by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
On the morning of May 26, 1980, I rode with a friend's family to the Westchase Five in Houston and stood in a line snaking around the shopping center housing the theater, waiting to purchase tickets for the earliest available showing. As we waited, we sat reading comics and discussing what wonders we might visit in this sequel to Star Wars, which was at that time the life-changing movie for most of us. None of us knew what to expect, none of us really knew what to anticipate. This was, after all, an age before Rotten Tomatoes and spoiler alerts bled the surprise and suspense out of a good many movies, before "entertainment news" programs hyped the making of any movie, no matter how major or minor, into a state where viewer objectivity was impossible.
About The Empire Strikes Back, little needs to be said. Both David Louis Edelman's "The Day The Empire Strikes Back Changed Everything" and Marc Bernadin's "The Empire Strikes Back: The Film That Introduced a Generation to Tragedy" captured my own feelings about the middle picture in Lucas's Holy Trilogy, a feeling which I still maintain despite subsequent entries' diminishing returns. It did all of that, true, but for me it did something more. It introduced me to the act of movie-going.
I cite The Empire Strikes Back as my first real love of cinema. I had seen movies before -- like most members of my generation, the original Star Wars heavily influenced my taste in 1977, Roger Moore's two recent James Bond movies, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, though nearly unwatchable for me today, fueled my imagination, and of course Richard Donner's Superman took me to comic book nirvana. Sure, I liked movies, but until The Empire Strikes Back I never thought about going to the movies. I went to a theater, but had not adopted the rituals. And, like most rituals, they are becoming obscure to the point of endangerment.
Back then, you would step up to the box office and hand the clerk your cash (or perhaps a gift certificate; never a credit card) in exchange for a colored ticket that often merely had a number and the words "Admit One" printed on the front. (Often the theater had three or four movies playing because they only had three or four screens; on occasion, you might find a theater with up to six screens, which the average movie-goer considered huge.) Additionally, you would try to catch a "twilight" showing of the movie in question. This was a show playing between 4:00 and 6:00 pm, after the matinee period but before you had to pay full price. Needless to say, these showing were often the most crowded.
Ticket purchased, you would open the heavy glass door of the theater lobby and almost be knocked flat by the front of the air conditioner escaping into the outdoor summer heat and the overpowering smell of popcorn bouncing in a hot kettle. An usher, dressed like the clerk in the box office -- black clip-on bow tie and vest over a white shirt, or in some theaters wearing a gold or maroon blazer, depending on the theater chain -- would tear your ticket in the lobby, drop one half into the box and provide directions to the auditorium in question. (Some theaters had a poster of the movie next to the auditorium; often they would be identified merely with blocky black letters on a lit marquee above the door.) Getting to your theater typically meant passing by the concession stand, which often meant shelling out nearly $2.70 (a shocking amount at that time) to purchase a small popcorn and a soft drink, and more if you decided to take the plunge and purchase candy (to this day, I almost can't see a movie without buying Raisinettes) if you weren't sneaking some in, a practice many of our parents encouraged.
All of this occurred before you could go into the auditorium. Often they were cold (the body temperature of an audience would soon heat it), often they felt spacious despite the cramped conditions of the seats, and, starting in about 1984, often they would project title cards of upcoming movies, many of which the audience tended to ignore as they conversed until the lights went down and the trailers would begin.
It was as codified as a Noh play. One might complain about the cost of the ticket, or the price of the food. If it was summer and you had nothing else to do and thought you could get away with it, you might try sneaking into another showing after your movie was done (or, if you were under seventeen, try sneaking into an R-rated movie). For a major event movie, you might have to wait in line for several hours before catching a screening (as we did for The Empire Strikes Back), and even then having no guarantee that you would see it at the time you wanted. Every now and then, you might decide to see a movie on a whim, so you might drive to the theater and watch anything that had an interesting poster and started soon. Nonetheless, for the true cinephile, this ritual had the same reverence as a devout Catholic attending mass. Movie theaters, even the bad ones, were our churches, and we could become upset at any disruption.
Unfortunately, disruptions are more common now, and in most cases the rituals have changed.
Today, I check the Flixster app on my iPhone to see what is playing in a few select theaters. Often I only need to check one or two: one that plays independent movies in North Austin (sadly, there's only one of these) and one sixteen-screen multiplex that plays the most recent releases. (I am of course leaving out the great Alamo Drafthouse, which now has several locations throughout Austin, but that is a topic for another column.) Why do I check only one multiplex? Because every theater appears to be playing the same thing, and at roughly the same time, with barely a fifteen-minute variation. I read the synopsis and then peruse some aggregate reviews on Rotten Tomatoes to determine if the movie in question is something worth the viewing time, and whether it will be worth spending eight to ten dollars on a ticket, which I purchase using my Fandango app. At the theater, I receive my tickets (with the name of the movie, the auditorium number and showtime printed on the front) either by swiping my credit card in a machine or from a bored teenager in a polo shirt. The concession stand blocks my way to the auditorium, but I seldom purchase anything for the amoeba-like mob crowding in front of the counter. When I finally find the auditorium (which at times I must locate on my own because the polo-shirted usher cannot bother to tear himself away from a conversation with a co-worker) I must endure more than twenty minutes of commercials (not previews, commercials) before an on-screen ad asks audiences to silence their cell phones.
Given this, is it any wonder that I at times feel disenfranchised?
And yet, I don't complain too much. As I get older, I find that I want to spend less time waiting in line for a showing of any movie, so I want to make sure I purchase tickets in advance. If a studio asks us to spend a sawbuck on their product, I want to do market research to figure out if will be worth two hours of my time. (Consequently, I see fewer big movies unless I'm reviewing them.) Since turning forty two years ago, I have become more concerned about my health, so I try not to purchase soft drinks full of high fructose corn syrup from the concession stand (though yes, Raisinettes beckon). And I try to time my arrival at the theater so that I spend as little time being bombarded by commercials as I can, but still want to catch the first trailer.
There are times when I wonder if the twelve-year-old who saw The Empire Strikes Back in a largely spoiler-free world would think the forty-two-year-old filmgoer as frighteningly stuffy, at movie-going in 2010 as a newly constructed level of Purgatory. Perhaps. But he'd probably find my smartphone too cool, and probably have his mind blown at being able to avoid lines.
And more than likely, he'd think it pretty cool that people were still talking about The Empire Strikes Back.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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