SF Weekly's Ultimate Guide to Bay Area Filmgoing

"The Final 10 Percent": The Art of Moviegoing

I go to movies hoping for the kind of excitement that can tune up a person's entire mental and emotional system. One of the few times I got it in recent years came after a screening at the Galaxy of a limp 1994 comedy called Little Big League. In the middle of the movie, I confronted a trio of teen-agers who were so loud that I couldn't hear the (admittedly banal) dialogue, and finally asked an usher to eject them. They waited outside the theater and followed me to the 38 Geary bus stop; there, with a reflex no doubt bred from seeing too many action flicks, I unzipped my jacket and held each side out and up, as if to prove I wasn't packing. Disappointed, they let me go with a rap on the head from a rolled-up newspaper.

The moral that friends have drawn from this incident is "Always leave home strapped." Of course, from my perspective, it's an argument for arms control: If I had been carrying a rolled-up newspaper, who knows what dogs of war might have been unleashed? What made me worry about myself afterward was that I'd risked my skull not for The Wild Bunch or The Godfather but for Little Big League -- a wan, attenuated baseball fantasy about a 12-year-old who inherits and manages the Minnesota Twins. I wondered whether I'd decided to play Mr. Concerned Moviegoing Citizen partly to juice up what had become another irritating night at the movies.

When I was growing up in a brand-new housing development in the no-theater town of Delaware Township, N.J. (which was swiftly renamed Cherry Hill, after a shopping mall), movies were a transcendent escape, even if being a fan mostly meant watching old films on TV and anticipating new ones via the ads in the Sunday paper. Driving into Philadelphia with my older brother to see grand '60s spectacles like Lawrence of Arabia and Far From the Madding Crowd in now-defunct movie palaces, or visiting the racier houses to see Point Blank and Bonnie and Clyde in one day, were special occasions; my weekends lit up when I could find Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Magnificent Ambersons or The Big Heat on late-night TV. But it was only when I was able to wheel over to art cinemas like the Band Box in Germantown or the Theater of the Living Arts in South Philly, or to roam different neighborhood theaters for films that the studios dumped, like Pretty Poison or The Ballad of Cable Hogue, that movies hit home to me as the expression of a living culture. And part of that had to do with feeling that I was being drawn into something larger than myself. It wasn't just experiencing the movies themselves, but experiencing being part of audiences who had come to drink in (or spit back at!) the images on-screen, audiences who weren't buying into a film for what ad agencies used to call "snob appeal" or "slob appeal" and weren't treating the theater as a rumpus room, like the group at Little Big League.

Crucial to the moviegoing gestalt of any theater is the nature of the audience. One of my Richmond District haunts, the Balboa, may not have big screens and super sound, but I'm always happy to catch up to something there, especially accomplished, neglected commercial fare like Dolores Claiborne: The viewers are responsive and attentive and less likely to give into the hip sniggerings and solemn "amens" you hear at first-run highbrow dreck like Fargo and Lone Star. You won't find crowds more responsive to edgier independents and documentaries than the ones at the Roxie. The Castro seems to get moviegoers who balance camp and sincerity -- having a consistent group attitude like that is a superb asset for a revival house and makes it the ideal theater for attractions like the restored Vertigo.

The two king-size auditoriums at the Galaxy are among the best-equipped in town, but the sterility of the architectural design makes them resemble mall theaters in which the multiplex environment breaks through what drama critics call "the fourth wall." In this atmosphere, movies can seem like nothing more than an extension of life as it is lived in enclosed retailing complexes. Either viewers are lulled into complacency or vent their anomie. If that doesn't happen at the Embarcadero cinemas, which are actually located in an office and shopping complex, it's because of the intelligent art-house programming, the care of the personnel, and maybe also its position at the top of the complex, which can make the child in you feel, "Movies rule."

In his recent book, In the Blink of an Eye (Silman-James Press, 1995), editing and sound whiz Walter Murch (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) recalls that "toward the end of the editing process on Julia, Fred Zinnemann observed that he felt the director and the editor, alone with the film for months and months, could only go ninety percent of the way toward the finished film -- that what was needed for the last ten percent was 'the participation of the audience,' whom he saw as his final collaborators." Precisely because he valued audience response "to keep certain obsessions from becoming corrosive and to point out blind spots," Zinnemann would only preview his film when it was technically whole -- he (like Murch) doesn't believe that "audiences can completely discount visible splices, color mismatches, and incomplete soundtracks." As you'll read in the ensuing entries on exhibition in the Bay Area, glitches, oversights, and sloppy service can too easily obscure the artistic finish that moviemakers strive for months to achieve. Yet what makes these failings critical isn't some museumlike ideal of perfection. It's that audiences continue to be the moviemakers' "final collaborators" even after the film is in the theaters. The viewers' electricity and lack of it, their sometimes-audible, sometimes-intuited reactions, provide the final emulsive chemistry that turns a piece of film from an art thing or a product into a dramatic occasion.

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