Scarlett! I Don’t Give a Damn

At the Angelika, we shifted uneasily in our seats as the subways roared back and forth beneath us; up there on a screen slightly larger than your average television set, a man and a woman were actually having sex. In Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, a couple falls in love and goes to concerts and drifts apart like icebergs. The film records fights we’ve all had, silences we’ve all suffered through, faces we’ve held. But it felt like a movie we hadn’t seen before.

The pleasant yuppie couple beside me walked out before the third song anyway.

There’s been a lot of ink wept about how this year the many hundreds of millions being raked in by the movie studios are slightly less than the many hundreds of millions they raked in last year.

It does seem as though this summer, unlike in gross, sweltering summers past, everyone would rather stay late at the office than sneak off early to catch a flick. Other summers, we loved that feeling of tumbling out of the theaters onto the street, there on our first date or our 50th, still shivery from the deep-space chill of the movie but already sweating in the sticky July heat, our brains still drifting a little ways behind us like a kite. This summer, everybody’s staying home in their own air-conditioning and waiting for the mailman to deliver enough red envelopes to comprise the whole of Chappelle’s Show: Season Two.

A lot of the same people skipping the movies are the same people on the subway studying Star and Us Weekly and In Touch as if they were the Talmud. Clearly, we have come to prefer celebrities as they pick their noses for the paparazzi than when they’re on the run from blood-sucking alien tripods, or dressed up as bats, or clones of people, or married assassins. One thing’s clear: We prefer the pleasures of disenchantment to the pleasures of enchantment, the thrills of surveillance to the joys of escape.

At least in the pages of magazines, celebrities still have the capacity to genuinely surprise us, shock us, tickle and worry us. In War of the Worlds, we know Tom Cruise will make it from Hoboken to Boston, even if everyone else ends up as alien food; but he may not survive his own extinction-level event of fame. He’s like a country that’s gone rogue or a robot that’s malfunctioning.

The movies are just sort of beside the point. We’d rather see our stars approximating human beings via the zoom lens than pretending to be happy or sad or fat or unpopular or lonely in close-up. So by the time the movies arrive—every moment of their making having already been mapped out for us, gossiped about, spoiled—we’ve already gotten what we need. The movies themselves are the incidental byproduct of some chemical reaction between ourselves and celebrities, the irreducible remainder of an equation we’ve already completed and forgotten.

The original Star Wars is commonly understood to have been the ultimate fun summer movie, and so it’s ironic that our summer-movie malaise basically began with its latest prequel. Seeing Revenge of the Sith really did feel a lot like going to the D.M.V. to renew your driver’s license—it was just another errand that needed running. Our attendance there was compulsory: American culture expected it of us, like our parents demanding we go to our high-school graduations to please them, at least, and to pick up our diplomas. It’s not that no one cared about the decline and fall of the Galactic Republic. It’s that no one really cares about the movies anymore.

But the prospect of movie theaters on the weekends as empty as churches on weekdays was, for me, excuse enough to go out and see everything, or try to. So I went to the movies. Or rather: I went to 14 movies at nine different theaters. I spent days commuting between meat-locker-cold movie theaters and pizza-oven-hot streets; every film I sat through felt like a long nighttime plane ride between tropics. I saw “The Twenty” nearly 20 times. When sunlight found me, which was rarely, I felt as flimsy and see-through as a strip of celluloid.

It’s funny, for sure, what you actually do manage to remember from all those movies. It’s hard to remember plots and names, beginnings and endings, or the lessons learned. Instead, movies come down to moments—moments that didn’t feel as though they were devised by 10 writers and then dampened by some focus group of Houston mall-goers. Moments that feel as though they have tremendous freedom. Moments that feel new.

At the Union Square 14, in a packed-to-the-gills showing of Wedding Crashers, for example, something happened when Rachel McAdams showed up onscreen. The star of The Notebook and one of the meaner girls in Mean Girls, her smile is 15 feet wide. As she giggled and mugged and glanced awkwardly elsewhere, a kind of joy started to spread among the members of the audience—that weird, giddy buzz of discovery, like sailors on a ship suddenly sighting land.

