I remember with fondness the dingy strip mall in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma which housed the 4 screen “megaplex” where I saw, for the first time, such childhood favorites as Back to the Future, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman and Goonies. I remember the Cinemark 8 theaters in Tulsa where my clearest movie memory is that of watching the original Jurassic Park in 1993 on the way home from basketball camp with my friend Matt. I remember all the Fourth of July blockbusters—from Independence Day to Superman Returns—and how the celluloid spectacles in the cool dark halls so perfectly prefaced the midsummer night’s fireworks.
I have such pleasant memories of those cinemas—those popcorn-smelling, teenage-infested, arcade-beeping structures where my movie love was birthed. But I wonder: Why is it that I remember these places so well? I don’t remember the couch I sat on the first time I read Tom Sawyer. I don’t recall where I was the first time I heard R.E.M. or U2. But my favorite movies … I remember so clearly where and when I first tasted their projected glory.
A few months ago I saw United 93 on opening night here in California, and I left the theater thinking, “I’ll remember this viewing experience for a long time.” I hadn’t been so moved—I mean physiologically—by a film in years; and I knew, intuitively, that the effect of the film would ingrain in my memory the circumstances in which I first encountered it.
And I got to thinking: How many films in my history have been so affecting? So moving or engaging that I can still remember the feelings I went through upon first seeing them? Here are a few that immediately came to mind:
The Thin Red Line
I’m pretty sure that this 1998 film was the first I ever saw in which the thought, this is holy, ran through my mind a couple of times while watching it. I saw the WWII epic in the theater the winter of my freshman year in high school, and I think I had to sneak in (it was rated R and I was underage). Without a doubt, this was the moment I first discovered the cathartic possibilities in film, as beautifully developed by Terrence Malick, who would eventually become—hands down—my favorite director of all time.
I went to see this movie with my friend Lorraine when it came out in the fall of 1999, and I can still remember how blindsided I was by the unexpected depth, emotion and truth the film possessed (I was expecting nothing more than a satirical comedy). To this day, the scene where Ricky Fitts describes the heaviness of beauty on his heart while watching the dancing plastic bag remains one of the purest and most spiritual of my movie-watching moments.
I saw this film in an aging, 20s-era arts film house in Illinois my freshman year of college. The theater, with a musky old smell and squeaky plastic seats, was a perfect environment to watch Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s haunting elegy to the noir-mystery and ghostly glamour of mid-century Hollywood. This film—in all of it’s dreamlike beauty and surrealist creepiness—impacted me so much that I took up entertainment writing in my college newspaper just so I could write about it.
Lost in Translation
I saw this by myself in a huge AMC theater in suburban Illinois, at a time in my collegiate life (junior year) when I was beginning to experience frequent existential morning sickness (what am I going to do after I graduate? What’s the point in working at relationships that are only going to last a year or so?). For these and other reasons—including a crush on one Scarlett Johansson—Lost in Translation just clicked with me. Sofia Coppola’s keen sense of travel, temporality and fleeting relationships (and that haunting Jesus and Mary Chain song in the last scene) resonated sharply in my twentysomething bones.
These four films are just a sampling of my recent film-going memories; my full history with the cinema goes back much farther and includes a lot of viewing by way of television or the video store (I discovered most of my favorite directors this way—Richard Linklater, Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Peter Weir, Steven Soderbergh, Neil Labute, Jean-Luc Godard, etc). But there is definitely a special place in my heart for the actual public theater, and my movie memories are so tied to these spaces; these sacred places where our culture can still come together to confront semblances of art and truth.
Barbara Nicolosi is on to something in calling the cinema the “church of the masses,” and when I visit an old cinema I often feel the same way I do when I re-visit a former church or an ancient cathedral. How many people have come through here and passed on? How has the discourse within these walls—as innately evanescent as it is—impacted the lives and culture that has passed by?
I’m always moved when I read Walker Percy’s words in The Moviegoer on this sort of experience. “As usual it eluded me,” he writes of happening upon a once-favorite cinema fourteen years later. “There was this: a mockery about the old seats, their plywood split, their bottoms slashed, but enduring nevertheless as if they had waited to see what I had done with my fourteen years. There was this also: a secret sense of wonder about the enduring, about all the nights, the rainy summer nights at twelve and one and two o’clock when the seats endured alone in the empty theater. The enduring is something which must be accounted for. One cannot simply shrug it off.”
And I can’t shrug it off either; and I don’t want to, because the enduring of cinema has helped me along in life in ways little else could. It’s really an oxymoron, when you think about it—the enduring cinema. The experience of watching a movie (especially pre-video/DVD) is by definition ephemeral, brief, short-lived. Two or so hours in a darkened room, in another world, in a suspended reality: that’s all it is, right?
It may seem that way; or perhaps it is that way to some, but not for me. At 23, I’ve endured a rather short amount of life. The cinema has a good 80 years on me, though I suspect movies—in whatever form—will be around much after the curtain closes on my own life. This is the enduring: not just film, not just art, but being. From Adam to the end, storytelling will always be our favored means of communicating existence.