Illustration by Gracia Lam
On a chilly night in December 1967, I stood in a long line in front of a movie theater—exactly where in the city I cannot remember now—to be one of the first people to see The Graduate. I was with a college friend, and both of us wanted bragging rights for having caught the much anticipated film. We also wanted to experience it before anyone else could spoil it for us. The queue was aquiver with like-minded energy, everyone keyed up with expectation. We felt as if we were at the center of the cultural universe. The movie did not disappoint—not then or the many times I saw it again, with Dustin Hoffman as the nasally young nerd-turned-inadvertent boy toy seduced by the elegant, older Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. Their grappling was so transgressive, so European. They signified the general unbuckling that was beginning to sweep the country. Movies mattered; they spoke the truth. They showed us ourselves. It was a tumultuous period, and the screens of America reflected that back.
For decades I was a determined viewer—dashing off in the first wave of fans whenever a hot film was released. If you went to a party, you could count on guests gabbing about Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces or the smoldering Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. They were able to recall dialogue, whole scenes. I was, too. Moviegoing was a tribal pleasure, a communal rite. We didn’t want to miss anything. We met for an early show and a meal later or vice versa. If you did dinner first, then you had to have drinks after for the inevitably raucous and contentious postviewing debriefing. That was as much fun as anything, an occasion for high-decibel opining about camera angles and actors’ accents and why movies weren’t a writers’ medium. We rushed off to the latest Spielberg or Eastwood film as if it were a school assignment and met every year on Oscar night with our handmade ballots.
For those of us deeply rooted in L.A., movies weren’t just an artistic touchstone. They were bigger than that, part of the local DNA. This was the home of the Industry, and we took pride in that fact. I certainly did, with both parents in the business. Some of my early memories are of my mother done up in period western wifely gear—a floor-length dress, hair in a bun—perhaps for a segment of Rawhide (speaking of Eastwood). I see my director father, too, sitting in his chair, laughing with the crew. They were so happy on those sets—fantasy worlds of fake saloons and New York city streets. I loved being with them for the process and then looking at the finished product. It was magic.
I felt bad when I started to drift out of the moviegoing habit. It began maybe six years ago. The whole endeavor grew sour, as it did for many of my friends. There was, of course, the ever-worsening traffic. After a stressful day, who wanted to be stuck on streets with irritable drivers and then try to find a parking space? There were also the ridiculously high ticket and concession prices. Throw in the increasing rudeness of audience members, with their chatting and texting. No, I found myself telling my husband when he suggested going out, let’s just stay home and watch a DVD.
Which brings us to the technological revolution that is changing everything. Once there seemed to be a Blockbuster on every corner, and many a Friday I popped into one to stock up for the weekend. I blinked, and the rental outlets were gone. Now, in the era of streaming video, one doesn’t need to go anywhere. Possess a smart phone and the world comes to the palm of your hand. Or, why even watch a film when you can make one, with yourself as the star? Young people are great at marketing themselves; they have a form of democratizing, multitasking narcissism. If they are going to enter a theater to watch something, it had better be hyperstimulating and full of dazzling stunts like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, one of the few successes of the Christmas season. No wonder film attendance has hit a 16-year low.
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We are still watching, but we’re watching television—and that’s no fluke. It’s almost as if there has been a complete transposition, with TV becoming the relevant and creative medium. Whenever I get together with friends, we don’t talk about movies. We argue about whether The Sopranos or The Wire is the best show ever and agree that Steve Buscemi and Claire Danes, the respective stars of Boardwalk Empire and Homeland, give us the good creeps for their gripping volatility. I was devoted to Hung, the show about a male prostitute that I found witheringly comic-sad. We wax on, pleased and surprised about how even network shows have gotten bolder and riskier. Almost everyone I know—men included—likes The Good Wife, and a bunch, particularly younger women, are amused by the potty-mouthed protagonists of 2 Broke Girls. I myself am trying to connect with the new fem-raunch trend, though as a rule I am not a fan of sitcoms, with their aggressive tugging on the funny bone. That said, I get the appeal of the hip Modern Family.
But for all the pluses of current television, there is a definite loss of the unique feeling that happens when you are with a crowd in a darkened theater, seeming to breathe as one, laughing or groaning together, senses on shared alert, images bouncing off dozens of eyeballs. There is nothing quite like the contagion of giggles that besets an audience, your own mirth feeding off everyone else’s. Or the moments when you are suddenly aware that you are surrounded by held breaths, all of you waiting for something terrible to happen. Going to a theater implies a kind of surrender to not only what’s onscreen but to the collective sensation and the hope that you are about to be enchanted or terrified or about to laugh yourself silly—in public, together. I miss that.
So what will it take for us to reacquire the habit? The proliferation around town of swankily upgraded venues, like the Landmark 12-screen multiplex near me in West L.A., is helping. I have friends who are so devoted to the place, they won’t go anywhere else. I confess I love it: the extrawide seats, the restaurants within strolling distance, the ability to make a reservation, and the varied fare, from art house indies to mainstream hits. On many a weekend the Landmark sells out. Ditto the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood, which features similarly cushy benefits. The 2011 revenue at that complex was up 10 percent over the previous year.
So there are success stories—at least as far as these locales go. More lavish theaters will follow. Maybe, too, we will also be treated to better offerings, pieces that are startling and insightful and that stir us all, though in our greater diversity perhaps it is unrealistic to think that one movie can wow the nation with its message and artistry. I discover some veins of optimism that good times are ahead. My film critic pal Peter Rainer thinks we might be headed for something analogous to the late 1960s, when there was an artistic thaw. The old studio system was crumbling, attendance was down, and then, wham: A coterie of brave new filmmakers emerged to shake things up—Scorsese and Coppola chief among them. To see The Godfather again, the first one for the first time—that’s an impossible dream. But the longing for such an experience remains, for a movie so singularly beautiful and so cruel and so original.
I’ll probably see it on TV.