Dollar Tuesdays: The Reset Button

As per most customer-centric jobs, there stands a gallery of “usual” questions we get asked over and over again at the Dollar Theater. Half price Tuesdays, without fail, increase the frequency at which us lowly box office workers have to field these mind-numbing inquiries.

“Where are your movie times listed?” Honestly, have you ever been to a theatre that didn’t post its times somewhere on the front of the building?

“How much are your dollar hot dogs?” If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

“What’s Inception about?” Worst. Question. Ever.

“Is [insert movie title here] ok for my kids to watch?” The MPAA isn’t a government agency. It’s ok-ish to trust them. If anything, they scrutinize movies too much. Why? To avoid angry calls from the same people who gripe at me for advocating that their ten-year-old see Hall Pass. That’s the film’s target market, right? I practically came out of the womb quoting Glengarry Glen Ross, so North on my moral compass is probably due South to most.

And the number one, queen mother, F dash-dash-dash most-asked question on dollar Tuesdays:

“Can you rewind the movie for me?”

Workplace edict requires I respond with a polite, “No sir/ma’am, that’s not possible,” and then stand idly by as they swear at me in front of the very kids they didn’t want going to see Adjustment Bureau because it’s PG-13 for language.

But the Internet is a marketplace of ideas. And the writing space afforded me in the blogosphere is just long enough (800 words or less, right?) for me to fully disclose why we can’t rewind the movie.

For starters, there is no rewind button. We are not a digital theater. Your ticket is one dollar. In a good round, we get maybe 400 people, and that only happens two days a week. On James Cameron’s naughty/nice list prioritizing who will get digital projectors and when, we’re just behind the Dino Theatre at the Muskogee Natural History Museum. You know, the one using CG that was cutting edge in 1983 to show meteors pelting the earth and killing pixilated blobs that are supposed to be dinosaurs. Or maybe you don’t know because nobody ever watches it.

Oh, and Muskogee has a population of 12.

Our film doesn’t come on hard drives. It comes on reels, about five or six depending on the movie’s length. Come Wednesday, these reels are carted up to our projection booths where a dazzling array of hooks, clamps, gears, sensors, and lenses, all fueled by a Xenon bulb, await their dispersal. It’s a system akin to Ideal Game’s Mouse Trap, only breaking the bulb is nowhere near as fun as triggering the cage – Xenon can do some funky things to the human condition.

I like to think that the projector system and the Hollywood studio system are one and the same. The so-called “brains,” which spin the platters holding the film, are the movie studios. Their swinging arm holds the sensor that tells the platters to spin and allows the film to play. No brains, no movie. Yes, the irony of this comparison is plain to me, but for every GI Joe 2 announcement, there’s a Dark Knight Rises news blurb to counter. So just roll with it.

The platters themselves are essentially the studios’ lots. They are where the movies are made. If a movie turns out to be a lemon, chances are some slice of a studio lot saw the turd crowning. Same goes with the platters – if there’s a problem in the projection booth, nine times out of ten the mistake will be somewhere on the platter.

When the film has been loaded lovingly atop the platter, it’s time for the projectionist, the hero of our story, to thread it. Threading is execution. It’s where the connection between gathered information (the dormant film) and displayed information (film passing over the bulb’s light) is made. Much like a director taking words from a script page and inventing what will become a picture show. It’s also execution in the sense that the director, just like the projectionist, will be professionally dead should the film fail to play.

And finally, my personal favorite, the projector head as the three-act structure of a screenplay. Act I: the film sensor. As screenplay Jesus Syd Field preaches, story hooks need to be placed early in movies to draw audiences in. This hook is usually what the trailers will focus on. Source Code: this is not his body. Unknown: they stole his life. And so on. If the hook isn’t tight, just like the film around the sensor, the cogs won’t turn and nobody will see the movie.

Act II: the sound drum. At this point inside the projector head, the film is having to overcome all sorts of twists and turns, bumps and bruises, clips and friction to continue on its journey. The middle fifty pages of a screenplay (aka, the desert) apply the same injuries to the protagonists within. It’s like totally the journey, man.

