Sunday, March 8, 2009

Movies à la Carte

Dinner and a movie has long been a popular way for people to spend a night out. For as long as movies have been around, millions of Americans have enjoyed countless evenings bookending these two dependable sources of recreation. However, a recent article in the city life section of MSN reports that a number of establishments across the country are starting to combine the two customs.

Let me begin by stating for the record that I am as opposed to this ritual as an old school film fan can get. This revelation no doubt comes as a surprise to many who know me. Since I am of Italian ancestry, one would think that my passions for food and movies would naturally merge. But alas, that is not the case. Granted, I do enjoy each of these activities, but separately. I'll elaborate on this later, but first I must recount a personal experience.

One Friday night eight years ago, I picked up my then-girlfriend from her apartment to take her out on a date. When we spoke on the phone earlier that day, she mentioned a place she had heard about called The Cinema Grill. This North Seattle establishment had only been in business a short while and had gained notoriety for serving food inside its theaters. Intrigued by the newness of the idea, I went along with her suggestion that we pay the innovative cineplex a visit.

Once inside, we took our seats on padded barstools and placed our orders. While waiting for our food, we talked about how the trend could very well sweep the nation given a few years time. I observed how it makes sense from an efficiency expert's point of view. By eating and seeing a movie in one location, I remarked, the trip to a restaurant beforehand or afterward is rendered unnecessary. People are growing busier with each passing day, and don't have as many discretionary hours as they once did. Thanks to modern technology, our lives have grown so busy that we feel the urge to combine certain activies. We drive while talking on the phone. We listen to life coaching programs on our iPods while exercising. Some of us even practice yoga and pilates while sitting at our computers. Dinner at the cineplex fits right into that multitasking fold.

While opining that those in the raging hormone demographic would no doubt appreciate having more of their evening available for bedroom recreation, the lights went down and the previews began. Our food arrived just as the movie started. Gaping at Guy Pearce's hand shaking a Polaroid picture, I reached for what I thought was a hot wing but instead plucked one of my girlfriend's nachos from her plate. Save for locating the napkin dispenser moments later, my eyes never left the screen.

Though I would later go on to select Memento as my favorite film of 2001, I wondered if dining on sports bar menu items added to my enjoyment of the picture. After giving the matter some thought, I concluded that the food was an unnecessary distraction and that I would have loved my viewing more had I seen it in a regular theater. Never mind the fact that Christopher Nolan's audacious detective story is an elaborately constructed brainteaser that requires the higher-order cognitive processing skills of the smartest viewer. I would take that position even if I had seen The Mummy Returns at The Cinema Grill. If I found the idea exciting going in, I found it obtrusive in retrospect. To me, having dinner in a movie theater was like joining The Century Club: it was an ordeal through which I put myself one time just to say that I did it. I haven't been back since, and I certainly don't plan on returning.

Whenever I dine on a special meal, the only accompaniment I prefer is jazz or classical music playing softly in the background, and even that's optional when I'm in the company of pleasant people. Conversely, I don't always like to eat while watching a movie. Due to my experience at The Cinema Grill, I find food a hindrance to a movie that demands (and deserves) my full attention. As a rule, the only foodstuffs I consume in a movie theater are popcorn and Coca-Cola -- and that's just when I see a summer blockbuster. I don't need chicken wings, fried pickles, miniburgers, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers, deli sandwiches, garlic fries, Waldorf salad, quesadillas, babyback ribs, bruschetta, rack of lamb, escargot, foie gras, shrimp toast, filet mignon, lobster tails, cole slaw, claw chowder, a sashimi plate, pączki, semla, strawberry cheesecake, tiramisu bars, flan, zabaglione, pistachio ice cream, or an oil drum full of pilsner to wash it all down. Just give me my popcorn and sugar water and I'm content. Like peanuts and beer at the ballpark, it's a satisfying combination. Anything more is distracting.

Maybe it's my ADD that keeps my mind from functioning on more than one track at a time. One of the best compliments I've ever received came to me during my undergraduate years at Pacific Lutheran University. A fellow student and I were sitting in a coffee shop when she broke her own train of thought to make a personal observation. "Do you know why I like talking to you? It's because you don't listen to people while their speaking. You consider them." After a slight pause, I retorted, "A rare benefit of ADD." She made my day with her words, and I remain flattered by them to this day. She was right. I don't just listen to people, I consider them -- and that goes for pretty much anything. If I'm genuinely in interested in a conversation, an idea, a book, a news article, a painting, a piece of music, or a movie, I give it my full, undivided attention.

