Usually on Fridays, my wife having finished work, myself a little bored, my son home from school, the weekend looming, all of us having just eaten something Chinese for dinner, locking up the car with fish sauce still in my beard, just under my nose like the pungent late night cat smell of woman which I’m in no hurry to rinse off, we pile into the little Masters Cinema. The theater is, unfortunately for the owners, set up next to the Dollar General store where we go to buy cheap candy to stuff into our jacket pockets to sneak inside, occasionally making an offering of buying an over priced soda at the snack counter to show our gratitude for the pot luck of stories laid out for us, just on their way to die. These half dozen titles or so are drifting through a dim afterlife between their big day in the sun at the full priced theaters, and their lonely oblivion in the DVD stores and Netflix queues.
I love these rituals, which stay with you long after you’ve moved away from a place, and all my life I’ve been on the move, hoping and failing to stay just this one time. It’s a kind of worship, all of us here at the little temple of the story. Its not the same as watching a DVD at home or on the latest Apple gadget. This is a communal experience, one of the last surviving in modern times, the difference between praying alone in your room, and praying as a congregation in a church. We are together in the church of the story. We are packed in here for a shared purpose and an understanding we share. I just love that.
Here the stories are performed, not just played. There is a stage, and there is the dark, and the dark is important, because the world and the things waiting for you are all outside, and you’re here in the intimate crowd to hear only the well wrought dream provided for you together, to lose yourself in the dream and the world of the story, if it’s a world worth losing yourself in.
There aren’t many movies I’d gamble $12 a head on, but here at the little two dollar theater (the rate had doubled from a dollar after the recession) I don’t need so badly for a movie to be great. Good is good enough. A cheap ticket can be very liberating.
In the church of the story, I come partly for the movie, but also for the community. Coming up with our tickets, we pass them to Scotty, a big bearded grizzly bear of a guy, mentally disabled in some indefinable way, but single mindedly cheerful, opinionated and smartly informed about each of the movies behind each closed door. This guy loves movies. He brings an element of goofy exuberance to his job.
Speaking of goofy exuberance, brings me to mind of my father. Years ago the communal experience of the horror movie, though not taken as seriously as they are today, was much more vivid. My Dad told me once of a really great job he had when he was a kid. During the playing of certain fright flicks, his given task was to stand in the balcony with a big bowl of cooked spaghetti. During critical moments in the film, he threw out handfuls of cold wet noodles, like rice at a wedding, down on the twitchy crowd sitting in the dark below yelling “Worms! Worms!” He got a quarter for that, it might have been his first job too.
Movies are how a nation and its people communally dream together. The movies of a time period reflect what the nation was dreaming and worrying about, dreams of love, passion and occasionally nightmare. In the 30’s when King Tut’s tomb was uncovered and America was just beginning to discover the rest of the world out there pouring its bedraggled immigrants onto our shores we dreamed of Boris Karloff in “The Mummy”, Bela Lugosi in “Dracula”. Its no coincidence that these movies were set in the lush playgrounds of upper class British aristocracy, with tuxedoed heroes, and vapid debutantes in lavish ballrooms performed for audiences crawling through the real world horrors of the great depression. They gathered in the church of the story in lush red velvet cathedrals, filled with the incense of frying popcorn in coconut oil, to imagine a life of sequined gowns, orchestras and limousines.
I thought of Dad and his spaghetti noodles when I was watching “Snakes on a Plane”, an over the top disaster movie about crates of venomous snakes let loose on an airliner, with Samuel Jackson yelling his iconic line “I am sick and tired of these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!” (I don’t know why the Tea Party hasn’t seen clear to stick that line on one of their flags, but that might have been the 2010 election campaign slogan for either party.) Meanwhile, the real action was in the audience all around me. I dunno what it is, but there’s something about snakes in general that just gets folks all percolated. Grown men, big men, men grown fat on southern soul food, were leaping from their seats, waving their wrists and shrieking like little girls. In a pagan ecstasy of terror or god knows what they literally bounced off the walls, danced on one foot and yelled for Jesus to save them. It was less a movie experience than a holy roller revival.
During an idle moment at work, a young soldier asked me why the Beatles seemed to be such a big deal to people my age. Weren’t they just a band? For boomers, a generation partly defined by the advent of mass communication and social change, the Beatles were a communal experience. We grew together as they grew with us. Right after President Kennedy’s assassination when the country was hurting, the Fab Four showed up and a great communal romance began. We watched them change with us as we changed. We took our cues from them as we grew into adults, and saw them grow from charming pop stars to ground breaking artists. We watched them break up. We watched them die. For my son’s generation the great communal romance was in the movies, with Harry Potter, and its young actor/characters. When my kid was starting elementary school we saw young Daniel Radcliffe, only a little older than my son, enter Hogwarts, really just a little kid. The next year a new movie, the little kid is growing up. Now as my kid is becoming a young man discovering girls, Harry has become a young man discovering girls, and moreover we know that soon he is about to die. He is the communal romance of my kid’s generation. As the Beatles introduced my generation to drugs and exotic religions, Harry Potter re-introduced a young generation to the joy of reading a good story. To me there is always something of the sacred about a good story with soul, where ever you find it.