When Going to the Movies was More Important Than the Movie

Today on TCM, there’s a short movie running between the other movies and it’s about the making of Westworld, the 1973 sci-fi mediocrity about androids that go berserk and start killing the guests of the futuristic resort they occupy.  It’s a great idea, poorly executed.  Michael Crichton wasn’t much of a director but he did come up with some really great science fiction ideas and stories that worked better if someone like Robert Wise or Steven Spielberg were behind the camera.  Westworld does have a few things going for it besides the basic idea, though.  One, it has a great villain in Yul Brynner’s mad cowboy android.  Two, the pursuit by said cowboy of hapless Richard Benjamin during the climax is surprisingly well done by the usually leaden Crichton, and three, it was made in the seventies.  I’ll pretty much forgive any movie made in my youth of anything.

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Maybe it’s because the decade that you really start watching movies with a passion – and that goes straight into the next decade as the first few years of the eighties had nothing but movies from the seventies on tv – is the decade you also forgive the most because it’s the one that taught you to love the movies.   I’ve probably seen more movies from the seventies than any other decade.  I’ve seen a ton from the eighties, too, and of course the thirties is the other decade I’ve obsessed over.  But the seventies, well, I saw just about everything that got released.  I wasn’t very discerning back then either so my bright-eyed satisfaction with practically everything I saw still has a palpable hold on me as I watch these same movies again, even though with many of them I now realize they’re pretty bad, or at least hopelessly mediocre.  And when I say I wasn’t discerning, I really mean I wasn’t discerning (Friend: “What did you think of Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, Greg?” Me: “Pretty good, you should see it!”) so there’s a sense of wonder about every movie I took in at the theater in that decade, and into the early eighties, that’s still with me.

The Poseidon Adventure (the first one) was probably the first big budget movie I saw in the theater and that set my young mind atwitter with the possibilities of the cinema.  I didn’t really care how hokey the movie was, I just liked that they were in an upside down ship trying to break out of the hull.  Honestly, despite the greatness of The Godfather, Cabaret, Sounder, and others from 1972, my two favorites are probably The Poseidon Adventure and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  And what’s wrong with that?  Of course, I loved the great ones, too.  That’s the point, I guess.  I loved everything.  The seventies really couldn’t do wrong by me.  Hell, my best friend and I saw The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh the same year we saw Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and liked it.  Clearly, I had issues in 1979.

Now, I didn’t necessarily think these movies were actually good and that’s what’s interesting to me.  I give people grief all the time for liking really bad blockbusters made today but I question why I do that at all.  I’ve simply forgotten that I had a time in my life when the only thing standing between me liking a movie and not was seeing it.  Once I saw it, I liked it.  I may have thought it was garbage, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.  You see, early on, before really delving into what makes a movie good or bad, what appeals to you emotionally about it, or intellectually, you’re just thrilled to be going to the movies at all.  It didn’t matter what the movie was, it was the going that was important.  “Let’s go see a movie,” I’d say to a friend with excitement.  “Which movie,” he’d ask.  “Who cares?!”

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Somewhere along the way, I think I lost that, and I’m pretty sure it was sometime in the nineteen eighties.  By then, I guess I’d finally seen enough good movies to be bored with the bad ones and the experience of going to the movies wasn’t enough to compensate for it anymore.  I guess that’s understandable.  We all have to grow and develop our minds, our ideas, our tastes, our aesthetic.  But losing the experience weighs more heavily on my mind.  Where I used to watch all of the coming attractions with excitement and heightened expectations, I now think, “Start the movie!”  While I used to look forward to the big box of candy and the bucket of popcorn, I now sneak in snacks in my pockets to avoid the high cost of concessions.

