Friday, November 28, 2014

On My Love Of Roadshow Movies

Yesterday was a whirlwind of activity, with my wife and I making Thanksgiving dinner, wrangling our toddlers, getting the house acceptably non-slatternly for her family, hosting her family and then cleaning the whole thing up.  When it was all done, we all sort of collapsed on the coach, with our daughters thankfully exhausted after so much fun time with their grandparents and auntie.  I noticed then that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was on Turner Classic Movies, which my wife revealed to me was one of her absolute favorite childhood movies.  It was a good way to wind down with our kids after a long day.

While I am not a huge fan of late 1960s musicals, I got a kick out of enjoying a type of film that is a true relic of a bygone time: a movie in the roadshow format.  In case you aren't aware, roadshow pictures were very common in the 1950s and 1960s, getting their name from the way they were released, first in major cities, then taken "on the road" to other markets.  They were a different kind of cinematic experience intended to compete with the rise of television.  Roadshow formatted films were shown with reserved seating only, often on only three nights a week, and very often in special widescreen formats intended to emphasize the majesty of cinema as compared to TV (especially in a pre-HD era when the rabbit ears had to be adjusted for static on a constant basis.)  They began with an overture, back at a time when the movie theaters had curtains that would be drawn beforehand.  Formatted to be longer, road show films also had intermissions.  After the movie ended, there was exit music, presumably so people could linger and talk a little.

A lot of the great films of the era were shown this way, with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bridge on the River KwaiSpartacus,  Lawrence of Arabia, and Ben-Hur among my favorites.  Of course, plenty of duds were too, like The Happiest Millionaire and Paint Your Wagon.  I first saw roadshow films as a child on cable television, and noticed that the TV screen was wholly inadequate to present them.  Whenever they showed Ben-Hur, the screen would shift to a heavily letterboxed format when the famous chariot race began, a sequence that can not possibly make sense in fullscreen.  The sublime scale of these films first sparked my love of cinema as cinema, and whenever I see them again, I get a little twinge of excitement.

Their demise in the early 1970s also represents the growing slobbification of American life.  Don't get me wrong, the greater informality in our social life has mostly been a good thing, and has certainly helped me do a better job of reaching my students.  On the other hand, I find that many aspects of our lives have become so informal as to be degraded.  My dad's father was a humble man who drove a truck and pumped gas for a living, but always dressed well in his off hours.  Now we live in a world where people go out in public, even at places like weddings, funerals, school, and airports, looking like absolute slobs.  No occasion is safe from cell phones, even the most grave.  (I was at a funeral of a loved one last year and could not believe the guy wearing a wrinkled, untucked golf shirt and sporting three days worth of unshaved stubble.)

Going to the movies might be the most debased social activity of them all.  As a very young child there were two movie theaters in my hometown, both located downtown and built many decades before.  They had gorgeous shining marquees, big balconies, and the feel of grandeur about them.  There were ushers to roust the idiots talking through the movie, and general sense that you were doing something special.  At the age of 7, a multiplex moved in next to the mall, and things changed.  The multiplex was clean, new, shiny and entirely without character, perfectly suited for the vapid 1980s.  (I saw a LOT of movies there but I have zero sentimental attachment to it, while every time I drive past the office building that The Strand became, I get wistful.)  Both old theaters soon closed (though one has thankfully reopened.)  In the decades that followed, multiplexes went from being inoffensively sterile to openly awful.  I don't know how many times I've had to watch a scratched print, endure a half hour of commercials, watch a film shown in the wrong aspect ratio or with the bulb on the projector turned down too low, had to go to the lobby to get someone to focus the projector, or endure loud obnoxious assholes free to carry on without anyone to shut them up.  The multiplex near my wife's house has even stopped updating its marquee, which now sports a message telling you to look up what's showing online.  Movie-going, like flying, has been made awful so that big conglomerates can wring every last dollar out of their customers.

Some days I dream of going to an old theater to see frivolous eye-candy epic like Cleopatra, sitting with anticipation in a mohair-covered seat during the overture, then drinking it in for four hours, transported into another world.  The march of time is fine, but sometimes good things get lost in the process.  Tonight I might sit down and watch something cheesy and roadshowy like The Robe, just to catch a glimpse of a lost world.

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