Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Worst Theater in New York

          Of the outer-boroughs, the neighborhood I have always found the most straightforward and relaxing is Sunnyside, Queens. Straightforward because it makes no pretensions about being an outlet to a highway—where Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard join with route 495—but it takes advantage of this commerce, making it a sort of compressed streak of the kind of ethnic food and small business-meets-large retail stores you might find in the rest of Queens, all lined up on either side of the train tracks. Relaxing because of all the space, trees, homey brick buildings and relative quiet. I have never felt unsafe there; I have even walked home through the neighborhood late at night, and it seemed to honestly say; ‘Yup, I look pretty shady now, don’t I? But don’t worry. We cool.’
            Yet Sunnyside is also home to the Sunnyside Center Cinemas, a seldom-visited movie theater with a fairly incredible reputation. Incredible here means horrible. It has an average three-star rating from a mere thirty-six reviews. Reviews read: “Between the overpriced multiplexes and places like this…no wonder people wait for the DVD releases;” “Worst movie theater I’ve ever been to. I don’t care that the tickets are $7.50. This place is a f-ing dump;” “What more could you ask for even if you’re kind of desperate…and maybe a little drunk;” “Gross.” Indeed, elsewhere one can read or hear backup evidence that this might be the worst theater in New York City. On the appealing side of things is the fact that tickets go for an astonishing five dollars for matinees. On the sentimental side is the fact that, apparently, this theater is a neighborhood landmark. On the side of abstract-appeal is the notion, as one reviewer kindly put it, that the theater “…should suit the tastes of those who like things slightly on the fringes.” As someone who occasionally enjoys things on the fringes, who writes, and who was recently fired from his job at a different, somewhat fancier movie theater, I realized that I would inevitably have to see a movie there. So one breezy October Sunday, I did.
            I arrived at the box office just before 2:30, to see the 3:00 show of Dream House. I asked the gentleman at the box office if it was true that tickets were five dollars on Sundays. He said yes, for matinees. He was actually very amiable and well-dressed; I considered that maybe people were giving this place an unfair rap. But then, there were the handwritten signs taped to random posters announcing midnight screenings of The Ides of March and one other movie, because somebody was too lazy to put them on the marquee. There was the inside of the theater, which resembled the inside of an asylum that the inmates did not just take over, but got tired of long ago. There was the fact that I saw nobody else entering or leaving the theater, causing me to wonder exactly how the place survived. But no matter. I walked around for a little while, ate a doughnut, sent a friend a text message about writing for Collectors.
            I should now clear up some preliminaries about the theater. First off, the Sunnyside Center Cinemas shows only bad movies. The films playing when I arrived were Abduction, Dolphin Tale 3D, Dream House, What’s your Number?, and Killer Elite. The sort of gleeful, obtuse trash glorified by Quentin Tarantino in all his redundancy? No, but also not the type of material that anybody reading this years from now will have heard of. Secondly, the theater has no website. Either it is too good for any real presence on the internet, or too terrible, but who draws such a line. Third, it is listed on Fandango as “good for kids.” Hmm.