Basic business sense dictates that movie theaters cannot survive on the sales of movie tickets alone. Concessions account for the majority of a theater's revenue, and it's been that way for as long as the communal movie house has existed. I realize that peripherals are necessary to the success of any product, but why did the trend have to get so out of hand? Increasing the quality of the movies would seem a viable response to this problem, but it seems that people would rather spend their hard-earned money on a ticket to an abysmal movie coupled with large portions of snack bar offerings than on a decent feature alone. I first saw trouble in River City when theater lobbies expanded their concessions menus to include ice cream, hot dogs, and bulk bin candy stands that allow patrons to load up on sugary vices by the pound. When I first caught sight of those atrocious provisions being cleaned out by a swarm of sweet tooth nursing moviegoers, I asked myself, "Are these people here to see a movie or to pig out on junk food?" To this day, I remain convinced that most people who bring vast quantities of food into a theater are lonely binge eaters who don't care what's on the screen; they just need a series of audiovisual stimuli to keep them company while they gorge themselves on garbage. Theoretically, one could argue that businesses like The Cinema Grill not only attract a classier cross-section of hungry fans but also enable nervous eaters.

The Grand Cinema in Tacoma, Washington has it just right. Their concessions stand serves popcorn with real butter, a handful of brand-name candies, a few fountain drinks, and nothing more. Their lobby radiates an unpretentious warmth and arthouse charm that reminds me of the dignified little theater in The Last Picture Show. It's a noble institution that refuses to be corrupted by the greed-driven, faceless machine of corporate America.

The advent of one-stop shopping clearly has a hand in movie theaters morphing into restaurants. While packaging products and services does have benefits for those on both sides of the cash register, the practice has its fair share of drawbacks. In the personal development audiobook Lead the Field, Earl Nightingale tells the story of an unnamed gas station owner in Arizona who grows his business from a humble truck stop to a multimillion-dollar enterprise. One day, the man saw a customer standing in front of a gas pump waiting for his tank to fill. Seeing the man with money in his pocket and nothing to spend it on gave the resourceful owner an idea. Inside his shop, he installed a refrigerated case of snack foods and beverages that customers could enjoy while pumping their gas. He then added a full service garage that changed oil, rotated tires, and gave tune-ups. Before too long, he started buying the contiguous properties around his original gas station to accommodate his expanding venture. He started selling lottery tickets. He started cashing checks on Friday. Eventually, he began to sell fishing rods, tackle boxes, tools, home improvement supplies, camping equipment, boats, rifles, ammunition, hunting licenses, and opened a photo processing lab.

While the story is an inspiration to any burgeoning entrepreneur, it raises an important question: did anyone remember the original gas station once the bonanza took off? One wonders how many customers walked into the new digs, took a look around, and with a confused expression, asked, "What kind of place is this, anyway?" If theater owners take their cue from the man in Lead the Field, cineplexes will eventually convert to faceless, generic service centers that cram a supermarket, health club, day spa, megachurch, and movie theater all under one roof. If we are to keep the Wal-Mart effect out of movie theaters, we need to remember why they exist in the first place: to specialize in the presentation of feature-length motion pictures. A theater manager's duty should entail keeping the facility clean, well-lit, and comfortable. The utmost care should be taken to ensure that the picture and sound quality of each film are excellent. As well, every customer should be treated courteously.

Another reason I reject this brand of filmgoing on principle stems from the increased potential for noise. It's bad enough that some couples use movie night as their time to vent about their day while letting their unruly kids run amok (and I'm not the least bit averse to shutting them up), but throw food and alcoholic beverages into the mix and the problem gets ten times worse. Some people act like schmucks when they have too much to drink, and these inconsiderate slobs do not belong in a movie theater. Like any other paying customer, the last thing I want is to hear is some fat, belligerent bricklayer sitting right in front of me scream, "YEAH! TAKE YOUR TOP OFF, HONEY! LET'S SEE THEM TITTIES!" before squeezing off a 90-decibel, nosehair-burning, upholstery-ripping, Blazing Saddles campfire scene, Miles Davis high-note fart.

Serving food in a movie theater could also pose a public health hazard. Suppose the movie playing is a comedy and someone starts to laugh just as they swallow a bite of fried chicken. Someone would have to perform the Heimlich maneuver to keep the poor soul from choking to death. Common courtesy dictates that the movie stops, at least until the crisis is averted. By that time, the evening would already be ruined for many viewers. Even if the poor soul lived to tell about his or her ordeal, he or she could sue the theater/restaurant chain and it would be goodbye to combining dinner and a movie. Don't even try to tell me that's not possible in this litigious culture. To avoid the unthinkable, the establishment could make each viewer sign a release form before entering the theater, much like the ones dance clubs hand you at the door on foam party night. Perhaps a flashing red light installed near the screen could warn the audience of a funny scene a few seconds beforehand, but that would take all the fun out of the movie.

