Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Yes, it’s the time of the year where we watch football, eat turkey and spend time fighting with family members. We watch our stress levels rise every year as we prepare meals for people, argue over politics/society/life/etc. before getting in our cars, blood pressures rising, get halfway home and say, “That was nice, I can’t wait for next year.”
For me, the one thing I’ve always loved about Thanksgiving weekend is my movie/TV watching. From my annual Wednesday double feature of Oscar contenders to my Black Friday/Children’s Movie Extravaganza with my brother to curling up on the couch and watching the biggest specials, like the Friends Thanksgiving specials or the Way-Too-Early Christmas specials (I don’t care how early it is, Rudolph, Frosty and The Grinch should be on year-round). I even manage to get in a couple football games every year. While there are no films as specific as Halloween or as all-around great as Christmas, Thanksgiving might be one of my favorite movie-watching periods of the year.
However, in considering the kind of Top Ten list I wanted to do for this week, I realized that I should really stick to the theme of the holiday: what I’m thankful for. And what I’m thankful for aren’t Thanksgiving specials or themed episodes, or even films released around this time of the year: it’s film in general. I’m talking about the experiences I’ve had in the theater, the movies that have both changed my life and have determined who I am today. So, in the spirit of things, this Wednesday Listicle will focus on my Ten Most Memorable Theater Experiences.
Essentially, this will be a series of short pieces about my time in the movies, focused on the ten times that I will never forget. Some are about how I came to love film. Some are about the great experiences I’ve had with friends. And some are just about how miserable I have been because of bad films. No matter what, these are experiences that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It’s a bit of a different format than the usual Top Ten lists-these will be more focused on a mixture of dramatic, comedic essays, and will serve more as a way for me to experiment in the style. But I hope that you get a kick out of it, and maybe understand not only how I look at films, but why I look at them in this way, as well as why I respond to them in such a way. So, in the order I saw them in theaters, here are Travis’ Ten Most Memorable Theater Experiences:
Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
As I mentioned when I first started this site, my love of film and all things pop culture goes back to my childhood. I’ve always enjoyed movies going back to watching Star Wars and Wizard of Oz on TV. However, if I had to pinpoint a specific moment where I realized that I was hooked, it might have to be the first time I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride had always been my favorite ride as a child going to Disney World (partly because I love Peter Pan, partly because it was historical). So when they announced it was going to become a movie, I was 100% onboard. While must of the film-going community was worried due to rumors of a high budget, a bad script, a lack of stars, etc., I continued to have my excitement grow and grow. And when it was announced it would be PG-13 (at a time when PG-13 actually meant something), it became my mission to make this my first “adult” film. So I convinced my father to take me to see it. And yes, the film is incredible. However, what I didn’t expect was how much I would be taken with the film. I’m of the theory that there’s a mere handful of films that are truly Cinematic Experiences; these are films that combine the best aspects of every genre, allowing for a wide experience that people of every race, creed, gender, and political background can enjoy. It has action, romance, comedy, horror, fantasy, history and, above all, incredibly attractive people having fun. Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow was immediately a national treasure, but let’s not undersell an amazing ensemble: Orlando Bloom playing a great straight man, Geoffrey Rush chewing scenery and having the time of his life, a fantastic group of memorable pirates (including Kevin McNally, Zoe Saldana, Lee Arenberg, and Mackenzie Crook), and, nearly above all, Keira Knightley, who was, along with Princess Leia, was my introduction to fantastic heroes. Sure, she starts out as a “damsel in distress,” but as the film (and the series) goes on, she begins to turn that trope on its head, proving herself smart, capable, and witty (not unlike Leia). The film is a truly enrapturing experience, and while I will be filled with joy every time I see it, I will never forget the first time I saw that movie in theaters, and felt myself truly transported for the first time.
