This afternoon, my husband and I saw “Argo,” which we thoroughly enjoyed, despite what Jeff characterized as Ben Affleck’s tediously predictable “languid walk and 1,000-mile stare.” I personally think Matt Damon’s best friend is a better director than actor. For instance, I loved Affleck’s 2007 crime thriller and directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone.” And in “Argo,” Affleck offers an engrossing portrayal of the fantastical rescue of six diplomats during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, even if his own performance feels underwhelming.
But I did not intend this blog entry to serve as a belated review of a film that hit the big screen nearly four months ago and that most interested moviegoers will have already read about if not seen. What I’m interested in recounting here are some anecdotes from the nearly 10 years that I have been visiting our neighborhood cinema, where we saw “Argo” today, a building with an Egyptian revival theme façade that has crumbled a bit since it opened in 1926—as has the theater’s interior, where the seats tend to sag, a faint smell of mildew assaults the nose, the sound is far from “surround,” and the projection sometimes wobbles.
Nonetheless, I prefer visiting our local theater over modern multiplexes for multiple reasons: We can walk up our hill, cross the train tracks, and be there in six minutes. An entertaining and homemade-feeling opener used to exhort patrons to be quiet during the show and to switch off cellphones. “I like to put mine on vibrate,” an old lady used to wink at the audience from the screen, a bit I always enjoyed. But although the theater no longer offers that particular cinematic prelude, it keeps me coming back with its mixture of both movies and “films.” For instance, today Jeff and I could’ve seen “Les Miserables” at 3 p.m., “Lincoln” at 3:15 p.m., or “Argo,” which we caught—along with many of our local geriatrics—at 3:30 p.m.
Our neighborhood theater is the kind of place where hearing aids sometimes squawk like malfunctioning fire alarms, where elderly people query each other about plot developments in stage whispers. “What did he just say?” an old woman sitting nearby kept asking today. When she and her husband shuffled into the row behind us, his walker banged the back of our seats. And the gentleman four rows in front of us arose an astounding number of times during the movie to stretch his legs, take a stroll, or visit the bathroom. I’m not exactly sure what he as doing, but I do know that he left his seat at 14 different moments because after the first three exits, I started to count. “And you thought I was neurotic,” I whispered to my husband. He nodded. I wasn’t sure if that meant Jeff got the joke, or that he agreed that I was neurotic—or both.
Regardless, Jeff keeps going to the movies with me and often to this theater. And walking home from today’s viewing, we recalled our most memorable experience at our neighborhood movie house, the time we left our twin babies in the visiting grandparents’ clutches and darted over the tracks to see “The Lives of Others.” If you missed this German thriller, I’d highly recommend it, and I can tell you that Jeff and I were devastated when our theater’s screen went black—and stayed black—right at the climactic moment when the Stasi agent makes the East German playwright’s doorbell ring so he’ll run into the street and catch his lover exiting the cultural minister’s car and realize that she is betraying him.
Jeff and I didn’t find out right away what happened after the doorbell rang because the film broke, and the staff at our neighborhood cinema couldn’t get it working again. We sat for a full 30 minutes waiting, so desperate were we to see what came next and to evade our squalling infants as long as possible. And we weren’t the only ones. Most of the other loyal patrons of our neighborhood cinema stayed, too. But after telling us that the problem proved beyond immediate remedy, the theater manager offered us all free tickets to see the show another night. Jeff and I went back the next day, again taking advantage of the grandparents and fleeing our children—and perfectly timing our arrival to pick up the film right where we were so rudely interrupted the night before.
This second viewing was fully satisfactory, and I refused to hold a grudge against our local movie house for its technical difficulties. In fact, a few months later I visited its lumpy seats again, this time by myself, to see Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” and follow the misadventures of Poppy, an optimistic elementary school teacher, the sort of character who bemoans the fact—not that her bicycle is stolen—but that she didn’t get to bid it adieu.
Months later, I noted that “Happy-Go-Lucky” was available on demand and purchased it to show my husband. He watched approximately seven minutes of the film before declaring Poppy unbearable and leaving the room. Jeff’s reaction was similar to that of the only other patron I happened to share our neighborhood cinema with the day I caught “Happy-Go-Lucky” on the big screen. That gentleman lasted a bit longer than my husband, however. I think the beefy fellow heaved himself out of his moldering perch about 30 minutes into Leigh’s film and trundled his oxygen tank up the aisle. I kept waiting for him to come back. He never did.
But I stayed and enjoyed not only the film but also the solitude—the only time I’ve ever been in a movie theater all by myself. That’s why I love our neighborhood cinema: It’s a decrepit, quirky place where magical movie, and personal, moments happen. I never know what’s going to transpire or what kind of character I might encounter—on the screen or in the audience—when I step across the theater’s sticky floors and settle into its bumpy seats. And I have a feeling I’ll keep visiting its dank interior, with others or by myself, until the place finally closes or until its flaking, plaster, Egyptian ceiling relief collapses onto me.