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Dark Cities

By Ray Pride

MARCH 29, 1999:  I don't get television. I have a problem with reception - my own. Maybe it's the fine fortune of growing up without it and the good luck of since forgetting most of what I observed as a kid. The bug came over me in a single day, seeing my first Robert Altman movie on a big screen, followed by an uninterrupted late-night TV showing of Truffaut's "The 400 Blows." Beyond that, I don't really have any childhood memories of movies, no great romance of the ornate movie palaces and big screen fantasies. I was young when the cracker-boxes were built along U.S. 41 in pairs and fours and eights and tens. There were no movie palaces to speak of in rural western Kentucky, only a few drive-ins whose dim, flickering screens seemed more spectral than magical as you drove past the fields of wheat and bush clover they had been plopped down in.

But I think it has more to do with how many movies I see as a critic, at double or triple features during the day, and in stronger (and stranger) concentrations at film festivals. After relishing reflected images all day long, the hearthfire of TV that you stare into is just another thief of time.

Until recently, many movie house screens - mostly those built since the 1970s - seemed as small as television. Nowdays, as multiplexes are erected at a rate that almost matches that of prison construction, I wonder what possible audience the crush of nine or ten or more releases each Friday is intended for, or being hurled toward. There are very few people who see more films projected on a large screen as I do. Who has the time? Maybe projectionists, who have to tend to eight screens at once, or other critics, magazine editors filling their days, casting directors, filmmakers - but even a half-million-dollar-grossing movie must go beyond those wicked few. Even when six or seven of those movies disappear without a trace within a month or even a single week, somebody out there has to be seeing the couple of films, large or small, that hang on by their fingerprints.

The economics differ from publishing, where ten thousand copies of a first novel in hardcover is swell, despite the fact that the audience may consist only of libraries and other writers. We know "Armageddon" and "Saving Private Ryan" and "Titanic" are seen by the world at large. But those are the rides, the big rides, the noisemakers and epic battles and chances to cry shamelessly.

Sean Penn made an interesting distinction recently between the movies he's been acting in and why he intends to take a breather to set up the movies he wants to direct. There are the "expressive movies" he wants to make and see, then there are the modern blockbusters that take fullest advantage of digital six-track sound and house-sized screens and advance credit-card telephone sales: those are the "impressive" movies. If you're lucky, your mind will occupy itself during the many brain-fades on screen, such as with the reflection by the poet W. H. Auden: "Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and then shows them to us in rough disguise: The monster and the rocket."

While the interior design of new theater complexes is often a different kind of monster, once you're inside the auditorium, you're usually in luck. An IMAX-sized screen soaks up any projected image, anything can fill that blank. Last fall's Toronto International Film Festival held its press screenings all day and night in a newly built Cineplex Odeon complex where every auditorium had brilliant sound, stadium seating, no obstructed sightlines. Where else on earth would anyone get to see Hou Hsiao-hsien's pensively paced "Flowers of Shanghai" on the same scale, the same screen as "Antz"? Michael Almereyda's mummy tall tale "Trance" and the historical whoppers told by "Elizabeth"? I doubt there's a public repetoire like that at any pricey new multiplex anywhere in the world. More likely, four screens will show "ED TV" and two or three will have "The Mod Squad." And if exhibitors had their choice, come May, a handy eight or ten or fourteen would have nothing but George Lucas' pre-millennial blockbuster. (Instead, other studios are releasing almost nothing in the month that precedes and follows that unholy blitz, another blow against moviegoers as frightened corporations cover their bottom lines.)

The theaters don't matter, it's the movies, you'd like to think. If the Cineplexes of Centropolises and megamultimalls are remade into magnificent showplaces, all the exhibition and distribution oligopolies have left to do is illuminate the silvered surfaces with greater, more magnificent, more expressive films. Then we may be impressed, have need to be impressed.

Yet the screen is blank. We have to remember that. Everything else falls away when the lights go down and the commercials shut up. We fill the auditoriums with our personalities, memory cues, well-tended biases and fetishes.

I know collectors who have their own casually composed snapshots of a century of cinema, walls lined with muddy VHS copies and shiny new DVDs of the pictures a repertory house might have shown in years past. It's incredibly distant from the big screen experience, like knowing war from photocopies of postcards of battle sites. I don't want to watch any of them. I can actually remember when a screening would be precious. At the Sandburg, a valiant, short-lived attempt at a latter-day rep house, I remember the frisson of a post-midnight showing of a 16mm original Technicolor print of the long-embargoed, highly-illegal "Rear Window." It wasn't just the quality of Hitchcock's hidden masterpiece; it was the clandestine circumstances. How dare his estate, which owned the rights, say that no one could see "Rear Window" or "Vertigo"?

Maybe the purest expression of cinema - secret and perverse and even more illegal - was the grubby screening room at college, where members of the film society would rush prints from the post office or bus station and in the tiny room that held a love seat and four or five folding chairs, and hungrily ingest a film that wouldn't be shown on the modest student center screen until the next week. The screening room at college is now a parking lot. Where the Sandburg once stood now stands a Walgreen drugstore.

Movies mean more when there's a crowd. The audience seems smarter than any single member of it, than its collective intelligence. They're meeting places, like church, circus or tavern, even if you don't speak to anyone. Moviehouses remain meeting places even when you're being cycled like bacteria in an airplane's ventilation system, through twelve-, eighteen-, twenty-four-screen complexes with inconvenient escalator design, inadequate and inefficient except in the collection of near-$10 tickets.

While you could cynically think of the audience like chickens in their pens, lined up to cackle in the mechanized fun factories, it's actually the meeting and mingling and melting into one of a room of strangers, sharing laughter or fright. There's a beautiful line from Joseph Conrad: "We live, as we dream - alone."

Yes. Except for a couple of snatched hours, a little stolen time. Sharing a dream. It can be a churl's fantasy of not-yet-fallen flesh, or my mother looking up from her work and commenting on the draperies in a movie. We take home what we will, even from he most banal, studio-masticated pulp. Yet while we watch, we are all dreaming a dream - someone else's dream, collectively - but somehow bringing it to life, in the warmth, in the cool, together, in the dark.

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