In May of 1983 I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI at the Sunrise Multiplex, a six-screen theater that had recently opened on the border between Nassau County and Queens, on Long Island.
I had never been to a movie theater with six screens before. The lobby alone seemed vast and futuristic, like the departures terminal at an airport. Except in this case we weren’t flying to Florida to visit distant relatives, we were off to Endor to watch the Ewoks dispatch the Imperial Stormtroopers. I wondered if this was going to be the new normal for my moviegoing experience – no more quaint little Main Street movie houses in towns like Valley Stream or Lynbrook, just gigantic, prison-style campuses on the grounds of shopping malls.
The prison metaphor became even more real a few weeks later, when I took my little sister Missy to see SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE in 3-D. As my father dropped us off with instructions to “take care of your sister,” I noticed that a metal detector had been installed in the lobby of the Multiplex. After paying for our tickets, we funneled through this doorway-like, rectangular structure that made a “ding” sound as we passed through it, ostensibly sans whatever the metal detector was intended to detect.
Not long after we saw SPACEHUNTER, my parents, sister and I went to visit my Aunt Margaret and Uncle George, who was a Nassau County cop. I mentioned that we had been to the Sunrise Multiplex and referenced the new heightened security.
“I would avoid that place,” Uncle George said, looking first at me, then my dad. “There was a brawl there, and somebody got knifed. That’s why they put in metal detectors.”
I never went back to the Sunrise Multiplex. But I thought about it today, when I woke up and heard the news of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado at the screening of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. At age 13, the movie theater was like my house of worship, second only to St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, where I was still serving mass every Sunday (even though I was rapidly outgrowing the cassock). The idea that going to see a movie might get me killed was completely baffling to me. How could something that brought me so much joy be dangerous?
Looking back, walking through that multiplex metal detector was a turning point in my young life, one of the the first realizations that the perfect little suburban world in which I lived could also be a dark and dangerous place.
I wonder how many kids are experiencing similar feelings today. How many will understand that one deranged dude in body armor does not mean that every screening of every movie at every theater in the country is equally dangerous? More to the point, how many people in positions of authority will realize this? Already, the NYPD has promised an increased “presence” at theaters showing THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in New York City for fear of “copycat crimes” and “to ease moviegoers.”
If you love the movies, today is a tragic day. It’s tragic because of the 12 people who lost their lives, and the 59 who were injured, and the countless others who had to flee that theater fearing for their lives – all because they were excited to see the new Batman movie, and couldn’t wait until tomorrow.
We’ve all heard cynical politicians refer to a “pre-9/11″and a “post-9/11” mindset. My great hope is that the tragedy of this day will be remembered in its proper context, and the joyful experience of moviegoing will be allowed to remain just that: joyful. We should mourn the dead, care for the injured, and punish the guilty. What we should not do is punish everyone who loves movies because one mental patient went off his rocker, and made use of automatic weapons that should have been much harder for him to obtain than they actually were.
Just this week, I was reminded of the magical impact the movies can have on a kid. I dug through my closet and pulled out a shoebox containing a collection of STAR WARS action figures I had kept since childhood. Some were from what is now known as A NEW HOPE, most were from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and at least one was from RETURN OF THE JEDI, by which time I was (arguably) too old to be playing with toys.
They were all in pristine condition, stored with their original weapons and light sabers, a fact which would not surprise you if you knew what an obsessive collector I was then (and still am). I packed up these beloved relics of my youth and gave them to my girlfriend’s five-year-old nephew, who is obsessed with Jedis and Sith lords, and who loves to watch commercials for “old school” STAR WARS toys on You Tube.
As we sat on his bedroom floor I told him about each figure, and when and where I had gotten it. But there was one I couldn’t identify.
“That’s the AT-AT driver,” the precocious 5-year-old said, without hesitation.”That’s the one you had to get in the mail.”
He was right, of course. And at that moment, I realized my toys had found the right home.
I hope, in a “post-Aurora” world, the experience of moviegoing will be just as magical for Sammy and every other kid as it was for me, some 35 years ago. We owe it to them to make that happen.