Friday, July 27, 2012

No better moviegoing memories: A defense of and celebration of midnight movie screenings...

"I want you to know that, if I did have a son, and the opportunity presented itself to wake him up to watch a baseball game or to listen to the president on the radio, or for absolutely no reason at all..."

The Colorado theater shooting happened just over a week ago, during a period when I was out of town and thus unable to churn out any immediate thoughts.  In retrospect, I may be grateful for that.  Mass shootings are an all-too common occurrence in America, but this time felt different.  I've long argued that one of the problems with American society is that they tend to make every major tragedy and/or scandal about them, something that arguably goes back to the death of Princess Diana Spencer in August 1997.  Yet this time I couldn't help feeling like I had been specifically targeted.  After all, these weren't just moviegoers, but midnight moviegoers.  They weren't just midnight moviegoers, but midnight moviegoers watching a Batman film.  Whether by random decision (Holmes had allegedly intended to attack a shopping mall but changed his mind) or explicit targeting, the assailant this time around specifically picked people like me and you.  The readers of this site are arguably not general moviegoers per-se, but just the sort that flock to midnight screenings as a matter of habit.  And James Holmes, for reasons that may or may not become apparent over the next few months, didn't just commit mass murder in a place I consider sacred.  No, he opened fire and shed blood during a midnight screening, of a Batman film no less.  And as the week has seen all sorts of the usual finger-pointing, much of it being the usual 'the movies made him do it' nonsense that we haven't seen much of since Columbine.  But more than a little of the blame-game has been directed at the very institution of midnight screenings and the fevered anticipation that makes them so enjoyable, however absurd that seems on its face. Intentional or no, Mr. Holmes has sullied and bloodied an institution that I hold very dear, an institution that I someday hope to share with my children when the opportunity presents itself.  As such, right or wrong, I'm taking that just a little bit personally.

"Nothing beats a midnight screening!"  I've uttered some variation on that sentence any number of times over the last couple decades, usually including 'advance-night screenings' in that category at well.  And it remains true to this day.  It's the sheer excitement of seeing a major film arguably before any other paying customers have had their crack at it.  It's the thrill of seeing such a film in a packed audience of fans who are just as excited as you are.  Some of them were in costume, most obviously were not.  In the era before the Internet, it was the incomparable thrill of seeing a major movie before you had any idea what the critical consensus was or really what occurred in the film outside of the major marketing materials (trailers, TV spots, and uh... tie-in music videos).  Back in the day, newspapers often didn't print reviews until Friday morning.  That week's Entertainment Weekly usually didn't arrive until Friday morning at the earliest.  Since the Internet didn't become a hardcore source of advance movie buzz until around 1997, anyone lucky enough to attend such a screening walked into the film completely blind to its strengths and its flaws.  It went both ways of course.  My dad and I walked into Jurassic Park ignorant of its sheer awesomeness while five years later several friends and I walked into Godzilla unprepared for the sheer mediocrity in store.  How cool it was to attend a midnight screening of Batman Forever and then wake up the next morning to read the reviews.

But putting aside the 'see it before the reviews publish' sensation that obviously isn't a factor anymore, there was always something genuinely exciting about it.  I remember my parents hesitating about taking me to see Batman Returns at a 9pm Thursday screening (my first advance/midnight screening ever) because I already had plans to see it that Saturday at a friend's birthday party.  On the inside I remember thinking "Are you kidding me?  You gives a crap if I'm going to see it again on Saturday?  Hi, I'm Scott Mendelson, have we not met before?".  I remember my dad racing home from a business trip to surprise me and take me to 10pm advance-night screening of Jurassic Park and having to hurriedly finish reading the book before he got home to pick me up.  For any number of reasons, which I'll get into next year, it was the best movie-going experience of my life.  I remember seeing Mission: Impossible in a mostly empty advance-night screening (back in those days, they were not heavily advertised and I had to call the theatres ahead of time) along with one of my dad's National Guard pals and getting the added benefit of running into a girl I had a thing for and actually having something to talk to her about the next day at school.  I remember my dad driving up to Wright State University to attend a midnight showing of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones with my college pals (I eventually hit all three Star Wars prequels at midnight). And I remember that midnight showing of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, packed to the gills with hardcore fans who so wildly applauded every remotely triumphant moment that some of us applauded Theoden's tragic death out of satirical spite (you had to be there...).

If you were friends with me in middle school, high school, and/or college and beyond, there is a good chance you've been roped along for at least one of these alongside me over the years.  From 1995 to 2006, I've been to at least thirteen midnight screenings that I can recall (Batman Forever, The Phantom Menace, X-Men, Attack of the Clones, The Two Towers, Return of the King, Van Helsing, Spider-Man 2, The Village,  Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, X-Men: The Last Stand, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and Clerks 2).  From 1992 to 2011, I've been to countless advance-night screenings (offhand, Batman Returns, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Independence Day, The Lost World, Godzilla, Austin Powers 2, Austin Powers 3, The Matrix Reloaded, Superman Returns, Snakes On A Plane, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Transformers, The Hangover part II, Paranormal Activity 3, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). I'm sure there are readers who have been to far more than that. Obviously the midnight screenings came to an end as I readied myself for my first child.  And the advance screenings have become less necessary as I've seen more and more films via press screenings.  But it remains easily my favorite movie-going experience.  When my kids are old enough, I can only hope that they find themselves wanting to partake in the same ritual that their father did so many years ago.  There has been much hand-wringing over the last week about why young kids were at a midnight screening in the first place.  The first answer is "because they weren't expecting to be shot at during the movie, you asshole!".  The second answer is because the opportunity presented itself, as it did for me so many times over the last twenty years.              

So I take it a little personally when a disturbed young man takes it upon himself to permanently soil something that I love.  And I take it even more personally when pundits attempt to paint the midnight screening experience as someone partially responsible for the actions of a heavily-armed assailant. I don't fear the costumed moviegoer, only the heavily-armed costumed moviegoer.  Midnight and advance-night screenings make up some of the best movie-going memories of my life.  I don't pretend that my anger or 'grief' compares to those directly affected, but Mr. Holmes's apparently arbitrary choice of target has, for what it's worth, indeed affected me despite not directly involving me. I can only hope that when my kids are old enough that I can take them to see whatever movie they are most excited about at midnight if they so chose it.  But if they have no interest, so be it.  There will be other reasons to let them stay up late.  Baseball games, rock concerts, watching the Olympics or election night coverage, or watching the season finale of their favorite television show instead of waiting the next day.  It's arguably different for everybody, but 'that special thing' for me was 'the midnight/advance-night' screening.  

Why did these people, parents and non-parents alike, choose to see The Dark Knight Rises at midnight last week?  Because it was going to be fun, because it was going to be exciting, because it was going to create a lasting memory.  Because... for absolutely no reason at all.

Scott Mendelson

1 comment:

Brandon Peters said...

I remember in 2006, we had plans to go see Snakes on a Plane at midnight. I believe a week prior, because of our workplace at the time, we were able to view it. We could have easily dropped our midnight plans, but no, it actually enhanced our desire to see it at midnight.

You almost truly have not experienced the heights of movie-going until you've seen a highly anticipated film with a midnight movie audience in Los Angeles. Those audiences can and do happen in other places, but its few and far between and not as consistent.


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