Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

20 May, 2007

I Lost My Sundance Virginity

My Sundance virginity was lost yesterday as The Dulcinea and I took in Paul Verhoeven's Zwartboek (Black Book). I've never exactly been a denizen of Hilldale Mall so I was a bit surprised to see how it has all come together. While no fan of malls am I, it must be said that Hilldale stands in contrast to other instances of urban blight in that the stores are packed together without vast stretches of parking lot between everything. It felt more like a cozy little town than a mall. We found the Sundance Cinema and a parking spot and headed inside. The first thing I thought of seeing the interior with my own eyes was of that Mexican resort in His Kind of Woman. I suppose they don't really have all that much in common architecturally but that's what popped into my head. If you've still not been, there are some photos of the interior accompanying this article at The Daily Page. Not horrible by any means but not really to my taste. (Although those chairs look big and comfy.) The profound lack of things film adorning the walls was a big disappointment. They went more for a Starbucks look than that of a cinema. Even Eastgate, with its horrid contemporary retrofit of an old movie palace, has posters of classic films on the walls while Hilldale Theatres had that old projector in the lobby to contrast with its rather ugly spartan lobby. It just seems odd to me that the ethos of the place has very little to do with cinema. Slap some movie posters up on the walls or some publicity stills of a director and his DP behind the camera. I don't go to the movies as a socialite wanting to be seen. Instead I go there to take in a film and attempt to get lost in the vast skein of cinema.

Next we encountered the much-maligned ticket prices which can read about here. I cannot recall how much the service charge was for our 3:30 showing but the tickets were quite a bit more than what I'd have paid at Westgate. The Sundance folks alone must be left to defend their pricing scheme but I will say that I feel confident that more obscure or esoteric foreign & art films will now make their way to Madison in a more timely manner and it's cheaper for me to go to Sundance than it is for me to drive to Chicago's Music Box Theatre or Gene Siskel Film Center. I look forward to reading reviews by New York critics and not having to pin my hopes (which were all-too often in vain) that the film would be shown here in a few months.

Next stop was the concession stand. I had eaten lunch prior to coming to the theatre so I was just looking for liquid refreshment. I noticed all manner of bottled water and various fancy organic snacks for the more culinary discerning moviegoer. But there was also the traditional popcorn and soda. I must give kudos for the fact that there was Sprecher soda available. Having decided to eschew local coffee roasters, they at least found some way to include Wisconsin comestibles. When they feature a full cheese tasting menu, then I'll be impressed. I got the largest cup of Coke they offered which cost $3.69. Seemed a bit on the cheap side to me.

Cola in hand, we made our way down the tree-lined hallway to our theatre. Sitting down, we found that it still had that smell - that new vinyl smell. Stadium seating is always a big plus and the chairs themselves were quite comfortable. And being six-foot-two, the extra leg room gets high marks in my book. There was a claymation short in media res but a problem with the sound meant that it was silent. So it goes. I wish they'd advertise when the pre-show shorts begin because I'd like to catch them. It's too bad that they're relegated to merely being a distraction to fill the screen while people find their seats instead of being shown as they should be – with the lights down after the previews and before the main attraction. An usher greeted us before the show began and said he was happy to take questions or accommodate us in any way he could. The gentleman took his leave and the curtains pulled back further to reveal a goodly sized screen which was the right size for viewing a film like Black Book with its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I'll review the film later but must say that the absence of those annoying fucking Pepsi commercials was well worth whatever service fee I paid.

As cinema experiences go, Sundance offers a very good one. I'd still like to see more film-related bric-a-brac scattered about, though. I wish they'd promote cinema instead of some kind of Sundance lifestyle. All griping aside, the joint has only been open for little more than a week so there's plenty of tweaking to be done. Regardless of anything else, the cinema's merit will be determined by the films it shows.

Madison's cinema scene is as good as it has been in ages. We've got an IMAX, the UltraScreen at Point and now – what? – 11 or 12 commercial screens showing foreign, art, and independent films? How many does Milwaukee have? Throw in the offerings at the UW and the rooftop screenings at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and you've got film scene that belies our city's relatively small population. While Madison has not gone back to its halcyon days of the early 1970s when there were on the order of 22 film societies on campus, the situation for cinephiles is better now than it has been in a long, long time.

EDIT: I found blog post by UW film prof J.J. Murphy about Sundance. I never had any classes with him so I'm glad to see he now has a blog. He offers his own take and quotes someone with whom I did have classes - Prof. Jim Kreul (although he wasn't a prof back then). I was mulling over the notion that "most people (other than cinephiles) don’t go to the movies anymore". I touched on this notion with regards to Madison previously so I won't revisit my thoughts here. But I do want to mention the 15 April 2007 episode of Media Matters with former UW prof Bob McChesney. He interviewed Benjamin Barber who is out promoting his latest book Consumed:
How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole
. Kreul and Murhphy's comments reminded me of what Barber said about the infantilization of adults regarding film:

[in]2004 - and this is replicated every year - top grossing films worldwide amongst all populations, all tickets sold, adults, old people, young people, teens and so on: Shrek 2, Spider Man 2, the Harry Potter film of that year, and The Incredibles. Four nice films made for teenagers that in fact dominated global markets in every country in the world. For that to happen, adults have to acquire the tastes of teenagers...

Barber's assertion runs counter to that of Kreul & Murphy. The former says that the tastes in film of adults have been modified by marketing to resemble that of teenagers so they eschew "adult fare" in favor of the ilk he mentions. The latter pair assert that adults just don't go to the movies much anymore. Which is it? I honestly don't know that it's necessarily either one or the other rather than a combination of the two. I mean, Spider Man 3 has broken box office records. Is it merely teens getting money from their parents or are the parents going as well? In addition, kid's movies these days contain lots of jokes and references that go way over the heads of the children in the audience. I saw a commercial for Shrek 3 which had a couple guys stumbling out of a carriage followed by billows of smoke. That reference to Fast Times at Ridgemont High is meant for little Johnny's parents, not Johnny himself.

Reading Professor Murphy's comments, I thought about something else regarding Sundance Cinemas. In addition to promoting a Starbucks-like experience over a cinema experience, the theatre did precious little to promote upcoming films. It gave good reasons to head upstairs for a steak dinner but precious little to convince folks to return in the coming weeks for a film that might appeal to them. They need to build some anticipation of what is coming soon by means outside of trailers. It's almost as if the films are tangential to the "scene" or "community" that Sundance seeks to build. Adults will go to adult fare with enough hype and word of mouth. Lots of adults went to see Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance. The novelty of the Sundance Cinemas will eventually wear off so they've got to convince people to come back for the films and not just a bar or bistro.
|| Palmer, 9:29 AM

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