To see the movie "Fatal Attraction" some weeks ago, five of us carefully made our plans. Three of us arrived at the theater about an hour ahead of what, in a more formal era, was called curtain time. Two of the three jumped from the car in front of the theater. One got on line to purchase tickets. Another got into the line for people who already had tickets, and the third person -- me -- went to park the car. The M-Team had swung into action.
After a while, the two other friends joined us. By then, we were all in the line for ticket holders. When we got into the theater, two of the people who had bought the tickets or parked the car were assigned to get seats while the third, a teen-age relative of mine, deserted us for the company of some friends. Two of us stormed the theater, rushing down the aisles and then scurrying back up before we found four seats together. Meanwhile, the other two hit the popcorn line.
Two of us claimed four seats and proceeded to say the word "taken" over and over again. Since I was in the first seat, the pressure was mostly on me. I must have said "taken" about 30 times -- long enough for me to begin to wonder about the authority the word seems to have. People will fight to the death over a parking space or, in California, over the right of way at a freeway ramp, but even in Los Angeles, as far as I know, no one has ever been killed for saving a theater seat. Twice, though, my worst fears were realized when someone just entered the row without asking and sat down. But when I said "taken," they meekly rose and went looking for other seats.
Maybe someday, someone will study the sociology -- the pathology, really -- of the American movie experience. I don't mean the making of film, Hollywood and all that. No sirree. I am talking now of the receiving end of the business, the going-to-the-movies part, which is twice as strange as anything that happens on a sound stage. Just the fact that five of us had to plan the event with the precision of a commando raid illustrates what I mean.
Let's take what is, at best, an oddity: titles. Why do we have to sit through all the titles and, usually, do so respectfully. It is one thing to know, or care about, the names of the actors, the director and the scriptwriter, but any information after that is of interest only to people in the movie industry. Do I care who did the casting? No. Do I care who did the cinematography? Not a chance. Do I care about "best boy," grip, second director, location manager, lighting, makeup, sound and all the rest? Not on your life. Not only do I not care, but neither does almost anyone else.
Do we at The Washington Post tell you who edited this column? We do not. Do we tell you who the copy editor was? No way. Do we tell you who laid out the page, did the makeup, wrote the headline, set the type, did the proofreading, inserted the magazine into the Sunday paper so you couldn't possibly find it and, finally, delivered it to your house? We do nothing of the sort. So why should movies be different? There is but one answer. Titles are important to the industry, so we sit through them as if they are important to us.
Once before, in my relative youth, I took on the movie theater industry. I pointed out, for instance, that it's possible to buy a reserved seat at a ball- park on the day of the game -- but not at a movie theater at any time. I noted that in England, movie theaters sell reserved seats, and I wondered why they do not do so here. I observed that only at the movies are you expected to stand in the rain, cold or heat and given no shelter. I may also have observed, noted or pointed out that while movies might be getting better and better, theaters were getting smaller and smaller and that the so-called Big Screen was usually big no more -- gone along with a second feature and (sigh) cartoons.
Almost immediately, a movie-industry executive called to issue a heartfelt "right on." The industry was in trouble, he said. Theaters were getting smaller and smaller, lines longer and longer, ticket prices higher and higher. Just going to the movies was an ordeal -- an increasingly expensive one at that. Don't think the industry didn't know about it and wasn't concerned, he said.
It would be wonderful to report that things have changed since then or that the videotape revolution has given the movie theater industry its comeuppance. Not so. Things seem to have gotten worse. The movie-going public has responded to shabby treatment by setting box office records -- proving that abuse and contempt are wonderful marketing tools. Not since McDonald's convinced Americans that it's the better part of citizenship to bus your own table have so many been suckered by so few.
There is only one possible explanation for this seemingly inexplicable behavior on the part of the movie-going public: the old free-market system. A good movie, like gold, is precious. The theater that has a dud can seat you right away. One with a hit does as it sees fit. Demand has far outstripped supply and a movie-goer will pay -- in time, effort and ingenuity -- almost anything it takes to see a good film. My friends and I are those kinds of people. After seeing "Fatal Attraction," all we could talk about was the movie itself. No one mentioned what we had "paid" for the privilege.
So we get what we deserve. A night at the movies has to be planned with the precision of a hostile merger. Every person has his or her assigned role but there is one all movie-goers share: patsy for the movie industry. ::