I’m late. The movie starts in five minutes, and I’m 13 away, trapped on the Red Line. The Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, has a timeless feel, a faded red-brick barn in the federal Harvard style. But that does nothing to change the basic timeliness of a movie theater: the show starts now and won’t wait for you.
I belong to a generation that has taken for granted something radical: Movies come to us, so we don’t go to the movies. Netflix-and-chill slayed dinner-and-a-show, and few seem to mourn. Why should they?
A movie is a movie, the thinking goes. Why dress up and drive to town to burn through precious cash for what can be done in pajamas, for cheap, at home? I’ve heard the whole case. At home, ambient qualities can be controlled, room temperature set, background noises stifled, the reel paused and rewound, subtitles added and removed. Maybe sound quality suffers (or maybe it’s improved). Maybe the theater candy and over-yellowed popcorn will be missed (or maybe they will be replaced by something better, healthier). Not much changes from silver screen to laptop. And the savings will be reward enough. Movie tickets are more expensive than ever before, despite declining attendance. For overpriced tickets and overpriced popcorn, a family of four might pay more than $50. That’s more than half the cost of a one-year subscription to Netflix.
No, it cannot be denied that moviegoing is less and less viable for more and more people. And it will remain unviable, so long as the Internet undercuts the movie theater’s long-held monopoly. The case for moviegoing cannot rest on the movie, however good they’ve been and whatever film du jour has bloggers blogging. Instead, the case for moviegoing must resuscitate the going, the unpredictable, and unreplicable experience of seeing something with strangers. And to do that requires a re-imagination of something altogether more basic: the theater.
So I sprint through Harvard Square in the stupid wet August heat and trip down a half-flight of stairs toward the Brattle’s below-ground entrance, all the while palming through my backpack for that buried ticket somewhere at the end of an angry game of hide-and-seek. I find it, greet the woman with kind eyes at the ticket counter, fly past the small concession stand and up the narrow twisted staircase to the main stage in the attic theater where to my relief the movie scheduled for eight minutes ago hasn’t started. There’s a single open seat near the back of the small wooded hall, more grammar school gym than Harvard hippodrome, and I collapse on it.
A theater has two things: a spectacle and spectators. Both are essential. If the curtain falls and there’s no one there to see it, it’s not a show at all. An audience without something to clap for is, at best, a party, at worst a mob. But viewers and viewing are not equally important; one matters more, and always unknowably. A great show can be killed by a distracted audience just as a heartless flub can be rescued by a concert of committed viewers who laugh and sob together as one.
I have felt it firsthand. This summer, I saw more than a dozen films at theaters spanning Greater Boston, from new and glossy multiplexes to dusty old palaces, advance press screenings and first-day openings to Sunday matinees and closing pictures months post-debut. Each time, a different film. And with each film, a different setting.
Why Boston? To some extent, this experiment can be replicated anywhere. But Greater Boston has something special. Not just historic venues, where motion pictures have been shown since the silent film era. Not even the U-shaped demography, ripe for movies, with young students at universities and retirees in the suburbs. Most important, Boston has a flourishing, underappreciated, and mostly immeasurable moviegoing scene. It’s evident everywhere, like when I couldn’t get a ticket to the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s screening of “Roman Holiday” (1953) on a recent Monday night in Brookline. Or when a weekend showing of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the feel-good documentary about Mister Rogers, was still sold out at the Kendall Square, in Cambridge, eight weeks after opening.
It’s a French film, a slow Bildungsroman that I find difficult to follow. I keep staring off into the morose, stony faces of the young characters — a boy, uppity and clueless, and a girl, bold and charming — and so miss whole sequences of subtitles that flit along the bottom of the screen.
The odds are stacked against them, the activation energy high, and still people here make it out to the theater. What draws them out? The quality of the venue? Yes, and certainly no. In Somerville, I saw “Three Identical Strangers” in a beat-up old box on the bottom floor of the Somerville Theatre. Before the film I popped into the Museum of Bad Art (“Art too bad to be ignored”), a small gallery where dozens of terrible paintings hang. Some are inane, embarrassing, others enigmatic, like bad poetry. But the cinema stops for no one, and you must leave to catch the next show down the hall, on the big screen.
At the Coolidge Corner, I saw “Eighth Grade” on a Wednesday afternoon in the main theater, a regal cavern from a bygone era. The theater was mostly empty, and from a few seats in the back — of course you can move around — you can cock your head and hear a faint echo from the sound bouncing across the empty hall. In a theater that large the space between people becomes something of its own instrument, accentuating the laughs and coughs and shuffling of feet precisely.
Within minutes you find yourself recognizing the distinct personalities of your co-viewers, unsure about why the spectacled man in the back left corner laughed just then, dismayed as the phone-addict near the front drops her device again, surprised when the couple with tired eyes three rows in front decides to leave at the climax, the height of emotion and tension, the protagonist burning her cherished time capsule in a blaze of absolution and pity.
You hate them all, these people who have intruded on your Eden of entertainment, until you humbly realize that they are the equal players in the show, like at a symphony when the hum and hush of the audience becomes some second conductor more powerful and puzzling than the first.
Which is all to say this: “movie theater” and “live theatre” are siblings. You can see “Spotlight,” but you can’t get that je ne sais quoi from seeing it at the Coolidge, where the film screened in October 2015 a week before its national release, complete with a red carpet event for fans, cast, and Boston Globe reporters.
The theater is magic except it’s true. A fixed projection of light on a screen, the same basic contraption performing the same basic shtick in tens of thousands of little windowless rooms all over the country is transforms into something it isn’t and wasn’t and won’t be ever again in the presence of people. I learned this nowhere more clearly than on a Friday night at the AMC Loews Boston Common, where Kyrie Irving convincingly aged 50 years as streetball hero Uncle Drew. Home-court advantage, it turns out, is real, and not just at TD Garden. Jokes that shouldn’t have worked had the room in cackles. Straightforward plot devices, banal in any other movie, were endowed with a certain mystique, as though all the ghosts of cinema past were there, too, cheering on the sidelines for the Celtic point guard to team up with Shaq and Nate Robinson and Lil Rel Howery. How does that make sense? You go home and tell your buddies and they won’t understand, they’ll even see the movie, but no use. They just had to be there.
I call a friend to talk through what I had seen, the visual riddle I had met and been beaten by.
“Did you go with a friend?”
“Did you have fun?”
“Would you recommend the movie?”
“Well then how was it?”