Oct 13, 2015

GoodFellas and good food at the Alamo

Firstly, a confession of sorts: I don't have the statistical knowledge to thoroughly discuss the finer points of today's moviegoing market from an economic standpoint. More to the point, I don't want to. Anyone actually interested in this kind of metadata is welcome to it; not me. Even if there were 72 hours in a day and our lives comparably longer for it, I'd likely still find it a corrosive waste. (Oh, your stock in Disney went up again? I'll let you know the next time a Marvel movie doesn't put me to sleep.)

That said, I feel more than qualified to talk about today's moviegoing market from a consumer standpoint. That word, consumer, carries baggage of the ilk I just tried to distance myself from, yes, but even an idealized perspective on film as art must acknowledge the forces at play, even when we're reticent to play by their rules. We're consumers of a product that, from case to case, may or may not also be art (the reverse can also be said on rare occasions), in an industry entrenched with injustices since its inception. On a playing field where John Ford explicitly distanced himself from the term artist, or where Roger Ebert once placed Spider-Man 2 in his top five films of the year while also maintaining that it is not art, I think the closest we can come to truth is to acknowledge that everyone has their own version, and few, if any, are without some level of implication, and that the more gates are open, the better off for everyone.

As a consumer of movies born in Ronald Reagan's United States, it should come as no surprise that Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas was a watershed moment in my cinematic upbringing. Even though the first time I saw it was in the form an edited, pan-and-scan television cut, it's hold was remarkable. Flash forward 18 years, and I've since purchased it three times (letterbox VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray), but when my local Alamo Drafthouse announced that they would be hosting a screening of the film's new 4K restoration to be served with a specifically curated four-course meal, there was no doubt that I would have to be there.

I've not kept track of which classics I've seen theatrically in 4K; off the top of my head, this and last year's re-release of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre might be it. Much as I love the tactile resonance of physical film, I have eyes, and both of these experiences were a glory. Watching GoodFellas again this past weekend, I was struck by the level of grain that was captured in the restoration, and with the exception of the absent reel markers and inevitable scratches, as well as the occasional freeze frame employed by Scorsese (in which the flickerless projection is most apparent; pictured), the experience was almost film-like.

Hollywood is fighting to keeps asses in seats, but if there's a way to fight the growing trend of people saving their dollars by waiting for Redbox, it's the Alamo way, which I've come to think of as being an improvement on the comfort many people take in the living room experience. You likely know the general deal – the theater is also a full-service bar and restaurant. I'm not a food critic, but as someone who enjoys good things, I've never had so consistently excellent an experience with either such establishment (I just checked my Letterboxd records, and I've seen at least forty-four shows there in the last five months, and I think I've ordered food or drink at all but one of those times). The GoodFellas dinner was four courses, beginning with a light tomato and mozzarella cheese salad, then crostini with olive salad and garlic, followed by a main course of baked ziti, and a dessert of tiramisu, which I should have taken into account before driving home. The leftovers themselves would shame a great many stand-alone restaurants, where projection and aspect ratios and crowd control aren't all matters of concern. When I'm no longer in driving distance from an Alamo location, to paraphrase James Joyce by way of Sean Penn, I'll feel the lack.

The GoodFellas screening, alas, did not go off perfectly, albeit in ways that made me feel all the better about where I was. I find myself judging theater chains in much the same way I find myself measuring my favorite comedians against each other, which is to say, how they function when something goes wrong. The (I'm assuming) family that was seated immediately to my right has already accelerated my eventual transmogrification into a grouchy Clint Eastwood type defending his plot of land, and as much as I wanted to wring their necks, the feeling towards them that I'm trying to settle on is abject pity. Their lack of awareness concerning their surroundings was awe-inspiring; despite the “THIS AUDITORIUM IS NOW A NO TALKING ZONE; KEEP YOUR CELL PHONE DARK, SILENT, AND OUT OF SIGHT” announcement that plays immediately before the movie, these evolutionary prodegies took out their phones and used their screens/flashlights to look at their menus, despite the warm illumination beckoning from the helpfully-placed lights under their tables. Before long, a runner swooped into to explain to them that cell phones were not allowed for any purpose and that they could read their menus easily with the provided lights, and with what I imagine must be a highly practiced tactfulness, in place of the string of nasty similes I'd have probably unloaded as an offended patron.

But all had not ended; at least three in this group of five sustained a low chatter through the film's opening scenes with the young Henry Hill. Already infuriated, I turned to the two closest to me, roughly 15 and 20 year-old boys, and told them flatly that if they kept talking I would report them. Someone already had, however, and another runner (maybe it the same person; how they do their jobs so well in the dark is beyond me) arrived promptly to issue a firm warning.

This traveling circus more or less behaved for the rest of the movie. A head-slapping highlight: the shining star sitting closest to yours truly asked his maybe-sibling, during the wailing strings of “Layla,” “what's getting made?,” reaffirming my belief that some people simply don't deserve good things. What happened next was something I'll never forget: during the final, cocaine-fueled stretch of the film, this ne'er-do-well in training took out his phone. The screen wasn't on, but he nonetheless took out his phone and was fidgeting with it, unable to sit still lest the mortal terror of existence overtake him, apparently, audibly tapping it at one point until I gave him a glare that I find myself hoping haunts him later in his life during moments of intimacy.

In hindsight, I realized that I could, and should, have raised an order card -- as per the warnings, cell phones should be out of sight, screen illumination notwithstanding -- but at that point, I was more concerned with Michael not letting the sauce stick. These experiences, frustrating though they are, serve two purposes: they remind us how good things are otherwise, and they satisfy a certain anthropological interest on my part. As a young adult in an Apple age of convenience, I'm terrified of losing my autonomy and diminishing my attention span; I realize that I don't need to worry that much. Here I am, trying to carve out time to rewatch The Turin Horse uninterrupted; this little oaf, and likely the bulk of his infected gene pool, on the other hand, couldn't even make it through motherfucking GoodFellas – arguably the cinematic equivalent of lighting in a bottle.

In the words of Robert De Niro's Jimmy (not Joe Pesci's Tommy), “what is the world coming to?” But I know better; it's long been like this, just in different forms and details. There's always a tide to fight, against thoughtlessness and impatience, and anyone who loves anything will eventually have to at least figuratively get into bed with something or someone they don't like. It's as possible to avoid bad crowds as it is to avoid insects, and to have even the vainest hope of doing either, you'll probably have to move to Antarctica. In the dozens of trips I've made to Alamo, I can count the negative impressions I've gotten from my fellow patrons on one hand, which is not just a better success rate than virtually every other theater I've ever attended, but also even the most ideal Thanksgiving meal with one's extended family. At the end of the day, the only bad thing about the GoodFellas dinner party was that more people didn't show up. Remember the Alamo.