On Netflix, magic, and the American ritual

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Ben Roden

Ben Roden
Asst. Arts & Culture Editor

On Main Street in Logan there used to be a little art house movie theater. Now wait a second – I don’t want you to get the wrong idea when I say “art house.” The place wasn’t vintage-y, or hip, or even particularly clean. There was only one screen, a dimly lit lobby, and a candy counter that never seemed to be fully stocked. The sense that this place was hemorrhaging money was almost perceptible, like a low buzz beneath the hum of the projector. Still, there was something endearing about the theater’s simple, perseverance. It was an uncomplicated place to watch complicated movies, and I spent dozens of weeknights there, watching films too weird or too foreign or too smart for any of Cache Valley’s megaplex chains. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the theater folded in 2008. I read that a couple of students tried to revive it a few years later to no avail. As of last Wednesday, the current owner plans to renovate the building for use as a retail space – he’s looking for renters, in case anyone’s interested. I don’t bring this up to lament the death of the local show house – although maybe you’ll have to put up with that in a future column – but simply to set the stage for one of my favorite memories.

One cold, wet October night, I went to see George Clooney’s excellent drama about Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Cold War witch hunter Joseph McCarthy. Because of the film’s subject matter, and maybe because it was shot in black and white, I was the only person in the theater under 60. As the closing credits rolled and the theater began to empty, I stayed in my seat, scribbling out a basic outline for a review of the film. I noticed an older gentleman seated a few rows in front of me. I wondered if maybe he’d fallen asleep until I heard him singing along to the jazz standards playing over the credits. I sat in silence to the very end of the reel, and this man sang every word to every song, swaying gently and gracefully, quietly weeping. When the screen finally went dark, we stepped out into a gentle, swirling snowfall. As he turned to head north, we looked at one another, and smiled. His cheeks were still wet. I never saw him again.

It’s hard to render the complexity of this moment in writing. I thought about loss. I thought about the overwhelming power of memory. I thought about how and I had, without a word and from opposite ends of life and age, shared our humanity with one another. Years later, it occurs to me that this kind of moment could only have transpired in a movie theater.

Listen, I’m all for a good Netflix binge. I‘m amazed by the technology that lets me access movies instantly on any number of handheld devices. Through internet sources, legal and not-so-legal, I’ve been able to watch incredible films that would be otherwise inaccessible to me. Amid all this wonder and ease and convenience, I have to ponder what we’re asked to sacrifice. Have we forgotten that films are more than just time killers; flashing diversions to get us through workouts and trains rides? Does the magic of flickering celluloid translate to a retina display? If baseball is the American pastime, then surely movie-going is the great American ritual, and that ritual entails exploration, and popcorn, and a floor sticky with old soda.

A plea: the next time your find yourself wandering a digital queue, find the strength to disconnect. Get off your couch. Go out into the world. Find a show house. Find a friend. Go see a movie. Be baptized in spectacle. You owe yourself an adventure.