The Moviegoers

The pictures may be talking, but they're not speaking our language

A few weeks ago, I went to the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis. There wasn't a soul behind the counter, so I waited. After a couple of minutes, the manager came bounding down the stairs, apologized for having to do double-duty as both ticket-seller and projectionist, and took my money.

Before heading in, I reveled in the wear-and-tear of the old theater--the frayed carpet curling over the stairs, a bombed-out urinal in the bathroom--and overheard the manager talking to a couple of his neighbors about the prospects for survival in the age of home entertainment and the multiplex. The feature this night was The Story of the Weeping Camel. It's a beautiful fairytale/documentary about a Mongolian family's love for a strong, stubborn camel that rejects motherhood. It is an exquisitely quiet film, slow like a back scratch, and wonderfully, poetically un-American. I won't spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say it is one of the most poignant testimonies to the power of love, myth, and music I've seen.

Halfway through the film came a little epiphany--the sort of thing I'm far more drawn to these days, at a time when everyone from the president to the artisan has the Big Answer. As the camel gazed off into the horizon, her lot in life sealed and everyone around her wanting her to be something she's not, the screen burst with a splatter of fried celluloid. One frame bled into another, and then the screen went brilliant white. After that, the only sound was the film snapping off its reel and flapping forlornly in the projectionist's booth.

As the lights came up, a disappointed murmur rose up from the audience, followed by a hush that seemed to pay homage to the film's molasses pace. It was almost as if everyone had decided at the same time to enjoy this digital-free moment of perfect imperfection. And so there we were, on the trapeze together, teetering between what happens next and an early exit. After a few minutes, the lights went down and we got our magical ending, thanks to a quick splice from the movie lover above.

Just to make sure I wasn't romanticizing it all, a few days later I spent 11 hours at the local cineplex. I wanted to see what the great minds of Hollywood were peddling to me and my fellow Americans, and I wanted to see if I could experience a single moment that came close to making me feel as warm as did my spontaneously burning camel.

I saw buildings blowing up, video games disguised as movies, people blowing up, murder victims in bloody bathtubs, cars blowing up, people yelling at each other. I saw a preview for a bloody Crusades epic called Kingdom of Heaven, which didn't make me want to see the movie so much as get out my single "Bomb Iran" (sung to the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann"; Vince Vance and the Valiants, 1980).

I saw formulaic romantic comedies, dramas, musicals. I saw mediocrity, misogyny, marketing. I saw boatloads of Botox. I saw previews for the surely obnoxious Robots the Movie, and the possibly genius The Weatherman. I saw the overexposed Will Smith, the overworked Robert De Niro, and the understated Julia Roberts. I saw a barrage of youth-worshipping pre-feature commercials tell a dozen or so blue hairs in the audience at the one o'clock matinee of Phantom of the Opera: "Start having a great life. Start living with inspiration. Don't take it for granted, man. Sometimes you need to shake things up to really live. Break free."

That was as close to mini-miracle territory as it got. Walking out to the parking lot at midnight, hung over from a marathon that ended with the rich but pat dialogue of Closer, I started to worry that it was all my fault. I mean, how could an average cultural consumer spend an entire day and night at the movies and not get the gimme-epiphany; the instant payoff he'd paid for? I wrote down a bunch of snarky notes and turned them in as a column the next day, and my editor returned it to me with the equivalent of a note in big red ink: Says Nothing.

I took a couple of days off. I got some sleep, some exercise, had a couple of warm meals. Then, it came to me. I remembered how I felt sitting slumped in my seat at the end of In Good Company, a semisweet story about love and corporate America. What was that song? How did it go? I remembered how I had been pinned to the stadium-seat cushion by a melody that came up softly and played over the closing credits.

It was the sound of real ache, someone who'd been through a wringer that made him feint, spiral, and whisper. Something about it made me feel hapless and hopeful at the same time, and made me want to gather it in my arms and take it home. As the rest of the moviegoers filed out, I waited to see what I was hearing: "The Trapeze Swinger," by Iron and Wine.

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