Each week, The Exhibitionist comments on the latest news, trends and innovations related to the theater industry, or it discusses long-continuing problems with and complaints against cinemas in general, or it simply relates a specific moviegoing experience of yours truly. But rarely does this column get into the subject of actual movies. Well, seeing as there's not much new in the industry this week, and seeing as I'm fortunately not being dragged to see Sex and the City and therefore have no experience to relate about being a sole male in an auditorium packed with women, I figure this is a perfect time to bring up actual movies. Not just any movies, though: I'm presently only interested in discussing movies about, set in or prominently featuring movie theaters.
The earliest movie that I'm familiar with that significantly involves a theater is Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. The silent comedian plays a projectionist who falls asleep on the job then has a dream in which he literally climbs through the movie screen and into a detective film. A similar idea of breaking the boundary between auditorium and screen is used in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo and in John McTiernan's The Last Action Hero, both of which involve a movie character who manages to leave his respective film within the film. But nothing tops Keaton's screen-entering stunt, which utilizes special effects that still astonish more than 80 years later.
While on the subject of projectionists, I'd like to take this opportunity to list a few other favorites. Of course there is the lovable old man played by Philippe Noiret in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, which is certainly one of the greatest odes to movie theaters and moviegoing ever made (If I ever am able to build my dream movie palace, I will be sure to pay homage to the film by putting a big open-mouthed lion's head around the projection booth window). Then there's Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) from Fight Club, who likes to splice frames of porno films into prints of family movies, and Dez (Aidan Quinn) from Desperately Seeking Susan, who is representative of the kind of cineaste projectionist that seems to no longer exists in the era of manager-projectionists (his apartment is filled with cans of film prints, which he presumably owns). Still, he does manage to mess up the print of The Time Travelers he's showing because he's too wrapped up in the movie's convoluted plot.
Having worked as a manager-projectionist at a theater, I hate when prints get messed up (in Desperately Seeking Susan, there's another cringe-worthy part where Dez's film prints are tragically found strewn about his apartment by the movie's bad guy), yet one of my all-time favorite movie theater scenes in a movie does actually involve a print being melted in a projector. In Gremlins 2: The New Batch, there's a moment when the movie we're watching is made to look like it's melting, and then we get a reflexive little fourth-wall-breaking interlude in which we learn that Gremlins have taken over the projection booth (obviously the sequence doesn't work so well when viewed at home), because they'd rather see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In reponse, the theater manager walks into the auditorium and asks none other than Hulk Hogan for assistance. The Hulkster obliges, rips off his shirt in his trademark style and yells at the Gremlins to put Gremlins 2 back on. And then the movie commences.
The sequence of course references the first Gremlins, in which the little green monsters famously attend a screening of Snow White. Joe Dante, who directed both the original and sequel, is clearly a fan of movie theaters and moviegoing experiences, and his greatest homage to both is with Matinee, which is set in the early 1960s and celebrates the time period's moviegoing gimmicks, specifically those employed by schlockmeister William Castle (who is sort of fictionally portrayed by John Goodman).
While Castle (and Goodman's character) literally brought the scare tactics into theaters, other horror films have done so more figuratively, and reflexively. Who wasn't looking behind him or herself while watching The Blob after the gelatinous creature seeped into a theater and swallowed up the projectionist and members of the audience? Both Gremlins movies could have a similar effect, as one might wonder if a creature is lurking underneath his or her seat. And anyone watching Twister at a drive-in may have worried that a tornado might be approaching.
Another horror film with a great movie theater scene is Messiah of Evil (aka Dead People), which was written and directed by the duo that also co-scripted American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck. The scene is, to me, first and foremost a great, lengthy joke on the problems of latecomers at the movies and of feeling claustrophobic because of people who sit too close. But it ends with zombies eating a girl (who looks exactly like twin rockers Tegan and Sara), so I'm betting it made some moviegoers in 1973 double check to make sure their fellow audience members weren't bleeding from their eyes.
Then there's Scream 2, a highly reflexive slasher movie that features a couple being murdered during a screening of a horror flick titled Stab (which is based on the events of the first Scream), and Scary Movie, which lampoons that scene. Personally, I hate the whole Scary Movie franchise, but its scene in the movie theater is priceless. Regina Hall's character does pretty much every obnoxious thing a moviegoer can do: talks; hypocritically yells at others for talking; talks on her cell phone; brings in outside fried chicken; etc. Finally, the other patrons in the auditorium take turns stabbing her to death.
Scary Movie seems to reference all the worst things about today's moviegoing experience with that scene, but other movies both old and new provide their share of commentary: Bachelor Party makes fun of the confusion to be had at multiplexes with too many screens; Dirty Work displays the meanest theater manager (played by Don Rickles, of course); Dancer in the Dark seems to take issue with the people who take issue with talking; Scorsese's Cape Fear has Robert DeNiro smoking a cigar and laughing way too loudly; Cooley High depicts a gang fight in an auditorium; Annie Hall shows the annoyance of waiting in line at the movies; and John Tucker Must Die has a gag about the preshow slides (they advertise that John Tucker has herpes).
But there are also plenty of films that shine a positive light on moviegoing. Steve James' documentary Reel Paradise presents a literal paradise for indie-movie guru John Pierson, who gets to spend a year operating a cinema in Fiji. Cinemania, another documentary, shows the dream life of jobless New Yorkers who go to the movies all day, every day. Night of the Comet tells us that sleeping in a projection booth could save us from a deadly comet. True Romance reminds us that we could meet our future significant other at the movies (even if she's paid to be there).
Okay, so none of those films are what the average movie theater experience is like, but any film with a movie theater scene can remind us of our best moviegoing memories. Every time I watch Grease I miss my local drive-in. When I watch Sullivan's Travels I immediately want to go see whatever stupid comedy is out in theaters, with as big an audience as possible. Wish You Were Here makes me recall the joys of being young and making out at the movies. And tons of other films, from Lucas to Taxi Driver to Brief Encounter to Donnie Darko to The Front Page to Heavenly Creatures to One Crazy Summer to a thousand other movies I can't think of at the moment, give me similar feelings of nostalgia and of gratitude that movie theaters haven't gone away just yet.
Above all, though, one film takes the cake as best movie theater movie of all time, and that's Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Nearly dialogue-free and set entirely in an old, decrepit theater on the eve of its closing, the Taiwanese film is a 90-minute dream for any cinemaphile. There are plenty of cons of moviegoing depicted, from noisy audience members to transvestite ghosts (the latter of which I've never personally experienced), but as a former employee of the theater industry and a devout worshipper of cinema (with movie theaters being my churches), I am completely in love with the film. I come very close to tears when the theater shuts its doors at the end, because, really, it represents the shutting down of all theaters around the world as movie theater attendance diminishes.