Let's Just Me Go To The Movies

I'm a big movie buff. One of my majors in college was Film Studies; I can almost guarantee I'm the only film student in history who earned an A+ writing about Rudy Ray Moore's Disco Godfather. I always try to keep an eye out for interesting so-called "art films"; the kind of movie that gets a small release, usually only in a handful of theaters in a handful of U.S. cities.

I've seen more than my share of good and bad independent films over the years, but I always try to go into a movie not afraid to think. Some people only like movies that allow them to shut off their brains for a couple of hours; I'm the opposite. The thinking about a film, what it's saying, how it says it, etc... that's my favorite part of movie-going. Sometimes the smaller movies that I really enjoy turn into bigger movies upon wide release (e.g. Memento); sometimes they remain relatively obscure (e.g. startup.com). Either way, when I lived in Atlanta, I liked few things better than driving down one of the Lefont theaters (sadly, only two are left), grabbing a couple slices of Fellini's pizza and catching a movie.

There are some decent art-house theaters in Washington; the Shirlington 7 and Fairfax Cinema Arts theaters show some good stuff, although both areas are perpetually crowded with people and cars, and tickets occasionally sell out, which somehow seems contrary to the idea of the art film or independent feature. You also have your Dupont Circle 5 and your various AFI theaters, including the new one in Silver Spring, which, of course, I failed in my attempt to visit last Friday.

I've mentioned a few times that my hatred for Washington is primarily rooted in a series of events that occured just prior to and after moving here in August 2001. My first visit to the Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge was one of them.

This was December 2001, and Visions was showing a movie I'd had my eye on for a while: a remake of a classic Japanese animated movie, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. One Saturday I decided to make my way down to the theater to catch a mid-afternoon showing. I knew that driving to Dupont Circle and trying to find a place to park would be no easy chore, so I left a good two hours early for the Court House Metro station near our crappy apartment. Surprisingly, I actually made it to the Dupont Circle station without the train derailing, and I successfully walked the four or five blocks to Florida Avenue after being accosted by strangers only twice. And I was about an hour early.

Surprisingly, as I was about to cross Florida Avenue, a friend of mine from college drove past. He stopped the car and we chatted for a while. I mentioned that running into him made D.C. seem like a small town. "Too small sometimes," he said.

After talking a while, I made my way into the theater. Visions occupies a decent-sized space for being in the District; it has a fairly big front, containing a bar and a cooler with some sandwiches and things. You can order food at the same time you order tickets. There's a table-seating area in the front that's fairly quirky; moviegoers often wait there for their theater to open as they eat and drink.

But the two theaters themselves are somewhat strange. Each is very long and narrow; there are maybe 20 rows of seats, but their width seems to range from about six to eight seats, with the walls jammed up against the edge of each row. This also makes for a very small screen; if you were to take a normal-sized movie screen and cut it into quarters, one of the quarters would still probably be larger than the screens in these theaters. So sitting in these theaters, you get a very strange sensation of claustrophobia; it's like trying to watch a movie while seated in a long, narrow hallway.

So I grabbed a seat a few rows from the front, simply so I could see the movie's visuals in at least some detail. After a while the theater actually started to fill up fairly well, which surprised me. Eventually, the movie started, and I realized that this wasn't going to be the best movie-going experience; the sound in the theater was not great, with most of it focused near the screen, and very little of it surrounding the audience. The movie was apparently being projected from a DVD player, rather than actual film; not a big deal if I'm watching at home, but blowing up such an image onto a big screen can tend to wash it out a bit.

Then things started to take a turn for the worse. Two very loud, talkative, and tall men came in and sat down right in front of me. They started talking after they sat down and pretty much didn't stop. And, since this was an action-horror anime, it of course gave them plenty of things to yell about (e.g. a scene of a person being cut in half is apparently a good time to shout your approval). At other times they were talking on their cell phones. Loudly.

Meanwhile, a college-aged girl a couple rows behind me kept yelping with uncontrollable laughter every time one of these scenes appeared on-screen. We're talking several seconds of loud laughter at the most inappropriate times. Fine, you don't like the movie and think it's ridiculous; there's no reason to ruin it for someone trying to actually watch and enjoy it, i.e., me.

Then, as if that wasn't distracting enough, a construction crew started doing work outside, just behind where the screen is. The crew is, of course, using a jackhammer. So between the loud dudes in front of me, the laughing girl behind me, and the jackhammering going on just outside the theater, I can't hear a single fucking word of dialogue. Then, the DVD started to occasionally skip, causing random two- and three-second pauses in the film. The movie would play for 20 seconds... pause for two seconds... play for another 30 seconds... pause for another three seconds.... guh.

As I mentioned, I like to concentrate on the films I see. With all this cacophany going on around me and the movie itself having playback issues, that was more than a little difficult. I debated whether or not to just go ask for a refund, but I decided I was too angry/depressed to have to fight with the cashier, and I didn't feel like trekking all they way back home without having actually seen the movie.

Then, surprisingly, my cell phone rang. That rarely happens, and sometimes I forget I have it, and I'll forget to turn it off before a movie. I quickly answered it, and realized it was a wrong number. "Wrong number," I said, and hung up. Then, one of the guys in front of me, who had been talking loudly during the movie on his own cell phone, gave me a nasty look. I very nearly started yelling at him right there.

So when I finally left the theater, walking out into the cold winter afternoon, I felt strangely unsatisfied by my cinematic experience. In the past I've always headed for the movies to cheer myself up when I felt depressed; this time I was actually more angry and more depressed than I had been when I showed up. I had taken the time to walk to the train station, train down to Dupont, and walk to the theater, just to be disappointed. Visions was obviously not the place to go if you loved movies; it was a place more wrapped up in its own image, rather than actually being a proper showcase for films. I wanted to like it, because they showed different features that nobody else did. But this was clearly more a place for people to be seen, rather than a a theater that celebrated the magic of cinema. Like the rest of Washington, it was image over substance. And granted, having rude people in the audience is not Vision's fault. But the construction, bad sound, tiny screen and skipping movie really put me off, and I wouldn't have felt I had gotten my money's worth even if I had been the only one in the theater.

Now, don't let it be said that I hold a grudge forever. I actually have been back to Visions twice; once for a documentary about Henry Kissinger, and once to see a collection of funny failed sitcom pilots called "The Other Network" (and again, the DVD skipped during the presentation). My wife tried one of their sandwiches and said it was pretty bad, so out of its "Cinema/Bistro/Lounge" title, it seems that Visions only does the "lounge" part well.

I'll probably go back to Visions, but only if they're showing something unusual that I'm especially interested in seeing. I'm not going to make too many dedicated attempts to see a movie there, which is a shame; it should be kind of place I go to once a month. And it would be, if they took the filmgoing experience more seriously.

It's all part of another reason... why I hate DC. And now you know... the rest of the story. Join me in two weeks for: "The Ice Skating Incident."

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