It's a very civilized way to watch a movie: Plush private rooms: a phone nearby in case you're expecting a call; maybe a glass of refreshment to help things to better. The critics' screening can be glamorous, habit-forming.
But most mornings the theater is empty and the popcorn machine is out of order and you sit there amid a handful of fellow critics scratching notes in the dark.
Sometimes you have flashbacks of cutting class, especially when you slink back to the office after lunch and they give you that sly "I-know-you've-been-to-the-movies" nod. Very righteous. You don't recent the loafer label of the livelihood, but you can't shed the image. That's what you get paid for: to tell the readers whether you cried or laughed or snored - and why.
Many mornings the films are nothing to write home about, and as you trundle, poker-faced, out the exit, the studio connection forces a grin, itches to ask if you liked it, but holds back. That's one of the unwritten rules: Never ask the critic for a verdict unless it's voluntered. Not that the critic can kill a film, but bad reviews can send one packing.
Still, if the studios have modest confidence, they dispatch local point men to set up private screening in advance. Otherwise, a movie is simple dumped on the theaters, sight unseen, in the hope that the film-starved masses will plop down $3 or so before word gets around that its a turkey.
Which is the case with three recent arrivals, Claude Lelouch's "Another Man, Another Chance" is such a loser it may not be around when you read this: Disney's "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" is a dull, schmaltzy romance with leprechauns and witches and pots of gold so old that Sean (James Bond) Connery as the smitten Michael McBride appears cherubic, 30ish and sons paunch. Some critics get the same queasy feeling knocking good old Walt, I imagine, that muggers must get tripping little old ladies the first time out. And even through the kids of White Flint were yakking and squawking and jumping over the chain to get inside the other day, they deserved better than recycled animation to jazz up H. T. Kavanaugh's "Darby O'Gill" stories.
As for Pier Pasolini's "Salo, 120 Days of Sodom," well, it just doesn't digest BEFORE dinner, unless, of course, you want to lose your appetite. It is full of the kind of hors d'oruures Marquis de Sade wrote about in his 18th century novel, depressing stuff that Pasolini, murdered two years ago by a 17-year-old boy who ran over the filmmaker with his silver Alfa Romeo, serves up in the allegorical setting of fascist Italy.
Right after sitting out harmless Darby O'Gill, it was somewhat jarring to plop into the Swiss villa in "Salo," the northern Italian village Mussolini dug into during the final days of the war, and watch the images Pasolini uses to denounce political power: vivid scenes of torture involving teen-age boys and girls, necrophilia and naked feasts where guests are made to dine on excrement. A case of the metaphor overpowering the message.
So it goes some days. You just don't have a chance to serve fair warning.
Some mornings call for diplomacy and tact. What do you say to a nice director who has traveled thousands of miles to show off his film? Well, if you just yawned through it, you talk about the weather. You could stonewall him, just button the lip and bolt. But if he's blocking the exit, you tiptoe around hypocrisy as best you can.
Other days, you don't mind sticking around. Sometimes there are movie stars. Critics get to hobnob with folks like Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Al Pacino, James Caan, and to see starry-eyed women fix the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov with welcoming eye contact. Life can be one big swoon. But mostly, it's limited to 20 minutes of chaperoned intimacy in a hotel suite, with everyone pretending it's more fun than tugging saltwater taffy, while they check their watches to see when it will end.
Friends always ask how was this and how was that, and you summon cheery tones to say, "marvelous . . . scintillating . . . dreamy . . ." Or you frown, shake the head and grumble, "Save your money."
You become a cocktail-party collectible. You keep guests off touchy subjects like politics and religion. What's safer than clucking about the movies?
But no one ever asks you to go with them any more - they figure you've seen them all. Some even admit they might be embarrassed to laugh in your presence if you're not sporting a smile. So your nights are free.
And the next morning you'll find yourself invited, once again, to squeak back and forth in the darkness, as the rest of the world goes about its business.