I like to watch movies in the cinema, as God intended. The cinema was my religion growing up, the cinema my place of worship – and I know the theatrical experience cannot be reproduced in any way, form or form. The films transport audiences to distant worlds, other times, where we meet new people and discover different cultures. The best means of transportation to these times and places is, and should be, the theater. Dark cinema, with that single strip of flickering light from the projector as its engine, cuts us off from the real world and allows us the most immersive experience imaginable. It can’t be replicated no matter how hard we try, anywhere else.
It is simply not possible.
As we enter this new world of streaming, we are losing so much to experiencing movies more and more often at home, away from this temple of worship. I hear about the inevitable extinction of this incomparable experience, I see hints of its demise in the dwindling audience numbers, and my heart begins to tighten. I pray to the movie gods that somehow we can keep the magic of going to the movies.
Going to the movies at the time… Finding the screening times in the newspaper… Going to the theater by car or public transport… Waiting in line, sometimes for hours, to buy tickets (Rocky, Jaws, The Exorcist, ET, The Karate Kid, etc.)… Get some popcorn, sprinkle Sno-Caps on top, just enough melted… (but don’t consume the Sno-Caps / popcorn mixture before the first frame of the movie)… Find your favorite seats… Watch trailers to see what’s next (and leave the theater if you arrive too late and even miss a trailer – a lot of girlfriends hated me for that rule)… And then the potential turn of your life when the lights go out …
It was an event. Every moment of this ritual routine created the feeling that something big was happening, like a Zeppelin concert, a Yankees World Series game.
I still remember every movie I saw as a kid growing up in Brooklyn and Staten Island: what cinema I was in, who I saw it with, and generally even what I wore. Seeing Jaws six times in six days at the Island Twin! I forced my mother to take me, I wouldn’t take no for an answer. And for some crazy reason, mom agreed. Each viewing was more exhilarating than the last. I was on the Killer whale with Quint, Brody and Hooper. The projector light experience was so immersive and downright terrifying that when I got home I couldn’t go to our pool for weeks. John Williams’ score took root in my ears, haunting me in the best possible way. My fanaticism started early, and my parents decided to continue to nurture my passion.
I saw The Warriors in Brooklyn; the older children subsequently went mad, fighting, chasing each other through the streets of Bensonhurst, as if they were part of the Walter Hill movie. The energy in the neighborhood was palpable and contagious, and I tried to bring that same feeling to my new movie, It’s night. The audience feeds on what comes out of the screen and brings it out in the most beautiful way.
When I was 10, my father took me to see Apocalypse now on the big screen (recklessly some might say, but I thank him for that), and it was inside the theater that day that my life officially changed. I couldn’t shake the collective energy I felt that afternoon, and the theater wasn’t even crowded. (You only need to have a splash of people to have this shared experience.) At such a young age, I couldn’t have understood what Coppola and his collaborators were trying to convey, but the images that came out of the screen were so dreamlike and impactful that the foundations of my world have been shaken. On the way out, I said to my father, “I have to be a part of everything I just saw.” I had witnessed a dream / nightmare, and from that point on, I thought the movies should feel like seeing another person’s subconscious come to life.
I miss the movies in theaters very much because I haven’t been there since the start of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, I went to the theater at least two or three times a week. I aspire to this common energy, to the shared experience – a simple glance between two spectators, who have never met, sitting apart, accentuating the collective. I remember seeing Antichrist at the Cinema Forum; Gainsbourg hits Dafoe in the groin with a log, and everyone in the theater exchanges shocked and horrified looks – a feeling that we are in the same boat, that we are not alone in the human experience.
It was particularly hard during these pandemic months, because the film I just made, It’s night, is a film about the sanctity of this whole theatrical experience. The film focuses on a Staten Island family and their lives on the day in 1982 when Rocky III open. I remember it very well. We waited in line for tickets all day; the energy on the line was electric – people chanted “Rocky!”, Praying for entry and good seats. There was an aura of anticipation built on the love of the franchise’s previous two episodes, and it all came to a head that afternoon. Rocky was a beloved character in my community, which I initially assumed to be because my neighborhood was predominantly Italian-American, like him. The film was shown for 24 hours on all screens on the island and almost all screenings were sold out. When the original Rocky played there, people were standing and clapping, and it was the same, recently when Creed played on the island. There is something about the character of Rocky that really touched the hearts and souls of not just Italian Americans, but all of America. I learned that Rocky was the embodiment of the American dream – he was given an opportunity and he took it. We all wanted to be as lucky as Rocky. Rocky III lives up to all the hype we’ve put into it. We were on our feet for the entire last battle between Rocky and Clubber, like it was a live prize fight. Young and old, applauding together, a common experience of euphoria unlike any I had ever seen. After the show, when the lights came back on, the cheering continued throughout the credits. And no one left until the end of the credits.
In It’s night, Rocky III is the movie that inspires and impacts the characters, but the movie played could just as easily have been anything from that era, from Encounters of the Third Kind To Bad news bears To Taxi driver – all film that spoke to me, moved me and left imprints in my soul and my psyche. Ultimately, that’s what it is for me: impact and impressions, from horror to inspiration, from empathy to sadness.
Movies have changed my life. They allowed me to see the world beyond where I lived. They were exciting, funny, stimulating and disturbing. They were a lens to cultures and worlds that were completely foreign to me. I want the younger generations to experience the impact of filmmaking the way I did, and at the risk of looking quite old, I’m afraid they won’t be able to do it soon. Is the theatrical experience becoming an artefact of a time wasted with younger generations seeking entertainment on the Internet, PlayStation, TikTok, and streaming services? How do you get teenagers away from their phones and computers and put them back in theater seats to experience the immersive and incomparable magic of cinema?
The size of the movie audience will determine how many theaters survive over the next decade. We need the younger generation to rediscover cinema, or little by little, over time, other cinemas will close one after the other. Kids and teens always go to Marvel movies and horror movies in theaters, which is wonderful, but they need go to other movies too, otherwise dramas, foreign movies and indie will be relegated to streaming services. I want to be able to see Béla Tarr’s next film in theaters when it comes out, just as much as the next one Matrix movie.
I always liked the moment in the theater lobby when I bought my ticket at the booth and scrutinized the expressions of people leaving the theater of the previous screening, analyzing their reactions … Is it a shock? Is this happiness? Is it the fear? What did they just experience ?!
And now everything could go away. We cannot let it happen.