            When I returned to the theater ten minutes later, I first noticed two signs on the doors. One said that all bags were subject to searching, and the other read “All Exits final. No re-entry.” This second sign I found particularly weird. What if I bought a ticket, but had to run outside to make a call, smoke a cigarette or meet a friend? You still won’t let us re-enter, even with stubs? Or is it even more drastic? Does this sign really mean that once you’ve been the to Sunnyside Center Cinemas, you can’t come back? If that were the meaning, it contains a sort of cardboard poetry which I may approve of. In any case, I don’t think these people thought through, or enforce, their sign’s warnings.
            Opening the door, I encountered an overweight girl throwing something in to a trashcan in the lobby. Nice introduction. I asked her if I could go in. She looked at my ticket and asked me what time it was (she asked me what time it was!). I was forced to take out my cell phone and tell her, after which she told me to come back in ten minutes and the theater would be ready. I walked back through the lobby, the stickiness of the floor threatening to suck off my shoes any second. For those ten minutes, I mainly lurked around outside the theater, acting like somebody who might see movies there regularly. I watched a few more people arrive and buy tickets from the nice ticket guy. A few people left the theater. I noticed while I observed them that the clientele seemed decent. By decent, I mean regular people. Not the type of “regular people” who tend to live elsewhere in the country and whom most New Yorkers are terrified of meeting. Regular people who represented all ages, who all seemed part of the lower and middle-middle classes, who looked like they had jobs and families to go to, who looked educated to at least some extent, just not devout New York Times readers. Regular people. All in all I counted forty of them, including both comers, goers and myself.
            It was now 2:58 and people were exiting the theaters from all directions. Also in all directions was a tiny hallway with the most menacing carpeting I have ever seen. A guy in a pink shirt, who looked like he wanted to be John Travolta in Grease, except Hispanic, took our tickets and told most of us to go to theater one, where Dream House was showing. I walked in and sat down. This auditorium was bigger than the smallest auditorium at the theater where I had previously worked, but smaller than just about every other auditorium in the city. I sat down in a seat: a plus! The seats were comfortable. Although the lights were off, sparing us the potential trash-heap we were sitting in, I didn’t even mind slouching down in the chair and putting my feet up: perhaps because of living in my wretched apartment for the past eight months, topped off with a bedbug infestation, I have a higher tolerance for generally unsanitary places. I counted sixteen people including myself who walked in to the movie theater. Not terrible for a Sunday afternoon, but I doubt the numbers ever got much greater. A rickety old guy who didn’t quite know where he was sat behind me.
(Dream House/Universal Pictures, 2011)
            The trailers started. Jack Black and Steve Martin making wisecracks in the woods; Leonardo DiCaprio squinting, failing to be more than an adolescent drama student; that Ben Stiller heist comedy where he robs some Bernie Madoff-symbol. But oh my God. This projectionist apparently found it sufficient to play each trailer to the point of; ‘Ben Stiller in—‘ Cut. Next trailer. ‘Jack Black—Steve Martin.’ Done, you get it. Next. Then a trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Jesus Christ, did this theater go out of its way to show even the most insipid trailers? This was the not the industrial-rock music video trailer that everybody thinks is cool; this was some drawn out summary of the movie that, naturally ended with ‘Daniel Craig in-‘
            Daniel Craig was also in Dream House, which came on after a few minutes. And how was the movie? Well I’m sorry, but I already gave it away a few paragraphs ago. So I’ll put it a different way; it was a piece of shit. The first thing I noticed in the movie was; that is some fake snow. Daniel Craig played a man leaving his firm in Manhattan for the countryside of Connecticut amid a snowstorm that looked like a snow globe with lights left on by an disgruntled gaffer blaring in to the scene. Then we met Craig’s young daughters and his wife, played by Rachel Weisz, who strangely (appropriately, as I soon saw) acts more like an imitation of a person than the real thing. They go to their new house in Fairfield, but soon realize that the previous owner had gone insane and killed his family in that very house, five years before. They also realize that their neighbor (Martin Csokas) is a total grouch and that his pretty wife (Naomi Watts) holds some mysterious secret. Here’s the thing: the twist in this movie, not that hard to guess, comes about halfway through, after which the movie morphs in to a whodunit, then a sappy love story, then, in the last few minutes, an action movie with ghosts. Before the twist, the story is implausible: why didn’t the real-estate agent tell them about the murders? Didn’t they even tour the house beforehand, sparing them the discovery of those spooky symbols? Why does Daniel Craig staunchly refuse to put on anything but his James Bond accent? After the twist, it becomes utterly ridiculous. Dream House seemed to me a film that took the idea of artistic roots to mean formulas that Steven King invented but has now grown tired of himself. Its visual rhythm looked to be based on how drastically the makeup on Daniel Craig’s face could be altered. My favorite moment came at the point when the rickety old man behind me exclaimed, “She can’t even act!” I took the film, about a couple moving in to a creepy house, as a thin metaphor for me entering the Sunnyside Center Cinema. Hell, for me entering New York.
            As I left the theater, I thought about checking out the bathrooms, just for good measure, but quickly vetoed the decision. I walked outside, remembering, of course, that there was “no re-entry.”
            I stopped at the box office and asked the polite guy if there were other Center Cinemas in New York. He said yes, on Main Street in Flushing. I asked him how long the theater had been around. He shrugged and said a long time, he thinks the 70’s. I thanked him and left.

            The 70’s: a time when theaters like the Sunnyside Center Cinemas were a slew in New York, though mainly in Times Square instead of the outer boroughs. A time when bad movies like Dream House were trashier, less dressed-up, more symbols of nostalgia than dull narratives. The 2010’s: A time when every bad movie can be seen anywhere, when even the worst movies are ironically “good,” and when cinema feels too certain of its future, while I remain uncertain of my own. Perhaps I was a little disappointed in the theater; angry that it had not been much shittier. Perhaps I’m too picky about what the shittiness of today must look like, cinematically or otherwise. I turned on to 48th street, saw the sky getting cloudier, and walked on home.