Like any wide-eyed six year old, the movie theatre was a place where my dreams were realized and my imagination inspired. There, the front row was king, and the heroes really were larger than life. It was 1977, and that was the year I was introduced to a film that would forever change the way my imagination would be shaped.
Star Wars was that film. When we drove to the brand-new twin-screen cinema that had just opened in our neighborhood, I asked Dad what the movie was going to be like. “It’ll be kind of like Star Trek,” he said. I was sold. He didn’t have to convince me any further. I knew then that there’d be space ships and ray guns. Maybe a few cool aliens too.
By the time the closing credits rolled, I was awestruck by the film. When the death star exploded on that twenty-foot screen that was less than ten feet from where I sat, I was in kid heaven. My love for movies was born. But something else intrigued me that day. I looked behind me into the projection room porthole.
I saw that projector and the film that fed into it. There was something magical about it. We were transported into a world without boundaries, and a world where good guys almost always win.
During Oscar season, there’s a different kind of magic. It’s a time when glamour becomes king. Death Stars give way to rising stars. The nominees are all the best of the best, and it’s the one night that gives the world a glimpse into the world of Tinsel town.
Then it dawns on me. The Oscars is a chilling reminder of just how bad most movies are, and how low they have to reach to get massive audiences. I followed my dream of working in film by entering exhibition industry. It was quite the eye-opening experience. There was never a better opportunity to learn what “common denominator” really meant.
I started out as the zit-faced geek who tore tickets at the entrance. “That’ll be theatre five, down the hall, to the left. Enjoy the show.”
“Theatre five, down the hall, to the left.”
“That way,” I pointed. “Just look for the sign that says ‘Kindergarten Cop.’”
I later realized that the word “amusement,” when broken down to its roots means “to be without thought.” You see, to muse over something is to ponder deeply. To be amused, well, you get the idea.
I once filled in for the theatre’s recording. “Thank you for calling the Bell Forge Ten, how can I help you?”
“Is there a particular movie you’re interested in?”
“No, I just wanna know what’s showing.” After two excruciating minutes of listing off the fourteen films we had at the time, the caller finally asked, “Oh. You mean you don’t have Batman?”
Even when I became the manager of a small theatre, I dreaded answering the phone. The most popular question asked was, “What’s showing?” The second most popular question was, “What time does the 7:00 show start?”
Common denominator, indeed. A few years later while I was at still another theatre, another caller asked if we were open on a particular Thursday night. I said we were open three hundred sixty-five days a year. After a brief pause, she said, “Is that every day?”
If there were any doubt as to why most mainstream movies seem to have inept dialogue, negligible plots and seem to frame the whole film around one comedy or sex scene, look no further than the lines at the local megaplex. It’s one of the few places in town that human beings allow themselves to become two-legged cattle, willing to soak in any kind of mind-numbing flick that hits the big screen.
Every once in a while, we’re treated to a refreshing taste of brilliance through films like King Kong, Brokeback Mountain, Spider-Man 2, and Kill Bill: Volume 2. But for every Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King there are at least fifty films like Catwoman or Son of the Mask, or worse yet, Cool World. Do we really need another Friday the 13th Part 54: Geriatric Jason? No. Of course we don’t.
That porthole that intrigued me so much almost thirty years ago has since lost its magic for me. I’m now fully convinced that film has another responsibility: to educate. Through compelling stories and striking visuals, we have a chance to show the world that two men can indeed fall in love. Even while tending sheep. Even after years of first-hand torture in my life as a theatre manager, I look back at those times with great fondness. I’m also thankful that those days are long behind me.
Every auditorium was a different story being told. Some were brilliant, some were duds. Even with the terrible movies, it was a chance to escape our world and enter another one. Sure, most of those worlds were pretty bad. And yes, they had to appeal to that common denominator.
But I’ll gladly forgive the masses if the Oscars get it right this year. Go for Gold, Brokeback!
David W. Shelton