Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Watching movies

There's been a lot of talk of new movies vs. old lately, and it reminded me of my youth, and what movies meant to me. The date a movie was made is really irrelevant to me. All I care about is whether it's a movie that works for me or not, whether it hits my personal buttons. More often than not, the films that do are films made before I was born, but not always. I think if I listed out my hundred top movies and their years, I'd probably find that the largest quantity of them fall squarely in the 1960s, but I could be wrong. Hm, might have to try that just for kicks. But as many old movies as I watch and fall in love with off DVD, what I miss about watching them is going to the theater.

Watching movies, but more importantly, going to the movies, has been an important part of my life from as early as I can remember. When I was a kid, there were no VCRs, no DVDs. If you wanted to see something, you caught it in the theater (either new or in a revival theater) or you watched it cropped, edited, and with commercials on static-laced television. The theater was where it was at. The big screen, the darkness, no interruptions... just magic. Even though you're sitting with family or friends, there's something inherently alone about experiencing movies on the big screen. My family was not allowed to talk (unless it was something urgent), and we rarely ate popcorn or anything because we were there to watch a movie, not eat. You sat in your seat quietly and you took it all in.

My mom used to complain bitterly every time we watched one of her favorite movies on tv because it would be cropped, and things she was used to seeing on the sides wouldn't be visible. (Oh, what a happy day it was in my family when they came out with movies in widescreen format!) And depending on the channel that showed the film, there were different pan-and-scan versions. So sometimes you would see things off to the right in a scene, sometimes off to the left. But never the whole film. My mom hated that. Passionately. You have to see it on the big screen, she'd tell us, because that was the only way to see what we were missing, to see the whole film. And in the theater there are no phones or doorbells ringing, no cats wanting in or out, no conversations, no commercials. For the length of the movie, you could be absorbed by that fictional world.

There were three favorite movies in our family growing up. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. My parents loved them, and so my sister and I loved them. I love that when The Time Machine came out, both my parents, who hadn't even met yet, sat through it twice in their separate theaters and towns, because the movie was so cool they just had to see it again. That's what they passed on to us kids. Good movies are seen in the theater multiple times. Particularly because you'll never get a chance to see them that way again. Particularly back then, when movie runs were quite short. My mom would tell us the films at her local cinema changed every week. Occasionally one was held over for two weeks, but she said that was rare.

I'm fortunate in that we went to see a lot of old movies at the revival theater when I was young. Whenever any of those "big three" came around, we went. They were often double features with other movies, like Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, When Worlds Collide, etc. I might have seen Forbidden Planet on tv first, but I only remember it from that first theater experience. That ID monster on the big screen? With its red glowing outline fighting the force field? Terrifying. That thing gave me nightmares. On a small tv screen, it's nothing, but on the big screen, that thing was powerful and alive and coming to get you. It still scares me because I can close my eyes and pull up the big screen memories, and remember what those steps looked like getting crushed under its weight.

Oddly, the revival theaters never seemed to show Westerns, or I think we would have lived at the theater. They were mostly science fiction movies. Which was fine, as my dad was an astronomer, and science fiction was one of our favorite genres. But I saw Singin' in the Rain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for the first time on the big screen, when my dad took my sister and me. My mom stayed at home because musicals aren't her thing. My family's a bit backwards that way. My dad is the romantic sap who loves musicals, my mom wants action and violence.

And always, my mom would tell us of how cool it was to see a movie you loved over and over in the theater, but we never had that experience until Star Wars came out.

There's life pre-Star Wars, and there's life post-Star Wars, and they're not the same thing. I still remember my family watching the previews on tv, asking "what the heck is that big furry roaring creature?" But it had spaceships and action, so my dad packed us all up and said we had to go see what the hubbub was all about. We drove all the way to the Avco Cinema in Westwood, because it was one of the biggest theaters around in those days (another thing my parents taught me -- distance is no object when going to the theater to see a movie; you go to the biggest screen for something good.) I remember how we boggled at the lines going around the block. I'm amazed we even found a place to park and got in, but we did. I even remember where we parked, that day stands out so much in my memory, and I was only nine. And magic happened. There has never been an eye-popping, whole-new-worlds-just-opened-up-before-me movie experience like that for me since. For me, growing up in the '70s, with the many sci fi movies we watched on tv and at the revival theater, Star Wars was truly one of a kind.

