by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
When the screen goes dark and we walk out of the moviehouse, when the director is done rewiring us, when the projector is done manipulating us, when our eyes focus and we stretch out our legs and take those first few steps, we are thinking of waking up. The credits roll, maybe you look around, look at your movie buddy, look for the exit. But your mind is not on the movie. Just as when you wake from a vivid dream, one that was so real, not even a dream but an *experience*, you were actually there, actually did and said those things, your first thought isn't "oh, that was just a dream"- your first thought, in the back of your mind, in your blood, as your body regains your normal conscious function, is: I'm awake.
To be awake is a good thing. It's when we can think. It's when we can run and talk and create and imagine, and live. But to dream we must first fall asleep. We must lay down, or relax, or decide: now. Now I sleep.
You have to walk into the theater. You have to get your ticket. You have to choose your seat. You have to face the darkness to see the light up on that wall.
Watching a movie is a voluntary action (most of the time). And when the movie ends, that's it. The ultimate darkness. We get to wake up.
So many movies lead us to death as a means of teaching us how to watch movies. Synecdoche, New York all takes place in a single moment, stretched out over hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades. We live inside that moment and get no release when the moment passes, in fact we fade to white, into the light. Kaufman eases us up out of our chairs, doesn't come crashing down into the blackness of the usual closing credits we're used to. He gives us a tiny bit of relief while he shows us our own demise.
The Phantom Carriage, maybe an early inspiration for It's a Wonderful Life or even that pile The Santa Clause, takes us on a night trip of drunken revelation. We journey through death as the main character learns the preciousness of life and inevitability of nothingness. In the end, as always, the movie has to stop. And the lights have to come up. But someone has to be in that projection booth to hit those cues and fade up those sconces. You're never alone. You'll always have a guide.
Phantom of the Paradise, a personal favorite and a title mentioned often around here, at least by me, opens with the image of a dead bird and takes us through several stages of death and rebirth, piling on the bird imagery and symbolism until you're forced to say "hey, what's up with all this bird stuff, anyway?" But De Palma just chugs along at lightning speed to tell the story of a bunch of birds all trying to sing at once, until finally they all get silenced together and we're left with one last shot of that dead bird, this time in flames. As all the characters race towards the finish line, we feel all the blood being spilled, all the songs being screeched, and all the lights going out. The specter haunting the club was death itself, waiting to bring that curtain down (and the lights up).
Enter the Void, a much more simple and mediocre movie than it first appears, takes us on a psychedelic road trip through a single lifetime all in one instant. We watch a life being created, lived, and destroyed. At the onset we are asked to Enter. In the finale, we finally meet The Void. And aside from the joke of the title only being revealed a split second after the final shot leaves the screen, the reality of what the Void shows us is still pretty chilling. That is, if you make it that far. Not all of us get to.
But all of these films, again, require a guide. Someone who sits with us, who doesn't take the trip, but is there to oversee. The projectionist threads them up and knocks you down. Otherwise we'd all just be sitting in the dark. With no answers. Without even questions.
Or. It used to be that way.
Modern movie theaters, the grand majority, anyway, are fully automated. You load the movie file, schedule a playlist, the audiences come in and out, and no one is watching over your dreams. No one is holding the reigns, gently squeezing your hand. No one assures you "it's only a movie."
Taken a step further, home viewing restores that power to us. But puts us all individually in total control. We can now program our own realities. Stop and start and move in and out of our dreams at will. We are all gods now. It all belongs to us.
But this power has lost momentum and gone off the rails, fallen stupidly and pointlessly into the gulch.
These directors want to show us where to look. Want to ask us to think about the way that we look. The way that we think. The light on the wall wants to show us something. It wants us to feel that sting of waking up. Being startled by that cut to black. Wants us to hear that song and get it stuck in our heads. Wants us to make connections. To account for narrative codes and symbols. We're supposed to be looking for all this. We're supposed to be remembering our dreams. But it gets harder and harder, and they become more difficult to hang on to.
Go to the movies. Go alone. Go with a friend. Go with a stranger. Go with your sweetheart. Get your ticket. Choose your seat. Watch the pre-show. Feel it prepare you. Let them try to sell you things, make you hyper-aware of being awake and pandered to. Then feel the lights fade. Feel your body relax. Know that the darkness is taking you. And drift off into the new world.
The movies are here to teach us things. To deliver information about ourselves. To tell us stories about these people, who had these experiences. If we're lucky, they lead us toward death. Because in doing so, it won't hurt as much when the lights come up and the curtain comes down. We'll be safe. We'll be together.
We are always at the movies. See you there.