MOVIES : It Came From Under the Seat : How to explain our love-hate relationship with the movies? A few folks who make a living out of being funny take their best shots

Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The news that "Lethal Weapon 3" grossed an astonishing $33 million in its opening weekend no doubt inspired a jealously Pavlovian response among many moviegoers: America loves it! Darling, we simply must go out and be counted as part of this record-shattering box-office phenomenon!

And then there's the reaction that word of any such boffo business induces among the smaller percentage of us: Good lord, think of the lines! Let's cocoon!

Yet, despite the siren-like comforts of the modern home entertainment center, the beckoning of the big screen--or what laughably passes for it at the local 20-plex--remains nigh irresistible. This is always truest, of course, in the summer, thanks to some instinctive gene still lodged in the evolutionary collective consciousness from the days when movie palaces alone offered our immediate ancestors the reliable rush of refrigerated air.

Yes, there's something as enticing as ever about the roar of the "butter flavor," the smell of the crowd, to paraphrase a paraphrase.

Still, complaining is a natural byproduct of the summer moviegoing experience. So we asked a few well-known humorists and comedians--who are, of course, carpers by profession--to help articulate the particulars of this common midyear malaise.

Our panelists: Richard Lewis, celebrated comedian and star of TV's late "Anything but Love"; Matt Groening, "Life in Hell" cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons"; Merrill Markoe, ex-"Late Night" head writer and author of a new collection of humorous essays, "What the Dogs Have Taught Me"; Rosie O'Donnell, MTV personality and co-star of the upcoming feature "A League of Their Own"; Paula Poundstone, longtime stalwart of the stand-up scene, and Michael McKean, who doubles as an actor (the upcoming "Man Trouble") and as lead singer of Spinal Tap.

No doubt speaking for us all, these are a few of their not-so-favorite things:

* Sequel-itis .

"I don't trust sequels just in general," declares Markoe. "I don't trust anything with a Roman numeral at the end, period, including calendar dates. I won't even accept Roman emperors who have a Roman numeral at the end."

" 'Alien' has become a brand name," McKean points out. "That little 3 there sure looks like a little R (registered trademark), doesn't it? 'Be sure to visit the Alien boutique at Broadway.' "

Groening's two rules of avoidance: "If in the trailer I see two buddies in a car that's about to crash who look at each other and scream in unison, I stay away. I also stay away from movies which have some sort of chrome-like title logo that reflects back at the audience."

* Matchbox multiplexes .

"I hate going to the movies at the Beverly Center," says O'Donnell, in the most common of refrains, "because the screens are about the size of my TV."

Still, there's no truth to the rumor that Cineplex Odeon picked up its big-screens down at Paul's in La Habra.

* Unsolicited Greek choruses.

Notes O'Donnell: "Ever since they invented VCRs, people feel free to talk back to the screen like they do at home, or to scream--'Get me popcorn with butter!'--so it's harder not to get in arguments. I actually used to tell people to be quiet at the movie theater, but I find that that doesn't work, plus a lot of them might have weapons on their persons, so I get the ushers involved now."

Gripes Groening, "I don't mind it when audiences enjoy the film as the filmmakers intended, but I do hate when people respond approvingly to rape and stuff that even the filmmakers aren't intending for you to hoot and holler for.

"I remember watching 'Beverly Hills Cop' at the Egyptian sitting right behind an entire family who did nothing but whistle approvingly at the great guns that Eddie Murphy and the villains had--every time a 9-millimeter Uzi came on screen, they're going 'Ooh!' They knew exactly what each weapon was."

McKean has a fairly tolerant perspective on audience participation ("I generally like people to be quiet, but if I don't give a . . . about the movie anyway, then I want somebody to entertain me for my seven bucks"), but has had his own close encounters with the gun-toting kind.

"I went to see 'Tremors' with my son, and as some sort of exposition was unwinding, this woman was sending her three kids for popcorn, being very specific and very loud. After they went on their way she turned to her friend and started talking in completely conversational tones, so I finally went shhhh . And she whipped her head around and yelled, 'You shush me one more time, there's gonna be trouble, there's gonna be blood on the walls!' And she definitely had something in her belt.

"Really, people should leave those at home."

* Ticket queues .

Says Lewis: "What I usually try to do is buy a ticket about a year in advance. Because waiting in line sort of invites the potential for--and I say this with all due respect to women, because I'm a tremendous feminist--maybe a very needy female social worker who might spot me and make my time in line uncomfortable. In fact, I have a very powerful agent, who happens to handle Arnold Schwarzenegger. So he actually tells me what movie is gonna be coming out a year from tomorrow, and I already have three or four seats well in advance." (Arnold himself hasn't learned what his next summer movie is, so that is clout.)

Groening notes, "To see big blockbusters I generally wait till the end of the summer when it's just people escaping from the heat in the theaters. I've tried to avoid the crowds, ever since I saw the first 'Alien' movie at the Egyptian Theatre and stood in line as the increasingly restless crowd started chipping away at the alien statue in front of the theater. Finally somebody lit it on fire. Really. They burned it up."

* Foodstuffs and their packaging.

"The cacophony of other people's snack digestion" is how Markoe summarizes this perennial annoyance. (During a movie as noisy as "Lethal Weapon 3," of course, anything goes, but kids, please, leave the jawbreakers behind for "The Waterdance.")

