Waiting for Woody, I Watched Moviegoers Expelled From Line

I’m looking to make restitution. For a primal violation of New York etiquette. This is such a New York story that it kinda transcends being just a New York story, if you know what I mean. Sort of like Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby stories transcend the specificity of their lowbrow Hollywood setting to become universal fables of humiliation and bad behavior.

It’s an iconic New York moment because it’s a movie-line moment. A Woody Allen moment. A Woody Allen movie-line moment. One of those exquisite New York situations that combined guilt, remorse, status anxiety, art anxiety, anxiety anxiety-meta-anxiety. Where minor questions of etiquette morph into major questions of ethics.

That the setting was a movie line should be no surprise. Movie-line culture: I’m sorry, perhaps because I’ve just returned from a Shakespeare scholars’ conference where the words “liminal” and “liminality” were thrown around with great abandon in reference to various contested aesthetic threshold states, it’s occurred to me that it’s the movie-line’s very liminality-its status as a threshold between the overfamiliar realm of the real and the ever-promising realm of film fantasy-that is responsible for making it such a “site of contestation.”

Liminality! One of the few lit-crit jargon terms that actually has some ­real-world applicability. It’s what has made movie lines the settings for romantic meetings, unromantic arguments, unexpected (and sometimes unwelcome) recognitions, bitter turf disputes-more drama than you’re likely to find on screen once inside.

And a movie line induces a special anxiety, or at least self-consciousness at Woody Allen movies, since he is the creator of one of the great movie-line moments in movies. The one in Annie Hall where the pseud is spouting off about the McLuhanesque qualities of the film they’re lined up to see, and Woody Allen’s character drags over the real Marshall McLuhan-McLuhan playing himself-to deliver the message to the obnoxious pseud: “You know nothing of my work … how you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.”

Still, movie-line moments like the one I experienced, the one I blame myself for, the one I want to make restitution for, may be disappearing with movie lines themselves. In the post–Mr. Moviefone/Fandango era, a line for tickets is less frequent, although a line for seats is not uncommon.

Now, it’s almost impossible to “cut in line” (the Original Sin of urban culture). Now, the question is more liminal: You’re standing in line for a movie, you’ve got there early and you’re close to the front of the line, in prime position to get the best seats. Then, as the ticketholders’ line stretches far behind you, you run into friends who have just picked up their tickets and are headed to the end of the line-and, likely, the worst seats in the house. It wasn’t a planned rendezvous, it’s an accidental meeting; they’ve come much later and would ordinarily have to go the very end of the line.

But you know the story: They start chatting with you rather than proceeding to the end of the line. Tacitly, they’re hoping you’ll play along with the fiction that you were waiting for them, saving a place for them. Or maybe you initiate the charade: “Where were you? Another subway delay? So glad you got here in time.”

Nobody buys it, the people behind you shoot you dirty looks, angry glares, usually you can get away with it, but you hate it when someone else does it to you and you feel guilty doing it to someone else.

But it’s a kind of venial sin, because everybody behind you on line has tickets, they’ll only get slightly less advantageous seats, the weight of the infraction is divided among the scores of people behind you. And you’re punished for being at the head of the line anyway because you have to sit through the pre-preview Coke commercials or even the idiot rebuses they flash onscreen before the commercials, and you humiliate yourself when you find yourself actually wasting time “solving” LYMRE PESTRE.

Yes, Kant would say, but what if everybody did it-led friends in line? Well, as Yossarian says in Catch-22, then I’d be a fool not to do it. Do you want to end a friendship and seem like a punctilious prig refusing a favor to friends? These are the little disturbances of urban life, the little liminal ethical infractions we learn to live with.

But THIS movie-line moment I’m talking about was somehow, if not traumatic, more deeply troubling than that. I’m not kidding-it was really complex ethically and deserves close reading, micro-moral analysis, whatever you want to call the following.

Here are the circumstances, best set up by a chronology.

