Supersize Cinema

Ten hours, a half-dozen movies, and one big brainwash at the "stadium seating" gigaplex

So I'm thinking about moving to Hollywood--the "dirty town," as River Phoenix called it. He died there, and I was born there, although the enormous hospital tower where spirit became flesh is now painted a shocking turquoise and has a sign as big as God on top that reads, "SCIENTOLOGY" in electric lights. It's amazing what the insecurity of life in the entertainment industry at the end of the millennium will create. It'll turn the personal and professional neuroses of thousands of remotely intelligent people into cash, and that cash into white neon glowing in the night under a cement-white sky.

But premillennial insecurity doesn't just create big blue cult compounds. It also builds "stadium seating" gigaplexes like the 16-screen Lakeville Theater. (Not Lakeville "Cinema" or "Multiplex": In Lakeville, Minn., circa 1998, "Theater" apparently means just one thing.) Last Friday, at the whim of my sleep-deprived and possibly misanthropic editors, I spent 10 hours inside that outpost of the dirty town--sitting in the dark, picking caramel off my teeth, and consuming six versions of the same movie. It was unreal.

The Lakeville Theater's lobby is a grand, airy creation, with ceilings two stories high and wall-mounted TVs showing what looks like children's cable. It doesn't, however, have the gratuitously gluttonous vibe of Mall of America. Built on something like a human scale, it's reminiscent of a small train station; you buy your ticket, enter the lobby, and wait until the "porters" start seating. And that's appropriate: Moviegoing is Americans' preferred form of travel. And travel, for us, is a form of sleepwalking. We like to see pretty, happy dream-people when we go to Jamaica, and we want the same in our movies.

The rest of the building is closer to a high-school corridor: A long, eggplant-colored hallway runs perpendicular to the lobby, forming a T, with doors every few yards leading to the 16 movie theaters. (Think also of the hall of magic doors in Yellow Submarine, where the Beatles played hide 'n' seek.) The theaters themselves are much larger than I expected, though the stadium seating isn't nearly as impressive or IMAX-like as it sounds. (According to management, the between-row rise is about 12 inches.)

When you attend the first matinee of the day, it feels as if you've sneaked in for a private screening. The place is empty but for three or four apparently unemployed, jolly fellow truants; the carpets are immaculate; the staff is slow and cheerful. Walking the artificially darkened hallways feels like a minor infraction against nature; sitting in the dark is definitely naughty. And when you stay for a second and third (or fourth) movie, you begin to think you run the joint. I started walking that muffled corridor feeling like a happier version of the kid in The Shining. "It's mine, all mine! Those ghost-operated bathroom sinks and scary self-flushing toilets--mine! What's behind this creepy portal? Eek! Max Von Sydow!"

Most of all, though, you feel safe. The interior space is so dim, chunky, and supersized, you could almost believe you're holed up in some bunker. The millennial doomsday the Scientologists predict could be dawning outside and you'd feel just fine. The dark horses of the reign of terror might be galloping by; enemy militia could be rounding up the unbelievers, and interrogators firing up the hot lead enemas. But you'd be secure with a year's supply of popcorn and a selection of movies about the golden days of the late 20th century, when everything was still possible if we only believed.

Pleasantville seemed a suitable way to begin the Lakeville binge, especially since its spiritual mother, The Wizard of Oz, was playing down the hall. But this film is more like a Twilight Zone episode that has metastasized. It uses colorization gimmickry to draw a cute metaphor for the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s: A hotsy-totsy girl from the '90s descends on a black-and-white Beaver-ville, and her ferocious pheromones contaminate everyone. Formerly white kids turn "colored" (thunk!) and start playing Miles Davis on the diner jukebox. Mom masturbates for the first time and the tree out front bursts into flames. One thing leads to another, and suddenly the oppressed and beautiful colored people must make the black-and-whites see the truth: If we can only get in touch with our feelings, starting with lust and anger, we'll see that inside we are all people of color.

Yes, after all these years, black people are still carrying the emotional and spiritual baggage for whites, even when there isn't a black face in the entire cast (or the theater). And it's not just Pleasantville. Cuba Gooding Jr. does it for Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come (though, judging from poor Annabella Sciorra's parade of headgear, What Wigs May Come is more like it). In Living Out Loud, Queen Latifah does the job for Holly Hunter, though her regal stature and quiet centeredness belie any sense of servitude. (Living Out Loud was by far the finest film I saw at Lakeville, by the way.)