Act III is the film’s resolution. Except instead of crossing some sort of finish line, it crosses the bulb and exits the projector head. I guess that exit could somehow be the denouement, but I’m tired of running this parallel and you get the gist by now.

All that to say this: would you ask Frodo to start back over at the Shire after he reaches the Inn of the Prancing Pony because little Tommy’s karate ran long? Would you ask Indy to go back on the circus train after breaking into the Nazi castle to rescue Attila the Professor because all but one member of the opposing team quit in a Halo slayer game, and it took 20 minutes to finish?

No, I can’t rewind your gorram movie! It’s not a DVD. It’s not TiVo. It’s miles of film moving at 24 frames per second, always teetering on the brink, and it’s my neck if it doesn’t work. It’s disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.

So please, just go sit down. Movies nowadays recap what’s happened every ten minutes anyway. And maybe, if you’re feeling festive after the credits roll, thank your projectionist for guiding the movie through to you unharmed. It’ll make his or her day.


Casting Update: Half-Life: The Movie

Back in January, threeandahalfthumbs was first to report that comedian Louis C.K. had signed on to play crowbar-wielding theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman in Warner Brothers upcoming adaptation of the popular video game series Half-Life.

Four scripts and two directors later, Producer Michael Bay is only too happy to shine the spotlight back upon what he is calling a “cast for the ages.”

“We’ve just signed Rosie O’Donnell,” Bay said, outside the New York premier of Transformers 4: No Fear In Fourth Gear. “She’s Lamarr, Gordon’s sarcastic pet headcrab. She’s kind of a Robin to Gordon’s Batman. Their relationship really gives the film its narrative thrust.”

When asked if O’Donnell would be suiting up as the mutated pest or simply voicing it, Bay responded, “You’ll have to wait and see.”

Oscar Picks

Best Picture

This is a two horse race. My gut feeling is that Social Network will walk away a winner simply because of its modernity. The Academy likes to throw its voting muscle behind films that are in keeping with the time’s rustic aesthetic, à la environmentalism (Happy Feet over the Incredibles? In no universe will that ever be kosher) and gay rights (Sean Penn is a force in Milk, but Mickey Rourke revived a long-dead career with one of the best performances of the decade in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.) That’s not to say Social Network shouldn’t win. In fact, my heart and head both agree that it should. It’s just The King’s Speech is so damn good, and its themes are perhaps even more appropriate today than pre-World War II Europe.

PS- If Toy Story 3 wins due to some fluky voting schism between Social Network and King’s Speech, it’s a victory for everyone’s inner child.

Leading Actor

In a year where almost every category could go one of two ways, this might be the easiest call of the night. Colin Firth is now a two-time nominee, having previously been given a nod for his work in A Single Man. His role is smack dab in the middle of a phenomenal film that has the rare quality of being both a critical home run and a hit with audiences. He has picked up every major award on the circuit leading up to Oscar night. Mark this as a sure thing.

Leading Actress

Not as much of a sure bet as Firth, but Natalie Portman has also won every major award leading up to the Academy Awards, she is also a previous nominee for her supporting work in Closer, and it seems nothing can stand in her way, right? The one person who could spur an upset is Annette Bening. I have no direct evidence to support this, it’s just a gut feeling. Bening has been nominated four times now, not a single win to her credit. Sometimes the Academy does funny things when they believe it’s someone’s ‘time’ to win. Fair? No. But hey, it’s Hollywood.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Is he going to walk around and rip their bleeping lights down? It’d sure make for one hell of an acceptance speech. Bale wins here, uncontested.

Ohhhhh, gooooood for him!

Actress in a Supporting Role

Here’s a toughie. If you’re playing in an office pool, take Melissa Leo. Her role in The Fighter has everything the Academy traditionally rewards with a little golden man- she’s not pretty, she’s not nice, and she steals scenes (from a meth-head Christian Bale, no less). That’s what my head says anyway. My heart is one hundred percent for Hailee Steinfeld. But hey, I’m a sucker for westerns and those crazy awesome Coen Brothers. This is a particularly challenging pick because True Grit was left out in the cold at the Golden Globes, so there’s no real barometer to help measure how people are leaning in this category.

