My five most memorable theatre moments
It’s been a while since my last post. Work sidelined me for most of October, and my hopes to marathon and review horror films during Halloween got nuked by a nasty case of food poisoning.
In the meantime, I am soon going to watch and review La Dolce Vita for my next review roulette this week. However, I realize that, aside from my tribute to Robin Williams, review roulettes have been the overwhelming bulk of my content these last few months, which says more about my blog’s lack of content than anything else.
To amend this, I am going to start putting out some more fun, less criticism based posts just to shoot the breeze about my love of movies, games and television, which I did a lot more of when I began this blog.
This post is going to be about one of the most significant aspects of moviegoing that I think doesn’t always gets enough mention in criticism or cultural debates. I’m talking about movies as real-time theatrical experiences. When you see a film for the first time on a big screen, you are not always parsing through its bits and pieces. Sometimes, the right movie with the right crowd can be an electrifying experience in ways that don’t really have a place in traditional film criticism. The numerous factors that come into play that lead to a truly enjoyable cinematic experience are among the purest joys of moviegoing.
So with all that out of the way, here are my top five movie theatre experiences:
While I was a longtime skeptic of 3-D (after the 3-D version Beauty and the Beast turned one of the prettiest of all films into a blurry, literal eyesore, I was kind of spiteful towards it) Life of Pi convinced me that the form could absolutely add to a film, rather than simply not detract. However, it was Gravity that converted me completely, convincing me that it was possible to make a film that almost demanded to be seen in as grand a setting as possible.
While Life of Pi had fun playing with the dimensions of shots (like that exquisite image looking up from the bottom of a swimming pool at the blue sky, with swimmers in between) Gravity at times felt only a few inches away. This was no gimmick: that long close-up of Sandra Bullock trying to gather her wits after flying off into space is much more effective by us feel like we’re pressed up against her helmet. The 3-D consistently created a closeness to the characters on screen, which was important for a film set largely in a void.
Gravity left me breathless and exhilarated. I still listen to that track that plays over its final scene to get pumped up. I can’t think of another movie that has ever left me so drained and limp with glee, and so much of its impact stemmed from how overwhelming it was on that enormous screen.
4. The Hurt Locker
I can’t say The Hurt Locker is one of my favorite films. It didn’t hold up on a second viewing all that well. I like it, but Renner’s protagonist is reckless to the point of unbelievability, which sort of undercut my enthusiasm about the rest of the story. However, this post is entirely about theatrical experiences, and my seeing the The Hurt Locker for the first time was one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of my life.
I was visiting my sister in New York in July 2009, and we were walking around late one night when we walked past a movie theatre. We stopped by to see what was playing, and sure enough, a screening of The Hurt Locker- fresh, new and just starting to build the buzz that would lead it to a Best Picture Oscar. We bought tickets and went it. The theatre was small, cozy, and packed to the brim. And damn if we weren’t all ready to be thrilled by a movie. I firmly believe that some films demand some level of audience participation. Not necessarily Rocky Horror Picture Show level acting along, but at least some level of the audience understanding the effect the movie is going for and letting the movie have that effect on them. The Hurt Locker is one such movie. Its logic often falls apart with scrutiny, but on that night no one was scrutinizing it. Everyone in the theatre had a vice grip on their armrests. Everyone fed off everyone else’s energy, and the result was one of the most beautifully tense moviegoing experiences of my life. While closer examinations of The Hurt Locker have since dampened my enthusiasm for it, that first viewing will always stick with me.
3. Princess Mononoke
Not all great theatrical experiences are first viewings. I had watched Princess Mononoke- my de facto favorite film/inaugural member of the top platform of my all-time movie pyramid- twenty times between 2003 and 2010. After the twentieth viewing, I vowed the 21st would be on the big screen. In 2012, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge showed a marathon of Studio Ghibli films, including Princess Mononoke. Perhaps there was nothing for me to learn by seeing it on a big screen, but only in the sense that there’s technically no difference between seeing a great painting in person and looking at a photograph of it. Princess Mononoke is one of the great works of visual creativity in film history, a work of art by one of our greatest living artists at his absolute prime. To finally see it in a format that allowed it to envelop me, to see its beautiful images in their full splendor, was to finally make one of my most cherished dreams come true.
2. Jurassic Park
I don’t think I was aware of movies as a cultural thing, as something not just bigger than my living room but rather big in a way that connected people around the world, until I saw Jurassic Park. Leading up to it, I was a five-year-old in the full throes of my dinosaur phase. I think every kid goes through that phase when they realize that there were once these gargantuan reptiles that ruled the earth and for a year or two nothing else registers but dinosaurs. And here was this new movie whose entire point seemed to be “Dinosaurs are the coolest” and you can bet your ass I was there on day one, lined up with my dad and my big sister. And unlike previous movies, the line for this one was really, really long. I remember walking all the way around the back of the theatre to get to the back of the line when it clicked: everyone here; kids and old people and everything in between; is here to see Jurassic Park. It was a thrilling new reality for me. Movies were bigger than my little five-year-old orbit. They united us all.
That alone would chart this film, but really, does any film from the 90s carry quite so much nostalgic sway from our first cinematic viewings as Jurassic Park. It is a film constructed from Big Moments, and I remember my reactions to all of them. Steven Spielberg has been met as much derision as praise over the years, but I remain convinced that he is one of the few commercial filmmakers to really grasp how awe-inspiring movies are to children, and to bottle those feelings and put them in movies where people of all ages can feel them again. Yes, he has lost that deft touch, but it was never more present than in Jurassic Park.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The year 2003 was crucial for my love of movies. Seeing Spirited Away made me realize that movies meant something much much more to me than passive entertainment. I was active on a message board that provided a spring of cheerful, welcoming people from around the world who were all too happy to chat movies with an overeager teenager who rather clearly had too much time on my hands and precious few similar outlets. I started reading books about movies voraciously, starting with Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies, an invaluable primer for cinematic language for newcomers. I was falling in love with movies, and none had my heart quite like The Lord of the Rings.
I had been a bit lukewarm about The Fellowship of the Ring when I saw it initially, but subsequent viewings and numerous chats with LOTR nuts had converted me into a true believer with The Two Towers. When the time came for The Return of the King, I felt like a pilgrim making the final ascent to a spiritual nirvana. Yes, that is embarrassingly overwrought. I was sixteen. Everything I felt was likely to be embarrassingly overwrought.
There was nothing particularly interesting about the screening itself. Packed theatre at the local mall. No, it was just the perfect movie for me at that time, one I knew I was going to love completely, a masterful spectacle that completely fulfilled every lofty expectation I had for it. The best theatrical experiences can be defined by many things, but sometimes, they’re defined by the perfect movie at the perfect time.