Vince Vaughn, who got famous once for Swingers, had once faded into his catchphrases (“You’re so money!”) and his attempts at blandly complex leading men. In Wedding Crashers, as Owen Wilson rides bicycles through flocks of sheep, as he goes soft and falls hard for Ms. McAdams, Mr. Vaughn grinds up on bridesmaids, gets jacked off, tied up, knocked over, punched out, shot in the ass, painted nude and then married; he screams and rants and free-associates. We roared and shrunk away from him and generally tried our best not to piss ourselves. Afterward, we all poured down the escalators and out to smoke, or repeat lines, or wonder where to go next; and the teenagers, brimming with all that onscreen swearing, felt kind of like adults, and the grown-ups goofed around on the sidewalk like kids.

It’s hard to pay the same clear-cut compliments to Michael Pitt, in Last Days, as a cover version of Kurt Cobain. Here, at least, he’s not an actor so much as an art object for Mr. Van Sant to place in his beautiful, long, slowly moving shots. Mr. Pitt’s just like one of the mental patients El Greco would use as his model for Christ. But when Mr. Pitt makes macaroni and cheese and mumbles and meanders and tries not to hear about what an awesome Dungeons and Dragons player Jerry Garcia is and then climbs up naked and shimmering out of his bloody body, there’s a certain musical movement inside you. It took a while afterward to climb up out of my seat.

Then there’s the moment toward the end of Hustle and Flow when Terrence Howard—who, whatever else you might say about that too-difficult, too-easy film, is a revelation—runs back into his house to kiss the woman he loves. They are trembling like leaves. They shake. They mash into each other. It was better than an onscreen fuck.

It came closer to authentic feeling than you can get in most romantic comedies, which nowadays are hardly ever either romantic or funny. They are more like cooking shows—and all they try to do is follow the recipe and make the couple come out right on time. Can you actually imagine Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks or Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston heading home to bang each other senselessly after that last kiss? Honestly, wouldn’t you rather just curl up with a copy of the diary Jude Law’s nanny kept? Spend the night with them as they hump on pool tables, as he suggests and she rejects a threesome? Did you expect his kid to catch them in a slumber post-screw?

Especially if the alternative is going to see Must Love Dogs. Must Love Dogs is the sort of garbage that can only be made by massively talented individuals working at the very height of their powers. Which may be how Diane Lane, Dermot Mulroney, Stockard Channing and Christopher Plummer found themselves singing the Partridge Family theme song for the creator of Moonlighting.

John Cusack will show up later to extol the virtues of Dr. Zhivago and very slow boats; he will manage to fire up less sexual tension with Ms. Lane than she has with her extremely lovable dog. A huge part of the problem between them is the script, which seems to have been randomly generated from chick-lit clichés—as if the pages of Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing were hexagrams in the I Ching. The audience seemed to laugh out of familiarity or desperation.

The fact is, I’ve spent whole months of my life watching crowds emerge slowly, drowsily, excitedly, disbelievingly from movies awesome and terrible, disappointing and powerful. I spent most of my 17th year grumpily reading books behind the concession counter of a single-screen second-run movie theater upstate called the Clinton Cannonball. That whole year, I never saw more than the first five minutes and last five minutes of any movie.

Once, in response to the question “What sort of soda would you like, ma’am?”, a teenage girl responded, “Orange or Sprite—it doesn’t matter.” One moviegoer complained there was too much air in his popcorn. I preferred customerless Sunday mornings, before the first matinee, when the theater was spooky and empty and still. I used a leaf blower to clear the debris out from between the rows and then vacuum the long stretches of carpet, which was preposterously crammed with black-and-red CBS logos. The Cannonball’s owner often bragged that the carpets had once covered the floors of the network’s old headquarters at Madison and 52nd. He made it sound as though they’d been carried by caravan from Persia.

My boss, punctilious and colossally tall, liked reading better than movie-watching, but for reasons all his own had owned cinemas for years. He would lecture me about the evils of multiplex popcorn: “That corn is two weeks old at least, and they drag it in from some back room every morning in giant garbage bags. They just run the machine when people are in line to get the smell circulating.” We popped ours a couple of times a show. I was frequently bitched out for eating popcorn out of the machine with my bare hands. After I went off to college and $3.75 twilight shows at an AMC 10-screen, the Cannonball was sold and resold and then closed. Now, it’s being divvied up into office spaces for lawyers and shrinks, and the gigantic carnival-colored multiplex the next town over screens movies to mostly empty seats.