Oh well, Steinfeld 2011! Fill her hands, Academy!


Again, this is a tight race. At the start of Award season, the general buzz was that Social Network would destroy all on-comers like Sauron meléeing the free armies of Middle Earth into oblivion. But it seems Tom Hooper has taken on the role of Isildur, cutting the Ring of Power from David Fincher’s phenomenally steady hands. I’m sticking with Fincher, though. His final product is a masterpiece, he’s a respected filmmaker, and he’s now a two-time nominee. Again, it feels like his ‘time.’

The Screenplay Things

Film might be a director’s medium, but the writers are just as important and well-known.

What’s-his-face is almost assured an Oscar with Social Network (the dialogue in the opening scene alone! God it’s good!). But those other guys? You know, the brothers? Yeah, the Academy likes them a lot, so True Grit has the distinct air of possibility surrounding it. I’d stick with the former, though.

And as for original screenplay, The King’s Speech guy should rock and roll here. If there is a dark horse, it’s the guy and that girl who slapped The Kids Are All Right together. And just so we all remember, it took whosie-whatsit, that Dark Knight guy, ten years to get Inception straight in his mind. That bears some recognition as far as I’m concerned.

Chinese and Oscar Night! That’s what Oklahoma does!

By The Power of Grayskull.

During a press junket for How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, Simon Pegg spoke about a moment in E.T. when a child dressed up as Yoda comes onscreen, and John William’s score briefly hints at themes from Empire. This was his light bulb moment. A moment wherein he first grasped one of a million possible reasons why movie-watching is so fun: references.

They’re usually not explained or pointed out in any dramatic fashion, but when you see them they are as obvious as Beatrix Kiddo sitting in a fourth grade classroom during roll call. It feels satisfying when you, as a viewer, both see a reference and diagnose it as such. Like you’ve cracked a secret code with a decoder pin or found the film’s Rosetta Stone, and can now key in to a meaning hidden deep within the confines of the movie’s own unique language.

References are powerful tools because what’s seen onscreen is not the whole of what’s intended. The filmmaker trusts his or her audience to supply the missing piece, and then ask the most important question in any film analyzer’s toolbox: why? Why reference The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, QT? Why reference Star Wars, E.T.? Why reference Last Crusade, Dogma?

Sometimes references are simply in jest, comedy for comedy’s sake. Sometimes they are steeped in sarcasm, or are in simple homage to a film the director may have grown up loving. But some (my favorite) suggest a theme that unites films that may otherwise be separated by time, by genre, or by everything else.

Such is the case with The Right Stuff and Ocean’s 11.

Preceding the dénouement in Ocean’s, the rag tag group of thieving misfits, having just pulled off the perfect heist involving three casino’s, a pair of drained batteries, and (gag) Julia Roberts, stand around the Fountains of Bellagio reflecting on the night’s frivolities as the Claire de Lune plays them off-screen one by one. It’s a touching scene that holds a ride-off-into-the-sunset level of romanticism. But what were the character’s thinking about? Were they mentally toasting they’re success in the desert? Was it simply a curtain call, each player bowing out to the audience one at a time? Was it E. All of the above?

My perception of that scene changed dramatically after watching Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff.

A very similar scene takes place at a very similar point in the script. Our seven astronaut heroes, all but one having made successful ventures into space and back, are guests of honor at a grandiose BBQ hosted by their boss, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, in Houston, Texas. He takes the stage to introduce the evening’s main attraction: the lovely Sally Rand, a dancer duel wielding feather fans that cover her almost head to toe, which is convenient as her outfit reveals about the same.

As Ms. Rand begins her routine, intoxicating the crowd, the Claire de Lune fades up on the soundtrack. The pilots, each in turn, look to one another in a state of what seems to be embarrassment – the “what the hell are we doing here” kind.

At this point, Kaufman begins juxtaposing the event in Houston with test pilot Chuck Yeager  pushing for yet another air speed record. A record that the American public cares little about now that the space race is in full swing.

