Also Playing: Cries & Whispers, Shouts & Backtalk

By Mark Gauvreau Judge
Sunday, August 28, 2005

It's been touch and go for a few years now, and so the question has to be asked: Can moviegoing survive?

This is no frivolous question. For some of us, going to the movies is not just a way to kill a couple of hours. It's a way of life, a part of our personal history, a sweet solace in times of trouble. But with the problems plaguing this century-old pleasure in the past few years, I've honestly been thinking that a trip to the Odeon -- or the Bio or the Cineplex -- is about to become a thing of the past.

Between the rise of DVDs, swelling ticket prices and too many repetitive, unoriginal, just plain lousy movies, it's more and more difficult to work up enthusiasm for actually leaving the house to go out and spend a few hours in the dark. Revenues for theater owners are down 10 percent this year, an even worse drop than the 6 percent dip in 2004. It's now cheaper to catch a Nationals game -- if you sit in the outfield upper deck -- than to see a movie at the local multiplex. And what Hollywood is offering is no prize. No one went into "Herbie: Fully Loaded" thinking his life was about to be changed.

Worse than all that, though, if you ask me, is all the talking in the theaters. Have you been to the movies lately? It seems that for the ADD generation, raised on Nintendo, the Internet and cell phones, there's simply no place on Earth unfit for human babbling. Some moviegoers repeat lines of dialogue seconds after the words have left the actors' mouths. They shout to their friends 10 rows down. They stage-whisper to their spouses. We seem to have become a nation of Valley Girls, unable to control ourselves for more than a minute or keep any thought, no matter how inane, obvious or stupid, squirreled away in our pea brains.

The good news is that now Hollywood and the exhibitors that show its films are showing signs of fighting back. But we're hardly out of the Dark Ages yet.

I'm 40, and mine is probably one of the last generations that remembers the time before DVDs -- or even VHS and Betamax, which brought movies into homes for the first time in the late 1970s. When I was a kid, there was only one way to see a new movie: in the theater. For me and millions like me -- to say nothing of early 20th-century audiences, who went to the movies in staggering numbers (almost 70 percent went regularly, as opposed to 25 percent today) -- going to the cinema was an outing. In 1977, when I was 12, my father took the whole family to the Uptown, that glorious movie palace on Connecticut Avenue NW to see the premiere of "Star Wars." It was such a grand experience that a couple of years later we had a party for the launch of "The Empire Strikes Back." My brother organized it, buying a block of 100 tickets and inviting friends and neighbors -- as well as the teachers at our high school.

These days it's hard to imagine a neighborhood party organized around a film premiere. And with people cocooned away with their small screens and DVDs, it's also becoming hard to recall the potency of a movie shown on a giant screen. To enter a theater was -- is -- to be fully immersed in another world, a world of unique and powerful colors, characters and sounds. To escape this alternate universe, you have to physically walk out, not just flip a switch. When my father took me to see "Alien" at the Uptown the year I was 14, he was terrified that it would scar me for life. Every 15 minutes he would lean over and murmur, "You all right?" You just don't get that kind of potency on a smaller screen -- nor with people yakking on all sides.

My love of moviegoing became a marriage in the 1980s, when I worked at a movie theater, Bethesda's now-shuttered Cinema 'n' Drafthouse (later called the Bethesda Theatre Cafe). The Drafthouse was in a gorgeous, 1,000-seat art deco theater designed by John Eberson, known as the "dean of American theater architects," that opened in 1938 as the Boro Theatre. It was converted in 1983 to resemble a cavernous pub: Think the Hofbrauhaus in Germany. We showed second-run movies -- films that were in limbo between theatrical release and home-video release -- sold tickets for $5 a pop, and served beer, wine and pub food while the movie was playing. It was a smash hit, and years ahead of the current trend to upgrade the movie experience for adults.

People still can't believe this when I say it, but it's the God's honest truth: At the Drafthouse, nobody talked during the movie. Oh, for the first 20 minutes, mostly before and during the previews, when we were pouring pitchers of beer at the bar and the waiters were taking orders, it was a bit chaotic, but once people found their seats, there was total silence -- except for the action on the screen, of course. It was this job that made me a lifelong movie lover -- and critic. When you see a movie 14 times in one week you begin to learn how lighting, music, editing and, of course, acting and plot can make or break a film.

I could always gauge how good a comedy scene was by whether the guys in the kitchen and the waiters would stop what they were doing to watch it. The all-time champ was a scene in "Back to School," a Rodney Dangerfield flick. In one scene, the professor played by fat, bellicose Sam Kinison goes on a berserk rant against Dangerfield as a college student who doesn't have the right answer to a question. No matter how backed up the orders in the kitchen or how long the line at the bar, when Kinison appeared on screen, all activity at the Drafthouse stopped.

Several years ago, though, I noticed that when I went to a movie, people were talking -- a lot. The Game Boy generation had come of age and was making itself heard at the movie theater. And often, the parents weren't much better. In my Drafthouse days, if someone was gabbing or unruly, a manager would appear at that person's side within seconds and ask him to quiet down. And here's the thing: People did. There wasn't any of the resentful, "I've-got-rights" backlash you get these days whenever you call someone on the most minor infraction. There was respect for others who were trying to enjoy the show. (The way I see it, you shouldn't be allowed to yell fire -- or anything else -- in a theater.)

But now movies are one of many entertainment diversions. To me, though, they're still a source of joy, intellectual interest and a balm -- best enjoyed in total silence to ensure the full suspension of disbelief -- when life gets difficult, depressing or (literally) too hot.

For the last several years, the movie theater aficionado has been smart to hit weekday matinees to avoid the babies, cell phones, teenage gabbers and popcorn-chomping adults. Sometime in the 1990s, the role of usher/manager was left on the cutting-room floor. The job fell to teenagers too shy or passive to reprimand their own peers, never mind grownups. Incredibly, in some theaters it is now the people wanting silence who are outcasts. It's not the movie talker who is rejected by the civilized masses. No, it's shushers like me who have become the pariahs, shouted down by others who apparently enjoy chaos when trying to follow a complex plot or lose themselves in a fantasy. I was at a multiplex in Virginia recently and witnessed a man who was trying to ask others to be quiet finally eject himself from the theater when he was booed down by the talkers. I wouldn't be surprised if the poor guy decided to stop seeing movies in theaters altogether. More revenue lost for Hollywood.

But perhaps things are tipping back. Hollywood, feeling the pain in its pocketbook, has apparently become aware of the animal house that many theaters have become and is beginning to do something about it. One big exhibitor, Muvico Theaters, is bringing back the idea of the theater as a grand palace, with ornate design and valet parking, like one it has opened in Anne Arundel County. They also sometimes charge more -- at one theater in Florida, it's $18 for an adult setting with no one under 21 admitted and golden silence. It's a price I'd gladly pay.

Dare I hope that at long last, the era of the Great Disruption in movie theaters may be coming to an end? If so, it's truly wonderful news for those of us who consider movies an indispensable and healing art, and one that requires the right atmosphere -- the big, deep, magical, silent theater atmosphere -- to be fully appreciated.

Now if they'd just make some decent movies.

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Mark Judge, a writer living in Potomac, is the author of "Damn Senators" (Encounter Books) and "God and Man at Georgetown Prep" (Crossroad).

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