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It Used to Be So Easy. I Remember When . . .

A piece about movie theatres and how they've changed through the years.

New York Times
March 14, 2003

Every year there is cinematic gridlock as filmgoers try to squeeze into the theaters showing the Oscar-worthy pictures the studios choose to release in one fell swoop. But this season, moviegoing in Manhattan has threatened to become an extreme competitive sport. In January one friend was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but others spent almost as much time and energy trying, with less success, to get into the movies of their choice.

The usual crunch has been intensified this year by long lines made unendurable by arctic temperatures, and a buzz that has turned an unusually high number of films into must-see events. Loving or hating ''Adaptation,'' ''The Hours,'' ''Far From Heaven,'' ''Gangs of New York,'' ''Chicago,'' ''The Pianist,'' ''The Quiet American'' and ''About Schmidt'' became the subject du jour among New Yorkers determined to be au courant during dinner party debates. A state of mimimal preparedness for the coming Oscars ceremony requires checking the major nominees.

My husband, Andrew Sarris, and I write about movies, so we benefit from perks like screenings and videotapes, not to mention the deliciously dissipated but professionally justifiable pleasure of simply walking into a movie theater on a Tuesday in broad daylight for a 2 o'clock showing.

Because most people I know -- even those who keep bohemian hours and say they are hedonists at heart -- wouldn't be caught dead walking into a cinema on a weekday afternoon, friends have been bending my ear with their tales of frustration. One example among many: three women set out on a Saturday, tickets reserved in advance, to see ''The Hours'' at the Loews on Third Avenue at 71st Street; they find long lines, even for ticket holders, in the cold outside that small theater. When they finally gain admission, the good seats are taken and they have to settle for miserable ones. The movie begins, but after five minutes the sound goes dead. Rustling and murmurs, then boos mounting to hue and cry.

Patrons gather in the lobby and a near-riot ensues. Management quiets the crowd and offers to exchange the tickets for ones to the same movie at another theater. Mass refusal. Arguments back and forth. Patrons refuse to budge. Management finally reimburses in cold cash -- but does not refund the reservations surcharge. The three grab a cab to the Loews Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side. ''The Hours'' is sold out. They then dash five blocks down Broadway to Lincoln Plaza for the relatively obscure art film ''The Russian Ark.'' Also sold out. (To people who couldn't get into anything else? Not much conversational currency there.) Defeated, they go for an early-bird dinner.

Hurry Up and Wait

So much for casual moviegoing. This scenario has been playing out all over the city: patrons going to the theater more than once because the hot films are sold out for multiple shows in advance; patrons with tickets having to arrive early and wait in line to be sure of getting a decent seat; and the final insult, competing for seats once the doors open.

More people are using the Internet or one of the movie phone lines to book seats, but that doesn't guarantee a choice location. Sometimes the machine breaks down or there are simply too few seats for a given show. Or the opposite problem: supppose you reserve seats, pay the surcharge and arrive to find a practically empty theater? The feeling of being stiffed introduces an element of mortification that is perhaps more vexing to savvy New Yorkers than arriving too late and having to sit in the front row.

The system wasn't working very well to begin with, and it has buckled under this year's seasonal stampede. This is what we do for R & R? Have New Yorkers simply found a way to be competitive about moviegoing along with everything else, or has this diabolical system been forced on us by the plague of multiplexes?

Whatever happened not just to the casualness of moviegoing, but to the romance? We enter airport-like lobbies, are subjected to loudspeakers announcing which theater is currently seating, park ourselves in plastic seats with soda holders for arms, and, in place of double features, are bludgeoned by screamingly tedious (but unfortunately necessary) harangues prohibiting talking, smoking and cellphone use.

Not only have great theaters and their plush seats and majestic curtains disappeared, but so has the technical pride that went with them. Imagine such a scene as my friends endured happening at the old Radio City Music Hall, host to a mass audience from way back, where care in craft was legendary. Rockette-esque precision was maintained by the staff: if a breakdown occurred during the film, the projectionist was fired.

Changes in theaters and the way we go to movies have been going on since the 1950's and 60's. (One friend who was a young New Yorker in the 40's even remembers when cinemas in Greenwich Village served free espresso in the lobby.) Anyone old enough to have seen a movie by Douglas Sirk -- the directorial model for Todd Haynes's stylishly nostalgic ''Far From Heaven'' -- may well have entered the feature in the middle, nudged her companions when the movie got round to where they had come in, and promptly departed.

I don't miss that phenomenon (which, for the truly nostalgic, can be re-enacted quite often if one relies on newspaper listings of schedules). I like seeing movies from the beginning. I also like seeing them in screening rooms where nobody talks or brings children or eats popcorn that suffuses the theater with a torpid, rancid smell, or forces you to watch commercials disguised as public service announcements and trailers showing all the key scenes of coming films. The disadvantage of a screening is that you can't walk out, but then I rarely leave a movie before it's over. It's one of the characteristics of movie mania, this compulsion to watch till the bitter end, waiting for some unexpected trace of wit or style, or even a new face, to redeem the whole sorry mess.