As Yeager climbs higher and higher, vying to get a look at the demon once thought to be hiding behind mock one, the looks exchanged by the seven men in Houston evolve, moving from embarrassment of an event that highlights the individual, to pride in a courage that has united them – that has made them brothers. They are linked by an unspoken and uncommon bond. That same bond is what Kaufman suggests by splicing in images of Yeager’s harrowing flight. A feeling that even though they are separated by hundreds of miles, the seven can almost feel Yeager chasing that demon, just as they have and just as they will continue to do.

That feeling of brotherhood is what Ocean’s 11 is referencing.

Surrounded by the sparkle and excess of Las Vegas, represented here by a gaudy fountain (in place of a gaudy feather dancer), this crew is united in their chase of the impossible. The true reward laid in the challenge, not the in the reward. And only a team who truly believed such an absurd thing would be capable of pulling off a heist as high risk and “impossible” as Danny’s was.

Look at what happens to the team at the start of Ocean’s 12. The money splits them, it creates a focal point that distracts from their demon, and brings them nothing but suffering. If money was the true reward of Ocean’s 11, the movie could almost be considered a tragedy.

Without “getting” the reference between the two films, I may very well have never given that fountain scene a second though. But the Claire de Lune unites them. The power of a reference is the power of suggestion. It’s the power to suggest a line of thought the viewer may never have otherwise stumbled across.

And that’s worth keeping your decoder ring handy for, even if you end up with an Ovaltine commercial every once and a while.

They’re young. They’re in love. They’re outdated?

Walk down the right back alley in Sin City, and you can find anything. The same can be said of dollar theaters in Oklahoma.

This state seems to possess the requisite power for conjuring new breeds of movie-goers day after day. Some will cruse by the concession stand on their way out, content to express their opinion with a classic thumbs up or thumbs down. Some shake or nod their heads in silent appreciation or disappointment. Some shrug, indicating a mediocre experience. Some talk to their friends or family, defending or attacking opinions that, to eavesdroppers, seem as cheap as the theater’s dollar hot dogs. And some, my favorite, are never at a loss for words, openly editorializing opinions that sometimes astound, usually anger, but always entertain.

This is especially true on Tuesday, my favorite work day – when both customer intellect and ticket prices are slashed in half.

Movies have always brought people together. They have always created a kind of artificial gravity that unite people in conversation – a common denominator as the saying goes. I love Tuesdays because they manage to dredge up the lowest possible common denominator week after week. Remember how long it took Ed Harris to hit deep ocean floor in The Abyss. Yeah, that low. Tuesday’s customers routinely have conversations that divide themselves by zero.

As Jules says to Vincent, example.

Tuesday last, a group of about fifteen sorority girls came in to see Easy A – a great movie. When the show ended, the ladies congregated in a neat little semi-circle around the girls restroom (and, as it happened, a Toy Story 3 poster, which had the rotten luck of being in the high-traffic case framed to face the lobby – that’s what Pixar get for being so damn accessible). The group’s general feeling toward the film was of a positive nature.

And then it happened, as these things usually do on Tuesdays, with a comment. A comment so miserable, so aloof, so inherently stupid that it shouldn’t be labeled a comment at all, as that could imply some semblance of brain function was involved in its creation.

“I don’t think anyone should watch movies that came out more than thirty years ago,” our villainous, Ugg booted sorority girl chirped. “That was before I was even born.”

Yeah, about that.

I’ll just pick a personal favorite, Bonnie And Clyde. Now over forty years old, Arthur Penn’s masterpiece is as socially significant as ever. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were Depression Era rebels that lashed out against a political system much of the citizenry had lost faith in. Confused and angry, destitute Americans turned to a government that, year after year, proved itself incapable of fixing rampant financial problems.

Sound familiar?

The Barrow Gang personified the anger of an era with a very individualistic form of revolt. They were their own revolution on their own terms. Preexisting conditions like “right” and “wrong” didn’t matter to a nation that followed the couple’s every move. The Barrow Gang did something when people were tired of nothing being done.

I’m not a very political guy. Bonnie And Clyde just happens to be a very political movie. My point is this: the age of a movie has absolutely nothing to do with its relevancy today.

Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes.