In these days of zillion dollar tickets, broke-asses like me don't get to see as many movies in the theaters as we used to (and, alas, $20 no longer lets three Mean Streets mooks all go to the movies). This is kind of a mixed blessing, actually, because for the last few years as society descends deeper into the void and common decency gradually becomes a thing of the past (sorry, I held a straight face for as long as I could, gimme a sec: hahahahahahahahahaha! Okay we're back) people generally act like assholes in movie theaters. The talking, the cell phone screens showing up in your peripheral vision, the people who take calls during movies, a lot of it kinda sucks. Unfortunately this didn't cause a rise in more people going to art houses, because art house audiences are awesome. They shut up during the parts when they're supposed to show up, laugh when they're supposed to laugh (if the New Yorker told them it was okay to, an important wrinkle to not forget in arthouses; more later on why you need to check the ruling of the cognoscenti beforehand) and generally, you're in the presence of people who like and respect movies.
And, really, a lot of what makes going to the movie fun is going to the movie, the experience. I find watching at home I get to focus a lot more on the movie itself—again, a mixed blessing; if the movie sucks, there's nothing to do except turn it off. But in the theater, if the movie sucks, you can either make out with your date, open one of the beers you smuggled in, look around and enjoy the pained expressions on the audience's faces, so on and so forth. Occasionally, too, crazy shit happens. Some choice anecdotes:
Tombstone (1993) dir. George P. Cosmatos (and, allegedly, an uncredited Kurt Russell)
Location: Metropolitan Cinema, downtown Brooklyn, NY
Crazy shit: dislocated shoulder on way to theater
So, yes, technically, this isn't a story that took place in a theater, but it affected the experience and is at least 75% of the reason why I like Tombstone even though the structure's clunky, it's too long, and Dana Delany is ditzy in it. But anyway. So it's the winter, the streets are all icy, it's about one fuckin degree outside, and—foreshadowing!—I was watching football just a little while before and had seen (newly elected Hall of Famer) Emmitt Smith skullfuck the Giants with a dislocated shoulder.
I think my mom and I were actually talking about that game while walking down 10th street in Park Slope down a fairly steep hill along a stretch of sidewalk with no houses around so the sidewalk wasn't plowed or salted or anything. Naturally, the sidewalk was pretty treacherous, and although I was being very careful, I slipped and went horizontal. Mom slipped and went horizontal, and her right foot flying up just fuckin nailed my right shoulder, and then I crunched on the ground. BAM, dislocated shoulder. Ow.
Mom, being a mom, was very upset and kept saying “I'm so sorry.” I, on the other hand, was 15 and a man-in-training so I had to represent, and I really wanted to see the movie, so I insisted that I was fine, tried to hide the fact that my shoulder was hanging off at some bizarre angle, and we continued on our way to the subway to downtown Brooklyn.
So. We get out. Shoulder still hurts. We're walking down Fulton Street to get to the Metropolitan. A very large Afro-Klingon man is walking toward me, glowering (in fairness, I kind of looked like the Master Race's CPA at the time and it looked like he was having a bad day) and as he walks by me, he tries to knock me down. By aiming at my right shoulder. BAM. Shoulder knocked back in. And suddenly barely even hurts anymore.
My mom looks at me. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.
“Oh good, it was—wait a minute, was it dislocated????? Oh fuck, why didn't you—”
“MOM, we're gonna be late for the movie!”
So we hustled in and watched the movie. If you've ever had a serious injury, or migraines (both of which I can tell you all about) you know the best part is after the worst of the pain has faded, and that strangely euphoric sensory sharpness takes hold. I sat there and enjoyed the living shit out of Tombstone—Val Kilmer's glorious hamminess as Doc Holliday, Michael Biehn being fucking terrifying and fucking awesome as Johnny Ringo, all the cameos from people like Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum narrating. I've never enjoyed it quite as much ever again, and am thus ever convinced that the shoulder was worth it. Even though for the last sixteen-plus years my shoulder hurts when it rains, hey. Tombstone.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999) dir. Trey Parker
Location: Pavilion Theater, Park Slope, Brooklyn NY
Crazy shit: Well-behaved children
Of course, an explanation is necessary, but fear not, I will oblige. I was on summer break from college, and naturally as a mature, progressive man of taste, I was very geeked about the South Park movie. So much so that I forgot that school was out, and there were going to be dumbass kids at the theater.