But when I watch movies from the seventies, or something as simple as the short, On Location with West World, it makes me remember that the movies aren’t just about the film in front of you, but the experience surrounding it, and how I often let myself forget that.  Sure, I’ve loved seeing all the greats that I’ve seen on the big screen and small, but that time my friend and I saw Creepshow in the second run theater that allowed smoking and brown-bagged booze just might be the best damn experience I’ve ever had at the movies.  Drinking, smoking, and laughing like hell.  Does it matter that I’ll never get that back?  Not really.  We all move on and the experiences live on in my head.  That’s all I need.  The man said, “We’ll always have Paris,” for a reason.  I think I know what he meant.

27 Responses When Going to the Movies was More Important Than the Movie
Posted By John S : May 15, 2015 3:00 pm

Whoa, whoa, whoa. I love “Westworld.”

Posted By Autist : May 15, 2015 3:11 pm

My mileage differed. I was a teen in the ’70s and I thought at the time that most of the movies I saw in the theater were terrible. Still do. And I worked for a while as an usher in a movie theater! What did I see? “Tommy”, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”–I was a rabid Trekkie, and even I knew it was bad!–etc., etc., ad nauseum. There were a few good ones, such as “The Poseidon Adventure”–never saw “Beyond”; luckily, I guess. But for a frontline movie viewer, the decade was a vast wasteland with an occasional oasis. I’m always a bit surprised by critics who seem to think that it was a golden age for movies. I bet they didn’t live through it! Looking back, you can screen out all the junk and focus on the good stuff, but if you watched every movie that was shown in the theater, you saw just how much garbage was produced.

Posted By Autist : May 15, 2015 3:13 pm

Actually, I kind of liked “Westworld”, too, but I never saw it in the theater.

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : May 15, 2015 4:03 pm

Thank you. Your writing should be issued to every movie theater in the country and then some. The problem with movie theaters is that those palaces,stadiums and shoe boxes are no longer fun. At least not as fun as they should be. Its not just our age. There is something amiss about the current structure of movie theaters. I remember in high school seeing BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II, and disliked how I was being herded like cattle while exiting the movie. 25 years later, I think that when leaving a multiplex. And then movie business want to know why attendance is down. I found relief in cheap theaters or art house theaters but that’s a different story about the journey to a movie as opposed to the movie theater experience. One thing I lament is the lack of carny atmosphere a movie theater once had with its coconut buttered popcorn and dim lighting. We would go to see a G rated Disney re-release like MARY POPPINS or SNOW WHITE. Yet the lobby would be adorned with R-Rated posters. You knew, at night, it was a different place. You might walk by another screening room that was showing a horror movie. You could hears the screams.

You should also get in touch with fellow Morlock. Richard Smith (I don’t know how to spell Harland). Once upon a time, he wrote a great post on Mobius about Going To The Movies. You guys should exchange notes. I just remember he observation of a movie theaters being a combination of a bordello and a church.

Personally I see nothing but room for improvement in a movie theaters. Yeah booze and food is a good start but what about an MC? Someone to come out and introduce the movie. Answer some useless trivia and reward the people with some posters and t-shirts. You know…for the kids. What about the gimmicks? Ushers should be handing out coupons for food. If you want people to stay and eat food then give the people a reason to stay the food. Even better they should be handing out thumb-drives with coming soon previews to watch at home. Marvel and DC should be making comics available. Every screaming room should have its own theme. The Chamber for Horror movies. The Pyramid Room for Adventure, the Velvet Room for the Art films, the Victorian Room for Drama. Heck, I would watch TRANSFORMERS if the screening room itself was masquerading as a car wreck junk yard. and the headlights would act as the house lights. It can’t be that expensive, we have dozens of themed restaurants like long black stockings all over the place. Lets promote the “Four Walling”. Are you telling me that a movie theater can’t find local filmmakers to flaunt their stuff? And bring back the coconut oil. If its good enough for Trader Joe’s than its great for the movies.

