When I was younger, the Disney Channel used to make phenomenal films for children. New ones came out each Friday and we would all get excited to see the children flying around on film tape in the entrance to what is known as a “Disney Channel Original Movie.” There are so many of these that I loved, but the one that always stood out to me was Phantom of the Megaplex. This was a bit of an odd little film that was partially a spinoff of Phantom of the Opera where two young kids start working at a movie theater only to discover that there is a masked stranger running around and wreaking havoc. Instantly, I fell in love with this movie because it was slightly creepy and dangerous and the movie theater setting felt so full of mysterious adventure. Even to this day I think about Phantom of the Megaplex at least once a month, if not more, and I haven’t even seen the film in probably ten years. Truth be told, I was a strange child and not a lot of typical movies resonated with me. Whenever I mention this movie to one of my peers, a lot of them barely, if even at all, remember that particular Disney movie. But, it is in those scenes that I first found a love for the movie theater.
The concept is so creepy to me, all those people sitting in dark rooms and staring at the screen like zombie. At the same time, though, I was attracted to the culture. Everyone is experiencing the movie together, yet separately. No one person is seeing the same movie or resonating with it in the same way. It is fascinating to me to look at the culture of movies. They transport us in a way that books, painting, or other art forms can’t. Each of the theater rooms take up magnitudes of space, yet when they are set in the total darkness, we feel enveloped in the larger than life portrayal in front of us. Our minds are sucked into the moving light and we become a fly on the wall to otherworldly tales. The movies can make even the normal seem spectacular. Narratives of everyday life enter into our minds and connect to viewers in a way that creates an “untetherable” cord between the screen and our consciousness.
There was also a sense of excitement at the theater that always attracted me. Thousands of lives flash before those screens; those stories of people, animals, creatures. The beauty that I found in the cinema, with all those stories, is unparalleled. It is the human condition to tell tales, and this is the largest representation of human nature I have ever personally witnessed. After all, we all become stories in the end. And it’s the movies that make them fantastical.
I didn’t realize these aspects of the movies, though, until I started working at a movie theater. Growing up I never went to the movies often because it was either too expensive or my parents wouldn’t let me. The theater to me was some place that all of the “cool” middle school kids went to while I sat at home and heard about it.
It wasn’t until about junior year of high school that I started going to the movies more frequently, and even then it wasn’t as often as most people. My relationship with the movie theater was about as average as they come– that’s where I saw my first scary film, went on my first date, and saw the new Harry Potters every couple of years. When I started working at the theater my entire view of the film industry started changing.
I was seventeen when I was hired, my senior year in high school, and I was excited to work somewhere that had such a large presence in town. See, the theater in Williamsburg is located at the heart of New Town which features different types of shops and festivals. Since New Town was the home of Panera Bread, Barnes & Noble, as well as the theater, pretty much anything people did on the weekends took place around there. The theater, though, is at the center and easily the largest building in the small area. There is a large fountain in front, which has cascading water flowing and oftentimes teenagers would fill it with bubbles as a prank. Even the name on the building had a sense of grandeur to it, with its big red letters that were offset by an expanding rooftop. I remember very specifically one time when a group of French students came and they all took out their cameras to take photos of the massive movie monument. It was an honor, honestly, to work at such a pivotal location in town.
The movie theater draws a certain type of employee, it seems. Or, at least a certain type of long-term employee. It is almost as though the dramatic and emotion atmosphere is reflected in the lives of those who work there. I had never met quite so colorful people before, all with a seeming passion for the film industry in some way. Here is the cast of characters:
There was Sammy*, a raging gay man with wild red hair, sleeve tattoos, and a passion for passion. He was in his late twenties and worked at the theater on the weekends with a devotion for paranormal tales. Then, there was Carlo*. He was tiny and had a baby face, despite being older than most of the managers there. From what I gathered, it didn’t seem like he did much outside of work. He spent his days at the theater, cleaning and cooking, and his nights at the movies enjoying a wide variety of odd films. Because of this, I suspect he was using the movies as a way of finding purpose for his time. One of the managers, Terry, was a little old man who used to work as the projectionist before we switched to digital. He wore kilts in the morning and seemed entirely lost most of the time. I think that he missed his job in the projection room, though, because it gave him a sense of dominance; it was a power to control all those stories on all those screens. The other most complex of the four managers was Hank.*
Hank was always the scary manager, a role that he both disputed yet reveled in. I remember on my first day at the theater when my coworkers told me to watch out for him because he was so anal about how he liked the job done. In the two and a half years working with Hank, I didn’t have much conversation however I learned a lot about his life from rumors around the theater. I watched him every day sit behind his desk and read his novels, or drink soda and research random facts on the internet. He was a heavy smoker, and I suspect a very lonely person. One day that I will never forget was when I watched a woman walk in with her toddler, have a tense conversation with him for about thirty seconds and then leave. One of my coworkers filled me in on the backstory of how the woman had been Hank’s fiance for a long time and he had been hopelessly devoted to her. She was the only woman he had ever been engaged to, who had given him a sense of fulfillment, and who had ruined it all by cheating on him and getting pregnant. Still, though, Hank cared for the woman and helped her raise the child for the first few years until she left him. It was in this child that Hank truly found joy and a sense of pure, unconditional love. It made him whole, even after the woman he had loved crushed him. When the child left his life, I think that was when Van became the man I knew. He was unhappy, bitter, and lonely. Yet, every now and then I could see the kindness that rested deep inside of him. There wasn’t a lot left, though, and he had lost a lot of his ability for emotional activities. That is where movies came in. I could tell they filled the holes in his life and they allowed him to really feel at a time when his emotional mechanics were rusted. Hank may have hated his dull job at the theater, but it was the movies that made him feel human.
