An Essay by Dr. Daniel
This past weekend, I sat in a crowd of adults and children, and found myself completely enthralled by The Wizard of Oz. In case you've been under a mossy rock for the past month or so, Dorothy and her runnin' buddies have been digitally dusted off, and are back in theatres. And, allow me to be the first to say that they look and sound better than ever.
About midway through the film, though, in that lull right before "If I Were King Of The Forest," I overheard some dolt sitting about two rows behind me yap, "I can't believe I paid twenty bucks to bring y'all to see this when we have this stupid thing on tape at home." Those words haunted me for the rest of the weekend. Here this guy was, with his wife and two kids beside him, and he feels the need to downtalk the Number Six American Movie of all time, not 'cause it was poorly made, or 'cause it has crappy music, but 'cause he owns it on videotape.
People, if you're any sort of film fan, you should be rejoicing in this resurgence of bringing classic films back to theatres. I know, I know, the argument is plain that the studios are only doing it for money, and, to a certain extent, I can buy that. But, in all honesty, you should be taking full advantage of an opportunity that may never occur again.
Look, I know you own The Wizard of Oz on tape. Any movie fanatic would. But how long has it been since you saw it in a dark theatre, inhaling the aroma of butter and popcorn, the light flickering from over your shoulder in that dusty beam? How long has it been since you saw three hundred people grinning and singing as Ray, Jack Haley and Bert sing laments to their brains, heart and courage? How long has it been since you were a kid?
Folks, there's an entire generation of people that only know The Wizard of Oz from a small screen in their living rooms, interspersed with commercials for Dolly Madison and Frosted Flakes. If this is not a tragedy, it is at least a sad commentary on a new generation of film fanatics. Oz was meant to be seen in a theatre, as were Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane, two other films recently re-released in theatrical form. They were never meant to be watched on a screen measured in inches, chopped up for trips to the fridge and potty breaks. These movies were made when moviegoing was an experience, not a convenience.
I've heard all the arguments against these re-releases. They're only for profit, they are taking space that could be used for new movies, and they're only for old folks, la la la. These arguments are a steamin' hot crock of bull puckey. Arguing that old movies should be seen only on video is like saying John Glenn shoulda stayed at home in his rocker, instead of kickin' it in space last week. Them's fightin' words.
I'm not gonna sit here and argue that every movie deserves re-releasing, and I would never be so stupid. (Lord help us when Flashdance returns to the circuit.) I'm sure if you're honest with yourself there's at least one film that made an impact on your life. And I would bet cash that you saw that film in a theatre. That's the atmosphere that film thrives in.
Think of the power that The Godfather still has on film fans. Can you imagine how it felt to see that film for the first time on a huge screen, surrounded by others who were just as mesmerized? Can you remember seeing Star Wars onscreen for the first time, with that huge ship moving past the screen, soaring fully formed from George Lucas' oversized cranium? If An Affair to Remember still makes you all sniffly when you watch it on tape, can you picture how it made people weep holy water when they were all huddled in a darkened theatre, staring up at Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, as Cary discovered Deborah's secret? Are you old enough to remember that Psycho almost singlehandedly destroyed the shower curtain industry?
Think for a minute about the greatest films you ever saw. Gregory Peck, flexing his jaw as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Bogart and Bergman at that foggy airport in Casablanca. Hepburn and Tracy squaring off in court in Adam's Rib. Mickey Mouse directing a symphony of cascading water and broomsticks in Fantasia. James Stewart and Claude Rains, face to face, battling for truth in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. James Dean and Natalie Wood, lying by an empty swimming pool, looking up at the stars in Rebel Without a Cause. George C. Scott, all macho in front of that huge American flag at the opening of Patton. Nicholson doing play-by-play for an invisible World Series game in Cuckoo's Nest.
None of these films debuted on video. Millions experienced them as shadows on a wall, light flickering on a screen.
There are films that do, indeed, deserve to be re-released, to shine in the glory one more time. The Big Chill was just released again, to capture another group of friends whose lives were entwined with one another and still are. I would love to see the subversive humor of John Belushi one last time in National Lampoon's Animal House on the big screen. I would like to see the chariot race from Ben-Hur onscreen again, in full 70-mm splendor. I'd like to see City Lights on screen, with the original score by Chaplin played live by an accompanist. I would definitely go see Planet of the Apes again in a theatre, if only to hear Heston's scream at the end as he sees that monument on the beach. And, yes, friends, I would jump at the chance to see Elizabeth Taylor, violet-eyed and full of fire, onscreen again as Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
A few years ago, there were still souls brave enough to own theatres known as "revival houses," that played nothing but these classic films. Sadly, though, the utter greed of theatre chains like AMC, Carmike, and Regal have forced most of these bastions of fanatics like me to close their doors. I've often pondered the possibility of buying one of these old theatres and reopening it as a revival house, putting up new neon and marquee lights, showing double features every night, and a Western serial on Saturday mornings with the monster movie. My fear, though, is that, like so many others, it would last a while, and close. Shutting down a house like that because nobody would come would be like shutting down a part of my heart, and I couldn't do that.
So, for now, I'll gladly accept these re-releases as they come, and, hopefully, as the millenium approaches, and we enter a new era in history, more people will realize what we once had, and the power of seeing cinema classics in their original habitat. Not in a living room, but in a theatre, one full of aromas and atmosphere and history.