Classical Notes
title - Movie Theatre Critic - Some Shots in the Dark

Everyone's a movie critic. It's the great American pastime. We all emerge from the wondrous darkness shaking our heads over the moguls' folly. If only they had called us for a final rewrite.

I'm different, though. Movies are fine. It's the theatres that upset me.

In a bygone era, the great movie palaces beckoned with neon, dazzled with splendor and triggered our dreams. (For a nearby remnant, try the Byrd in Richmond – if the costumed concession sellers, gilded decor or thousands of colored lights don't get you, the organ rising out of the stage surely will.) Nowadays, you stand in long lines before a nondescript entrance, get bombarded with ads and barely escape one step ahead of the cleaning crew.

Considering the going rate for sports, concerts and other live entertainment, movies still are a fine bargain. They remain the height of mass entertainment, attracting the greatest stories, stars and budgets. They buffet our emotions, mold our outlook and leave us enthralled. But to do so, they deserve suitable presentation.

As a film collector who's run thousands of prints through dozens of projectors, I'm sensitive to the limits of movie technology. But I also appreciate its capabilities. In our era of living room theatres, DVDs that cost less than two admission tickets and the promise of high-definition TV, movie theatres need to provide an experience that rises above the competition – and I know they can.

My ideal show would have convenient parking; minimal box office lines; a dark theatre; comfortable seats with good sight lines; a large evenly-lit screen; a sharp, steady picture; rich, strong sound; and a only few brief pertinent trailers. But this isn't the Land of Oz. Here on Planet Earth area is rented by the square foot, previews aren't selected by curators but dictated by distribution contracts and a single projectionist can't properly guide a dozen shows at once.

Like celluloid heroes, we all gotta follow our dreams. And so, in the Spring of 2001 I pursued mine and compared a decidedly unscientific sample of local screens to my cinematic ideal. “Local” for me is Bethesda, Maryland, so if you live elsewhere you'll undoubtedly have a different sense of convenient location. But most likely your situation is strikingly similar. I'll offer no comment concerning so-called movie “refreshments” – since those horror stories a few years ago about the heart-stopping sludge used to pop theatre corn, I've resisted them quite well. One recent trend is encouraging, though - the increasingly common practice of starting the grueling ordeal of promos, ads and coming attractions well before the appointed hour and turning down the house lights only once the feature begins.

Here's what I found. Like any good movie plot, let's start in the dumps and build toward the climax. I must warn you, though – there's a tragic ending.

United Artists Bethesda [our nearby office-building multiplex] – Many like to view life through rose-colored spectacles. Here, you can't avoid viewing movies that way, thanks to exit lights that bathe the screen in a red glow. Indeed they're more intense than anything projected; seeing a movie here is somewhat like trying to watch the road through oncoming headlights. The picture didn't fill the screen, misadjusted masks leaving blurry borders on top and each side. In bright scenes, the picture flickered noticeably, something shiny behind the translucent screen produced annoying reflections and projector clatter overwhelmed quiet passages. The cleaning crew barged in the moment the credits rolled. Location, location and location – the only reasons I ever go here.

Cineplex Odeon Uptown [the large urban holdover] – To most area film buffs it's heresy to even suggest such a thing, but the Uptown has two serious design flaws. True, it's attractive in red velvet, the comfortable seating all faces the screen, and both picture and sound are superb. Yet, the auditorium and lobby doors are aligned so that blindingly bright light from the street (and anything reflective passing by) spills onto the screen and spoils the mood every time a patron enters or leaves for the call of refreshment or nature. This would be so easy to fix with a simple baffle, but every time I've urged this through the years, management politely thanks me for my interest and occasionally sends a free ticket but the problem persists. Second, the screen is much too deeply curved; while the peripheral vision from its sheer size is hugely involving toward the front half of the house, horizontals bend into a "U" and pans become nauseatingly distorted. (The effect is diminished in the balcony, but so is the visceral excitement.)

Cineplex Odeon Cinema [the underground box] – Another of the nearly-extinct species of single-screen theatres, the Cinema solved the urban space problem by burrowing down twenty feet. Forget about atmosphere - this is a cavernous underground box with plain walls, concrete floors and minimal décor. But it's efficient and comfort is compromised only by hard plastic armrests. The only technical glitch was one overloud trailer and lights being left up during the first minute of the feature. Had my show been better attended, the single, sluggish ticket seller would have been even more frustrating.

Regal Cinema Rockville Town Center [the new suburban multiplex] – It's rare to find a consensus opinion on anything in Washington, but ask any moviegoer in the Dupont-to-Gaithersburg corridor for their favorite theatre, and this is it. The Rockville has a lot going for it - an easy walk from Metro, a short hop from I-270, lots of parking, nestled in an attractive suburban government/retail area surrounded by decent eateries, a dramatic descent by escalator to roomy auditoria with stadium seating. It may not have much personality, but it's a convenient, functional and reliable way to see a movie.

