Friday, December 24, 2010

Last Tango in Paramus with the Cineplex Blues

You might notice, if your eyes glance up to the picture at the top of this blog, a movie theater.  Or, rather if you have to call it so (which it is), a cineplex.   At one time it was technically owned by the chain Cineplex Odeon (a company that also released movies too, like The Last Temptation of Christ among others - later, mostly in the years I went there circa 1994 to 2007, it transferred technically to become a Loews, albeit still with the Cineplex Odeon moniker outside).  It was a place that meant so much to me for a number of crucial years in my adolescence.  It might still be memorable if it had only been the place I had seen the somewhat bastardized re-release of the 1977 Star Wars in January of 1997, or gone with friends for a 13th birthday night-out to Liar, Liar.  Or when we sneaked in ever so gently via the back-doors to see Half Baked, most of us (though, sadly, not me, stoned out of our minds) in a packed screening room with the movie mysteriously starting half an hour late, us clamoring away for the show to start.

Original theater circa... many eons ago, before the dawn of history.

There are memories like that, and more.  But the theater gained most of its significance in my life in 1998 and then even more-so into 1999, 2000, and 2001, and even somewhat into 2002.  There was another cineplex in closer proximity, the Loews (now AMC) Ridgefield Park 12-plex, but that theater usually didn't grab my fancy, despite that being the hollowed ground where I saw many of the formative films of my youth (Batman, Aladdin, The Lion King, uh, Batman Forever, Starship Troopers, I could go on and on and bore you to tears).  Maybe it was the facet of not being able to drive and taking the bus points towards Paramus instead; at the time buses still went to the Bergen Mall, in very close walking distance to the theater.  And then there were buses that gave equal time to the less-prestigious but still conveniently located rt.17 movie theater in very close proximity with the Garden State Plaza (though not connected with it) with three screens.  And in walking distance as well right in the middle of these two theaters distance-wise (if somewhat hazardous due to the nature of walking along frakking route 4 west) was the Paramus Picture Show, the one-screen art-house.

I hearken back to this particular Cineplex Odeon for two reasons: first that it is, as mentioned, one of the hollowed places where, on a big-screen, I got much of my cinematic education, all brought on by my slightly insane and decidedly anti-social way of being a loner in those goddamn years of fourteen to seventeen, where one's body and mind via hormones turned into wretched hives of scum and villainy, usually of the slightly mopey and melodramatic nature and occasionally veering on would-be criminal.  Ah, such dreaded years are ones that might as well be a blackout, and for some might be rather pleasant.  The vast majority can relate to them being accursed years indeed, both physically and mentally, but mostly physically.

Secondly, I started reading this book last night by Kevin Murphy, one of the MST3K-cum-Rifftrax guys, My Year at the Movies: One Man's Film-Going Odyssey.  Murphy, without a job after the cancellation of his days as Tom Servo, went on to see a movie a day, or at least to average a movie a day, for the entire year of 2001.  He didn't just go to Cineplexes: small indie theaters, the Smallest Theater in the World(TM), Cannes, Sundance, a movie with seven dates at once, bars, and an igloo.  He saw old movies, new movies, crap, indies, ventured into the heart of darkness and got through Corky Romano with his fellow-riffer Mike J. Nelson.  He's a man after my own heart.  By that he may also be a man who eats large blood-muscles, but that's neither here nor there.

Bad-Ass Inc.
But reading the book, at least as far as I have gotten through (just a few chapters, but it's substantial writing for each small chapter), Murphy brings up a point visa-vi the experience at the Cineplex, as something symptomatic of something deeper, uglier about what's been going on with American movie-going, and which I can relate on a bittersweet level:

"Some people will argue that beyond a good print, good sound, and comfortable seats, a theater might as well be a black box.  These people are simply wrong.  They're wrong because the films are being designed to fit the market, and that's us, the poor bleating ewes who show up at the googolplex, and order a film like a Number Three combo, Biggie Sized.... if you told me when I was ten that I'd be going to an eighteen-screen theater to have my choice of pretty much every current Hollywood release, I would've thought you were crazy, and I also would've thought it sounded really cool... What have we gained?  A consistent level of product, delivered with a dependable level of convenience, to a consumer base that wants their money's worth every time and gets it.  And what have we lost in the process?  Only passion, risk, and community - in short, the things that make a public art like cinema both public and art."

Murphy is not wrong on his points, and at this point as a 20-something movie-junkie who now dreads certain experiences at the Cine(or 'googol')plexes I can sympathize with him.  Of course a theater should be more than a black box, though there are also times when I want the rest of the world blocked out for just a simple theater with four walls, a roof, and a solid projection system (and, as one has already proclaimed in this blog this month, no yapping).

But at the same time I feel mixed about what it meant to me, initially, when I was still impressionable and just wanting a cinematic fix whenever and however I could on a big screen.  To be sure I often had better experiences when I traipsed over to the Paramus Picture Show in the little mini-mall right before the Garden State Plaza cross-nexus.  That was a "real" theater, made up with a big mural on the wall of images painted of characters from Pulp Fiction, 314-give-or-take seats wonderfully laid out, and always with a sense of community when a group of people were there en mass.  I'll get back to this theater in a moment.