Monday, March 14: I get an e-mail from the Writers Guild of America, East (coastal specificity necessary since they’re currently engaged in a complicated feud with the Writers Guild of America, West) announcing that the Guild and Fox Searchlight Pictures were holding a special screening of Woody Allen’s new film Melinda and Melinda on Wednesday, March 16, a couple of days before its opening. The invitation was for 7 p.m. at a Chelsea theater, “first-come, first-served”-an ominous phrase, it turned out.

Wednesday, March 16: Six-friggin’-oh-five. It’s one of those bitter-cold late-winter nights, and I’m here shivering almost at the head of the line-only ten or 12 ahead of me-outside the theater because I figured I’d better be early for a “first-come, first-served” invite to this particular event: In the dwindling audience for Woody Allen films, the hardest of the hard-core would likely be members of the Writers Guild of America, East. Still, I, like many of those who lined up behind me in the bitter cold, assumed-since the WGAE had been holding screenings followed by interviews with the screenwriters and directors in the past-that it was a Guild-only screening, one just held in a larger venue than the usual midtown screening room. (All this becomes relevant in a humiliating way; stay tuned.)

6:30 p.m.: My guest arrives. Her joining me on line does not raise any objections from those behind us in line because most had RSVP’d for two and the unwritten rule of movie-line etiquette allows for one to be joined by a companion who’s late. Even if this could technically be seen as “cutting in,” it’s barely a liminal question, since the line still wasn’t long enough to fill the theater.

Nonetheless, the line has grown to some hundred or so by now, and we’re all shivering and wondering why they won’t let us in.

6:45 p.m.: As the line grows longer and more restive in the cold, it becomes clear why: This isn’t actually a Guild screening but the Melinda and Melinda premiere. A fact we figured out from the starry flashes of the paparazzi taking pictures of Chloë Sevigny and Radha Mitchell in a clutch of people in front of the theater.

And then it occurred to us why the Guild members’ line was set back so far from the front of the theater: presumably so no camera could capture close-ups of the unglamorous ink-stained scribes who toil, for the most part, in Pat Hobbyish obscurity and were on hand to make it seem like there still was excitement about a Woody Allen premiere. Look how long the line is! We were unwilling extras. (Sorry-”background artists”, as they’re called now).

7:10 p.m.: Still, we were all union members, and we began to resent the insult to the workers this represented. My companion and I bonded in indignation with the two women in front of us in line, and we began to send delegations of one or two to the P.R. minions at the movie entrance to ask why we had to shiver outside the theater. Why not let us in? The screening invitation said 7 p.m.

We were dismissed with no explanation, just told to wait. And so we began adding threats to our inquiries. If they didn’t let us in out of the cold immediately, we WOULD NOT LAUGH at anything in the film, leaving a bad impression on any critics there. We WOULD badmouth the movie to everyone we knew, which was basically the entire core audience for a Woody Allen film.

7:15 p.m.: Still nothing. More shivering. The stars all went inside; the writers were still segregated in our sidewalk Siberia.

At this point, the ethical dilemma came into play. I heard my name called; it was a good friend of mine, a Guild member. He’d been way back in the line and had gone up to ask what the deal was with the delay, and now he was saying hello.

But he was also presenting me with a primal movie-line moral dilemma. It turned out that his pregnant wife was with him; she was shivering at the back of the line. Without thinking all the implications through, I told him they should come up and join us. Remember, I was still under the impression that most of the theater would be filled with Guild members, and that everyone on line would still get in, and that it would just mean that the people behind us would get marginally less preferable seats.

But the two women in front of us whom we’d bonded with suddenly turned icy glares at us (as I probably would have in the same circumstances). Especially when my friend and his wife joined us and I made the mistake of kind of jokingly saying to them, “Glad you found us-we’ve been expecting you.”

It was a transparent attempt to paper over a clear movie-line transgression, and the two women who’d previously been our allies rightfully took it as an insult to their intelligence, almost as if we’d asked them to figure out LYMRE PESTRE.

One of them actually came out and said, “It won’t affect us, but what about the people behind you?”

Good point. The people behind us were a nice couple (one of them was reading The Observer) who didn’t seem to mind or even to notice (probably absorbed in my column on surf culture) or anyway didn’t speak out, so my friend and his pregnant wife joined us. If they’d registered an objection, we probably would have heeded it.

