Movies from the Trenches: The Screening That Wasn’t to Be

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I learned that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) was coming to a theater near my Bay Area residence as part of a nationwide special screening of the film in digital format organized by Turner Classic Movies.  A friend and I made time to trek out to the matinee screening on March 25.  Oh, dear reader: that afternoon was such a sad commentary on the modern theater-going experience.  I distinctly got the feeling that no one was working hard to maintain the gargantuan multiplex that was showing the film.  The machine that printed the tickets necessary for admission broke as the clerk was attempting to use it.  The manager was called over but could not fix it.  It was determined that we would simply be let in to the multiplex and sent to our theater, ticketless, but the staff could not determine through the computer which theater Rear Window was playing in.  Phones were produced in an attempt to find the room, and finally the manager located the theater number and we were released.  We thought of purchasing something to drink, but sadly, no one was manning the concessions stand.  I noticed that there was no popcorn popped and ready to sell, and the whole food operation looked shut down. 

We entered the theater and took our seats.  Loud music played for fifteen minutes, then abruptly stopped.  “Showtime?” I thought.  It was certainly time for the movie to start, but no: we sat and sat in silence.  We sat for fifteen additional minutes before one of our brave fellow theater-goers (there were only a dozen of us there) announced that he was going off in search of an answer.  He promptly returned to tell us that there was something wrong with the projector — maybe.  Whoever had told him this hadn’t been sure.  It seemed a reasonable guess, and yet for the next fifteen minutes as we occasionally turned and looked into the projection booth, we could see no one up there working on it.  Management came into the theater, formally announced that they were trying to run the film (still no official word on what was wrong with it), left, came back in, and finally told us that they were giving up.

Reader, I have rarely seen two young people, such as the management were, look so skittish when making an announcement.  You would have thought that they fully expected to be pelted with rotten tomatoes by the group that had gathered there to watch the Hitchcock masterpiece.  Of course, the mostly geriatric crowd behaved itself, and of course the management, rather than refunding us the cost of admission, presented us with free passes (set to expire in three months) to use at a future movie screening.  When some of our number inquired as to whether we could use the passes at the second and final screening of Rear Window scheduled for seven o’clock later that night, we were told that it was doubtful whether that screening would even take place.

Needless to say, I am not eager to have a repeat of this experience, so I myself doubt whether I will ever make use of those film passes.  But I do not mean to focus too much on this one theater and the badness of my experience there without mentioning that I suspect that it represents something common to so many theaters screening this movie or any other movie.  The demand for in-theater screenings has decreased significantly in the last ten years, and I suspect that so many theaters are often empty, understaffed, and ill-equipped to deal with any of the numerous issues that plagued this particular theater on this particular day.  To be sure, part of the annoyance I felt during this experience was akin to the annoyance I feel whenever an organization refuses to or cannot explain what is going wrong when a system malfunctions or a device misbehaves.  But part of my frustration was also owing to the fact that it feels as if going to the movies — such a special opportunity when I was growing up — has lost a great deal of its charm.   Imagine how different a 1954 screening of Hitchcock’s film would have been from the one I experienced (or nearly experienced) this week.  The fact that times have changed is nothing new to report, but I am surprised, if my afternoon at the theater is at all representative, by how much this once mighty institution has fallen.

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