Ironically, considering that the premise of the movie involved the underage protagonists sneaking into an R-rated movie, the theater was packed with diminutive, shrieking fucktards. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against kids, I just like them quietly reading in another room. These kids were neither quiet, reading, nor in another room. I took one of the only unoccupied seats left, near the front, which was, unfortunately right in front of an unsupervised group of very loud, very stupid kids.
WASPs are generally pretty good at keeping it together, and being as these were my college years, I was doing my obligatory dabbling in the philosophies of the East and was thus trying to calm the beast within with Zen, the Tao, and all that jazz, and basically, I was like this: they can talk during the previews, but the second the movie proper starts, if they're still talking . . . this means war.
So the movie starts. The kids, very excited that they're at an R-rated movie by themselves, are still babbling, and quoting South Park episodes to each other. The first song starts, and the kids instead of shutting up start talking louder.
I turned around and looked the loudest one, the one behind me, dead in the eye and I said “Shut. The Fuck. Up.” And I turned around and thoroughly enjoyed the movie . . . and didn't notice until about thirty minutes in that I was enjoying the movie in silence. I briefly wondered if the kids had just left, but then funny stuff started happening and I forgot about them.
It wasn't until the movie had come to its very entertaining conclusion, and I was standing to go. I saw the four kids who'd been sitting behind me for the whole picture, getting up quietly and making their way out. Let that be a lesson, ladies and gentlemen: all you have to do to keep kids in line is curse at them. You're welcome.
Bamboozled (2000) dir. Spike Lee
Location: Upstate Films, Rhinebeck, NY
Crazy shit: Progressive, white, upper-middle-class wrath
Getting off campus to the movies when I was in college was always a bit of an event, as I had no car and generally had a mountain of work to do, when I wasn't so high I thought I was off campus already. The nearest movie theaters were a bit of a shlep, but fortunately we had an art house in nearby Rhinebeck so we weren't stuck with the horseshit playing at the mall. I got out there for, among other things, Ghost Dog (which wasn't much of a story, we smoked a joint in the jeep on the way over, really liked the movie, smoked another joint on the way, back, and then decided, hey, let's smoke some weed) and Dancer in the Dark (which wasn't much of a story either, that picture was just depressing). But the night a friend of mine and I got in a fight with some middle-aged progressives, we had just seen Bamboozled.
Let's first establish two universal truisms about Spike Lee. First, he's a brilliantly talented director; the only other director I can think of capable of creating as genuine, visceral excitement in an audience using nothing but cinema vocabulary (camera moves, edits, sound) as Spike is Martin Scorsese. Spike's from New York, that's how we are, we're fucking enthusiastic, man. That does, however, lead into the second universal Spike truism: the thing that trips him up is a tendency to not know when to take his foot off the gas with the politics. This is especially unfortunate because he has very important things to say. The bits about the cops murdering people in Do The Right Thing, Spike did not pull out of his ass. That literally happened every fucking day in New York in the 80s, and Spike was incredibly influential in getting that bullshit to, if not stop, at least get a bit less frequent. Malcolm X was one of the two or three best biopics ever made, and reintroduced Malcolm into public discourse as a fully rounded tragic hero, and the movie cannot be underestimated in helping Malcolm maintain his proper place in the history of this country.
But occasionally, Spike swings and misses. Bamboozled was one of those cases. Again, the source of the main premise was not Spike's ass—racism in the media is all over the goddamn place. Spike's premise—a TV network that airs an actual, blackface/shuck & jive minstrel show set in a watermelon patch—is, much like Network, one that only seems over the top until you think about it for a second. Or however long it takes to look up The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer on imdb. Yep, a sitcom about slavery. Jesse Jackson's fucking head exploded when that show hit the air; unlike a lot of the lesser controversies where you can tell Jesse's just phoning in the sincere, reproaching disappointment, you could tell he was actually fucking really pissed when this happened. As was just about every single black person in the United States not directly employed by that show, including Spike, naturally.
