“Last night, I was in the Kingdom of Shadows […] If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is no light, but its shadow; it is not motion but its soundless spectre.” -Maxim Gorky
OK, so maybe Gorky wasn’t so much celebrating cinema as reacting to it as something horrifying and unnerving. Still, I always think of that quote when I go to sit in a darkened movie theatre. The ‘soundless spectre’ isn’t quite as soundless any more, and the shadows are much brighter than they were in Gorky’s day, but there’s still something true in his metaphor of cinema as a ‘kingdom of shadows.’ It is a kingdom of shadows — of strange, almost otherworldly images at once realistic and curiously tenuous. And we sit, silently staring, engulfed by darkness, moved by a totally different reality from our own.
So many things suck about going to the movies. The ever-increasing ticket prices, the uncomfortable seating, the obnoxious people who bring their babies to R-rated flicks, the obnoxious people who talk, text, check their e-mails, crunch their popcorn too loud, or bring entire Mexican dinners and EAT THEM DIRECTLY IN YOUR EAR. Not that that ever happened to me. Then there are the people who keep asking their neighbors what just happened, who tell characters ‘don’t go in there’, who kick the back of your seat, keep getting up, answer phone calls in the middle of the goddamn film. Yes, there are lots and lots of annoyances in going to the movies, and many of us have responded by not going to the movies at all.
But y’know what? Screw that. Despite everything, I still love going to the movie theatre.
I love the smells: the cooking popcorn, the artificial-flavored butter grease, the new-car odor of the seat upholstery. I like the sensation of walking into a cineplex, the blast of the air conditioning and the sudden expanse of bright lights and vaulted ceilings. I like the hushed veneration when you first walk into the theatre itself, the lines of seats, and the satisfaction of seeing my favorite row still empty.
First we have the trailers, many of which I’ve already seen on iTunes or Imdb, but it gives me chills to see them projected big, with the booming voiceover (“In a time of great turmoil, a hero will rise …”). Everyone in the theatre begins to settle down, popcorn crunching, candy wrappers crinkling. I love the whirring sound of the Dolby logo. If it’s a film I’ve particularly been looking forward to, I even scrunch down further in my seat, feet hopefully up on the railing in front of me. There’s a sense of wonderful anticipation before a film begins, when you know that you’ve got your ticket, your seat, your popcorn and soda and that for the next two hours you’re going to watch something you’ve been waiting to see. Even if it’s disappointing, even if the girls in front of you won’t stop talking, there’s very little that can ruin those first few minutes as the movie opens.
All theatres are different and all movie-experiences are different. I went to tons of films during my time at Edinburgh, almost all of them in the same movie-theatre down in New Town, and at least halfway hungover. There were good times (Scre4m, Bridesmaids), bad times (Season of the Witch), and really annoying times (the girls who talked, texted and giggled all the way through Super 8; the time they tried to show us London Boulevard instead of the film we paid for). At St. Andrews, a great moment of dissertation catharsis came in watching 300. We shouted rugby cheers all the way home. There was the time a friend clung to my arm during The Skeleton Key, and when we laughed all the way through The Omen (‘Look, a conveniently placed tree shaped like a ladder!’). At NYU, I habitually saw two movies a day, most of them in hushed silence, except for the time we all stared blankly at Space is the Place and wondered just what the hell was going on. But nothing beats seeing a double feature of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man for the very first time in a massive theatre on an equally massive screen (thanks, Stanley Performing Arts Center). Or my times at Film Forum, getting to see East of Eden in 35mm.
With the advent of Netflix, home theatres and streaming video, the demise of the movie theatre has been predicted. Rising ticket prices and premium pricing for 3D, overpriced snacks, screens getting smaller over time, poor box office returns … all perhaps do not bode well for the future of the big screen. Maybe, after awhile, going to the movies will be something that only a few people do, those of us who want to see the classics on a big screen (supposing those screens remain big). Already we tend to pick and choose what movies we go see and what we’re willing to wait the few weeks or months for them to appear in Redbox or on Netflix. Maybe the majority will sit at home and stare at a small but inexpensive screen. Maybe eventually movies will be made with the small screen in mind. Maybe we’ll lose the spectacle.
But I hope not. There’s something about watching a movie in a theatre full of people you don’t know, hearing the audience reactions, even when they’re annoying. Ever since the movies went to a big screen, movie-going has been a communal experience. It’s a place of spectacle, an immersion in a world entirely unlike our own, populated with beautiful, crazy people. Sometimes it’s an awful experience. Sometimes the Kingdom of Shadows really is unnerving, frightening. But sometimes, at the best of times, shadows can be beautiful too.