Monday, May 26, 2008

These Sawdust Caesars

The multiplexes have taken over the theatrical experience. They so profoundly serve the vast majority of the Hollywood/ mainstream movie-going public, and are able to squeeze superior grosses out of each film, through multiple prints and flexible booking options. Ever go to a multiplex and find out your Judi Densch film has unexpectedly been cancelled? That's because the Vince Vaughn film next door was doing more business and they decided to interlock it into another auditorium - yours. The Densch gross was for shit anyway.

In the (very) old days they used to call this bicycling. The owner would book a film and have a kid bike each reel as it came off the projector to another theatre he owned across town, staring 19 minutes later...just enough time to get the next reel on, and only have to report the gross for the one theatre. Lot of people got rich in the movie theatre business before the age of computers.

Now the films are so carefully managed for the opening weekend crowds. 6 prints playing 20 minutes apart, from 11:00 am to midnight, so any possible interested customers can just walk up, and have their film starting in 15 minutes, or if it's sold out, 20 minutes after that. There's no need to plan - or to work it out - or to think. (There's something much larger wrong with this than first appears.) And the crowds flow in and flow out, one after another, like the sheep they are.

If you need to eat, why not come in and buy some nachos. Want to kill some time playing in the arcade? Theatres aren't very relaxing environments anymore. The old days of ornate lobbies with fountains and decoration are over - that prime real estate is now filled with digital projectors, standees, self-serve Starbucks and ATMs.

They're probably confusing on purpose. And older customers, not comfortable with this environment or the films showing, stay away. Besides, the places are full of young teenagers, who don't know how to act.

So the only films that get made nowadays cater to teenagers. The films that older people would appreciate go straight to video, or if they're released at all, don't do very well.

Teenagers have disposable income (they don't have to buy groceries to feed any... teenagers), and disposable time. They want to get out of the house. They want to see Iron Man fly.

They don't care what's showing this weekend. They come out in droves to the latest and best marketed film, because movie-going isn't an artistic pursuit in which they partake of a higher artform. It's a social sphere in which they share in the most recent and “hot” (as in McLuhan) popular event, that just happens to be centered at the multiplex in their local mall.

In other words, they're not there for the right reasons. They don't appreciate what they're seeing. And consequently they don't know how to act. So they act out. And further drive the others out of the theatre experience all together.

This is not new. Teenagers have been acting up since quill was first put to papyrus. Ovid himself in the year Zero is on record as saying “These kids today!” Teenagers are hooligans, because they've discovered the power they have to change their surroundings, but don't yet know the reason why they should - just that they can. And they can upset greatly the adults who have spent most of their adult lives trying to preserve the status quo, who also don't know quite why they should, and before when they were teens themselves, likewise had the same impulse. But never followed through. Or really could. Like the teenagers they're in eternal battle with.

Teenagers come into the theatre in groups of 3 or 13, and are loud, clumsy and laugh at each other's jokes. Their courage grows in proportion to their numbers, and they pretend to misconstrue what they actually keenly understand and have dismissed by some instinct. They challenge the workers at the theatre, whether it's the 35-year-old manager or the 17-year-old pimply-faced doorman. They especially challenge the pretty candy girl behind the counter with the tits.

They take fire extinguishers off the wall and shoot them into the crowd in the dark. They throw soda cans at the screen and splash it, rendering a shiny Rorschach blot that won't be cleaned for years, a wetspot particularly visible during snow or bright sky scenes in every movie that shows on it thereafter. The scatter like rats when you call security on them, or heaven forbid, a dis-motivated pack of ushers, who go to school with many of then during the week. "Hey, Phil, come on and clear out. You're gonna get me in trouble!" Sometimes it takes all shift to scare the last one out of the corners of the building.

They kick the row of seats in front of them until the bolts come out of the floor. They break the panic hardware on the exit door and sneak in that way for weeks until the maintenance guy finally notices and fixes the hinge.

They do all this because it makes them feel bigger than they are. They know - more than we realize - that their ability to have an effect on the world is short in duration and limited in effect. To create some kind of scene in their world - this popular hangout surrounded by their peers, such as they are - is to have a big effect in a little pond.

In 1964 2 groups of teens, the “Mods” and “Rockers" by popular parlance, got into a melee on the seaside resort of Clacton over the Easter weekend. There were numerous arrests and one death (apparently an accidental drowning, not due to any beating). This picnic row was condemned by the magistrate and was considered a signpost of the end of hope for UK youth, and Western civilization as they knew it.

It's easy to agree when some punk kid's pulled the fire alarm in “Finding Nemo.” (The only thing worse than dealing with surly teenagers is dealing with moms with upset kids. Remind me to tell you my "Elmo in Grouchland" story.)

In spite of all the danger, the one thing they don't viddy is that we're them. They're us. That's right - we're teenagers here too, as disenfranchised, and trying to make sense of this confusing realm of commerce and responsibility in which our options are slowly receding as the cold albacore of reality slaps us across the face, day in and paycheck by paycheck.

We work in a movie theatre, for crissakes, not the bank that won't let you take out the money, won't hire you unless you get a haircut. We didn't flunk you in algebra. We're not selling you $90 jeans because Susan Canby said so (when she's at home). We're the movies - something you should be interested in. They make then for us, after all. We scared away the old people a long time ago.

We're in bands, we write poetry (what we really want to do is direct). We certainly don't want to work, or we wouldn't be ushers. Yet these packs of riff-raff come in, and terrorize the high-school students making minimum wage late into the night. We may wear polyester, but what do you wear: overalls when you're banging trashcans onto the truck? Or jeans as you sweep the soccer field?

Shitty grease-flipping work. Instead of goosing the candy girls or sticking straws into the acoustic ceiling, if your chaos, your cum, your muscular shadow-boxing were directed towards a ripe target, something or someone responsible for how it all was becoming, maybe you'd make someone really nervous. Someone who deserved your anger, and your energy.

That would be a day.

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