Strangely, in one scene of Living Out Loud, I spotted behind Holly Hunter an actress with bizarrely gorgeous gams--who turned out to be one of my best girlfriends from years back. Dear, sweet, intelligent, soulful Paige is trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood. She works at a Gen-X gift store by day and spends a fair amount of time recovering from the deaths by cancer of both her parents. She's too scared at the moment to go on auditions, but got this gig through her sister in order to get her union card. Three days' work for five seconds of film. Sitting alone on the job in Lakeville, I saw my Paige sitting alone at her job in Hollywood, and I wished I could call her down off the screen or step inside with her. But Lakeville isn't Pleasantville.

After a while the plots of all these movies begin to melt and then run together; all of them are superficially similar to Paige's story--that is, if she had the cognitive powers of, say, a retarded child. There was Adam Sandler and Henry Winkler struggling in The Waterboy to overcome self-doubt and vindictive loved ones to win the game. There was Brad Pitt and his awkward screen-girlfriend (Claire Forlani) daring to suck the Golden Bozo of true love in Meet Joe Black. There was Robin Williams soul-hugging his demons in order to create his own paradise--a Maxfield Parrish-world where anything can happen if you endure enough therapy. And, finally, there were the brave folks of Pleasantville, who learn to ball the jack with their own inner Negroes. (The latter two films, by the way, have nearly identical endings, with our couples staring out at a Technicolor world and asking each other, "What happens now?" The audience might wonder the same.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those high-minded cinephiles who thinks sad endings are inherently better than happy ones. Frankly, I'll take an intelligent happy ending any day. (Think of Harold and Maude, for example, whose superficially sad ending screams, "Up with people!") Hell, I'll gladly swallow a dumb happy ending at times (say, The Wedding Singer). But after a 10-hour transfusion of positive messaging for bourgeois white folk, I felt like I'd gotten on the wrong train and been dumped in pre-integration Pleasantville. Instead of inspired, I was troubled.

So many of these movies tie themselves in knots reassuring us that everything's going to be all right if we just ask our hearts--or the black people, or the children, or the talking animals--to show the way. At a certain point, the filmmakers appear to be more interested in convincing themselves of their own moral supremacy than in creating art. And though it sounds like a stretch, I began to feel more than ever that Lakeville Theater does serve as a psychological bunker, even a sort of church, stacked with celluloid sandbags to protect us from the forces of chaos known commonly as real life.

Are we so spiritually burned that we must be reminded constantly of the power of optimism? Probably. Does that mean virtually every movie playing at Lakeville should wave the flag of individualism and personal ambition? Hell, no. First of all, in spite of these films' "apolitical" worldviews (yeah, right), personal ambition isn't the only source of happiness. Affordable rent and dental care alone would do wonders for this writer, and for Paige, too.

But what bothers me more than the subtle anti-political indoctrination of these "You Can Do It" films is the way they circumscribe artists' expression. What if the funders had told Quentin Tarantino he had to make Reservoir Dogs more hopeful? Or forced Ridley Scott to save Thelma and Louise from the cops? Or told Terry Gilliam to give Brazil a happy ending? (In fact, they did--but Gilliam fought back.) Would we be any better off for it?

By the time I left the theater, approaching a state of Gilliamesque delirium, the lobby had gone from ghostly train station to all-ages nightclub, with fleshy packs of kids in colorful parkas playing video games and standing around scattered high tables. For all the Friday-night bonhomie, you'd think they had all just been on a sleigh ride together. My friendly ticket taker and all the other workers had been replaced by the next shift, and I could easily have sneaked into yet another screening room for yet another treatment. But instead I left. (Apologies to my editors.)

The wind outside was wicked, and I shuddered in the car, smoking a jiggling cigarette while the frost melted on the windshield. I thought of that scene in Fargo where William H. Macy is scraping his windshield and cursing. I'll always remember that moment; especially if I move to the dirty town, because it will always symbolize an important part of life here. How many moments like that did I get in Lakeville? Maybe one--but it happened at the gas station, not the theater.

So I sat there in the cold car, giddy from Fargo, from feeling young and alone, from shivering and drinking too much Coke, from laughing at Brad Pitt's terrible "acting," and from seeing Paige on the big screen. But mostly I was goofy with the knowledge that I'd finally gone AWOL from the dreariest war in town. And that, if I hurried, I might even make it back to reality in time for last call.

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