Original size, but not of Paramus Picture Show, sadly.  
But the Loews/Cineplex Odeon rt 4 theater.  Yes, it was a big-corporate-sized type of place.  And yet there could also be a sense of community there as well, when one was waiting on the long lines to get tickets outside, and sometimes inside the place for a specific theater-screen, or, depending on the movie playing at a particular night with the right crowd keyed into the movie but not obnoxious about it.  It became like living in a big mansion some days, and I got intimately familiar with the nooks and crannies of every screening room (well, not *that* intimate, though as a puberty-plagued teenager the temptation to jerk the gherkin in a hot R-rated erotic movie with no one else there crossed my mind I must admit, never did though..... sorry for the tangent, back to focus).

Each theater had its own kind of character.  A few of the theaters were specifically stadium-sized, or small-stadium-like.  The theater #1 was the big one, and was indeed the one that used to host big 65mm screenings in the days when I was a twinkle in my father's eye (it opened in 1965 and didn't expand to being a 10-plex until the 1980's).  Other screens were smaller; there were screens 2 and 3, where the smaller or more-maligned (or slightly "smaller" movies were screened like Life Aquatic and Match Point, and even in #2 The Wizard of Oz).  There were what I would call "skinny" theater-screens, # 8 and 9, usually playing mid-level movies or ones that would come back around on re-release.  And of course good ol' theater 7, which gave me the Half-Baked story.  And in my time of being a sneaky 15-16-17 year old scamp, I got used to knowing how to sneak around the joint.

One other such memory still sticks in my mind as a happy one, even with it being almost embarrassing to tell, but it's my blog, I can go into the shameful and strange (just look at the near-masturbation admittance two paragraphs ago).  In 1999 I went to see a very forgettable if not totally horrible sci-fi actioneer based on a video game in the days before Uwe Boll called Wing Commander with Matthew Lillard and Freddie Prinze Jr (ok, laughed enough, welcome back).  The significance of the movie though in most history would be that it was the first movie, being released in March of 1999, to have a full trailer for Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (the previous teaser was with A Bug's Life so no one could say they didn't see that).

So many kids and teenagers would sneak into Wing Commander just to see the trailer for TPM (that, I should add, also gave me an un-ironic happy memory at the same theater when it came out opening night with a full-load of Star Wars fans two months later, before it was full realized how flawed it was, but I digress).  I was in the theater not for the trailer, albeit a nice bonus, but for the movie itself.  A theater employee came in and sat down next to me, not really saying anything for a minute during the movie, then asked me why I was still there.  "I"m here to see the movie," I said.  "... Really?" the theater geek asked.  I nodded.  He saw my sincerity.  And slowly backed away...

Why was I there for that movie?  The same reason I was there for practically every movie that came out in theaters between 1999 and the early part of 2002 before I entered into college as an undergrad.  It was my own self-made education.  I was, in all likelihood like Murphy suggests, one of those 'poor bleating ewes.'  At least, maybe, at first.  There was a time when I was simply interested in going to the movies for just stupid entertainment time.  But then there was a period of a few years, starting when I got obsessive with The Lion King and hand-wrote out the entire screenplay as I saw it happening as I watched the movie (this is before I knew even fully what the fuck a screenplay was), when I realized movies were more than what they seemed.  And by the time fourteen rolled around - and lost a few friends, by choice and/or by their deciding to move on - I found a lot of free time...

Approximation of theater-size

(... other time was spent by being a bad little bastard; as another personal aside after years of hesitating to cut classes in middle school, I became a fiend for it - not always to go to the movies as the timing didn't always work, the Cineplex didn't open until 1 most days so other times it was to that dreaded but safe bastian of the Mall(s) as Paramus has three of them technically - aided in large part to a stack of blue absence slips and a carefully modulated knack for forging a teacher's signature.  Not proud of it, but, to be honest, not too ashamed of it either.  It was what it was, and if I could take it back I would in some part, depending on the class and teacher really.  It was high school, and it was miserable many times, and only got better in Junior and Senior years...)

In some part it was a time when I was more susceptible for the Hollywood-crap machine.  This was a time period when, for example, I genuinely loved Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and I genuinely enjoyed Phantom Menace until my critical faculties got sharper.  At the same time seeing so much shit helped to refine my sense of what was the bullshit was out there.  And I became a self-made expert on spotting conventions and cliches and formulas in movies (both the mainstream and foreign/independent ones too).  And  I found a lot of surprises as well; one day I would go to see three, even four movies in a day (perhaps the epitome of being able to see so much in a theater offering the current crop of movies - not *all* of them, most of them), and the first two would be more or less in quality (good: High Fidelity, so-so: Rules of Engagement)... and then American Psycho would come out of nowhere and blow my mind, once again in a theater packed of people not knowing what they were getting into.  A case that, perhaps for Murphy, might be an exception, a community-feeling for a Cineplex "offering" that was more like an art-house flick.