If anything, Bamboozled suffers from Spike's apparent, understandable, furious need to get the picture on a screen and get people to watch it as soon as possible. It has a great premise and a lot of real shit to say, a lot of which could have been said more effectively if Spike had done another draft or two of the script. Damon Wayans' performance in the lead is really weird; people dismissed it as being shitty, which is only a little reductive. There are elements of a really good performance in there, and he has some excellent moments, but his character's arc from bored, annoyed yuppie to righteous moral crusader to whore bathing in filthy lucre is too complex for some of the lazy choices Damon Wayans makes (and that Spike didn't tell him to knock the fuck off), primarily his arch stand-up comedian white guy accent. His best scenes are the ones where you can tell he's not putting it on as strong, like when he gets pissed off in a writer's meeting at a white woman who self-righteously asserts that she knows about black people due to her degree in African-American studies and calls her a “niggerologist,” a line my friend and I found hilarious. (Hold that thought, reminiscence after only a smidge more plot recap) Spike's choice to shoot the whole thing on grainy videotape was a little odd too, as it took the audience out of the story he was trying to tell, and not in a good way. And, ultimately, the picture goes on a little too long, and having Jada Pinkett-Smith pull out a gun and shoot Damon Wayans at the end was too melodramatic and didn't contribute at all to the points Spike was trying to make, it was more that Spike himself wanted to shoot this horrible motherfucker and did by proxy.
Now, the press that greeted Bamboozled, like most of Spike's bad press, was largely motivated by the two-front assault of racists who want Spike to shut up and accept that racism is over because they only lynch one black person a year in Arkansas these days, and pussy-ass progressives who think Spike has the right idea but ruins everything by being too angry (ironically, a perfect justification for Spike to stay pissed). Spike, to his credit, handled this by giving everyone the finger and telling them “Go fuck yourself, if you ban this movie you're proving my point that the media are racist cowards.” Naturally, with all this hubbub, a certain percentage of the pussy-ass progressive demographic wanted to go see Bamboozled so they could be solemnly, deeply upset. My friends and I wanted to see a new Spike Lee joint.
If memory serves me correctly, we stopped off for some beers on the way there, but however it happened, we were definitely scruffier and rowdier than most of the buttoned-down Rhinebeck citizenry there with us. So we were talking, in typical college-student patois (erudition + fuck you motherfucker + loud lack of regard for bourgeois decorum) and a thin, severe, middle-aged woman in glasses turned around—this is before the previews even started, mind you—and asked: “Are you going to talk like that through the whole film?”
I was confused. “The picture hasn't started yet, ma'am.”
“Ma'am? Did you . . .” and she started sputtering, which confused me even more, until the woman turned to her husband and muttered something about “he just called me ma'am,” at which point I realized I hadn't gotten the memo from the feminists about which words were off-limits that week. But, whatever, I didn't press the point. I even lowered my voice and stopped cursing.
So the picture starts. No more reprimands. However, a ways into it, my friend and I found ourselves laughing quite a bit. This isn't because we're insensitive assholes, or racists, or anything like that. Spike Lee is fucking funny, and Bamboozled is deliberately funny on any number of occasions. The scene where Mos Def is sitting there talking about something or other and there are like three jump cuts in the middle of his monologue showing that he's still not getting to the fucking point is hilarious, and I would like to point out, for the record, that the fact that we were laughing at a jump cut was in and of itself a badge of sufficient cultural sophistication that the Rhinebeckers should have fucked off and left us alone. But I started noticing after a while that every time my friend and I laughed, heads would turn around to (indirectly and non-confrontationally, of course) stare at us. After a while we even got that patented leftie sound that I can only describe as a cross between “tsk tsk” “shh” and steam escaping. In stereo. A ways through the second act I muttered to my friend, “Dude, we should probably keep it quiet,” and he looked around at an apparent theater full of politically left-of-center teakettles and nodded.
So the movie ended, and my friend went to go hit the men's room before we headed back to campus. While I was waiting for him outside in the fresh air, the same woman who got pissed off at me for calling her ma'am comes out with her husband and another couple. Ma'am says to me, “You should be ashamed of yourself for carrying on like that during a film.”
Boy, she's good at confusing me. “What? I was . . . laughing . . .”
“Yes, you were laughing. Honestly, that's disrespectful.”
Okay, confusion metamorphosizes into anger: “Lady, the picture was funny. When a thing is funny, normal people laugh.”
She gets sarcastic, folds her arms. “Oh, normal people laugh at racism.”
“Listen, ma'am, the director intended the picture to be funny. If he were at this screening, he'd be pissed off at you and asking who rammed that stick up your ass.” (Good breeding failed me)
At this point her husband turns a little red. “Don't you talk to my wife like that.”
I turn to him. “Goes both ways, sir, she shouldn't talk to me like that.” And I was in the middle of failing to come up with some brilliant addendum to that when my friends got me the fuck out of there and into the car to go home.
As we were heading home, one of my friends said to me: “Only you, man, fuck . . . you managed to get into a fucking fight in Rhinebeck.”