Sharing a Taste

My misspent days in New York cinemas pass before me as discrete but supercharged memories in which film and theater, time and place, form part of a resonant whole, like those of the protagonist in Walker Percy's marvelous 1961 novel ''The Moviegoer.'' The narrator recalls, as the high points of his life, a series of movie scenes and the smells and character of the theaters in which he saw them. More vividly than any natural wonder or scenic delight, he remembers ''the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in 'Stagecoach,' and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in 'The Third Man.' '' And there is his memory of seeing ''The Oxbow Incident'' at a movie house and ''the smell of privet when I came out and the camphor berries popping underfoot.''

I saw my first Robert Bresson film, ''Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne,'' at the Bleecker Street Cinema. Thinking of suave Parisian women in their nighttime finery, I walked along that funky street on a gray spring afternoon, to the smells of espresso and beer and garlic from Italian restaurants and trees budding green on Sullivan Street.

Other memories are less charming. Although this was the Golden Age of cinephilia, the experience of the unaccompanied female movie maven was not without its perils. Dangers lurked even in upscale theaters, but the Thalia on the Upper West Side, in particular, was a haven for predators. I'd be sitting in a practically empty house, when a grizzled patron five rows away would furtively but skillfully materialize in a seat beside me, his leg sidling up to mine. I'd move, of course. Then might have to move again: the afternoon was cruising time. I began to bring defensive paraphernalia, shopping bags and backpacks that I would place on either side to create a buffer zone.

So I was already a determined cinephile but ready for protective company when I met my husband-to-be, New York's resident auteurist and film critic for The Village Voice. He was then publishing the English-language edition of the esoteric French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, from its office in Times Square; he knew, and could take me to, those movie theaters on 42nd Street that were less squalid than others. (This was before they all went porno, the incarnation that preceded the recent rehabilitation, or Disneyfication, of the area.)I was working at the French Film Office, writing about the Nouvelle Vague directors and interpreting when luminaries like François Truffaut and Agnès Varda and Jean-Louis Trintignant came to town. Andrew and I first met at a screening of Kenneth Anger's underground film ''Scorpio Rising,'' and had our first date at an afternoon screening of Claude Chabrol's ''Bonnes Femmes.'' The former was shown at the Review One on Seventh Avenue, the Chabrol across the street at 1600 Broadway; both buildings were home to offices, editing studios and several intimate theaters still used by small distributors.

On our second date we walked all the way from the Village to the Sutton Theater on 57th Street to see ''Morgan'' with Vanessa Redgrave and David Warner. (It is now a duplex.) That area was once studded with art theaters where, on any given day, you might have seen an Antonioni, an Altman, a Bergman or a Scorsese. Or you might have walked a few blocks west to the Fine Arts Theater, which along with the Plaza also showed French films.

Long-Lost Art Houses

The small theaters that were the temples of moviebuffdom in the 1960's and 70's succumbed one by one when it was no longer economical to show art films to less-than-full houses. Every year, it seems, there is another theatrical obituary: recently we've eulogized the loss of such neighborhood theaters as the Olympia and the Midtown on upper Broadway, and right now our 86th Street City Cinema has closed to make way for yet another Duane Reade drugstore. Though hardly an art cinema, it was convenient and represents part of the net loss in a neighborhood scandalously short on good movie theaters. (Remember the Trans-Lux on Madison at 85th Street?)

Film festivals, museums and adventurous avatars of serious film like the Film Forum, the Walter Reade and the Lincoln Plaza have tried to sustain and satisfy our appetites, but they only partially fill the gap. Most multiplexes seem unable to allocate even one theater to art films as they balance hits and misses by double programming: showing a blockbuster in two theaters to carry whatever losses are sustained by the duds, expensive but unsuccessful films they have committed to showing for a certain number of weeks.

In my own personal movie-theater Michelin, Dan Talbot's Lincoln Plaza is the three-star winner. It may not have the historical cachet or revival policy of his great and lamented New Yorker Theater, but for comfort, superb viewing conditions and programming, you can't go wrong. And put a chef's toque in the margin for the concession stand, with delicacies chosen by Toby (a k a Mrs. Dan Talbot), whose mother provided advice along with Raisinettes at the old New Yorker.

Seeing movies on cassette (or, more recently and preferably, on DVD) has its obvious limitations. There is nothing like sitting in a theater and allowing the spectacle to wash over you. Of course, when I think of spectacle, it's not the fireworks of exploding buildings, martial arts and chases in space, or even the verdant vistas of New Zealand; it is the tonalities of the human voice and the planes of the human face, engaged in reflecting the tides and tremors of emotion no less dramatically than all the breathless special effects and computer-generated trickery that the movies can muster to sell their product to a youthful audience.

The sense of scale may not even be a matter of screen size and site but of generational response. For those raised on television, even the large screen is emotionally small, easily encompassed by irony. Those of us who grew up before television, or with television as a sideline to large-screen movies, will probably always be able to make focal adjustments, enlarging the small screen in our mind's eye until it fills the living room with the showgirls dancing or the choreography of migrating birds.

Even if small-screen viewing will never replace the theatrical experience, video technology has revolutionized moviegoing in incalculably rich and numerous ways. Moviegoing isn't what it used to be, but then what is? And I still thank heaven that I live in a city whose theaters show foreign and independent films at all, a luxury -- for me, a necessity -- in which other American cities lag woefully behind.