At the theater there were a couple of friends from school that I worked with. I had gone to school with Roy for a long time before working there, but I had never really gotten to know him. On the outside, Roy seemed like someone who wouldn’t care about art, but the more I got to know him, the more I learned about his passion for culture. He had a very specific opinion on movies and which ones he considered to be “good.” This was formed through a lot of background knowledge not only on a movie’s subject, but on film making in general. Whenever we saw a movie together, he could tell me the inspirations, the history, the setbacks, etcetera. From him, I learned how much information like this could change how I viewed the film. Roy taught me that a movie isn’t just what we see on the screen, but a compilation of many different ideas and concepts pooled into a moving plot.
Next, my friend Paul started working at the theater with us. Granted, Paul hated this job, as most do considering the hours and dealing with the general public, but he loved “the movies.” Paul immersed himself in all sorts of film critiques in order to fully grasp exactly what he was viewing. It should be mentioned, though, that Paul is also a strange boy and so some of the films he enjoyed were far out of my normal spectrum. However, he introduced me to a new type of viewing and showed me that movies weren’t supposed to simply make us feel comfortable afterwards. Often, the films we watched together were violent or grotesque, but this opened my eyes to a greater purpose in film. From Paul I learned that I shouldn’t love a movie because of its happy ending, but instead should question how it disorients me. I should see a film and be able to have a new look on the outside world.
Lastly, my biggest film influence. Angela.
Angela was my best friend who got me the job at the theater. Our friendship was comical for most because we seemed like very unlikely companions. Where I was neat, chipper, and naive, Angela was artsy, dark, and poetically grunge. However, our friendship seemed to work out, whether it was because of forced time together or hatred of the same people. One thing that we clearly had in common though was our depth of emotion. Both of us had the capacity to feel everything so deeply, which can be both a blessing and a curse. However, when it came to movies, Angela showed me how to let a film get inside of you, how to let it burst through the parameters of your emotional spectrum. “It’s art, man.” She would say to me. She forced me to watch films for a different type of purpose, she made me see films I would have hated before in a different light.
One of those is Pulp Fiction. Here is a movie full of cursing, blasphemous statements, and is basically a blatant depiction of the underbelly of life. Before, I would have been repulsed by a movie such as this. It would have made me uncomfortable and I would have thought it to be weird. But watching it with Roy, Paul, and Angela,they showed me the art behind it. It was supposed to make me uncomfortable, and it wasn’t meant to be pretty. Here was a film that could not only make you laugh, but make you think as well. There are a number of political statements embedded into the plot that I otherwise would have been ignorant to. With my friends from the theater, though, I was able to see all of the finer aspects that make movies into an art form and I can now appreciate a film such as Pulp Fiction for its true purpose.
Pulp Fiction was not my first Quentin Tarantino film, though. During the first couple of months that I worked at the theater the film Django Unchained was released and set the world ablaze with its offensive humor, dramatic scenes, and strange portrait of slave life. Obviously, my friends and I loved it. We loved discussing the art behind the film and since we were so passionate about everything Tarantino, we even bought the soundtrack. Every afternoon when school let out, Angela drove us to work, blasting the soundtrack the entire time. Soon, the songs held a new meaning for myself. Every time I watched the movie after that year, I thought about the drives in the springtime, stopping by Taco Bell on the way to work with my best friend. It is a bit of an odd association, I suppose, considering what the film was about, but now Django Unchained held a greater meaning for myself. This was a film that truly cemented a friendship and developed a sense of perspective on the unexpected ways movies can influence a life.
One aspect of working at the theater that really had its perks was being able to see movies for free. As I mentioned before, I never saw many movies in the cinema because they were too expensive. But, as an employee I was able to see a multitude of movies over and over again. This helped me to develop my own style of viewing and I was able to better analyze the films I enjoyed. One film that I remember seeing at least five or more times way The Way, Way Back. This was a small-time summer movie about a boy on vacation with his mother and her boyfriend to a beach house. It is a coming of age story that is both heart-warming and saddening, and it really struck something within me. Not only was the plot dynamic and impressive, but the way the film was shot seemed so artistic and emotional to me. Before working at the theater and gaining the education in film from my coworkers that I had, I never would have experienced a movie the way I did with this one. From each of these people I learned different aspects of viewing a film and that is why The Way, Way Back was the first movie I went to see alone. It was almost like a graduation of sorts from the world of naive movie-goers. Now, I didn’t need my peers to see the movie with me in order to fully appreciate it. Nor did I feel like a loser for seeing a movie alone, because I now knew how important a film could be to a person’s humanity.
The years I spent working at Regal Cinemas heavily changed my outlook on the theater and movies in general. Without seeing the different ways movies were important to others, I never would have known the importance of film or the aspects that made it an art. Through my coworkers, and especially Angela, I gained an appreciation for everything that cinema meant. It is a new way of reaching into our human needs, it creates connection and yet a unique perspective. The people at Regal taught me to question what movies did to me, to realize how they changed my outlook on life, and how, as Angela would say, “to let them into my squishy heart.”
*names have been changed
Current Music: The Tale of Gilgamesh-Audiobook (Don’t ask me why).