Leaving Home and Wide Awake

by Jesse Hassenger

18 October 2004

There are things about going out to the movies that home video will never capture: the hugeness of even the dinkiest movie screens; sharing space with strangers in even the near-emptiest of theaters (although New York theaters are rarely actually empty); and the immediacy of seeing a movie during its (ever-briefer) big screen life. It's all worth it, even if it takes 45 minutes to get to a movie theater from the quiet borough of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Center Cinema
Photo: Jesse Hassenger 

I moved to New York City in the fall of 2002. I’ve always lived on the east coast, but never in a major city; I’m now in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, just north of the hip (I’m told) Williamsburg district. Greenpoint is a very residential area, with few parking lots or buildings over four stories high; the one nightlife spot is the Polish National Home, a small ballroom that moonlights as a rock venue.

My neighborhood is full of children and old people. This is comforting; my internal danger meter somehow assumes there can never be much peril where more than a certain number of kids and their grandparents hang out. Of course, by this rationale, I should be living inside a Chuck E. Cheese, but Greenpoint is somewhat more scenic.

A small park called McGolrick is a block from my apartment; with its sparse trees and uneven patches of grass, it’s not particularly beautiful (in fact, there’s a bigger, nicer, greener park about half a mile away), but at the first hint of acceptable spring weather it swarms with children, hanging from monkey bars and their parents, enjoying the open space. From a bench in McGolrick Park, I can see more sky than skyscrapers. Because most children have bedtimes, come evening the neighborhood is relatively quiet. It’s all very charming and residential and neighborhood-y, making a transplant from upstate feel at home.

The flashiest attractions of New York City — clubs, theatres, bars, intensive shopping — are nowhere in sight. And so, although the city is filled with movie theaters, it takes me at least half an hour to reach one from home: fairly epic by the standards of Manhattan, where almost everyone lives five or ten minutes from some theater or another.

I have a DVD player in my room, and a Netflix subscription. In theory, I shouldn’t have to bother with going to the movies so often. But I do: at least once a week, often more. There are things about going out to the movies that home video will never capture: the hugeness of even the dinkiest movie screens; sharing space with strangers in even the near-emptiest of theaters (although New York theaters are rarely actually empty); and the immediacy of seeing a movie during its (ever-briefer) big screen life. It’s all worth it, even if it takes 45 minutes to get to a movie theater from my neighborhood.

Although moviegoing is my leisure activity of choice, I’m accustomed to not living particularly close to a movie house. In New York’s Capital District, where I grew up, it’s hard to find a movie theater outside of a shopping complex; that is, one you can reach without a car. There a few independently owned art-houses upstate, screening independent and foreign films, but for the most part, I grew up around Hoyts theater, installed regularly in malls. I didn’t know much about Hoyts as a chain (it was acquired by Regal a few years ago), beyond that it enthusiastically embraced the more fascist aspects of its upstate monopoly. After September 11th, the theater in my hometown of Saratoga Springs decreed that any bags bigger than a purse — shopping bags, backpacks, even baby bags — would no longer be allowed inside the theater. When I was young, Hoyts was simply where you went for movies; suddenly, it was the place that used terrorist attacks as an excuse to crack down on people who snuck in their own Twizzlers. As if in a rally to conform to the Patriot Act, the mall theaters had become hostile to their helpless customers.

New York City, of course, is wonderfully inept at sustaining malls, and its theaters are their own buildings with their own personalities; all of which know better than to post any rules about not bringing in backpacks, which is probably the least popular way to carry a concealed weapon, anyway. Even the chains are different from place to place in New York: The Loews in Times Square has the biggest screens for your buck, while the Loews in “Kips Bay” (two years in the city, and I’ve still only heard the phrase “Kips Bay” in reference to the location of this theater) is handsomely glass-plated and shiny on the outside but curiously small and cold on the inside; it’s a new theater that seems like it was designed as a second or third choice. The Clearview in Chelsea has creaky seats, but will attract crowds of boundless enthusiasm to movies like the gay-themed comedy Camp and the depression-themed comedy Lost in Translation, and you know you’ll be sharing a guilty pleasure if you sneak into a showing of the Brittany Murphy/Dakota Fanning girl-bonding opus Uptown Girls, afterward. Loews and Clearviews in general are difficult marks for movie hopping; but the Regal in Union Square is one of the easiest.