Titanic 3D (2012)
I’m very vocal about not being fond of 3D. With the exceptions of Avatar, Doctor Strange, Gravity, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and MAYBE Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I haven’t really seen a 3D film where it actually makes the film stand out. What I hate even more than egregious 3D is when egregious 3D is added to older films. So when James Cameron (the bravest pioneer) announced that he was rereleasing Titanic in 3D, I was a little annoyed. However, I agreed to go see it for a couple of reasons: 1) Undeniably, Titanic is a spectacle, and it was worth it to see it in IMAX while I had the chance; 2) While I not a big Titanic fan at the time, my brother was. It was his favorite movie. So I decided I would take him over spring break for some brotherly bonding. We showed up to the theater and bought two tickets to see the film; growing up in a conservative area, we got a lot of side eye from the ticket girl, but nevertheless things went off without a hitch. As it turns out, teens are not clamoring to see a fifteen-year old film, so it ended up just being us and about four teens who texted the entire time. This allowed us to choose the Best Seats In The Theater. For those who don’t know, these are the seats that allow for the best experience in blockbusters. They are located in the very middle of the theater, allowing the screen to be the only thing filling your peripherals. What’s more, the location allows for the sound to properly ricochet directly to you, allowing the sounds, score, and dialogue to ring in your ears at its highest caliber. As it turns out, this makes all the difference. I felt myself literally transported to the deck of the Titanic, watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet act their little hearts out. Each collapsing bridge, crunching metal, and echoing wail from Celine Dion made our seats shake underneath us, leaving us in awe at what we were witnessing. And during the famous “Nearer My God To Thee” scene, where the passengers still on the ship accept their fate as the band plays, I leaned over to tell my brother-who fancies himself a tough individual-that the scene was much more affecting on the big screen. The exchange went as follows: “Man, I’ve gotta admit, this scene is a lot sadder on the…wait, are you crying.” “No. *sniffs* Shut up! *sobs*.” Frankly, I don’t blame him. These all attributed to my eventual change in opinion over the film-I now admit that I love it, and have seen it multiple times. However, if you ask me what made this film so unique, I would have to credit the 3D. About halfway through the film, during some scene where Leo faces off with Billy Zane, I thought to myself, Ok, yes. This film looks gorgeous on the big screen. But I still don’t see how the 3D is necessary…” As I think this to myself, one of the teens walks down to the front aisle to use the bathroom. As he does so, I watched as he-I swear to God-walked right between Leo and Zane. This is how incredible Cameron made the depth perception on his film-while I didn’t realize it at first, it allowed for Leo to jut so far off the screen that someone appeared to walk in front of him. And I can’t even begin to talk about the Smokestack Scene, where I had to throw my hands up out of sheer reflex. Say what you will about James Cameron, say what you will about his over-the-top tendencies, but the man understands how to make a blockbuster, and he understands how to use 3D. And that is why I will never forget the time I saw Titanic on the big screen.
The Dark Knight Trilogy (2012)
Every generation and every decade has its cultural cornerstone. The films where something groundbreaking happens and people begin to turn out in droves. During the 70s/early 80s, it was Star Wars. During the late 80s, it was Back to the Future. The 90s kind of slacked, but they came back strong in the early 2000s to give that generation the Lord of the Rings. And if you’re a member of the current generation, Marvel owns your soul. However, if you were someone coming of age in the late-aughts, then there was only one series that was a cultural staple for you: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. It all started in 2005 when the then-mostly unknown Nolan decided to bring Batman back to the big screen, but in a pseudo-realistic way. He toned down the sillier aspects of the character (gone are elements of sci-fi and fantasy, like the Lazarus Pit and falling into a vat of acid), while playing up the grittier aspects, focusing on the mob, terrorism, and other modern-day threats for Batman to fight. When he made The Dark Knight in 2008, the world went crazy, as blockbusters rarely combined the genres of crime, epic, noir, comic book and thriller to create such a well-rounded filmic experience. So when it was announced that the third one would not only be filmed in IMAX, but would close out the series, I knew I would have to do everything in my power to see it. I made sure to order tickets early for my brother and myself, and inadvertently (or subconsciously) bought tickets to the eight-hour Dark Knight Trilogy, shown in its entirety on an IMAX screen. While I was a little annoyed at having to shill out the extra money it would take to see it, once I got to the theater, I knew I’d made the right call. The theater was sold out, allowing me to experience the film with a proper crowd, increasing my ability to enjoy the film (try disliking a film in a full audience-it’s damn difficult), and to watch it from a pair of decent seats (upper right, near the aisle, if you want specifics). My brother showed up a little later, in full Joker makeup (it looked cool, but remember: this was The Dark Knight Rises did not feature, in any way, The Joker, so…wrong film), and we sat back to enjoy the full journey. For the record, Batman Begins holds up a lot better on subsequent viewings, and The Dark Knight is even better in IMAX. We were granted a fifteen-minute bathroom break in between screenings, where we got to interact with our neighbors. There was the bitchy mom and her bratty son who got into an altercation with a man the kid stole