Poundstone recalls a spooky, almost ghost story-like incident: "I was in a theater when someone had apparently brought her own foods in a bag, we assumed, and every few seconds there'd be a crinkle sound. You don't mind somebody grabbing a bite to eat, but everyone in the theater was getting so aggravated that finally an usher came and took her out of the theater--and it turned out there was no food in the bag. She was just an old woman who brought a bag in to crinkle in the theater--maybe to avenge some oppression that had been done to her there."

* Repeated viewings of trailers for movies that don't open till Christmas or beyond .

Poundstone: "One they did that with was 'Back to the Future III.' It seems like they were doing promotion for that even before they made the first movie, just on an inkling."

* Infants .

Poundstone again: "I had not too long ago the typical thing of the lady with the baby sitting right behind me. Now that I find incredibly obnoxious, particularly because I feel that since they do show previews over and over again so much ahead of time, if somebody sees that there's a film they would like to see, they should just not have sex and wait until the film has come and gone. Because they know what causes babies now, so it's possible to prevent the collision of the two events."

* The humanity, the humanity.

McKean recalls catching "Total Recall": "It seemed to be half college students and half neighborhood people--all fighting. So there was this incredibly violent movie going on, people who were shouting at each other across the theater, and the college students were fuming because they couldn't say anything about it for fear of getting beaten up. It was a very hostile environment, but it was perfect for this completely aggressive movie that was itself actually kind of about being stuck in a nightmare because you went for a little entertainment. It's only the flatness of the picture that differentiates it from reality in a case like that."

* Sightlines .

"I hate guys who sit straight up in their chairs in front of me," says Groening, going through his peeve list. "Yeah, people with good posture."

* Star-spotting disruptions .

Lewis: "The last time I went to see a film at the Beverly Center, though in a way it was sort of flattering, there was a family of eight who were all wearing fezzes--I guess they were from Kuwait or something--and I had to sign all of their heads. It was during the climax of the film.

"It's a drag if you're sitting in a movie and someone spots you in the middle of one of the most crucial moments and shouts out, 'Richard, what's Letterman really like?' First of all it's unfair to me, and it's unfair to the rest of the people. So I oftentimes wind up standing in the back. Not like I'm Elvis' ghost or anything, but. . . ."

Are there any antidotes for this summer movie madness? Any special spots that offer redeemingly bigger screens or smaller crowds?

Though Westwood still claims most of the biggest and best movie houses, adults have largely abandoned the village to teen-agers on weekends, putting up a veritable "Kids Only" sign and heading to the complexes in Santa Monica, Century City and beyond.

But if one really must see first-run fare (granting the reluctance to call anything with a "2" or "3" attached to it first-run), our curmudgeonly panelists do have their favorites.

O'Donnell likes to hit the first matinees of the day at the AMC 14 in Century City, which usually have the earliest starting times anywhere in the Southland--as early as 10 a.m., a dang good hour to beat the hordes. For more monumental moviegoing, she's also a big fan of Hollywood's restored El Capitan.

Poundstone goes for "that theater where the star shoots across the ceiling--that's the coolest of the cool." That, of course, would be the faux amphitheater feel of the glitzy Crest in Westwood.

Says Groening (a former habitue of Hollywood's infamously shabby, now-defunct World Theater), somewhat reluctantly, "Basically I just stay away from Hollywood Blvd. now." He instead catches up with some of the blockbusters in relatively uncrowded, unarmed Glendale, but gets his real kicks at little-known neighborhood foreign-language houses.

"I go see a lot of obscure Chinese martial-arts movies," he says. "It gives me the same thrill of Hollywood roller-coaster movies, but with much more polite audiences, plus you get dried squid at the refreshment counter."

Having shunned the Beverly Center and its autograph hounds, Lewis prefers the Beverly Connection across the street, where the stand-up comedian has found a spot of standing-room anonymity: "It's amazing to me that in L.A., that's the only cinema I have ever found where you can actually come in late while the lights are down and you can stand behind the audience for the entire film, and no one talks to you, and you can just watch the reaction as an actor, writer or director. That, right now to me, is the hippest cinema in Hollywood."

He adds: "I usually like to see movies with a non-industry crowd, but I also sort of enjoy going to the Writers Guild screenings, because it's fun to hear hundreds of people shush someone at the same time. I feel it's right up there with the Seven Wonders of the World, seeing a movie at the Writers Guild, because we all want to hear the words--and if for some reason somebody starts whispering or belches unnecessarily, the crowd goes berserk, and it's definitely worth the price of admission."

Lewis is loath to admit he's actually considering knocking out a bedroom and joining the upscale Hollywood trend of building a private screening room.

"I'm not happy about it, but I think in the long run it'll help the thousands of moviegoers who won't be distressed by crazed fans wanting me to tell them about Johnny Carson in the middle of the climax of a film. I think I'll be doing the L.A. cinema-going public a service by spending a fortune on the screening room. And I think that other celebrities should do the same thing; I really think we owe it to Hollywood to not go out in public.

"In fact, I'm thinking of never leaving my house again. See, I could easily use this to avoid any kind of unnecessary marriage, or driving anymore.

"The only thing I would miss not going out in public is that since I am single, and I usually meet the women that I go out with in public, like at the store, I have this compulsion to scream out idols of mine and see if any woman is attracted by my love for, say, films of Cassavetes or Truffaut. And I've met many women that way. It takes a special person to realize that I've made a fool out of myself and yet overcome that fear of being seen with me and take me out for a coffee after the film."

A scene we'd like to see: Lewis yelling out "Cassavetes" in a "Lethal Weapon 3" crowd. It might not win him a date, but it might be the only thing that could stun the rowdy hordes into bewildered silence.

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