It didn’t seem such a big deal-but here’s where things turned ugly. Suddenly, the long line was allowed to proceed toward the theater and the velvet rope barring entry. And guess what happened? Only 12 PEOPLE on that 100-plus person line-a line of people who had been waiting for nearly an hour in the cold-were allowed in. (To be fair, one of my friends said he thought it was 14.) The velvet rope came down right behind my friend and his wife. The nice couple that had been standing in line nearly an hour in the cold right behind us? They didn’t get in! Nor did the others behind them-but it was my decision to invite my friends into the line ahead of the nice couple that had in effect barred those two.

None of us could have known it at the time. It wasn’t deliberate. What we had THOUGHT was a relatively inconsequential choice of friendship over strict movie-line etiquette turned out to have unfortunate consequences. Specifically to the two nice people who didn’t get in only because we’d let our friends in line ahead of them. (The others behind that couple wouldn’t have gotten in anyway.)

Of course, the real blame deserves to be apportioned among the planners who left the Guild members out in the cold. But all of us, my friends included, were suddenly aghast once we’d been hustled through the doors of the theater and looked back to see what was going on. My friends are two of the most ethically sensitive people I know. Indeed, it was one of them who said the words that were to haunt the rest of the evening for me: “The fact that we were the last two allowed in is bad enough, but it puts a face on the two people most directly affected,” that nice couple behind us in line whose evening we’d heartbreakingly-though not intentionally-ruined.

But at this point, what could we do? I guess we could have walked out in protest against the poor handling of the matter. (The Writers Guild told me that in the aftermath Fox Searchlight went out of its way to make it up to those stranded outside and hastily announced a special screening of ­Melinda and Melinda for them on March 22, four days after the opening.)

But we didn’t want to walk out. We made it inside from the cold, after doing some pretty heavy-duty line-waiting; we’d heard the movie was a step above recent Woody Allen fare (it was, in fact); we really wanted to see it; and the other people in line had probably already gone away-so we’d better get to our seats.

When we entered, the humiliation of our participation was even more apparent-virtually instant karma. The top of just about every seat in the theater had been covered with a paper hand-written “RESERVED” sign. Every seat, that is, aside from the seats in the very lowest row. That’s right: Those were the Guild’s allotment. The neck-brace seats.

When you think of it, what’s the point of writing out and affixing, say, 200 “RESERVED” signs to the theater seats when you could just as easily have saved trouble by affixing just a few to the Writers Guild seats? You wouldn’t have to write “DESPISED” or “OUTCASTS” on them. You could just say “WRITERS,” and to all the stars and movie people, it would mean the same.

Isn’t it an amazing sign of insecurity on somebody’s part that those 200 signs saying “RESERVED” had to be hand-written to give those people the feeling they were special? Maybe we were just there so they’d have someone to look down on.

Anyway, all that was humiliating enough-but we thought it was only part of the karmic punishment we deserved for violating movie-line law. “But we hadn’t known, we hadn’t known,” we kept saying to ourselves. We hadn’t known that our getting in would mean the exclusion of the two right behind us.

And then, after the movie was over and we were making our guilty getaway, who should I come face to face with but one of the women who’d been in front of us and had seen the whole thing. The look of disapproval on her face couldn’t have been more histrionically withering than if it had come from LYMRE PESTRE herself.

For the rest of the evening-including a long dinner afterward-the four of us were obsessively preoccupied with the ethical implications of the incident. Or maybe it was just me and I imposed my ever-ready guilt on the others. It’s happened before.

But I feel the need to do penance for the situation, to make restitution somehow. And so I’m offering the rough equivalent of dinner for two and a movie to the two people behind us in line. If you read this and you can convince me that you are that couple (send a photo by certified mail to me at The New York Observer, 915 Broadway, ninth floor, 10010; mark the envelope “MOVIE-LINE COUPLE”) I’ll send you 100 bucks for a night out as a token of my heartfelt remorse.

By the way, don’t anyone try to pull a fast one; I have excellent visual memory, three witnesses and the Writers Guild has a record of those who RSVP’ed to the screening. I’m the sole judge, and I’ll spot a faker in a New York minute.