. Even if it’s not quite what it used to be.