Sanford's Blog... Supplemental - My 5 Favorite Movie-Watching Moments

 

Photo Credit: Chris Anderson (Inside the Art Theater, location of 3 of these)

Recently, I wrote a post about “The Room” and made the statement that it was one of the greatest movie audience experiences of my life.

That got me thinking about what else would round out my top five. Originally, this was going to be a footnote in the other blog, but I thought that listing them without context was no fun... so here are the other four: 

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All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.

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Opening Credits of "Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace"

May 23rd, 1999 (You didn’t know it was going to be so specific, huh?)  

It was a Sunday morning, and I was catching an early show of Star Wars I.  This was a few days after its release, but I hadn’t seen it yet - and I’d carefully avoided reading anything about the film. (This is normal for films I really want to see; I like to experience them unbiased by reviews.) 

The theater was packed, full of people bubbling with excitement about a new Star Wars movie, something most of us assumed we’d never see. As I sat in the back, I felt the energy in the air – an electric pulse that went up my spine when the previews ended, the house lights darkened, and the 20th Century Fox fanfare played. As the fanfare died away, the Lucasfilm logo appeared and these words appeared on the screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...”  

Spontaneously, the audience cheered, releasing 15 years of pent-up desire in a communal celebration that our waiting was over. Then, magically, the cheering stopped and there was a glorious moment of pure black silence before the theme music kicks in. 

You can debate the merits of everything that followed (although I’m willing to defend the movie; it’s worth it just for Qui-Gon Jinn).  But you cannot outdo that wonderful moment before it started, when years of waiting climaxed into one sublime film geek moment.  In that moment of perfect black silence, everything was possible. 

Pre-film Q&A with Richard Linklater for “Waking Life”

Friday, April 29, 2011

In my time running a movie theater I met lots of excellent filmmakers, but only two whom you’ve probably heard of: Crispin Glover and Richard Linklater. Crispin Glover did a two-day stint at the theater with his one-man show, where he gives a dramatic reading, shows his films, and then gives a lengthy Q&A. But that is a tale for a different blog. (Hint: it does not make my list of favorite moments.)

Richard Linklater’s visit was a different story. He was in town for Ebertfest, where they were showing “Me and Orson Welles”. Coincidentally, that had been the very first movie we showed after I took over the theater, so I had a great lead-in when I reached out to ask him to come by and introduce "Waking Life". Playing this one was not a coincidence… I had booked Waking Life with the explicit hope of having him stop in.  (It was part of Animation month, along with: Triplets of Belleville, The Iron Giant, Coraline, and Howl’s Moving Castle.   I'm compelled to note that these were not all my top choices. Some films I wanted to show that weren’t available for exhibition: Yellow Submarine, Akira, and Spirited Away.)

In my request to him, I poured it on thick with our story as a scrappy independent Art House theater, etc. It helped that some friends of the Art Theater were his hosts. (Thank you Chris and Anne!) Well, it worked. Even though he’d had a crazy long day of travelling and appearing at Ebertfest, he came over to our theater just before our 10 PM show on a Friday night.   

He was tired, but when he came into the theater he got very excited. Like so many filmmakers, he loves movie theaters. Once the movie started, we had a long conversation about the distribution model and operations in general. He had co-founded the Austin Film Society, a sort of ongoing film festival, and he understood the exhibition side, too. 

But the best part was having him introduce the film. Warmed up by Ebertfest, which is all about discussing films, he was ready for the task. If you haven’t seen it, Waking Life is a dense and talkative film that lacks any kind of strong narrative thread. It’s more of a series of conversations, most of them far more academic – and/or trippy – than most movie dialogue.

In his intro, he talked about the making of the film and then answered questions from the audience. The 19 paying customers (only 19... it pains me!!) were granted the rare chance to hear an artist explain one of their more difficult works. What I remember most, and what helped me make sense of the film, was his explanation that the movie was more of an experiment that he and his compadres made one summer in order to play with some new screen-painting ("rotoscoping") software. (He used a later version in "A Scanner Darkly", which was - another coincidence! - the first movie I watched at the Art Theater.) 

He explained that the scenes in Waking Life were made up of dialogue snippets from other films, or in some cases were just from filming experts talking about their actual fields. Then they split the film up among multiple artists for painting, which is why different parts have various styles. So if you don’t get any kind of clear over-arching point to the movie don’t worry… it’s not you!

That moment stands out for me as one of those “I can’t believe I got to do that” moments of running a movie theater. I especially love thinking about the reaction of those 19 people, some of who didn’t know he was going to be there, when he came out and started talking. I hope this appears on their list of greatest movie audience moments, too!