We went back and saw it well over twenty times in the theater. We were afraid we'd never see it again, except cropped and edited on tv, so we went back not only to enjoy it, but to notice and memorize all those things and characters in the corners that were going to be unceremoniously chopped off by the tv channels. We went to imprint the movie permanently into our memories so that no matter where or when we were, we could pull it up on our own mental movie screens and remember it in its true big screen glory.

That's what going to the theaters was all about. That's what movies were all about. To take something you loved and make it yours forever. And let me tell you, seeing a movie for the twentieth time in a huge darkened theater, is a completely different viewing experience from seeing something once, or twice, or even three or four times in the theater. It's different from seeing a movie twenty times on DVD.

My family did the same thing with a few other new movies over the following years, but only Raiders of the Lost Ark got the same royal treatment as the original Star Wars movie (actually, it exceeded it). If it was a very special movie, we still went back repeatedly, but nothing was ever as special as those two, not even their sequels. Eight became our magic viewing number. If you saw a movie that many times in the theater, it was given special status.

Then VCRs came out, then DVD players... and the movie-viewing world I'd been brought up with vanished. Now, I watch my 20-month-old nephew bring us the Mary Poppins DVD and expect it to appear on TV instantly. We were watching Singin' in the Rain at their house (just on tv) and he saw the Make 'Em Laugh routine for the first time, and no sooner was it over, then he walked over, got the remote, and handed it to us so he could see the scene again. That harmless little action spawned an hourlong discussion between my sister and I on movies and viewing them and what a different world it was nowadays. Where we had to latch on and savor every second and then wait six months or a year for the movie to come back on tv beore we could see the same scene again, he can have us back it up and savor it repeatedly on the spot. Sometimes, that's a very weird concept to me.

Movies aren't one-time deals anymore that you rush to see in the theater before they vanish forever. They aren't something you scour the tv page for, because if you don't catch it when it comes around, you won't see it (okay, not entirely true, as I still do this with TCM and all those wonderful movies that aren't available on DVD, even if I don't even get TCM). And I don't find this a bad thing at all. Quite the contrary. I revel in being able to own my favorite movies and watch them whenever I want. I love Netflix and YouTube where I can watch movies unavailable any other way, even if it's in a little window in the center of my computer monitor. The venue doesn't change my love of movies, or that joy of watching a good movie for the first time and finding out what happens. I wonder what we would have done when I was a kid if we knew all those movies we were desperately afraid we'd never see again, would be sitting in a $5.00 bin in a store some day.

So, as obsessed with George Raft as I still am, as much as I can't wait to see "new" old movies on DVD, I still keep an eye out on what new modern movies are coming out, hoping one of these days, one of them will be truly worthy, and I'll get that big screen pleasure again. Because I miss that. Passionately. Even if the movies now cost $9.00 for a matinee, no one sits through the credits, and I have to wear earplugs to reduce the volume to something tolerable.

4 comments:

  1. Oh, wonderful, Deb! What a nice piece. :)

    You're lucky to have such fond memories of going to the movies with your parents and sister.

    ...

    I've never seen an old movie at the theater (except for my first...)

    I tried to get someone to drive me a few hours out of town to see CASABLANCA last year (it was re-issued at one of the fancy out of town theaters...not that we have one in-town, or even in-county!), but no one would.

    What was the first movie you EVER watched at the theater?

    Mine was a re-issue of BAMBI.

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  2. Awww, bummer about not getting a ride to see Casablanca. Wish we lived closer. I'd take you! Nowadays, if I want to see an "old" movie, I have to go by myself. I'd love the company too! I've been very lucky to see quite a few classic movies on the big screen, some multiple times, like Ben-Hur.

    First movie I ever saw in the theater was a re-issue of South Pacific and I was two years old. I have no memory of it, but my dad always loves to talk about it. Mom pitched a fit see, cuz I was so young, and she didn't want to spend the whole movie out in the lobby holding me. Dad said I'd be fine, and if I did start crying, he'd take me out to the lobby. So they took me, and I apparently sat entranced the entire time and mimicked Liat's hand motions from the "Happy Talk" song and loved it. (South Pacific is also the only musical my mom actually likes.)

    As for the first movie in the theater that I remember? Er, um. ee... No idea. I have certain viewings that stand out, but I have no idea which movie came first.

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  3. What a great post - I love reading stories like this.

    I love when I can go to the cinemateque here, to watch an older film.

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  4. Hi Sebina - sorry I'm so late in responding! It is a different experience in the theater from watching it on DVD, that's for sure. I wish I could get to our revival theaters more often. There's some really good stuff being shown.

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