from. There was the group of obese nerds in front of us objectifying the women, explaining how they knew more films about everyone else in the theater, and I’m fairly certain now belong to the MRA, explaining how female video game critics don’t understand “ethics in journalism.” And there was the normal thirty-something man sitting next to me who spent most of the time looking at the people around him trying to figure out how he could have screwed up so much that he was seeing this film with these freaks. However, when the final film began, everyone managed to quiet down to watch the end of an era. Sure, the film has its problems, and sure, we can debate for days on end if that ending lives up to the hype (I liked it, but I understand detractors), and a few hours later we would all discover what had happened over in Colorado that forever tainted the evening; but for a couple hours, we were all mesmerized as a series that had forever changed cinema came to an end. And I’ll never regret the eight hours I spent in a theater one warm July evening.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
I am a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. They are incredibly smart, funny, thrilling, well-made films. So when Peter Jackson announced he was going to make a Hobbit Trilogy, and it would star Martin Freeman, I was immediately onboard. And then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came out. And it was terrible. And I walked out. I couldn’t finish it-it was so bad, it was ruining the series I loved so much. I vowed I would never see another Hobbit movie, in order to protect my beloved series. However, as we reached December 2013, my best friend began to pester me about seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with her. At first I said no. I couldn’t do it. But my friend is incredibly persistent, and she asked me every day for a month. Finally, one night, when I was trapped on campus alone as we trained during swim, she asked me if I was interested in going to see The Hobbit that evening with her. I had nothing better to do, and I had no excuse not to hang out with her. What’s more, we hadn’t had a quiet night just hanging out in a long time. So I caved, and I said yes. Evening arrived, and I was waiting for her to come pick me up. The call came early:
“Hey, we’re outside.”
“Yeah, my boyfriend is coming too.”
“Wait…am I third-wheeling your date?”
“Oh, no. Don’t worry. My sister’s coming too.”
Now, her sister is my other best friend, so I shrugged and said, “Ok, that’ll be fine.” What I didn’t realize until halfway to the theater was that the sister was also in a relationship at the time. And the two were inseparable. And he would be there too. So no, I was not third-wheeling a date, as I was originally afraid of. I was fifth-wheeling. I bought my popcorn and noticed an open row in the area I normally like to sit. It was one row in front of my friends. The sisters had saved one open seat between them, and began motioning me over. Their boyfriends both were staring at me with bemused reactions. I weighed my options and ended up choosing the open row, to their sadness and their boyfriends’ relief. It was probably for the best-I heard them laughing and gleeful throughout the film, and my cynicism would have pulled them down. It was slightly better than the previous film, but not by much. After the film, they asked if I liked it, and I told them, “Well, I didn’t walk out this time.” And that’s a true response, but it also speaks more to my mindset at the film. In all honesty, as much as I disliked the film, as much as I was petrified at the prospect of fifth-wheeling a double date, I would have gone to see any film if those two had asked. They are my best friends, and I wouldn’t give up that quality time for anything, even if it means sitting through a garbage film. At the very least, it’s a great party story to tell. I feel I should note that neither of those boyfriends are still around. Time moves on, and things change. But I still talk to those two on a daily basis. And I wouldn’t change that for anything. (Also, I have never seen a Hobbit film again. I haven’t bothered with the third one, and probably never will).
Frozen Sing-Along (2014)
As you can tell, these stories have moved on from shaping my life to petrifying experiences filled with humor. This can be seen with the one time I went to see Frozen in theaters. I’m not referring to the first time I saw Frozen opening weekend. I’m not referring to the second time, when I went to see it with my swim team. I’m referring to the third time I paid to see Elsa sing “Let It Go” on the big screen. This time was special, however: I was going to the sing-along. Because despite only being in theaters for two months, I already knew every damn word to that soundtrack by heart. I really liked Frozen, you guys. So I tried to rally my friends to drive out to the local theater to join me in Letting It Go. I mean, we were in the middle of training, so it wasn’t like we could go out and party anyway. Well, as it turns out, there was a hockey game that day. So my friends bailed. Which meant, as a nearly 20-year old man, I had to walk into a theater, alone, past several mothers with their young children. What’s worse, as a men’s team act of bonding, we had all grown out our facial hair. And mine came in ungroomed. So there I was, walking to the front of the theater, past a group of kids, alone, with a scraggly beard and mustache. This alone would be enough embarrassment to make me remember this for life. However, the story doesn’t end there. No, instead, I began belting out every single every single word to every single song, only to slowly realize that I was the only one singing. So, to recap: 20-year old bearded man, in the middle of a sea of young children, screaming every word to “Let It Go,” as they all sit there in silence. But you know what? As ridiculous as this was, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I got to see a movie I love, and I got to sing a series of fantastic songs in a judgment-free zone. No matter how embarrassing things got, I’ll always appreciate that ability.
