The Urbanist: Missing more than the popcorn
I know people watch movies on their phones and someone will get rich streaming movies on smartwatches, or at least streaming TikTok videos. But after a year of watching movies online I am so looking forward to watching movies in an actual movie house. It doesn’t have to be a movie palace with an exotic name and rococo decor; I’d even visit one of those modern multiplexes that seem to exist as wellheads for Coca-Cola’s many variations.
Imagine going to a movie theater to see a film that has been praised by three different, recently graduated film critics only to find that the movie wasn’t showing that night, but don’t worry we have a movie with a similar title, or one just like the film you wanted to see. Or imagine going to a multiplex and playing a strange version of bingo with a cursor while trying to request a ticket. When you type in “Dumb and Dumber,” the theater asks if you want to see “Dumbo” – but the new version of “Dumbo.” When you try to see Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” the ticketing computer asked if you want to see Gerard Butler’s “300.” Isn’t this troublesome by current standards because it prioritizes reading and perfectionism? And who’d guess that the technology behind a Dymo label-maker would reappear on a fabulously successful streaming video channel such as Netflix?
Watching movies on a pretty good flat-screen television makes you realize how good the usual movie theater experience is. The sound is far better. The screen is bigger and brighter, and the aspect (or proportions) were chosen intentionally by the director rather than squished or stretched by a streaming technician at your community Internet provider. Instead of resting your head on one hand for the first third of the movie and switching to the other hand when an unexpected plot twist occurs, you usually sit in a comfortable chair with a good view of a giant, glowing screen and get sound effects with meaningful impact. The audience usually sits quietly. Very few people get up for this or that, and the quasi-religious form of audience and spectacle discourages idle chitchat. Watching anything at home evokes “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” if you can recall the early days of MTV. You may not want to recall those days. Soon you’ll be thinking about “Total Request Live” and erotic fantasies friends had about Martha Quinn. Which they discussed while watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or any Gerard Butler movie.
If you were able to rent that French movie but are watching on your laptop or iPad, you are dealing with tiny subtitles that may be lost at the bottom of the screen – worse than language lab with Madame Renzo in Rumson, New Jersey. When the young French man finally reaches the ocean, whatever dialogue is translated in white characters is invisible on a background of light-colored sand.
I am nostalgic for the Lakeside Theater in Rangeley, Maine, with its tin ceiling that gets loud if there’s a rainstorm during a show. And I miss the suspicious ticket-takers who staffed all the theaters in Harvard square, who seemed to either suspect poor language skills if you wanted to see a foreign movie or poor behavior if you were attending a populist entertainment.
Gus Rancatore has lived and eaten in Cambridge since 1973. He and his sister own Toscanini’s ice cream on First Street and soon to return to Lafayette Square.