Lately I've been thinking about some of the most memorable experiences I've had at the movies. I'm not talking about classic scenes in the movies themselves, but rather about moments that were memorable because of where or when I saw the film, or whom I saw the movie with. Some of these movies in these memories aren't even very good; it's the circumstances of seeing them that have stuck with me. As I started to list them in my head, I realized that most of these moments came in Ann Arbor, between 1973 (when I started as a freshman at the University of Michigan) and 1987, when I left Ann Arbor to go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The first ten years of that period, during the heyday of the student film co-ops, back before most people had a VCR and before Turner Classic Movies, were especially memorable. During my undergraduate years at Michigan, you could see an art film, a foreign film, or a Hollywood classic almost every night of the week at one campus auditorium or another, and on the weekends, you usually had a choice of four or five movies per night. I almost always went to two movies on Friday or Saturday, if I could work out the logistics, running across the Diag between shows. The official start of each semester for me, in fact, wasn't the first day of class, but the day I picked up a copy of each co-op's big poster schedule and taped them all to the wall of my room. I have a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Michigan, but my real education—the one that's stuck with me, anyway, more so than my thirty-year-old readings of Descartes and Husserl—was at the movies, in the old Architecture and Design Auditorium with its stiff wooden seats, Auditorium A in Angell Hall (still one of the best movie theaters I've ever been in), and the Natural Science Building Auditorium, one of those big, stepped science ampitheaters with a black-topped lab table down front. It was in these theaters that I first saw Lawrence of Arabia, The Graduate, Rebecca, Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Seventh Seal, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Breathless, His Girl Friday, Singin' in the Rain, The Red Shoes, and hundreds of others.
I was lucky to discover film when you could still regularly see great old films in a midwestern college town, on a big screen with an appreciative audience. Say what you want about Ann Arbor (and I have), the audiences I was part of back then were some of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic in the world. I saw Hitchcock's Rebecca during my freshman year, and during the final shot, as the flames destroying Manderlay crept across a silk pillow towards the embroidered R (signaling the end of Rebecca's spell), some wiseguy in the audience yelled out "Rosebud!" and we all laughed, because we all got the joke. And the first time I ever saw Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen (in a glorious 70mm print, in Auditorium A, where the seats were stained and lumpy, but at least had cushions), we were all absolutely silent during that great sequence during Lawrence's march toward Aqaba, where one guy from the raiding party gets left behind on the the Devil's Anvil in the Nefud Desert. It's a great piece of filmmaking, completely wordless, as the straggler staggers along on foot, shedding clothing as he goes, his lips cracking with thirst, his torment heightened with blinding close-ups of the sun, the death-march drum taps of Maurice Jarre's score, and a kind of high-pitched whine. In the middle of this aria of waterlessness and heat, some comic genius down front opened a pop-top can, which went off like a pistol shot, and we all roared with laughter. It was one of the best timed jokes I've ever witnessed.
Some of the most memorable experiences I had, though, were at commercial theaters in Ann Arbor, usually at the crummy little theaters out at Briarwood Mall. This was my first multiplex, and the theaters themselves were awful, little shoeboxes with no slope, sticky floors, flimsy seats, scratched and stained screens, bad sound, and a smell of vegetable rot that I can still conjure vividly after thirty years.
But one of my happiest movie experiences happened at Briarwood. It was the opening night of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Go ahead and laugh. Like I say, the movies in these memories are not necessarily any good; saying that Star Trek II is the best of the Star Trek movies isn't saying much.) But I remember it because the theater was packed, and apart from me, most of the audience were not sophisticated, ironical Ann Arborites, but rural working class folk, all of them pretty obviously huge Star Trek fans who'd come in from the small towns and farms around Ann Arbor to see the movie. Condescending lout that I was, I was worried that they were going to talk or be rowdy and spoil the movie for me, but I got over that in the first ten seconds: as stars streamed slowly toward the camera and a solitary horn played the Star Trek fanfare, the audience spontaneously roared its approval. From that moment on, we were all absolutely rapt. In fact, only a handful of times in my life have I ever been in a movie audience that was as completely in sync with a film as we all were that night. I cheered along with everybody else, and for the rest of the film we all laughed at the corny jokes like it was Some Like It Hot and openly sobbed when Spock died at the end like it was the final act of La Boheme. I've seen the movie since, and it's not that good, but that night, everybody was a Trekkie.
I've got no profound point to make here, except perhaps that, as I say, I was lucky to have received my education in classic films at a time when you could still regularly see them with an audience, on a big screen. Young people today with in interest in film history have it luckier in at least one respect, in that they can see anything they want, pretty much anytime they want, as long as they have access to a decent video store, Netflix, the Internet, or TCM. But what I had that they don't have is the memory of seeing Lawrence for the first time in 70mm on an enormous screen with an audience who was stoked to see it (and knew no other way to see it, except from pan-and-scan presentations on broadcast TV, chopped up with commercials), who saw it, in other words, the way God and David Lean intended us to. Because I'm much older and grumpier than I was then, the guy with the pop-top beer probably would annoy me if he pulled the same stunt now, but back then, not only did he not spoil the movie, he was a memorable part of the show. And he didn't even get the biggest laugh: thanks mainly to screenwriter Robert Bolt, Lawrence of Arabia is the wittiest epic ever made, with characters spouting off polished little epigrams and sly insults throughout. In fact, that first viewing back in Auditorium A kind of spoiled me, because though I've seen the film dozens of times since—at least once a year at the Paramount Theater here in Austin for the past 13 years—I've never again seen it with an audience that laughed in all the right places.