J’ai toujours préféré le reflet de la vie à la vie elle-même.
That is, I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself. So much of our experiences are influenced by those of others, especially the fictional characters in movies. With no other guide to how to live life, we look to what others do, and with a shortage of role models in the real world to serve as examples, we depend on the representations available to us through the mass distribution of film.
All existentialist thoughts aside, let’s be real: movies are awesome. While the ways in which we enjoy movies have expanded over the years, from 16mm projectors showing silent home movies to Betamax and VHS and Video Disc and LaserDisc and DVD and BitTorrent and Netflix and Redbox, the cinema—the movie theater, if you will—has always been there and the first choice for cinephiles.
For those of us lucky enough to have been sentient in the 20th century, we got to experience the golden age of cinemas: The Rialtos on main street, the first two-screen movie theaters emerging at the malls in the 1970s, the rise and fall of the dollar movie theater in the 1980s and 1990s, the first multiplexes, and those rare theaters featuring a single digital projector. I have seen movies at rinky-dink dumps in dying towns. I have seen movies in brand-new testaments to excess. I have seen movies in opulent show palaces that were desperately grasping to life. And everything in between. I have stood in long lines for blockbusters on opening nights, and other times I’ve been the only soul sitting in any seat of my choice as the projectionist fulfills his somber duty.
My favorite movie theaters are the ones where I enjoy seeing the movie there, not because of the crisp picture or the deafening sound, but because of the care and deliberate touch put into the design. One of my favorite theaters had a different theme in each auditorium; gargoyles in one, Egyptian theme in another. That theater played weird art student-produced slides before each movie. “Green jello.” A lot of my favorite theaters aren’t actually very good movie theaters, in terms of comfort or quality. They’re just full of my memories. Seeing The Goonies at the Rialto on main street in Denison, TX. Seeing Friday the 13th Part IV when I was 9 years old at an old single-screen dump in Copperas Cove, TX. Star Trek III, Gremlins, and, much later, Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the strip mall theater in that same town. In fact, Copperas Cove had three movie theaters within short walking distance of each other. Only one, the original one, remains.
But let’s be honest: memories from our youth are always shiny, buffed further by the years that are added on. As an adult now, I am able to more critically evaluate a theater. As the owners have homogenized, all the theaters have digital picture and sound, and the gimmicks have been ratcheted up (XD and 3D and Real-D and so on). When I try to find that special place to call home to my cinema-going experience, I look for more than comfort and quality. I look for that special something that only the waning few cinema-lovers find. Usually I find it in theaters that most people would say are dying. They have flat floors and small concession stands. The parking lot is never full, even on opening nights. And if you’re really lucky, the tickets aren’t printed by computers.
Even though the cinemas of my youth are gone forever, I still love movie theaters, even the ones that have destroyed the charm and character of the family-owned cinemas that, tragically, you only see in movies. As Jean-Luc Godard said, ““The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life. Unlike painting and literature, the cinema both gives to life and takes from it.”