Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pocket Review of Going to the Cinema

I love going to the movies - any time of year (especially in New York summers), day or night, alone or with company- getting lost in the stories of others is one of my favorite pastimes. I spent many of my high school summers attending screenings of classic movies at my favorite theatre in the world, The Alabama, A.K.A. "The Showplace of the South." Built in the 20's at the height of the silent film era (and just prior to the The Great Crash), The Alabama features red velvet curtains and seats, a huge proscenium stage, and The Mighty Wurlitzer, a truly amazing organ.

Every June, the Alabama kicks off it's summer season with a packed showing of Gone With the Wind, the Mighty Wurlitzer rising from a trap door in the stage. General Manager, Cecil Whitmire, plays "Tara" like his life depended on it, with the flailing-elbowed intensity of the Phantom of the Opera. While seated in the mezzanine for a showing of this epic film several years ago, my friend, Weird Dave, in the hushed silence immediately following the line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," said in a loud stage whisper, "Wait a minute. I'VE seen this." This statement and the timing of it (3.9 hours into the 4-hour long movie) made me snort popcorn out of my nose.

One of the best things about the Alabama is that if one is seated on the mezzanine or balcony levels, and one excuses oneself to visit the fabulous art deco powder room, one can still hear the film clearly. This in spite of the fact that the theatre is high- ceilinged and sprawling, with faded splendor in every corner. Because of this, I always feel that I am in my own home somehow, and that the movie is playing on my personal elephanormous television. There is something very comforting about that.

That is not to say, however, that I encourage people to think of themselves as being at home when they are at the theatre. That's what the introduction of the VCR did in America - it made people feel comfortable verbalizing any thought they have while watching movies, as if they are ensconced in their own sofas. I myself do not take well to talkers at the movies.

Once in Burbank, California while watching a matinee of the dreaded "Miss Congeniality II" with my then roomie (Hey, it was Martin Luther King Day and I was off work and bored), I began to feel frustrated by a woman in the row behind me who was speaking ceaselessly to her small child. The child wasn't cooing cutely, but was screaming nonsensical observations at the top of its lungs, and its mother was encouraging this. After a half hour or so, I did a quiet "sshhh" over my left shoulder in their general direction. It's not a good film, but by God, I paid eight American dollars to see it, and I wanted to hear it as well.

In response, this woman stood up, leaned over the back of my seat and said hissingly, "Don't shush ME, bitch." I stood up, met her toe to toe in the aisle and said, "OK, let's go get an usher. You're ruining my movie experience." At this moment, she unfortunately chose to shove me, which prompted me to "rare back" as they say in the south, and slap her across the face (in the opposite direction from the child she was holding on her hip) hard. The smack of flesh against flesh was still echoing in the shocked silence that followed (no one was more shocked than me), when I heard someone from midway down the row of seats beside me say, "Let's go, Debbie. She's CRAZY." They rose and hot-footed it up the aisle, taking Debbie and her unfortunate spawn with them, and I returned to my seat, fully expecting to be drug away by the movie police at any moment. I never was, though.

I now work in the wonderful neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, (where Patty Duke saw the sights) and over the summer, my beau and I discovered Cobble Hill Cinemas there. While it is no showplace, this small, older theatre has affordable cherry coke (something I must have at the movies) and popcorn; but most endearing is the fact that all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays a ticket costs a mere $6.50. At the height of "we need to be in central air conditioning" season, we saw "Whatever Works," which I thoroughly enjoyed (having a higher than average threshold for Woody Allen and Larry David), and then, "Bruno." 

"Bruno" definitely had its moments, and many of them were filmed in Alabama (leaving me edgily anticipating that I would see someone that I personally know at any moment. My discomfort increased during the "swingers" segments. Not because I swing, but because I definitely do not want to see anyone I know putting their keys in the bowl ). 

This was followed by a matinee of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."However, it is the grainy little "Away We Go" that has stuck with me, and has returned to haunt me this week. It is not that it is a great film, or anything, though it is well directed, well acted and charming. Instead, I think it is because the theme of the film, "Where is home," is one with which I identify so strongly, especially during the holidays.

