or: How Salt Lake Film Society Broke My Anti-Movie Will
I was that girl. The Pact Girl. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. I was the girl in school who made people take oaths over just about anything. Lock pinkies and promise to recreate this exact Ace of Base dance routine next year. Give me a spit handshake and refuse to buy your first bra till the leaves of the aspen have turned a golden yellow. That girl.
One of my biggest pact platforms concerned movies. Movies, in my view, were so much pablum, dissociations and death wishes from an adventure-starved suburban middle class. People watched movies because they wanted their life to be like the movies, but they weren’t brave enough to be their own director. Movies were replacements, displacements, anything but the real thing. Movies had to be obliterated, via socially compelled boycott.
Pulp Fiction? Is that a movie title or fake orange juice?
Sure, I had my weaknesses, but you can’t just wave a dismissive hand at Jurassic Park. You sit down sticky-floored in a strip-mall theater and you watch it five times like the good American you are. We’re talking about velociraptors, after all. Pact-hunters. They eat self-righteous vows for a mid-morning snack.
But eventually the floors out-stickied my patriotic duty, and I was back to my pact-making ways. In high school, I simply did not watch movies. It was forbidden. Don’t ask me about The Matrix. Machines who live off human body heat? Nah, I’m a blue-pill kind of guy. Forrest whom? And a box of what? Pulp Fiction? Is that a movie title or fake orange juice?
I have a friend who once met Leonardo DiCaprio. She decided it would be good to ask him what he did for a living. He said he worked in the industry. She asked which industry, specifically. He said film. She asked him if he’d been in any movies she’d recognize. (This was at the time when most theaters were only playing Titanic.) Somehow the good man played it cool.
The only difference between my friend and me is that I wouldn’t have been playing possum.
In other words, I was bad at parties. Someone would quote Seinfeld and I’d change the subject to post-colonial theory. “Hey, everybody, it’s Ashley ‘Party Foul’ Sanders!” I could bear the party bans. What I couldn’t bear was being bad at Trivial Pursuit.
At first, I simply needed to know who directed Fargo. (It’s the Coen brothers. Pink wedge.) I wanted to be a cinematic Ken Jennings, studying movie facts late into the night before bursting onto the world stage in a shower of smarts and money.
This, of course, led to watching more movies in the name of research, which led to simply watching more movies, which led to no showers of money whatsoever.
But let’s not focus on that. Let’s focus on the fact that most of the movies I was watching were still at sticky-floored theaters in vacuous strip malls featuring plot lines where macho men saved females from both doom and themselves as heads rolled. I would emerge from those theaters trivia-armed but world-weary, and shout, “There has to be something else!”
I shouted this because it seemed like something someone in a bad movie would do before a contrived plot device saved them from their woeful situation. I was no less lucky. My deus ex machina was a friend who introduced me to the Salt Lake Film Society.
The Salt Lake Film Society is no big deal, unless you think it’s a big deal that a lean, mean, shoestring non-profit machine manages two indie film theaters, offers a vast rental archive spanning works from Ingmar Bergman to Sofia Coppola, stages hundreds of free screenings, visiting artists discussions, film workshops and live productions, and even wrassles together a Sound of Music sing-a-long each year.
“That’s it?!” you exclaim, not yet willing to trade in your fluorescent movieplex for the cinematic unknown. “Do they even show ten films from ten nations to 600 high school students annually?” Why yes. “Well do they screen children’s films to 1000-plus low-income kids a year?” Uh huh. “What about free wassail at Christmastime?!” Trust, my friend. You’re home.
I could tell these people meant business by the carpet alone -- a beaten-down nod to motels everywhere that seemed, in its humble nature, to say: "It's not about me. Look up, child."
For the uninitiated, the Salt Lake Film Society is like a drug dealer for movie-goers addicted to independent, arthouse, foreign and otherwise groundbreaking films. Aesthetic junkies unsatisfied by formulaic rom-coms and Michael Bay ’splosions. It does so in two theaters. One, Broadway Centre Cinemas, is downtown at 300 South and State, a large, glassy affair with six screens. The second, Tower Theatre, is a real throwback — the kind of theater your grandma talks about in the same sentence as streetcars, replete with a neon marquee, one screen and a nondescript, shave-and-a-haircut sort of entrance. The theater’s at home the historic 9th & 9th district, where bougie stores shoulder up against counterculture relics. The first time I went there, as my pacting had begun to ebb, I felt canny just by showing up. A genuine, no-parents type feeling; popcorn-and-Coke liberation. I could tell these people meant business by the carpet alone — a beaten-down nod to motels everywhere that seemed, in its humble nature, to say: “It’s not about me. Look up, child.” I did, and I found shelves upon shelves of cinematic history along with friendly, bespectacled humans with ready answers to all my questions about German Expressionism.
If the carpet means business, SLFS employees mean biznass. In a low-wage labor of love, they are ever-willing to debate the merits of Italian Neorealism vs. French New Wave. Try them. I dare you. These people have to pass a test to work there, for crying out loud, and they are chomping at the bit to tell you how Tarantino’s concept of aestheticized violence has evolved from his early to late work. In other words, they’ll make you feel like you got a liberal arts degree for a reason.
Or maybe you graduated from college five years ago, thank you very much, and only interact with theory-heads when you have to kick them in the face. That’s okay. Broadway and Tower still have fare for you. (Right down to their concessions-fare, which ranges from standard buttery popcorn to San Pellegrino soda and imported dark chocolate.) Think of the films as parables that you can engage on any level you’d like. Want to talk to someone about the immersive quality of long, unedited shots? Head to the lobby and chat up someone in a black T-shirt and blazer. Simply want to watch long, unedited shots build to the tune of erratic drumbeats in Iñárritu’s Birdman? Be their guest.
Also, hot dogs. Really good hot dogs.
I love movies now. My heart has changed. Maybe I’ll make a movie about my transformation. It will be called Dr. Estrangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Pacting and Love Da Bomb. Robert Redford will call, his eyes rheumy with tears, and tell me how happy he is to have helped even one sticky-shoed starfish. The Salt Lake Film Society will premiere my heart-wrenching bildungsroman to low-income school kids, who will in turn learn the danger of swearing absurd oaths.
Except that I am incorrigible, and will never relinquish the pact. In fact, I have one for you now: Go to a nearby humongoplex, prick your finger under the neon lights, spin three times, stretch your arms out wide and say, “There’s no place like the Broadway. There’s no place like the Tower.”