So, I've been taking four-day weekends ever since Thanksgiving in an effort to burn up some unused vacation time. My corporate overlords subscribe to the "use-it-or-lose-it" philosophy, apparently buying into some misbegotten notion that if you forbid your overworked, stressed-out staff of type-A personalities (and the type-B drones who support them) from rolling unused vacation time over to the next year, you will somehow force people to actually, you know, take vacations. Sounds great in theory, but in real-world application, we in the advertising industry still don't take as many vacations as we're theoretically entitled to. There's always this implicit (and sometimes an explicit) message that it's just not a good time, because the current project is too big and/or too critical, or the deadline is too near, or management simply can't spare us right now. Basically, we all suffer from delusions of indispensability. And because of that wholly unhealthy way of thinking, we always end up, as December looms, with a whole bunch of people trying to schedule time off around everybody else's scheduled time off. The result is a short-staffed agency for the final six weeks of the year, and, for me personally -- this year, at least -- a string of long weekends to accommodate all my coworkers' vacation plans. Yeah, I'm a good guy that way.
(For those who would remind me that I did, in fact, take a vacation already this year, you are correct, I did: my Great Pennsylvania-Ohio Road Trip. However, I'm in the perverse position of having enough leave time available -- but so little opportunity to actually use it -- that even after taking a vacation, I'm still forced to do the end-of-the-year calendar dance with the drudges who never go anywhere.)
Anyhow, as fate would have it, I've spent most of these free Fridays and Mondays on various chores and errand-running, so they haven't really felt like days off per se. Don't get me wrong, they've been very productive and much appreciated, as I've finally gotten on top of a lot of stupid crap that needed doing. But I haven't simply lounged on the couch and read a book, or watched a DVD from beginning to end without interruption, or killed the afternoon in a coffee shop enjoying the feel of a warm cup in my hand -- in short, the relaxing things that people usually do when they're not at work. (God, could I actually be turning into one of those workaholic type-As who doesn't know how to unplug and simply be? That's a terrifying thought!) This past Monday, however, an intestinal complaint of some kind left me feeling distinctly not in the mood to leave the house or do another chore. And so I finally sat down and put on a movie. And that's when it all got interesting...
The movie was a slight but amiable romance from 1981 called Continental Divide. Starring John Belushi and Blair Brown, and directed by Michael Apted from a script by one of my favorite screenwriters, Lawrence Kasdan, I expected more than I got, which was too lightweight to be a genuine drama, but also wasn't funny enough to be a comedy. It was just kind of a basic little movie of the sort I remember being very common when I was a kid, but which we don't see much these days, i.e., a middle-brow entertainment aimed at grown-ups who didn't want anything too heavy but who weren't into the schlocky spectacles the kids (like me) were going crazy for. Back in the old days, I believe they called movies like this "programmers," before that word got repurposed to mean something very different; these were flicks that fell somewhere in between an A-level feature and a B movie both in budget and sensibility, just something to round out the exhibitor's schedule and give the audience a pleasant -- if not especially memorable -- night out.
But while Continental Divide may not have done much for me as a movie, it's not correct to say that it had no effect on me at all. There was something about this little film -- maybe it was the generic music score that sounded like it could've come from fifty other movies of this vintage, or the old-school cinematography and editing, or perhaps it was the environmentalist themes that were in vogue at the time but have since fallen out of fashion in our popular entertainments, something -- that stirred up a whole raft of memories for me. Not of specific events or places, or even particular films, but rather a general sensation of what going to the movies was like in the early 1980s. In the days before stadium seating and high-backed, rocking seats with cupholders, before IMAX and 3-D (well, the current iteration of it, anyhow) and THX and DLP. When a four-plex was the biggest multi around, and a handful of the old single-screen movie palaces and neighborhood showhouses were still extant, if not exactly thriving.
I found myself recalling the scrunchy feel of velvet upholstery plucking at the back of my shirt, and the sticky grime coating wooden armrests that hadn't been cleaned in far too long. The way the seats were always too close to the floor, low-backed and inflexible, your knees jammed into metal seatbacks in front of you. Oftentimes, a spring would twang as it took your weight, and the seats creaked and groaned as you moved, something modern foam-stuffed theater seating doesn't seem to do so much.
The noise of the projectors was part of the movie back then, a constant background hum and chatter that you learned to tune out. The whole sonic environment of theaters was different. Even in the handful of places equipped with that new-fangled Dolby Stereo process, it was sometimes difficult to hear the movie. Muffled dialog was par for the course.
There were no pre-show reels, no constant stream of advertising and lame-o trivia games (that are really advertising in disguise) to occupy your mind before the movie began. I remember walking into auditoriums that were blessedly hushed and cool, like a church before a service with the big blank screen for an altar. Some theaters even concealed the screen behind curtains until the show began, transforming the start of the movie into a minor event. There was always a palpable sense of anticipation in the audience as people realized by ones and twos and threes that the curtains were opening, that it was time. I much preferred this genteel approach that was respectful of both the audience and the films themselves to today's commerce-driven cacophony.
My non-specific movie-going memories seem to contain lots of oranges and golds, but I suppose that's the '70s and early '80s for you. And I remember a distinct dimness in both the houses and the lobby, a lack of illumination, as if every third light bulb in the building were burned out. Who knows, maybe they were. I read somewhere that particularly stingy theater owners in those days sometimes tried to save a buck by dialing back the current flowing into the projector lamps, resulting in a too-dark picture; maybe they unscrewed bulbs in the wall sconces as well.
I can't argue rationally that going to the movies was better when I was a kid. There is no question that modern theaters are more comfortable, the film presentations cleaner, the sound sharper. Nevertheless, I do miss those ticky-tacky "moviehouses" I grew up with. They were cozier and somehow more human than the gargantuan arenas, tremendous screens, and thunderous sound systems we endure today. I liked them, despite their drawbacks. Or perhaps because of them. Because I'm contrary that way.
For a couple hours this week, those long-gone environments didn't seem very far away, as if for a brief time all the years between Now and Then were compressed down to a thin membrane, and if I just raised my arms, I could wrap them around the whole broken-in and worn-down ambiance of that somewhat decadent age.
Not bad for a mediocre programmer that's been largely forgotten, eh? I'm tempted to add Continental Divide to my DVD library just so I can try and recreate this mild form of time travel whenever I need a moment away from this glossy 21st century of ours...