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Dispatches From The Dollar Theater

Dispatches From The Dollar Theater

A van pulls into the parking lot of the dollar theater. A message is written on the side: “Jesus Loves, Rescues, and Restores.” An old man gets out and walks to the posters lining the walls of the theater. He gets up close and studies every poster, pausing for awhile on Thor and pausing a little longer on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Then he walks back to the van and drives off. It’s ten at night on a Monday.

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At the back end of the parking lot where the lights don’t work, a man who lives out of his truck is sitting in a folding chair, watching something on an iPod, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Down the way a bit, a guy and two girls are sitting on the hood of a busted-up Civic, passing a bottle of Smirnoff around and listening to the radio. Almost everybody drinks at almost every movie theater, but here there’s no pretense. There are discarded liquor bottles of all shapes and sizes in the parking lot, tossed in the gravel and rarely cleaned, like the ruins of a street festival after all the vendors leave.

Inside, a skeleton staff. One guy working the popcorn maker and the other guy taking tickets. Tickets are basically on the honor system, and so’s popcorn after the popcorn guy goes home. But if you’re hammered, be discreet about it. One kid wasn’t discreet about it, and he’s sitting on a bench by the bathroom with his hood pulled over his head. His mother is berating him.

“Are you drunk?”
“Uh-uh.”
“Answer me. Open your mouth and use it to make words. Are you drunk?”
“Nuh.”
“So that bottle of LIQUOR, the kind I found in your closet, the kind next to your car, that’s not yours? You’re sober and I’m an idiot?”
“Okay, so, I’m not anything…”
“Look. Look me in the eyes. Don’t come home tonight. Figure something out.”

She goes up to the popcorn guy. “Don’t let him sleep in here.” Then she’s gone and he ducks into the first available movie. It’s a pretty typical night, really. This part of town fell on hard times a few years ago and not much is left – a hodgepodge of boutiques that are out of business or stay in business out of stubbornness. The dollar theater is one of the only places standing, because it attracts stragglers. It’s a place to stand around cars and smoke and drink and watch a movie – here defined as a mixture of light, sound, and air conditioning – afterward.

This place has no pretensions. I don’t feel judged for flunking out of school or being too poor to buy anything. When everything went to shit, I didn’t feel like the cops were gonna knock on my window while I was sleeping in my truck. It’s a reliable mechanism for killing a night when the library’s closed and you can’t afford bars.

Also, it’s pop culture utterly stripped of artifice. The nice theater across town has security guards, giant screens, spectacular sound, rules of etiquette, and fancy chairs. I saw Silver Linings Playbook at that theater, and the screen was so big and the chairs so fancy that I briefly thought I was watching a good movie. Here I can watch a movie and be cognizant of the fact that I’m just paying for light, sound, and air conditioning.

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So with expectations properly lowered, I can go watch a bomb and, just for kicks, figure out what’s wrong with it. This time: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which came as close as a family movie can to infuriating me.

I sit down, and the kid from earlier is sitting in the back. We’re the only ones there. The movie is so anachronistic as to be striking. Ultimately it’s a fan-made 2004 Arcade Fire music video with jokes that would be rejected from a Nissan commercial and a message that belongs at a small-market TED Talk. But that wasn’t the infuriating part.

What’s infuriating is the message: life is full of wonder, and you should always dare to dream, if you are upper-middle-class and live in a major urban area. The protagonist, Walter Mitty, who perhaps in some early draft of the movie was probably inspired by the James Thurber character but certainly isn’t now, is a small man. He’s so small that he only works behind-the-scenes at a nationally distributed magazine in Midtown Manhattan. He’s so small that he’s single. He’s so small that he’s wistful. There are lots of scenes where he drifts out of conversations, so disillusioned is he by living in Midtown Manhattan, and complains about being alive as he walks past Radio City Music Hall, because that’s what regular, small people do. They walk around national landmarks being sad but with an essentially stable housing arrangement.

And how do small people, with the access afforded to them by a major urban area, become self-actualized? Well, they not only fly on airplanes, but they have passports and go to Greenland and have amazing adventures. Self-actualized people travel and see the world. You will only be happy if you go on a $15,000 journey of self-discovery where you meet wacky people who Teach You Things in the touristy parts of other countries. Live in the moment, man. The moment you created by flying to Europe and wearing a North Face jacket and going to expensive bars with your upwardly mobile peers. Travel.

Never mind the narcissism of Ben Stiller’s directing and acting. Never mind the idea that somebody so shredded, with such a meticulous 5 o’clock shadow, who works in Midtown Manhattan, is essentially a fairytale to those who don’t live in Santa Monica or summer in the Hamptons. Never mind the sexist message that women will come running if you make the world’s most sociopathic eHarmony profile and just list all the countries where you’ve gone on the magical adventure of being a white dude. This is a movie where America is Los Angeles and New York, where upward mobility still exists, and “the world” is anywhere the privileged are comfortable taking an Instagram photo. It’s the worst kind of fairytale: a baby boomer fairytale. The kind that shouldn’t exist anymore.

Finally, after being subjected to two hours of perfectly composed boomer fetishism, me and the kid staggered out of the theater. He turned toward me and asked for some money.

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“Hey, I’m stuck.”
“Yeah, me too.”

Then I walked off to my truck. And he just stood there in the dark.

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