In the uber-real tradition of modern small film-making, "Away We Go" is the story of thirty-something knocked-ups, Burt and Verona, who are trying to find a real home in which to raise their pending bundle. Throughout the film, Verona avoids returning to her childhood home on the bayou, because the memory of her now dead parents is too painful. She ultimately does go back, of course, and predictably, it turns out to be the perfect place for her and her new family. Verona is still trepidatious, but gracefully puts her fears aside in the hope of giving her baby an authentic home and a real childhood (a playing -on-the-river, Huck Finn-sans-racism childhood.)
It was touching, not least because Burt asks at one point, "ARE we fuck ups?" Which is something I wonder about myself a lot lately.

The thought of confronting a painful childhood and re-settling myself in the place where that pain was inflicted is a fascinating idea to me. Though, honestly, I can't really see it happening. I have definitely confronted my pain, but as for re-settling myself in the South, it seems less and less likely. There are dear, dear persons there that I miss horribly, but I would miss New York just as much. My beau is a native New Yorker, and his family is here, and as we get more serious, it is even more doubtful that I will return to my childhood home, much as I wish I could sometimes - around the holidays, for instance.

Every year during the holiday season, I watch "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and in recent years, "When Harry Met Sally" and "Love Actually." These films all have the ability to touch me repeatedly, and make me nostalgic, but not for Christmases past, exactly. Instead, I feel a longing for my child self - I miss her. I also feel a simultaneous longing for my future family. I think maybe this is the main reason people have children, to recapture the enthusiasm and hope they themselves used to feel. I wouldn't mind having one for that reason my own self, but somehow, in my circumstances, it seems unfair to the child.

In my experience, the holidays are all about awkwardness and loneliness, and I guess it will always feel odd to me to be without a cohesive family. I do have some kick-ass friends, however, and many of them have included me in their Christmas festivities over the years. I am so grateful for this and have always had a lovely time, but it feels a bit pathetic to always be the outsider.

Since my new fella is Jewish, I don't know what my future holiday traditions will include. This year, we attempted to have Chinese food and go to the movies (which is what good Jews traditionally do, I am told) on Christmas Eve, but he worked late, and so we ended up having a quickie chow mein and heading to my place, which is fully decorated with a 7.5 foot Christmas tree, door swags, candy cane candles, and snowman throw rugs. The important thing is that we were together, of course, though I wish we'd had time to go to the movies. I want to see the new Sherlock Holmes film, and I probably wouldn't have even struck anyone since it was Christmas Eve, and all.

Mostly, I am curious to see where I will be this time next year. I find myself wishing I could slit open the edges of the new year with a razor blade, take a peek inside, tape it back together and restore it to the shelf, the way I used to do with the Christmas gifts that my mother would hide in her closet every year. I just had to know what Santa was bringing. I was an absolute MacGyver when it came to gift snooping in my elementary school years. Later, in high school, I finally learned that the anticipation was the nucleus of the fun.

2009 has been the crappiest financial/career year on record for me and MILLIONS of others, and I am not that sorry to see it go. I am grateful to have discovered and enjoyed my wonderful relationship this year, though. I am aggressively pursuing my own happiness, which actually isn't a new course of action for me, but I have taken a few risks: I liberated myself from a job that was sucking my soul out, and I began dating someone who is visibly younger than I am. (Charles came to meet me for lunch at the W here today, and a bellman that I previously thought was cool said, "How old is your boyfriend, cradle-robber?" To which I replied, "None of your fuckin' business." I guess people will be commenting on our age difference for the length of our relationship. No wonder Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins split after 23 years of hearing that kind of crap). The good things is, that since there is really nowhere to go but up, I am feeling a slight tingling of excitement about the coming year. Not the night- before- Christmas- excited- tingling -of -the- young, and not the lights-just-went-down-in-the- theatre-the movie's-about-to-begin-tingling-of-the-slightly-older, but a tingling nonetheless. And tingling is good. You can make out with it, if not have actual sex with it.


  1. I'm glad you mentioned the Cobble Hill Cinema - I love that place. Another small, independent theater, well worth visiting, is the Brooklyn Heights Cinema at Henry & Orange Streets, right near the 2 & 3 trains.

    And yeah, a sense of anticipation may be good, but - in the words of Tom Petty - the waiting is the hardest part.