OK, I realize that living in New York City and counting its breadth of moviegoing options as one of the best things about living here — without actually having a neighborhood theater of my own — borders on the perverse. For me in my current location, going to the movies requires astute planning; I need to draw up what probably looks like a quick escape route every time. I need to know when and where I could potentially see my movie, and how long it will take me to get there, whether the L train is out of service again if it’s the weekend, and if the hipster traffic in Williamsburg is likely to slow me down. And it all must be done in advance. For all but the closest theaters, at least 90-minutes of lead-time before show time is required if I want a decent seat.

Even before I arrived in Greenpoint, I had cultivated an exacting, frankly uptight movie-going desire to never get to a movie so late that it was already sold out, to not have to sit way in the back or off to the side, and to not even miss the coming attractions. This makes group moviegoing in the city, then, akin to running an obstacle course with a chain gang. I am a model of such efficiency; reloading web pages on Wednesday to see if Friday’s show times have posted, yet, and sending out tersely-worded e-mails to my friends to meet me at exactly this location at exactly this time. And don’t be late!

Funny, though, I rarely go to the movie theaters in Brooklyn. This is not out of Sex in the City style snobbery, but convenience; few if any Brooklyn theaters are closer than my favorites in Manhattan. If I’m going to the movies in an outer borough, actually, it’ll be at the Center Cinema in Sunnyside, Queens. Manhattan recently levied another ticket price increase, just in time for 2004: a first-run movie will now cost you between $10.25 and $10.50; matinees are nonexistent. But at Center Cinema, you can still see a newly released movie for as little as $4.50 for matinees or an astonishing $3.50 for Tuesday night shows. Even Friday night shows have yet to climb past the $7 mark. A bargain!

Center Cinema has an old-fashioned, marquee-and-ticket-window façade. Inside are five rather utilitarian screening rooms with small screens and oft-muffled sound. It looks like the kind of movie theater people used to go. But people still come, especially for the Tuesday shows, which routinely sell out even if the movie is a known flop. If a movie is even marginally entertaining, like the 2002 military-thriller Basic, an inauspicious reteaming of Pulp Fiction‘s John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, the audience seizes on that entertainment value and takes a seat. At the Center Cinema, along with my fellow movie goers, I never saw the overheated, over twisted version of Basic that most critics complained about; instead, I saw a raucous comedy in which every word out of Sam Jackson’s mouth delighted the entire audience. A funky old place like Center Cinema is a great way to see a Farrelly Brothers movie like Stuck on You, or to indulge in that desire to see Kill Bill a second or third time.

Center Cinema is right on the number 7 train, the part that runs from midtown Manhattan to Queens, where it emerges above. The tracks loom over Sunnyside, a noisy monument to the city at large. Although Sunnyside seems not unlike Greenpoint in many ways — low-key and adjacent to trendier neighborhoods — it feels grittier, possibly due to the lack of the elderly (who, frankly, I’d think would be flocking to Center Cinema if they only knew; it’s like Sunday matinees every day).

You can take the number 7 train in the opposite direction into Times Square, home to the city’s biggest, glitziest, and most chaotic movie houses. The AMC Empire is only four or five years old, and its accommodations are undeniably posh — big, red plush seats with moveable arms; stadium seating in every room; and 25 screens, most of them fairly large — all spread out over six floors. Yet it’s the only theater where I’ve ever (a.) heard booing during the “no talking, please”, part of the standard pre-movie rundown of rules, and (b.) witnessed what could charitably be described as civil disobedience regarding the “no smoking” rule. The AMC is theoretically one of the nicest theaters in the city and, at $10.50 per show, easily among the most expensive, but there’s little reassurance that a riot won’t break out at the more teen-centric films. This feeling of untidiness is typical of the new Times Square: investors spend a lot of money so that people can, in turn, spend a lot of money while making a mess. Also typical of Times Square is that sometimes, if you’re seeing the right, cheesy B-movie (say Final Destination 2) at the right time (say opening night), the crowd is exactly what you want: rowdy and enthusiastic.

