West Houston, We Have a Problem! Film Mecca’s Self-Love

The other evening I saw the anti-corporation documentary The Corporation at Film Forum. As usual, I showed up 20 minutes early, but in that Film Forum way, a long line had already formed outside. I felt like I was waiting for entry to a dance club, fearful I might not make the cut even though, in this case, I had a ticket in hand. How early did these people get here? I wondered. Surely New Yorkers had better things to do on a beautiful summer Saturday?

Quietly accepting an anti-Bush flyer from a passerby, I fell into line with the rest. After a bit, a man turned to face me. “Are you sure this is the line for The Corporation ?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, angling my head down the line toward the handwritten sign up front. “Why?”

“Because it’s 6:12 and I thought it started at 6: 20 .” He held up his watch as proof, an intense look of gravity and concern on his face.

His agita was comic, but forgivable. Sure, the place is small, but sometimes it feels like the Film Forum’s whole standing-on-line thing is a charade, an attempt to affirm customer loyalty. It’s as if the standard-issue moviegoing experience of watching previews in plush seats is “subverted” by this outdoors, public, half-hour stand-around. Bought tickets online yesterday? Too bad. Get here early anyway, and wait.

And Film Forum regulars are more than happy to oblige. Just like that anti-Bush flyer boy, I knew what I’d find waiting on Houston Street: every angsty liberal in town with a personal mission to see another documentary exposing conservative evil, delighted to demonstrate their dedication to the cause. In this exciting year of the political documentary- Fahrenheit 9/11 , Outfoxed , The Hunting of the President , Control Room , etc.-Manhattan moviegoing has taken on a special charge. And Film Forum is the mecca of moviegoing pride, indignation and, sometimes, self-righteousness.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the place. I too am grateful for the many pleasures it provides, its La Dolce Vitas and Spellbounds and Serpicos , its seriousness and employee pride, its Friday after-dark feeling of a proper New York night out.

It’s the audience that fascinates me. At Film Forum, there’s always been this feeling of political and social exclusivity among its patrons, a combination of cineaste superiority, liberal self-consciousness, and genuine excitement and gratitude for whatever small, rare, old or unabashedly left-wing film the theater offers. The physical restrictiveness (I always feel especially clumsy inside, bumping into harried, unforgiving fellow visitors) adds to the overall feeling of urgent sacrifice and necessary do-gooding: the tiny theaters. The small screens. The absence of butter (let alone fake butter) for the popcorn. That sudden lurch for the theater door; the mad scramble to get in. The earnest downtowners. Even the old ladies will hip-check you to get a good seat.

Moviegoing, of course, is particularly stressful in New York. It requires planning and devotion, and when I see movies in other states, I often miss this kind of passion. But there’s a downside to the Film Forum experience. When friends and I mull a pilgrimage-call it a “filmgrimage”-a moment’s hesitation will pass. Are we really up for dealing with Film Forum today? Hey, maybe I’d rather escape it all with Jennifer Garner at United Artists Union Square, or Tobey Maguire and the kids at AMC 42nd Street! At Film Forum, movies are rarely about “escape”; they’re more often about “confrontation.”

The Forum’s more spacious indie cousins-the Angelika and Landmark Sunshine-don’t inspire the same sort of pride or attendant anxiety, the palpable back-patting that goes on within Film Forum’s doors. “The further west you go down Houston, the worse the crowd becomes,” noted a friend. Landmark Sunshine’s theaters are wider, friendlier; the Angelika’s are long and narrow and isolating. But Film Forum’s chambers are shaped in such a way that you’re keenly aware of those around you.

I first noticed this years ago, during The Trials of Henry Kissinger and One Day in September , and more recently at Control Room , where, a few minutes in, I found myself trapped in my own personal battlefield-overwhelmed by others’ self-conscious guffaws, sighs, groans and mutterings. Too-loud laughter coughed out of people’s stomachs, as if they wanted everyone to know they get the cruel joke of injustice. See? The world is a bad place. We were right .

Of course, I’ve been guilty of joining the chorus of indignation on occasion, my friend and I rolling our eyes repeatedly at one another, then laughing at our own emoting. Sometimes this is collective, communal fun. But most of the time the zealousness doesn’t feel natural, or genuine-it feels oppressive.

Fahrenheit 9/11 transformed every multiplex in America into a liberal college-town theater, a Film Forum of sorts. Hoping to avoid the undulating crowds here, I waited to see the documentary in Washington, D.C., weeks after it opened. In a large Georgetown theater, the audience lurched and moaned and cried; my companion held onto her torso as if her intestines might fall out. At some point, my critical faculties failed; I no longer was able to hear my own thoughts. The intensely emotional outpouring had become a show in itself. The audience had become more important than the film.

In this time of firmly drawn, exasperated lines between blue states and red states, moviegoing becomes a declaration of one’s membership on the side of sanity and goodness. It’s a simple way to feel as though you too have done something helpful, especially during those moments when you feel powerless. But I’m not sure anymore how satisfying it is to enjoy films with people whose minds were made up long ago. Genuine gasps of revelation would sound different from those of self-congratulation, I think.

At the end of The Corporation , Michael Moore-who, unsurprisingly, got the biggest laughs-affirms that he has faith that one or two of us might do something about the state of the world after seeing the film. The audience burst into quick, hearty applause and then sat in reflection for a moment, perhaps feeling proud that they would vote Kerry in November, or maybe curious about whether their ideals would propel them to do anything more than that. There was also a palpable sadness-a dispirited, antsy feeling. Can we jump back in the movie and feel empowered again? What to do now? Where should we eat?