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Big Screens, Small Minds

“There’s more to theater than the smell of popcorn: Unplug the VCR and go to the movies, director recommends.”

That word of advice was offered as a headline on a press release sent out this week by United States International University. The release itself contained the highlights of an interview with Jack Tygett, director and choreographer in charge of musical productions at USIU.

I’m not sure why the university’s public affairs people felt Tygett’s views on this issue are newsworthy. Consulting a choreographer about where to watch a movie makes as much sense as consulting an astrologer about running a country. But as a film buff who is finding it easier and easier to wait for movies to open at the video store nearest me, I couldn’t resist hearing him out.

“Reactions and experiences are heightened by the responses of others,” Tygett said. “It’s true that laughter breeds laughter. It’s infectious.”

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Tygett went on to explain that comedies are actually funnier when you’re able to share the mirth with strangers. Likewise, suspense is heightened by the sudden silence that falls over a beguiled audience. At home, Tygett said, it’s invariably at the point when the killer is stalking his prey that Junior walks in and says, “Where are the potato chips?”

His other arguments against home viewing included the dreadful downsizing of big-screen images, the light and noise distractions from opening refrigerators and bawling babies, and the temptation by some family members to play grab and giggle with the remote control.

In reading the release, I couldn’t help wondering whether Jack Tygett actually goes to movies. And, if so, does the monastery where he goes for these experiences admit journalists?

Sure, it’s better to watch a movie in a theater with a clear image on a big screen and with people who are of this Earth. But we’re talking about human behavior that has been gone from the American scene since the Eisenhower Administration, since television sets first flowered in living rooms and dens throughout the land, teaching one generation after another how to talk, burp and be entertained at the same time.

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As far as I can tell, most people go to movies these days not to share an experience, but to create one. They go there to talk, of course, but also to eat, to drink and to kick the back of my seat. They go to pour Coke on the floor and breathe their popcorn breath on me. Many of them apparently go there because there is no wrestling on that night.

Twice in the last month, I was invited to attend preview screenings of “Young Guns” and “Married to the Mob.” The screenings were both arranged by radio stations, which, in cahoots with local studio reps, gave away tickets as on-air promotions. In other words, the people I was sitting with were there because they were the third, seventh or 32nd person to call in. They could have been giving away one-way bus tickets to El Centro and the callers would still be yelling, “Oh, my god, I won!”

Before each of these previews, by the way, audiences were encouraged to beg for free T-shirts by screaming out their allegiance to the host station. The shirts were then flung into the crowd, like panties at a smoker, and, in the midst of the feeding frenzy, the hosts told the crowd to enjoy the movie and flicked out the lights.

If you’ve ever tried to get your kids out of a tree house to take a nap, you know how quickly the audience calmed down.

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Paying spectators obviously make for a better-behaved audience than winners of a rock station promotion, but it’s a matter of degrees. There is something inherently rowdy about moviegoing these days. The same people who at a play or a ballet would saw their legs off before kicking the seat in front of them will knock the tartar off your teeth at the Center Cinemas.

Film making and filmgoing just never seem to get it together. For the last 10 years, the era of “Star Wars” and “Porky’s,” movies haven’t been worth seeing--in a monastery with well-beha1986356256finger-snapping primates. Therefore, the Video Revolution.

Adult moviegoers gave up on movies for several reasons in the late ‘70s. Because Hollywood was convinced that only teen-agers went to movies, it made movies only teen-agers could stand. Any film that had something in it for adults was quickly labeled an “art house” picture and shipped to theaters that were on the brink of bankruptcy.

The chain theaters were multiplexes, old roller skating rinks and lava lamp showrooms that had been divided up into three, four or six rectangular boxes, with walls made out of rice paper and Elmer’s glue. The screens were slightly larger than passport photos, and the sound resembled

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that of drowning swimmers. (Especially when you were watching “Freebie and the Bean” in one theater and “Earthquake” was in Theater 2.)

The prices were up--of concessions as well as tickets--and quality was down--of theaters as well as movies.

With all that, the VCR was as welcome as a winning lottery number. A few good movies did slip past the Moron Patrol in Hollywood each year, then made their way to video six months later. As VCR sales increased, more and more old movies were transferred to tape and placed in inventory at the video stores, giving us the choice of “sharing” the comedy of “Police Academy VI” in a theater, or hoarding that of “Some Like It Hot” at home.

Finally, refinements in home video systems have simply made it possible to get better sound in your living room than you can in many theaters, along with a picture that, while limited in scope, is at least in focus.

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But good news is on the way. It was television that forced the American studios to create all those wonderful wide-screen epics of the 1950s. It is the threat of the VCR now that is forcing them to make movies for people other than teen-agers. This year has seen a boom in adult- and family-theme films, and a dramatic decrease in the action adventures, science-fiction and slob comedies that have been the diet of moviegoing kids for the past decade.

The theaters, in fairness, are getting better, too. The multiplexes are here to stay, but the new ones going up are at least being engineered for quality sound and projection.

Still, until they figure out how to improve audience behavior, I’ll do most of my moviegoing at home. Anybody who touches the remote control does it at his own risk.


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