The Old Man & the Cinema

I was going to review The Old Man & the Gun today. The final piece of Robert Redford’s acting career. I ordered tickets at six am, soon as I was up, determined to go see the King of Independent cinema provide one more momentous and final declaration to his already legendary oeuvre. Practicing proper due diligence, I poured over Wikis and clips of his best scenes, ensuring I’d have the right context to bring you an informed review. I got to the AMC early – nothing on the screen, not a Coca Cola ad, not trailers for the next four Marvel films, certainly not Robert Redford’s next bold step in creating his legend. Nothing but darkness, for thirty minutes. The mostly elderly crowd seated next to me chatted away in animated discourse, about which friend was next to go into the retirement homes. “Johnny’s next to go but careful around the staff, he already has too many girlfriends.” No, maybe it was her that was due, her friend suggested, because look, they hadn’t even come to the right film and had attended a showing of an empty black screen instead.

An AMC is one of those places that if anything were to go wrong, you may never find anyone who can take responsibility. Every five minutes a sweet but certainly underutilized employee ran back and forth between us and the projectionists. They promised they were doing the best they could to get it running. Part of the problem in the switch to digitally focused projections is that nobody is trained to fix problems if anything goes wrong. Those old school Alfredos’ of the Cinema Paradiso legend are also an old breed, assuredly any left are entering the same stage of their careers as Robert Redford. The true nouveau cinema falls short of a paradise. The employees are trained to turn on the popcorn machines and check stubs, certainly not their fault, but a result of the easy automation of the motion picture experience.

Cinema Paradiso (Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore)

Nobody could be responsible at this AMC because they are not employed to be as such. This one, however, is full of sweet enough high school students who were genuinely apologetic and insistent on setting the audience up with another showing, plus a couple tickets to go see Robert Redford and maybe bring a friend the next time. Nice enough.

I waited to go last, filled with the anxiety of indecision. I drove about twenty miles to get here and certainly wasn’t leaving without seeing anything. So I followed the elderly couple out and stood behind them in line and then chose the same film they did, Night School, a comedy with popular comics in it. I tried to mimic their order while also reassuring the young girl that it was not her fault after they were awfully rude about it. Again, most AMC employees are not in charge, why ever cause a scene, they’re only given enough rope to let you into the theater.

AMC Southcenter, our local mall cinema

Before settling in, I needed to hit the concessions. I’d been here long enough to develop a thirst. After showing my ticket and making jokes with the ticket taking lady about how different my choice of films had been and whether or not they had a working projector, I continued toward the centerpiece of the theater, a huge concession bar, usually operated by a single worker from my experience. There were two possible routes: the straight ahead route for AMC A-List members and the zig-zag shape to help control lines. I’m an AMC member. I chose to snake through the line, as always, because I enjoy the process of of navigating well-defined queues.

The nice guy at the counter said, sir, you do not have to do this. I said, I know, but I like to, it gives me time to consider my purchase. Some people reap the benefits but like the guys who always want to board the airplane first, they’re stuck waiting uncomfortably while everyone else crawls past them. Meanwhile, my economy-going self boards naturally and takes my seat just before liftoff. Patience is life’s greatest perk and rewards program. I’ve already been here forty minutes, saving those thirty seconds isn’t paramount anymore.

We must embrace the order of the queue or become a part of the problem.

One of my benefits did provide an upgrade on my soft drink, so I walked away happily, with a bucket of Powerade. Like I was going to perform some athletic event that took this much exertion. I wanted a different drink experience but the choose-your-own machine gave me a moment of choice paralysis. I tried pouring a few drinks out and their colors seemed unnatural, so I settled with the sports beverage. On my way to the new showing room, the ticketing lady stopped me again for more jokes and to remind me I could skip the line if I wanted to, so I explained it again.

After enough experience as Press, you lose interest in something like skipping a line anyway. Always let the public go first, if you have secured seating. There are about to be so many previews you’ve already seen, that there is far more advantage to standing in a line than sitting inside the theater. But enough explanations of my own odd behavior.

By the time we’re in the lobby, we’re already fully engaged with advertisements.

Walking through the cinema has become its own version of trailers. Big pieces of promotional materials adorn the halls of any chain cinema. It’s one case where marketing hopes align with public interests, where even jaded cinema goers take social media ready shots of themselves and the latest advertisements. They lend themselves well to ironic selfies and it’s fun to get pictures of yourself with a film you’ll never see. The latest ad for Bumblebee stuck out to me as prime ironic material.

One more stop before settling in, I dropped by the restroom and one of the older guys from the last showing took the urinal next to me. It seemed like an odd move, given all the open ones, but he was an older guy. It struck me as odd when he gave me another nod after washing off, and I hoped it was about our shared experience and not the restrooms. Then we both went our own way except he took off into Halloween and I’m sure he didn’t get what he wanted.

Night School (dir. Malcom D. Lee), also me deciding which alternative movie to see.

Night School is significantly better than staring at an unlit screen for thirty minutes. It stars the always funny Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish. I had read both of their comedy memoirs from last year, Hart’s I Can’t Make This Up and Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn. They have a lot in common, representing the new crop of comedic actors who no longer have to go the SNL route for proper recognition. They both went from stage to screen by way of hard work ethic and landing great shows after slumming it for many years and making personal sacrifices for stage time. Seeing them together is a treat.

Unlike Redford, this is not likely to be their last time on screen. In the previews, we already see Haddish with a central role in Nobody’s Fool, which is out next week. The elderly audience guffawed just a little bit but I think it looks absolutely fine. I’ve seen this trailer ahead of so many films this year, I know the components by heart. The good news is this is likely a consequence of so many diverse films being made this year, that I’ve gotten to see it ahead of Sorry to Bother You, Black Klansman etc., etc. The early sequences of the trailer play toward Haddish’s Girl’s Trip résumé. She’s released from jail and has to navigate life as an endearing wild card with poor social boundaries. When she goes home, even her mom ignores her, saying she can’t hear her because of bad cell phone reception and sinking down behind the window. But they’re not on phones and are talking through the window so that always makes me laugh.

If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins), a reminder that we can watch a Tiffany Haddish movie today, and a great piece of art tomorrow.

Then a trailer for If Beale Street Could Talk reminded me that I had come to the cinema for art. It is easy to lose sight in a mall, of why you’re there, of the direction you’re going. When the theater is one venue in a series of Hot Topics, GameStops, and food courts, you are bound to lose your way. It becomes harder to leave the movie with your thoughts and not to partake in commercialism or at least to be constantly reminded of it. Beale Street looks like an absolute gem and I certainly do not want to watch it in a mall.

We have codified the cinema going experience into the same experience as going to the mall. It has become its own disposable culture. Because people aren’t getting paid enough to care and do not have the training to understand what has gone wrong, there’s a sense of loss in our transition to a more digital product. The personal relation to running a projector is gone. Audiences are becoming detached from the end product and the staff of major chain cinemas likely aren’t using the same language as a more dedicated filmgoer. My journey to review The Old Man & the Gun may not have resulted in the article I set out to write but it exposed a harsher reality of the cinema.

Leave a Reply