Trans4mers: Age of Extinction (2014)
Most of these stories have been about good film experiences. Now for one of my worst. A few years back, my brother set up a new tradition every year for his birthday, he would take me to a bad movie that he desperately wants to see, forcing me to pay for him to see a movie that makes me miserable. An example of this would be 2015’s The Gallows. However, our most infamous expedition was our 2014 outing, when I took him to see Trans4mers: Age of Extinction. I had not seen any Transformers film after the first one, which I actually thoroughly enjoyed. My brother had seen the first two, and was excited at the prospect of robot dinosaur cars. So I decided to take him to see it in IMAX for his birthday. I was soon exposed to the flat out worst movie I have ever seen. Mark Wahlberg’s acting is atrocious, a barely-eighteen year old Nicola Peltz plays a sixteen year old girl overtly sexualized throughout, to disgusting effect, the robots became more and more uninteresting as the film wore on, and the few strong sequences of the film were stolen from other films (the opening is a shot-for-shot remake of Prometheus). The only source of joy in this entire film was T.J. Miller, who dies 30 minutes in (I’m not worried about spoilers because you should never see this movie). And then this film goes on for another two and a half hours. That’s right, this is a nearly three-hour film. So not only is it terrible, it also has the audacity to be offensively long. I may not remember this movie for the right reasons, but I will always remember where I was sitting when I saw the worst film ever made, hands down.
The Room (2014)
Speaking of bad movies: The Room. The Room is not so much a movie as it is an experience. Written, directed, starring, and self funded by Tommy Wiseau, The Room is widely considered one of the worst films ever made by its critics and as a humorous masterpiece a la Rocky Horror by its fans. My brother and I are two of these people. And in 2014, we were blessed with the opportunity to drive a few hours out to attend a midnight screening of the film with Wiseau in attendance. We drove out to the theater and checked into a hotel, ordering ourselves the exact pizza from the film: half pineapple with Canadian Bacon, half pesto with artichoke hearts, light on the cheese. Fun fact: this pizza tastes a lot better than we expected. Around 10:00pm, we drove out to the theater and waited in line to meet the legend himself. I was dressed as Tuxedo Mark, my brother went as Jogging Mark (he later realized he could have passed for Denny and sulked the rest of the night). We chatted with others in line, tried to play football with others (it went poorly), and waited anxiously for Tommy to sign our products (which he made us buy if you wanted to meet him). As it turns out, Tommy is an incredibly kind and loving man, if a little odd and egotistical. He joked with us, pretended to strangle my brother, hugged me, and took a series of photos. He also held a Q & A, where he answered my question about the development of the music in the film with “We make it ourselves. Next question,” as well as treated us to an early look at his new TV series Neighbors (now on Hulu, and God is it great). The movie itself played as expected-so it was highly entertaining and filled with great people, and I even started the beloved chant of “F*ck That Dress!” which will forever be a high point in my life. However, the film itself wasn’t what was important. What was important was my brother and I went on a voyage to have our lives changed. And thanks to continuous lessons in not judging things based on their appearance (Tommy, the food, etc.), it was. I’ll always be grateful for My Time With Tommy.