The Rock (1996) dir. Michael Bay
Location: somewhere around Caterham, Surrey, England
Crazy shit: Slept through car chase
Summer of '96, in between graduating high school and starting college, I went on a student-exchange trip to England. The English kids had come over to New York the previous winter, and we were all basically trapped indoors in a blizzard for about four days, during which I got Gareth, the kid I was hosting, hooked on both my stealth bomber computer game and basketball (“This is fucking magic, mate, it's like football with more black blokes and more scoring!”) and watched a shitload of movies he'd never seen, like El Mariachi and The Godfather, and made plans for me to direct a movie someday with him playing a South African villain. Good times.
Naturally, when my plane landed, the first thing Gareth wanted to do was take me out for a pint and go to the movies. As I was seventeen, this sounded awesome. (Ed. Note: at 31, it still sounds awesome) So we got a pint or four and staggered over to the cinema to see The Rock. “Michael Fucking Bay,” Gareth said, with a big smile on his face.
“Yeah, man, Michael Fucking *yawn*
Gareth looked at me and said something typically sarcastic about how my backward colonial upbringing hadn't properly prepared me to drink, and I yawned again, conceded his cultural superiority, and settled down into my seat. The movie started, and the usual Michael Bay Ritalin editing and retarded exposition ensued. I tried, in vain (as it so often goes), to figure out what the fuck Nicolas Cage was on, and eventually let jet-lagged drunk oblivion do its work. Next thing I know, I'm being woken up with an elbow to the chops. “Wha . . . the fuck you do that for?” I said to Gareth.
“Mate, you just slept through the fucking car chase,” he replied, radiating contempt and disgust.
“Oh. Sorry. What'd I miss?”
“Nothing. That's not the point. You slept through the fucking car chase.”
“Oh. Sorry, won't let it happen again.”
(Ed. Note: the car chase in The Rock is, although no classic, still of sufficient caliber that the author quotes this story with the proper degree of shame, and with firm assurance to the reader that he has since learned to drink properly)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) dir. Joseph Sargent
Location: Film Forum, New York, NY
Crazy shit: An outpouring of love from New York's finest movie nerds.
This one isn't so much weird as it is just one of the most fun nights I've ever had at a movie. A very dear friend of mine heard The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was playing at Film Forum, I heard it from him, and put my fuckin boots on to go the fuckin movies. Because, as a movie nerd, I have to show love for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and as a New Yorker, I have to show that love demonstratively. It's one of the tightest, most exciting action pictures in the first and most fertile decade of the modern action picture, and few movies have ever captured grouchy, proletarian Old New York quite like it. And, since we had three or four people there with us who'd never seen it, this was important shit.
We sat down and started talking very excitedly about how awesome this movie was, and, because I cannot but be circumspect, I noticed that in several other groups throughout the theater, other pairs of friends were very excitedly explaining how awesome this movie was to their friends, and all the new people were getting on the vibe as well. The place was buzzing before the lights even went down.
The first trailer got a standing ovation. Now, sure, you've seen this happen when some picture has like The Dark Knight or Star Wars or some such trailer attached, and the nerds applauding are more likely than not just there at that movie because they heard their trailer was attached (this is how, with both my mom and my Pelham One Two Three friend, I came to see Dreamcatcher; one of the Animatrix shorts was showing first). But this time, at Film Forum, was fucking special. The trailer went a little something like this: a shuffling jazz beat starts playing. Then, on separate title cards—
A FILM BY
It was like a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 of the World Series. Film Forum went fucking apeshit. The second the trailer ended, about ten people—including, I confess, me—all said in unison, “WE GOTTA COME BACK!” and then the whole place laughed.
We had a couple seconds to chill and catch our breath, and then David Shire's funktastic score started playing, and the titles of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three started rolling. For the whole hour forty-five, the entire theater kept that same level of energy. Every word of Walter Matthau's mouth was the funniest thing we ever heard. Robert Shaw sitting there doing his crossword puzzle: awesome. The last scene when Walter Matthau hears Martin Balsam coughing, then pokes his head back in with his Walter Matthau basset hound face: standing ovation. It was a good night.
The thing about nights like these at the movies is, you never know when they're going to happen. You can't plan them. You just have to go to the movies and let them unfold all by themselves. Sometimes the movie isn't that good. Sometimes the crowd is annoying. But when everything falls into place, or falls apart in just the right way, there's nothing quite like it.