The experience of watching a movie at home has a lot to be said for it. We all know that. Thank you, pause button. Thank you, nonsticky floors. We also all know that there’s no experience like watching a movie in a theater. Who knew that heaven could be experienced in darkness and in the company of strangers, with or without the involvement of popcorn?
In honor of that bit of heaven currently being denied us, here are memories of five very different movie-theater experiences.
Radio City Music Hall, New York, Oct. 16, 1981 Accompanied by a full orchestra, the four-hour restoration of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” (1927) had played Radio City in January. So this second go-round wasn’t as big a deal — unless you were actually there. It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had inside a movie theater. That Art Deco space, the orchestra, a sold-out audience of 6,000: Everything primed you for a notable evening, but nothing could prepare you for what was to come.
The movie concludes with Napoleon entering Italy for the first time. The curtains open wide to reveal three discrete screen images. All the reviews in January had mentioned that triptych. What I hadn’t heard about — and it just staggered me — was what went on in the center panel. It was a double exposure, with images of the advancing French army superimposed on a close-up of Napoleon: a rendering of stream of consciousness, something the movies wouldn’t attempt until “2001” (1968), and even then Kubrick didn’t do it as well. The sight was stunning, beautiful, indescribably powerful.
“I do not consider the cinema to be mere pictures,” Gance once said. “Films are something great, mysterious and sublime for which one should not spare any effort and for which one should not fail to risk one’s life if the need arises.” Viewing “Napoleon” — and especially viewing it in that setting — I can see what he meant. I don’t know which is more unthinkable: that every moviegoing experience be like that, or that no one ever has a moviegoing experience like that.
Somerville Theatre, July 26, 1988 Back in the ‘80s, it was a revival house, with double features. Remember those? This night the bill was “The Searchers” (1956) and “They Died With Their Boots On” (1941). Having recently seen the latter, I figured I’d skip it (though it’s an entertaining — if also utterly meretricious — movie . . . and who, having once heard, might ever forget, let alone fail to cherish, the sound of Sydney Greenstreet intoning the words “creamed Bermuda onions”?).
I got the times wrong, so Errol Flynn was still trying to fight off the Sioux when I got there. I went up to the balcony. When they carved up the theater to add more screens, in the ‘90s, they kept the balcony, bless them. I snuck into the dark, the soundtrack ahead of me; then, a flight of stairs climbed, greeted by the sight of the screen flooded with light. I felt a little like Balboa, first gazing upon the Pacific. It was rather wonderful, actually, the kind of magic at the movies one almost never feels anymore.
This is what it must have been like once, when audiences were young, the movies even younger, and Hollywood held all the promise of a newfound continent of the imagination. I think of those lines from the end of “The Great Gatsby”: “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
That’s a bit rich, and it switches oceans on me, but you can see how it might pertain.
Mann’s Chinese Theatre, Los Angeles, Feb. 17, 1989 Yes, that’s the one with the hand- and footprints out front: originally Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, now the TCL Chinese Theatres (it’s a triplex), back then it was Mann’s Chinese Theatre. The names change, but the enchantingly shameless chinoiserie of the exterior doesn’t (a lack of shame, even more than an abundance of energy, is the true genius of the movies). I saw in the LA Times that something I really wanted to see, a thriller starring James Woods, was opening that day at Mann’s. Now I knew what I’d be doing that evening.
Even though the movie got good reviews, it didn’t really do much business, so you likely have never heard of it. I was kind of disappointed with it myself. But that’s OK: I got to see a movie at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Oh, the title? “True Believer” (honest).
Showcase Cinema, Woburn Aug. 24, 2012 If chances are good that you’ve never heard of “True Believer,” they’re really good you’ve never heard of Dinesh D’Souza’s “2016: Obama’s America” (2012). It’s a right-wing version of the sort of agit-doc Michael Moore does. When it opened, it wasn’t screened in advance for reviewers, as most movies are. I was the designated reviewer (lucky me). Needing to run some errands in Reading that morning, I figured I’d go to the first screening at the Showcase, which was at noon, then write my review for Saturday’s paper.
What I saw onscreen was as expected: relentlessly partisan, argumentatively dubious, not boring. What wasn’t expected was what I saw around me in the audience. I figured I’d be alone. It was a Friday in August, after all, the weather late-summer perfect. In fact, there were two dozen other people there.
One of my all-time favorite movie moments comes during the closing credits of “Gremlins 2” (1990). Who should appear onscreen but Daffy Duck. He looks out at the audience. Wonder fills that spit-filled voice: “Don’t you people have homes?” I understood that my fellow moviegoers’ reason for being there was, as one might say, extra-cinematic, but still.
AMC Boston Common, April 30, 2018 Speaking of reviewer screenings, that’s where I first saw “Ready Player One” (2018). The movie includes a long sequence set within — yes, within — Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). That was why I went to see it a second time, a month later, also at the Common.
Kubrick was about to have a moment. The 50th anniversary of “2001” was coming. So were the release of “Film Worker,” a documentary about Kubrick assistant Leon Vitali, and the opening of a major exhibition of Kubrick’s photographs. As due diligence for a piece on this Kubrick boomlet, I figured I should see that “Shining” bit again.
I slipped out of work and headed to the theater. Doing so felt slightly illicit, in a good way. I was shocked that the ticket cost $12.69 — for a weekday matinee? Sheesh. I was shocked in a different way that there were seven other people in the theater — for a daytime screening of a movie released a month ago? Then shock gave way to satisfaction. Actually, there was something slightly sweet about their presence. They wanted to be there, after all. Then I realized something else: not “they,” “we.”
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.