Mazza Cinema Club [our shopping center multiplex] – If you're the type who likes to pay extra to fly first class, this club's for you. Like the privileged space on an airplane, you'll get wide leather seats, broad armrests, extra legroom, upscale food and mixed drinks, all in a smaller cabin (120 seats) than the other 5 auditoria on the top floor of the Mazza Galleria in Friendship Heights. But the extra tariff ($3 above the standard $9.75, already the area's highest) doesn't entitle you to smoother skies than the peasants next door. The picture had a hot spot in the center. The sound had a pronounced ringing mid-range and was painfully loud for two of the five trailers. While I thought the seats were wonderful, my 5-foot mother was uncomfortable and reported only a 2-stall women's bathroom. As we left our privileged sanctum to rejoin the teeming masses, the spell was abruptly broken by an usher having a very loud and provocative argument with an elderly patron, a harsh reminder that first class doesn't always mean classy.

Muvico Egyptian – With the profusion of local screens, it seems crazy to drive nearly to Baltimore just to catch a flick. But the ads claimed this newcomer to be “The World's Premium Movie Experience,” so I just had to check it out. The first impression is a punch line to some joke about what you get when you mix Hollywood and Vegas - everything is outlandish in size and exotic in decor, from the colossal entrance and faux columns to the friezes over the concession counter; the theme even extends to the tiling in the vast immaculate bathrooms. The screen was huge, the sound fine and the reclining seats luxuriant. There's even valet parking and a kid's playground (not to mention a sprawling mall, brought to you by the same folks as Potomac Mills). The only annoyance was a 15 minute wait to leave the parking lot, suitably vast but with only a single exit lane. Want to know what I really remember, though? As we left the auditorium, a uniformed employee personally thanked each of us for coming and hoped we'd return. Even if his ulterior motive was to keep us from sneaking into another show, I was impressed. Glitz and all, Muvico is a class act and its sheer scale is a much-needed reminder nowadays that the movies were meant to be larger than real life.


2001 brought a rough spring for DC movie buffs – just as our cherry blossoms heralded the renewal of life, two prime movie houses were suddenly gone in as many weeks. Like the unexpected death of any other healthy, vibrant friend, notice of their demise was a cruel and sudden shock.

The Avalon – The full legal name of the first decedent was the Cineplex Odeon Avalon, but to its legions of loyal fans it was just the Avalon, a neighborhood asset rather than an entry on a consolidated balance sheet which needed to be erased before becoming a liability. Nearly 80 years old, the Avalon had become the matriarch of DC movie-going, its roots extending deep into the silent era. True, the lumpy old seats were brutally uncomfortable, the broad center aisle wasted the best viewing position and the single ticket-seller was annoyingly slow; but, as in any funeral eulegy, such flaws are readily overlooked. And, like at any wake, it's not only appropriate to recall fondly the decedent's virtues (here, superb picture and sound) but to summon a personal remembrance as well. When I saw Schindler's List on opening weekend at the Avalon, heads were bowed, lips moved and many wept along with the kaddish. It wasn't just a movie, but a moving spiritual experience – and a deeply communal one which could never have occurred in the bowels of a sterile multiplex. And the dearly departed had a sense of humor – where else could you find a whimsical Sistine-style painting on the ceiling that riffed on the Almighty bequeathing Adam a reel of film?

Bethesda Cinema Drafthouse – This, too, was a venerable venue. But rather than aging gracefully and nervously awaiting its fate, the Bethesda leapt boldly forward into the future. The usual auditorium seating was replaced with an array of tables and comfy chairs, friendly wait staff served real food, and each show began with a great old cornball animation clip (“Let's all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat – if you were a real fan you knew all the words.) Everyone had a personal sweet spot; mine was in the swivel chairs in front of the closest riser to the screen, a nearly-private space awash in the imposing picture and commanding sound. During its last two decades, the Drafthouse was different, but lots of fun. It succeeded where so many other theatres failed, treading the perilous line between attempting to enhance the traditional movie experience without ultimately cheapening and degrading it. Ironically, the Drafthouse restored much of the spirit of movie-going that drab conventional theatres had lost and that all but a few of the newcomers never even attempted to capture.

In many ways, the death of the Avalon and the Drafthouse marked the passing of an era. Those of us who remember the wonderful old theatres of our increasingly distant youth are doomed to mourn their passing. It wasn't just the movies that were gateways to fantasy – the venues themselves paved the way to our escape. Times change, of course, and we can't have our single-screen palaces back, or even the original Circle, Biograph or MacArthur, favorite local movie houses which met their demise in the past decade. But we still need to see movies as their makers intended. So leave your videos and go find your own cozy spot in the dark where celluloid fantasies can sweep you away. And if there's a lesson to be learned from the sudden demise of the Avalon and Bethesda, do it soon!

Peter Gutmann

(My quest for a decent movie theatre continued in downtown Washington, DC - please click here
And for those who must have happy endings, please click here.)

Copyright 2001 by Peter Gutmann

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