The Imitation Game (2015)
Not every experience in the theater has been a wholly pleasant one for me. Sometimes my experience is melancholic, or bittersweet. This was the case in 2015, when I went to see The Imitation Game. I had already seen the film once before, in late 2014. I had gone in with low expectations, and found myself won over by the great filmmaking, strong writing, and fantastic performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. However, what perhaps won me over the most was the great portrayal of the relationship between Cumberbatch’s Turing and Keira Knightley’s Joan. As someone who has always had (or preferred) female friends, the relationship between Alan and Joan played like many friendships of my own, including the one with my best friend (the sister in the previously mentioned Hobbit story). I even saw myself in the way Alan Turing was portrayed. Yes, yes, I know what you’re saying, that’s really egotistical, and I’m not exactly a highly intelligent gay mathematician. However, there was something about the socially awkward aspect, the well-meaning but egotistically sharp aspect of Alan that made me see myself in him. Of course, I said all this to myself in jest, not really fully opening that door. However, things changed upon second viewing. During the few months betwenn these two viewings, my friend and I had gone our separate ways. She was leaving school, and I felt guilty because the last time we had seen each other in person we had been in a bit of an argument. I don’t remember what it was about, all I know is that my ego made it worse than it actually was. All I knew is that I wouldn’t see her in person again for a long time. During a long week where my team got into a vicious argument over which movie to see (and which movie was morally right to see) between American Sniper and Imitation Game, I led a small group of “rebels” to see Cumberbatch’s performance. The group consisted of about four friends of varying filmic tastes and backgrounds. As the film began, things were going smoothly. There’s a point early in the film where Alan, who is very precise and specific with things, separates his food on his plate-a trait I myself possess. This was a moment I had jokingly noted, “Oh, it’s me” upon first viewing. However, as this scene played out, I finally felt a shift in the theater. I turned to see all of my friends staring at me with grins on their face. This was a friendly, funny gesture, and one I still laugh at to this day. However, what I don’t often mention is that their tacit acknowledgment of the similarities opened the floodgates for me. I suddenly saw myself onscreen everywhere: not only in the action of separating his food, but in Alan’s relationship with Matthew Goode’s character, which mirrored my tumultuous relationship with my best male friend, his inability to connect with other people, and his ambitious tenacity driven by a desire to change things. It was every aspect of my being-my behavior with friends, with people, and with my writing (it’s not the same as creating computers or winning a war through math, but it’s important to me, dammit). And when a scene comes late in the film where Alan alienates and verbally hurts Joan, forcing her to leave him for several years, it broke me emotionally. I had followed in the footsteps of this character, and I was afraid I’d be doomed to his life of misunderstood and isolated “genius.” It should be noted that I still keep in touch with this friend to this day, and I am once again capable of watching this film without becoming emotional. But for me, I’ll never forget the way that film made me feel in that time, in that place, surrounded by friends.
It Follows (2015)
It Follows was one of the best films of 2015. It was a highly intelligent, impeccably atmospheric little horror movie that floored me with its technical prowess and great performances. I actually had a chance to see this one in a little indie theater in Michigan. I’m not sure how many of you have seen the film, or know this about the film, but it actually takes place in Michigan. A scene comes up early in the film where the main girl goes on a date. As the scene takes place, the boyfriend makes several comments about a woman in the theater that both Jay (Maika Monroe) and the audience can’t see. Soon the boyfriend begins to panic, and he rushes the girl-and the camera-out of the theater. This is a fantastic little horror sequence, as it builds the audience’s tension with what they can’t see, and what our heroine can’t see, creating a fear of the unknown. It’s a simple filmmaking trick, but one I can’t get enough of. However, there’s another layer that exists for members of the audience with me that day. As it turns out, that scene in the movie takes place in the very theater we were sitting in. And that is what makes for a great movie experience: when you no longer feel safe in the theater you are sitting in, knowing that whatever is about to happen theoretically “happened” several feet from where you are sitting. It’s childish, I know, to believe that movies like this can actually happen, and I at no point felt I was in any danger. But knowing that I was watching the movie in the very theater onscreen made for one of the most unique theater experiences of my life.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Yes, yes, I’m sure many of you have this exact same film on your list. The Force Awakens was a true cultural phenomenon, taking the world by storm in a way that not many people from this generation can comprehend. It was a chance for fans like me to have their favorite characters return for one last hurrah, as well as to introduce a younger group to have their world changed the way every generation before them has. And I got to share it with a small group of guys each as excited as me. There were six of us in total: my best friend, a good friend, my best friend’s roommate, the roommate’s friend, the roommate’s friend’s brother, and myself. We ordered our tickets two months early and pushed off our departure from school to make sure that we could see the film first and see the film best. Many of us had exams that day, but we couldn’t focus or study under these circumstances (don’t worry, Mom, I still got an A). I made arrangements for us all to leave for the theater three hours early. This plan was originally mocked, but that attitude mellowed out when everyone realized that we got the best seats in the theater and waiting another hour as was suggested would have cost us the seats. We chatted and joked for a good period of time building up to 7:00pm, but things quieted down as the lights dimmed. And that’s when the music kicked in, and everything changed. We sat there in stunned silence as the movies that once wowed us, changed us, and made us once again danced across our screen, complete with the sense of magic and wonder we’d missed for 32 years. Sure, it was a bit derivative, and perhaps a bit too long, but for the moment, we were allowed to enjoy a moment of pure escapism, and feel like children one more time. And I wouldn’t wish to see that film with anyone else.
Well, I hope you enjoyed the list of my most memorable theater experiences. These are the reasons I am thankful for going to the movies: whether you laugh, cry, or are embarrassed, they are filled with moments that make you feel, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. What about you? Do you have any Theater Memories that have had an impact on your life? Have any comments on mine? Leave them in the comments so we can all share how film makes us thankful! Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.