My favorite multiplex in the city, though, is Regal’s Union Square theater, a 14-screen multiplex. It’s possibly my favorite because the commute from my Greenpoint apartment to Union Square in Manhattan is relatively easy. The quickest route is to walk into Williamsburg and catch the L train at the corner of Bedford Avenue and North 7th Street. You can see the infinite permutations of grocery, deli, and bakery stores in Greenpoint gradually give way to indie shops and Thai restaurants in Williamsburg, which basically takes the youthful hipness of Greenwich Village and places it in shorter buildings.

Emerging from the subway up into Union Square isn’t the immediate sensory assault of navigating 42nd Street’s endless light bulbs and tourists. The Regal could easily advertise itself as the happiest medium of Manhattan theaters; you can go there for the flash-in-the-pan excitement of finding out just how many people “The Rock” is going to beat with a two-by-four in Walking Tall, or for the pop art of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which played there for over three months. The layout is friendly, spread over two floors instead of five or six. A strong mix of movies also attracts what may be the best, most diverse crowd in the city; snarky enough to boo commercials for SUVs before the film, but not too cynical for Hellboy. Regal must be a nice theater; I saw Dancer in the Dark and Requiem for a Dream there in a 24-hour period, and didn’t once attempt suicide.

Of course, some New Yorkers would refuse outright to designate a favorite multiplex. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Angelika, arguably New York’s most famous art-house, with its friendly and attractive lobby/café and likelihood of playing movies no one else has. But I must admit to being taken aback the first time I realized that periodic noise coming from beneath the seats isn’t a temporary construction thing; it’s the number 4, 5, and/or 6 trains.

I can deal with a little noise during the movie; I’ve seen dozens of movies at drive-ins, where a moviegoer has to strain to hear the soundtrack above the roar of combine engines, slamming car doors, shrieking children, all manners of running commentaries, the occasional family of dogs, and mid-movie snackvertisements. Here’s the thing: the drive-in (some still do exist!) costs six bucks for two movies; at the Angelika, $10 gets you only one. Here’s another thing: New York makes price hags of us all.

The Angelika, despite its rattling trains, is probably the second-nicest art theater in Manhattan, second only to the Landmark Sunshine in the Village, but the designers of Lincoln Plaza cinema — another major art house, where I first saw alterna-comics-turned-brilliant-movies American Splendor and Ghost World — are obviously strong believers not only in suffering for your art, but suffering for the art of others; the screens are small, the seats are cramped and creaky, and the lines to get in snake all around the lobby. The best thing about the Angelika is its location on the Upper West Side.

In Greenpoint the sidewalks teem with small children, in Union Square they teem with skateboarders, and in Times Square they teem with tourists. These are all more or less equal on the scale of crowd maneuvering, with the possible exception that the children are more considerate. When I make the hour-plus trip to the Upper West Side, I can rest assured that the tourists and skateboarders are happier elsewhere and that the small children are too busy with private school, dance lessons, begging their parents not to have a second child, and working on their Yale applications from their six-bedroom apartments to have any time for crowding-up the sidewalks. This does not make the Upper West Side interesting or exciting so much as it assures me that I have, in fact, traveled a long way in that hour. My neighborhood is quiet and pleasant, but I most certainly do not live on the Upper West Side.

We like to talk about New York City’s togetherness, in the wake of certain events. But one of the best things about the city — right after the fact that Charlie Kaufman movies always open here first — is how easy it is to carve out your own little area, no matter how populous the whole thing remains. So while I fantasize about living down the block from a good movie theater — especially if that would mean going to a late show and getting home in two minutes — I’m happy to separate my home (Greenpoint) from where I go to the movies (everywhere else). Going to the movies in New York — that is, making a necessary trip of it — is actually sort of life affirming. It’s like being driven to the mall to see the Star Wars reissues when I was younger, the getting there was great, but now, I’ve got more to look at on the way. Is it any wonder that when I sit down to watch something from Netflix, I often start to fall asleep? New York moviegoing keeps me awake, and feeling alive.

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