Classical Notes
title - Shots in the Dark - an Urban Sequel - the Movie Theatre Critic Returns

So, your work ran long (again!), your significant other has already recorked the wine, and you're stuck downtown in desperate need of some entertainment. Why not go to a nearby movie? Well, let me count the ways.

Flashback to 1974. Armed with bachelor's and master's degrees, I had tasted the strange flavor of a real job, I still didn't know what I wanted to be if I grew up. So, naturally, I went to law school. Hot town, summer in the City - my first wife and I spent a grueling afternoon moving into a Dupont Circle apartment (boy, those boxes of LPs were heavy!), dragged ourselves to the old Souperb for a dinner that really hit the spot and then, to top off a day bursting with the promise of all the excitement our new life could hold, we headed to the Janus for our first local movie.

To this day, I recall the brutal shock of that encounter. As a film buff, I had haunted countless theatres of all shapes and sizes throughout my then-tender life, but nothing had prepared me for this; surely the usher was playing a practical joke on naïve newcomers by guiding us to a misshapen closet rather than the actual auditorium. But, no - that tiny, peep-show image with alarm clock sound actually was the movie we had paid to see! It was then and there that I declared before the gods of cinema that this was the worst excuse for a movie theatre I had ever encountered and I swore a solemn vow to never, ever return.

Until the summer of 2001 I stayed true to my word. It was only in the interest of accurate reporting (and perhaps in fear of a readership for my Legal Times columns that thrives on scrutinizing the quality of evidence) that I dared to venture back. In the last three decades our standards have plunged - the grand palaces of old are now forgotten relics, as soulless multiplexes have become the accepted norm for a movie-going experience. Anyway, 1974 was more than half my life ago, and the intervening years presumably should have bestowed their mellowing gift of tolerance and moderation. Surely time had unfairly calcified my memory of events in the distant past and had blinded me to what must have been a far more benign reality. And I still work in DC and I still love movies, so I should patronize the few movie houses that remain there, right?

Wrong! In the movies' heyday, fans flocked downtown to the premier venues. But unlike opera, theatre and other high culture, movies have packed up and fled to the 'burbs. While commercial movie houses came and went, the one constant was the American Film Institute theatre; complete with its funky décor of auto body parts, this was the one place where you could always be sure of compelling programs and impeccable presentation, nestled in a setting that assured us that movies were indeed a treasured part of our civilization. But now even the AFI has headed to fancy new digs in Silver Spring. (And as for the Kennedy Center it left behind, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot - literally - the epic sculpture of “America” out front now presides forlornly over rows of idle cars, but let's not dwell on the symbolism of that.)

Anyway, in a prior column I had bemoaned the sorry state of suburban movie-going. And so, in time-honored Hollywood tradition, here's a sequel devoted to downtown theatres. It won't be long - there are only six left (although reportedly more are on the way).

Of the current six, there's little to distinguish the four Cineplex Odeon houses - the Foundry, the Inner Circle, the Dupont Circle and my nemesis the Janus. All four have mostly tiny theatres with miniature screens, clattering projectors and boombox sound - you'll do better with a typical living room video setup. The number of seats hardly matters; unless you sit in the center of the very front row, the apparent size of the screen will seem like a TV and you'll see more of whoever's in front of you than the picture. On the plus side of the ledger, though, the staffs are incredibly nice and the features are preceded with far less clutter than their suburban counterparts (an average of three ads and two trailers at the shows I saw, compared with an unconscionable six trailers at Moulin Rouge in Rockville and five before the three hours of Pearl Harbor at the Uptown).

    Cineplex Odeon Janus - My original distress has long since abated, but, déjà vu all over again, my unsuspecting college boy, interning in the city this summer, takes his girlfriend out to their first downtown movie after work and where do they wind up? The Janus! His disbelieving reaction: “Dad, they have columns right in the middle of the theatre!” Yes, son, they do, and the seats still creak and the picture still splays onto the ceiling and the lights still stay up far too brightly during the show. One thing has changed, though - the final insult to greet my return was a truly disgusting men's room that reeked from a well-used but inoperative urinal. Popcorn, anyone? [2003 update and proof that there really is a Deity: The Janus abused its last patron and is no more (!!)]

    Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle - It's axiomatic that urban space is always at a premium, and especially for a venue as roomy as a theatre, but the five here serve as a tribute to the ingenuity of efficient modern urban architecture - just marvel at how so many rectangles could be located (and connected with serpentine hallways) within the acute triangle of this building. The sound had a pronounced 60-cycle buzz and was much louder for the trailers than the feature. The floating screen wasn't matted, and so was surrounded by a kinetic light sculpture of the edges of the image dancing on the back wall; while this began as an annoying distraction, it soon turned out to be far more interesting than the portion of “Sexy Beast” that did make it onto the screen.

    Cineplex Odeon Foundry - All movie buffs dream of being stars, right up there on the screen alongside their favorite legends. Well, here those dreams come true - the ceiling, screen and projection booth were mounted so low in the auditorium I attended that every time someone stood up near the center aisle their silhouette blocked off a good part of the picture. But if there can be such a thing as a romantic setting for an urban theatre, this surely is it, with an entrance along the Canal near water rushing over an adjacent lock. And if you don't insist on the very latest releases, the admission of only $3, even at night, is the best movie bargain in town. {2003 update: The Foundry is no more!}

    Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle - The so-called “large” theatre of the three here (92 seats) is the best of this entire group - the only one with a sloping floor, partially reclining seats with padded armrests, a sharp picture with well-balanced sound and a properly-darkened theatre (with lights only along the side aisles). If you sit near the front, the apparent size of the picture is pretty decent.

    AMC Union Station - For those with any movie-going standards left, this is the only real downtown theatre. Excitingly set within the awesome architectural splendor of the restored Union Station and right behind its vast, bustling food court, the nine theatres boast tall ceilings, functional décor, comfortable seats (but with those nasty cupholders built into the hard plastic armrests), lots of leg room between rows and a sharp, bright, steady picture displayed on a large, crisply masked screen. And while all the other downtown venues hide behind nondescript signs suited to a parking garage entrance, this one welcomes you with colorful lights that suggest a real, live marquee. The only DC theatre boasting THX-certified sound is here, but it's small (about 200 seats) and despite all the hoopla has lots of background hiss and shy bass, surely no better than standard Dolby audio everywhere else. And once it finally began, the feature seemed an afterthought following seven trailers - and they began only after a gamut of ads. Two hints to the management: I'm glad your air conditioning works so well, but please check the temperature once in a while - I've been in more comfortable meat lockers (although my shivering did manage to keep me awake through the end of AI). And if you insist on selling a ticket for every available seat, then perhaps the ushers could help latecomers find them, rather than standing around talking in the hallway. The AMC Union Station is definitely worth a return trip, but next time I'll come 20 minutes late and still have plenty of time to get settled before the actual movie starts.

    Visions - And finally, for those who despair over the deepening spread of standardized blandness, there's Visions. The very last area theatre to avoid chain ownership, Visions proves its independence in many ways. Programming consists entirely of foreign and art films that you'll never see elsewhere in DC (and may not even catch on video). A trendy selection of tapas, wraps, paninis and herbal teas replaces the garbage that usually passes for movie refreshments. Wheelchair patrons are honored with a nice central spot rather than being relegated to Siberia. You're welcomed by a gentle voice instead of a tired clip of roller coasters and popcorn avalanches (although as the feature is about to begin it does seem a bit late for her to suggest where to park). There are no ads (thank you!) and only trailers for movies they're actually going to show. Best of all, before the movie you get great old shorts (Buster Keaton's astounding “Playhouse” when I went and a Betty Boop cartoon next door). Unfortunately, though, the name is a bit of a misnomer, since the visual sense isn't especially well-served. The two theatres essentially slice the old Embassy down the middle, yielding two deep, narrow spaces with strong, detailed sound but screens hung so high that the first several rows are useless (unless, that is, you literally like to gaze up at the stars) and the image shrinks and loses its impact as you head to the rear for a decent sight line. Bright exit lights abut the screen and are a constant annoying intrusion. And instead of back-timing the shorts (which actually are videos instead of real films), they just cut poor old Buster off in mid-gag at the appointed hour. But despite minor frustrations, the overall sense here is of restoring fun and significance to the movie-going experience, and you have to salute the vision of Visions for daring to attempt that nowadays. [2003 update - Alas, this gem is gone, too!]

Well, that's all folks! Beyond the commercial screens downtown, don't forget that many museums occasionally show films in their fine auditoriums. And the astounding IMAX shows at Air/Space and Natural History are guaranteed to blow you away with the power of movie magic.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2001 and 2003 by Peter Gutmann

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Classical Notes
copyright © 1998-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.