>The Mayflower and the Life of Cinema

>If I remember correctly the summer of 1977 was rather hot. This was also the year that Star Wars was released in theaters. I mention this because the only theater in the thriving metropolis of Eugene, Oregon that had Star Wars was the (now gone forever) Mayflower, and the Mayflower did not have air conditioning. Good riddance I say.

The Mayflower was right across the street from the run-down frat house used in Animal House the next year – also gone. Why it was called the Mayflower I do not know, but rumor had it that it was slated for demolition, but the revenue generated from Star Wars kept it standing for another couple of years. Good riddance, yes, but not without some sense of loss. I mean those were the days. The next year – 1978 – I would sneak into the same theater with a friend and watch Hooper three times back to back – hiding under the seats between shows – and dreaming of becoming a stuntman. Yes, good times for a kid.

In 1977 I was eleven going on twelve and that was the year in which another movie patron told me to shut up – actually told me and my friend to shut up (yes, the same friend I saw Hooper with). I was so mortified that no one has ever told me to shut up in a theater again, as far as I can recollect. But I cannot take all the blame. Some of the blame goes to Star Wars. You see, Once I had seen Star Wars that first time, I had to see it again. In fact, I saw Star Wars six times the first week of its release – and twelve times that year (all at the Mayflower). By the fifth or sixth viewing my friend and I had most of the dialogue memorized. From the first moments of the 20th Century Fox logo I would feel giddy with anticipation, and at some point during one of those viewings my friend and I just couldn’t keep ourselves from quoting out loud each line. Needless to say some of the other filmgoers were not amused.

Why do I say this? Sometimes I get annoyed going to the movies; People talking, cell phones ringing, not being able to pause the movie if nature calls, having to see the film at a particular time decided by someone else, bad reel changes, bad odors, poor wine selection, etc. You know what I mean. However, I have to say that, for the most part, the multi-plex for all its crass commercialism is an improvement over the single screen theaters of the past – at least for those films that would have already been coming to town, since multi-plexes still don’t show many truly independent or foreign films. The seats are better, the projectors are better (the projectionists are not, however), the sound is better, etc. You know what I mean. So the reason I bring this up is that it has become a common move to periodically decry the death of cinema, even from it’s birth. Louis Lumière once said, “The cinema is an invention without a future.” It would be easy for me to long for those golden days of my youth when I could watch films in rickety theaters with bad pictures, bad sound, bad odors, and annoying patrons (including myself I guess). But that would be like longing for the good old silent film days, or the good old days when the screens were smaller, or the good old smoke filled theater days, or the good old pre-steadycam days, whatever. One might as well long for the good old pre-film days when the cinema was just a wonderful dream, just a twinkle in the eye really – think of all the possibilities.

In a recent piece for the New Yorker (Big Pictures), David Denby writes about how cinema as we know it, or have known it, is changing, and probably not for the better. I can’t say that I disagree with much that he writes, and I won’t pretend to have a tenth of his knowledge, but I don’t have the same fear that he expresses. He describes the (mostly past) utopian vision of seeing a film at the local neighborhood theater:

[W]e long to be overwhelmed by that flush of emotion when image, language, movement, and music merge. We have just entered from the impersonal streets, and suddenly we are alone but not alone, the sighing and shifting all around hitting us like the pressures of the weather in an open field. The movie theatre is a public space that encourages private pleasures: as we watch, everything we are—our senses, our past, our unconscious—reaches out to the screen. The experience is the opposite of escape; it is more like absolute engagement.

Denby then contrasts that cinematic utopia with this description of seeing a film in a modern multi-plex:

The concession stands were wrathfully noted, with their “small” Cokes in which you could drown a rabbit, their candy bars the size of cow patties; add to that the pre-movie purgatory padded out to thirty minutes with ads, coming attractions, public-service announcements, theatre-chain logos, enticements for kitty-kat clubs and Ukrainian bakeries—anything to delay the movie and send you back to the concession stand, where the theatres make forty per cent of their profits. If you go to a thriller, you may sit through coming attractions for five or six action movies, with bodies bursting out of windows and flaming cars flipping through the air—a long stretch of convulsive imagery from what seems like a single terrible movie that you’ve seen before. At poorly run multiplexes, projector bulbs go dim, the prints develop scratches or turn yellow, the soles of your shoes stick to the floor, people jabber on cell phones, and rumbles and blasts bleed through the walls.

My thought is this: Denby’s utopia does sometimes exist, especially at the few remaining art-house theaters and at some college campus or film festival screenings. I also think it exists when a group of friends gather around the flat panel HDTV at someone’s home, after a great meal and good wine, crank up the surround sound, pause the film half way for potty breaks and glasses of good scotch, and then follow the film with a discussion. In fact, Denby’s dour description of the multi-plex experience is really no different than the theater experiences we had in the “good old days.” Communal cinematic experiences are always fraught with potential problems as well as potential joys. Today, however, we have more viewing options available to us. Certainly I decry Denby’s imaginary experience of watching Lawrence of Arabia on a video iPod just as much as he does, but that’s just it, it’s an imaginary experience. The films being watched on video iPods today are Pirates of the Caribbean (another Denby example) and frankly I couldn’t care less if someone watches it on a two inch screen. I am inclined to believe that films will find their most appropriate presentation options and people will seek out those options with some films gaining a large audience through video iPods and other films through other means.

So finally, I wouldn’t give up the summer of 1977 and my twelve times watching Star Wars at the lousy Mayflower. I also wouldn’t give up the 16mm screenings of the cinematic cannon in those cold lecture halls I frequented in college. If I have the time to get to the multi-plex or the local art-house theater I will. And if could afford to buy a video iPod I would. Cinema is not dead. The movies keep moving. In fact, I’m inclined to think that motion pictures are as alive today as ever before. What I do see changing is the almost hegemonic power of Hollywood and the limited methods of delivering movies to all of us. Old cinema gets old (and sometime better with age), just like we all do, and new cinema is born. This is not a value judgment. It’s just life. And we all know how life is.

One thought on “>The Mayflower and the Life of Cinema

  1. >Well said, Tuck. I like it. :)One of the things that struck me about Denby’s romanticized idea of the “good old days” of theatregoing was when he said:“add to that the pre-movie purgatory padded out to thirty minutes with ads, coming attractions, public-service announcements, theatre-chain logos, enticements for kitty-kat clubs and Ukrainian bakeries-“While I admit that I myself am not too terribly fond of the amount (or content) of commercials one must sit through at a theatre nowadays, Denby is kidding himself if he thinks this phenomenon is anything new. The amount of time a patron must wait for a movie to begin now is no more than it was 40 years ago given that those audiences not only had previews for coming attractions (most of them much longer than the trailers we have today) but a newsreel, an animated cartoon (sometimes 10 minutes in length) and a short film (also 10 minutes). In fact, although it probably feels longer, today’s “pre-movie purgatory” might even be shorter.Anyway, I’ve nothing really else to add except to say how jealous I am that you got to see Star Wars when it first came out. I was only a year old at the time (not that I am trying to make you feel any “older” here) but I do vividly remember going to see Empire Strikes Back several times in the the theatre. In fact, I didn’t get to see the “original” Star Wars on the big screen until the ’97 re-release, which is why (as you may recall) I planned that big “opening night” excursion, which I guess I did for a couple of other films as well (including Brosnan’s first Bond Goldeneye). I must say, all that was a lot of fun. I still have pleasant memories from those experiences. So, I agree with you that there is still something to be said for today’s “big screen movie experiences.”

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