One positive aspect of bringing food into a movie theater is that the actors have no idea that the audience is eating. Broadway would never hear of such a custom, much less tolerate it. In the world of the performing arts, live theatre is sacred ground. Many theater companies along the Great White Way (and across the country) enforce strict no eating or drinking policies not only because the artistic director doesn't want any stains on the seats and carpets, but because it's incredibly rude to the actors. One can only imagine how Katharine Hepburn, James Earl Jones, Kevin Spacey, Hugh Jackman, Brian Dennehy, or George C. Scott would react at the discovery of an uncouth audience member snacking on potato chips in the middle of a performance. True, there are such hybrids as cabaret and dinner theater, but the food served at these venues is often meant to distract you from the abysmal quality of the show. I can count on more than one hand the number of nights I've left a dinner theater performance and overheard someone say, "I've seen Oklahoma done better, but that chicken cordon bleu was delicious!"

Dinner theater is every live performer's worst nightmare. Silverware clinks. Lips pop and smack. Waitstaff dart in and out carrying trays. Glass is bound to shatter, which not only makes a distracting noise but also creates a safety hazard for other patrons and actors who use the dining area to enter, exit, and interact with the audience. What's more, there's almost always a conversation going on at every table. Giving a good performance amid this cacophony requires an actor to have the concentration of an ancient Zen master. I query all thespians: would you want to play a love scene opposite a dashing leading man or a ravishing leading lady in Tony & Tina's Wedding, only to have your precious moment of romance interrupted by the deafening belch of an overfed customer? If you want a cinematic example of how unpleasant it can be performing in a public dining area, watch the following scene from Annie Hall. The only thing missing is the flush of a nearby toilet.

For those wondering if there is any hope to be found amid my doom and gloom forecast, be assured. A restaurant attached to the theater just might be the best alternative to simultaneous eating and movie watching. Ideally, the exit doors would be placed so that outgoing foot traffic spills right into its entryway instead of the parking lot or corridor. Picture the exits of Disneyland rides leading straight into the gift shops for a clear idea of the blueprint. No movie theater in the United States is built quite like it (at least as far as I know; leave a comment if I'm wrong) and I think I have the perfect occasion for putting my idea to the test. In three years, Lawrence of Arabia will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The screening could be held at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. Damascus would seem a more appropriate location, but Sin City is friendly soil. If they're still with us, Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif could arrive at the premiere on camelback.

After the movie, those in attendance would walk directly from the theater into a five-star restaurant serving a full menu of Middle Eastern cuisine. (Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay would jump at that gig in a minute.) Should find yourself crying foul at my idea on the grounds of commercial exploitation, remember that Lawrence of Arabia is a classic. This is the kind of treatment the film deserves. An evening like that would no doubt bring the film a new generation of fans. Besides, discussing a great movie fresh after a viewing among engaging people is so much more enjoyable when done at a restaurant instead of a cramped lobby or coffee shop.

This brings me to my last point, which is also my first point. Movies and food should be consumed -- and digested -- separately, not simultaenously. It's too much for the mind and body to take in all at once. It slows both metabolism and brain function. If you really want to appreciate all a movie has to offer, follow this advice. Work up a good appetite at the theater, then reward yourself with dinner afterward. Good food promotes healthy discussion. The solitude a quiet meal for one provides can be sublime, but dining in groups can be one of life's greatest joys, and it's certainly not meant to be a silent affair. Too much quiet in a dining environment can be awkward, and the tension can ruin the enjoyment of the food. I've always said that if people insisting on remaining silent while dining in groups, then how are they any different than prisoners, pigs, or cattle? If a rich pasta sauce glides across your palate with a seductive blend of flavors, then you have every right to vocalize your pleasure, but only in the right environment. On the other hand, if you find yourself moved by a particular moment in a movie, the best response (with few exceptions) is reverent silence.

I leave you now with a clip from The Last Picture Show. This scene features a small town movie theater that strikes my conservative sensibility as the perfect film viewing environment. Elegiac in its mourning of a tradition -- and an America -- lost to the winds of change, this masterwork certainly qualifies as what Robert Altman would call a sandcastle picture.

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