The best theory anyone has about why no one was at the movies was the one most flattering to the absent audiences: The theaters were empty because the movies sucked.

According to this theory, our grandparents and parents still remember Billy Wilder and John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, and Bergman and Rossellini and Fellini; still remember double bills that cost cents, not dollars; still remember a studio system that mass-manufactured stars as shiny and perfect as new automobiles; and they’re home on Fridays, with the channel tuned to Turner Classic Movies, still trying to remember all the sensations of seeing Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve for the very first time, like patients risking rebirth therapy.

And our parents have turned on their computers not to find Fandango but to fiddle with their Netflix queues, because, of course, they remember getting all sorts of high for their ninth viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the drive-in, getting to choose between seeing a Scorsese film and a Malick, between Chinatown and The Godfather, between Godfather II and Jaws. “The funny thing about the 70’s was that every time I went to the movies, it was a mind-blowing experience. It was like, every time I went to the movies, my life changed,” said Rob Zombie, writer and director of The Devil’s Rejects (the trailer of which freaked me so far out that I refused to see the film).

Generations of moviegoers passed on to their kids some genetic memory that films could be, should be, used to be better, as if it were a fear of mastodons or certain patches of body hair.

But the box-office tallies put the lie to this theory. Ticket sales weren’t resuscitated this summer by some surprise sleeper hit, by some work of mind-blowing, life-changing art. The box-office slump was broken by Fantastic Four, which was corporate, cheap-looking and totally phony. I’d be willing to hazard that it was the worst movie ever made, if only I could still remember seeing it. Fantastic Four deserved to bomb big, and that it didn’t we can take as pretty definitive proof that the moviegoers have lost their way. That piece of crap didn’t make $56.1 million just from comic-book geeks or Jessica Alba stalkers—the theater I was in was more diverse than the census.

I can now report this much about Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith, Lords of Dogtown, Batman Begins, War of the Worlds, Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Four, Bad News Bears, The Island, 9 Songs, Last Days, Hustle and Flow, and Must Love Dogs: The people-watching proved significantly more memorable, and illuminating, than most of the movie-viewing.

Standing in line at the Landmark Sunshine, getting antsy before Last Days, I spied a girl with one crutch and one leg—she was pretty enough and blond enough to be the survivor of a shark attack. At a 10:30 a.m. screening of the amiably vulgar and totally disappointing Bad News Bears, there were only three of us, one of whom was a woman so small as to have probably been a midget, who kept storming out to make and take calls and who consumed, over the course of the film, what I believe to have been an entire bag of groceries.

On the other hand, at The Island, at the AMC 25 in Times Square, the sizeable crowd of mostly middle-aged men sat silently and solemnly by themselves—they might have been a convention of genetic engineers and bio-ethicists there to debate the feasibility of cloning Scarlett Johanasson, or whatever parts of her. There were, I now suspect, a few moments in The Island when I actually blacked out. It wasn’t the prospect of multiple, same-breasted Johanassons that did it—it was after the car chase turned into a truck chase and then into a rocket-car chase and then into a helicopter chase. I think. All I heard was a hissing sound between my ears that I’m pretty sure was the sound of my brain frying inside my skull. The Island short-circuited me.

That’s exactly what we’re hoping for when we go to the movies: that they’ll hit us like a hammer to the knee, that we’ll laugh suddenly or cry suddenly or jump or shout. Movies may not change lives, but now and again, someone reminds us how to get lost in the screen. During a Sunday matinee of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in the arctic dark of the 19th Street Loews Cineplex, a man in the audience cried out, “Chocolate!” His voice was plaintive, semi-ecstatic, a little bit scary. “Chocolate!” he declared. At that particular moment, it was apropos of less than you might think. He was just suddenly seized by something he must have seen or felt up on screen, and like one of the kids, cried out. The best movies are like Quaker meetings, and the audience is involuntarily overwhelmed and totally overcome.

But the chocolate dude was easily outdone by the young girl at Hustle and Flow, who in an uncharacteristically quiet theater on Court Street in Brooklyn began to yelp and pump her fists and rock loudly back and forth in her seat. The massive old black ladies who had tottered up the many steep escalators chortled approvingly as soon as they realized the noises she was making weren’t actually part of the film. You should have heard her. It was the sound of someone having a blast. Scarlett! I Don’t Give a Damn