Some of my affection for that route 4 ten-plex is nostalgia for a time that was spent like another home away from home, or another school away from school.  Sometimes it was also with other company, friends with dumb comedies (sometimes one or both of us totally drunk), a brother for a movie or two, my mother during a tough personal time for the movie Traffic.  And on the lower-wrung of the scale the rt-17 plex, not as good in quality (a once first-run theater that became run down and got the movies weeks after they played at the regular-plexes), but with its own subtle and dark charms, especially in the really large old movie-room.

And of course that Paramus Picture Show, where I got my first real dose of late 90's and early 00's indie and art-house and foreign films.  Memento, Mulholland Drive (that was a good one, with a GREAT Lynch-fan crowd), Bowling for Columbine, Run Lola RunBeing John Malkovich, obscurer work like The Sunshine State, The Widow of Saint-Pierre.  The dichotomy of cinematic experience in those years of the pre-driver's license, and then into the realm of the license where I could and did expand to other theaters, was crucial for me.  I got the best and worst and middle of both worlds, with a certain gritty appeal even with the cineplex if only for its age and stamina as an establishment

Then it's also, in retrospect, what has been replaced today.  What Murphy saw in 2001, in theaters that were ungainly 'googolplexes' with 15+ screens, was brought out in full in Paramus in 2007.  After the close of the Paramus Picture show in 2004 and the rt 17 3-plex in 2005, the 10-plex closed its doors somewhat suddenly.  'Somewhat' in that it was an eventuality that couldn't be dismissed as a large portion of the parking lot at the big ol' Garden State Plaza was torn apart and new land was made up for at gigantic AMC multiplex with 16 screens, including 3D access and eventually (shoot me now) an "IMAX screen" that is really one of those regular theaters given the awful would-be IMAX treatment of taking a few seats out of the front to make the screen bigger.

My love for this movie theater, measured in length if not width...
A movie theater attached to a mall; before it was only at the Palisades Center in West Nyack I could, if I so desired, see that with a whopping 21 screens and an actual IMAX.  Now it was (and is) in a mere ten minute drive, maybe shorter or longer, from my house.  And with that, how could a measly little 10-plex with old-school film projection compete?  Why go all the way out there- albeit in immediate proximity to a Toys R Us, and nearby the "small" mall (or what Chris Rock would call the "Other Mall") at the Bergen Towne  Center- when one could go to the food court, go to Hot Topic, go to whatever awful hipster store, and then walk on over to see Transformers on four screens?

In comparison to this monstrosity that is the Garden State AMC 16-Googolplex, the Loews Cineplex Odeon was a gift to humanity.  Aside from the sneaky incentive of easy access in that theater- if one is so inclined the sneak-ability rate at the mall-plex is easy as pie- it has drawbacks like jacked-up prices, super-long lines, a bigger cadre of annoying citizens washed up from the dregs of VANS and Abercrombie and whatever douchebag hipster-of-the-week store is opened.  It is, indeed, comparable to what Murphy also describes in the same chapter: the "Walmart experience" of the movies.  Consumer in, consumer out.  There is the occasional odd-room for an indie movie, but even that is given a white-wash for the sense of oddness placed at a theater like that.

Enough cholesterol/fat to choke a horse, but there's free refills on large orders!  
I know, it's kind of odd to be praising a theater that was also in the heart of consumer-land, which is what route 4 is in Paramus, NJ (maybe not as much as route 17, but it's close enough).  But it's not just simply nostalgia.  Perhaps I was too young or not well-versed enough, or just too stupid at the time, to see what Murphy fully saw and that I've known for a while, certainly since I've been friends with ex-workers at cineplexes.  At the same time I always prefer a good art-house/indie theater like a Picture Show or the also dearly-departed Rialto in Ridgefield Park to a behemoth place with screens large and small in a big-ass building.  And, again, at the same time it's where I've been raised.  Maybe I would have better perspective if I were born years before, or lived in an area with a deficiency in art-houses, if it was all I knew like some poor plebian stuck with Burger King and Walmart and Jesus for the bulk of his/her life.

But it's what I knew that takes me back, and makes me ever-so excited to see what Murphy has in store with his international-adventures in movie going past the realm of the googolplex world.  It's an obsession that fermented over a set period of years, spent in a haze of punk rock and South Park, Opie & Anthony and a personal life scrambled up with limited friends, hundreds of dollars spent on local bus fare, and boatloads of marijuana (that would be for another post altogether).   I look back with delight and with some regret, for perhaps not going further or venturing out to other pastures in the years before the license and car.  I look back knowing the Cineplex wasn't always a "good" thing.  But it was what it was, and in the face of further monopolization and the cut-backs on single-screen movie-houses like a Rialto or PPP it's sadder still.  And I wouldn't take back barely a moment spent there.  Not even, yes indeed, the final film seen at the Route 4 theater: Spider-Man 3, which is still enjoyable despite what you've heard.

So there.

(forgive the lackluster music in this video, but it's the only video I could find of footage of this olde theater):

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