The last three minutes of “The Artist” 

Jan 2012 – February 2012

This one is different from the others, and from most movie experiences, because I was able to experience it many times. Starting in January 2012, we showed The Artist for seven weeks. I know it was seven because I was required to keep it for six weeks, but then we “held it” for another after it won Best Picture. (The commitment to show it for six weeks almost made me pass on showing this film! Fortunately, I took the chance.) Forget about the fact that it was smash hit financially, I never enjoyed showing a movie more than this one. 

The film is a delight, and perfect to be seen in a movie theater. First because it’s about movie making, and the opening scene (one of the best in the film) takes place at a movie screening. Second because it’s a silent film, so the music is an essential element, and a theater immerses you with music in a way that home viewing can’t. And third because the film brilliantly sweeps the audience up in the Act 1 highs, and Act 2 lows of the protagonist, so the 3rd Act - and especially the last three minutes - brings a collective release that never failed to cause the audience to break into applause at the film’s end. (With a good crowd… I would say “erupt” into applause.)   Really, the ending is that good: it perfectly wraps up the story, unlocks a key plot element, and sends you off in a toe-tapping great mood.  And I'm purposefully not giving a video link because if you don’t watch the rest of the film you can’t enjoy the ending as much. Please watch this movie if you’ve never seen it! 

The two-month stretch when we showed this film was very busy for me with the theater doing huge business, our Co-op drive in full gear, and a peak in my “day job” work responsibilities. I remember spending many hours at the theater during this time, working in the projection booth at my cramped table while sitting on a metal folding metal chair.  During the film I couldn’t help but listen to the music (it came through the walls), so I knew when the ending was coming.  At that point, I would go downstairs and slip into the back of the theater to watch the last scene - and hear the audience reaction.  I even scheduled around it, coming early before a show just to catch the ending of the prior one. 

Standing in the back, watching that scene then listening to the applause, and knowing that I was part of presenting a fabulous movie experience in a century-old theater gave me a great feeling, and lifted my spirits through a difficult time.

Opening Credits on Opening Night of The Big Lebowski

Friday, February 03, 2012

We tried a few theme months for Late Nights. Horror in October worked well; Comedy in November was less successful. Animation was mediocre, although that did include Waking Life (see above).

But my favorite theme month was Costume Month, when we showed: Office Space, Speed Racer (not my choice, I let the student paper pick one), The Room, and The Big Lebowski.  And this was all in February 2012, while playing The Artist (see above). In case you’re curious, it was a VERY good month but only #3 in overall sales. #2 was January 2012 (we opened “The Artist” after killing it with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) and #1 was July 2012 (two words: “Moonrise Kingdom”).

My favorite of my own costumes was for Office Space (I was Lumbergh, his boss, in the two-tone shirt with a power tie) but the best costume turnout was for The Big Lebowski. We had a whole line-up of Dudes, a good number of Walters, a smattering of Nihilists, and a few Maudes. (I was the only Donny.) Sales were excellent: for the Friday night show, we had 236 people - perfect because we had 244 chairs, so everyone was seated. We sold $1,180 in tickets, and $958 in concessions... now THAT’s a great night! The key? White Russians are ridiculously easy to make. Mix 2 bottles of vodka with one bottle of Kahlua. That’s it! Seriously, we were pouring three 750 ml bottles at once, then selling the whole pitcher in minutes, at $5 a drink. Please note, however, we did it right: we had real half & half, which was self-serve from a carafe like a coffee shop.  This let people decide their own mix and kept us pouring quickly. 

So picture this scene... It’s Friday night at 10 PM. Everybody’s loving their White Russians. We just held the costume show. And then it was time for the “2:00 Minute Theater” – something we did where anyone could introduce the movie. (FYI, besides it being 2 minutes long there were 2 rules: no cursing and NO PLOT SPOILERS!)  Someone had pre-arranged to do it during the week before, so he got up and started talking. His intro was about how he loved this movie and loved sharing it with people, and how happy was to see it that night with his girlfriend. Then he got down on one knee and proposed to her right there in front of everyone. And she accepted, and the place went bananas, and then while the cheering was just fading out our projectionist fired up the projector (showing it from a 35mm print) and the opening credits began.

Pictures from the proposal are below. Notice the counter on the screen... he kept it less than 2 minutes!

I remember sitting in the back of the theater, savoring this amazing group experience we'd just shared, and watching what I consider to be one of the best title sequences ever to be put on film. Not only does it make the mundane look beautiful, but it sets the scene perfectly (introducing the bowling alley where much of the film occurs), features a great Dylan song, and leads seamlessly up to the first line of dialogue.  Judge for yourself:

OK, well those are the rest of my top five. What about you?