The thing is that movie theaters are no longer movie theaters. Those places are really snack bars that shows movies.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 15, 2015 4:35 pm

as the decade of the 1970′s in which I had my maximum amount of transportation, i.e., had my own car, I was able to drive around to various movie theaters here in Dallas TX. I clearly remember seeing the likes of “The Godfather”, “Jaws” and one film which I would “sell my Soul” to see again, Dianne Keaton [speaking of "The Godfather"] starring in “Looking For Mr. Goodbar”! Does anyone know where I can find that movie now?

Posted By AL : May 15, 2015 8:26 pm

Great idea. Great writing. UltraGreat title! thank you.

Posted By chris : May 15, 2015 8:26 pm

I didn’t see Westworld in a theater but liked it when I saw it on TV. I do agree with you about loving the movies I saw in the 70′s in theaters during my teen years when I had to bike about 4 miles to the theater. It wasn’t something I did very often since I wasn’t crazy about riding the 4 miles and I did most my movie watching at home on TV. I think that’s what made it really special for me, the rarity gave that popcorn smell much more intensity than it does today. Special favorites: The Sting(the first movie I ever went to on my own) and a double feature to match any: Earthquake followed, of course, by The Towering Inferno–also know as “Shake and Bake”

Posted By george : May 15, 2015 8:37 pm

Autist, I lived through the ’70s and saw GREAT movies like Godfathers I and II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Charley Varrick, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Cuckoo’s Nest, Slap Shot, Dirty Harry, All the President’s Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Star Wars, Jaws, and many more.

Sure, there was junk in the ’70s, like Earthquake (and, I’m sorry, The Poseidon Adventure) but a lot of the B movies were very entertaining — like Death Race 2000, Macon County Line, Race with the Devil, etc.

You apparently weren’t going to the right theaters or seeing the right movies!

Posted By Marjorie Birch : May 15, 2015 11:08 pm

I have fond memories of going to the movies in the 70s, mainly because I grew up in a rural area –nearest movie house was 25 miles away and forget watching anything that the parents thought was “questionable.” But then I went to college, had access to a bus that would take me “downtown” where I had six theatres to choose from. (and six more within a five mile radius). I used to arrange my classes so I could go to the movies in the afternoon. Being the only person there felt like pure luxury — the lights would go down and I’d think. “Now. Entertain me!”

Alas, the theatres were halved, quartered, shut down, replaced by scrawnyplexes and the fun of “going to the movies” evaporated. (With the notable exception of the Allen Theatre in Annville, PA — a small gem of a restored Art Deco movie house. Velvet curtains and everything!)

Posted By LD : May 16, 2015 1:14 am

Coming from a generation of drive-ins, Cinerama, and films in beautiful theaters, I remember when seeing a film was an event. This was especially true if one had to commute from the suburbs to “downtown” where theaters were located, like the Rialto or United Artists (where the ceiling contained tiny lights that had the feel of a planetarium). By the 1970′s the multiplexes had been built. Those I have no memories of, except for seeing the one film that that was, to me, the most memorable of that decade. JAWS.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 16, 2015 1:25 am

What to you was the most memorable thing about “Jaws”? The artful direction of the still young Steven Spielberg OR that big mechanical shark?

Posted By LD : May 16, 2015 2:15 am

Steve, in retrospect, I have to say the music was a huge part of the film. Those first couple of notes are still chilling. I read the book before seeing the film and wisely the middle part was left out. I didn’t realize the appearances of the shark were kept to a minimum because of malfunctions. This only enhanced the film. So, a lot of what made JAWS such a success was accidental. It is still one of my favorite films. I think Spielberg deserves tremendous credit, especially in the way he depicts the chaos of family life, not just the adventure part of the story, although I have done some deep sea fishing and enjoy that part of the film tremendously. A few years after I saw this film I had a son. Both he and his wife are marine biologists. They dive with and research sharks, among other things. Such is life.

Posted By Autist : May 16, 2015 3:13 am

“You apparently weren’t going to the right theaters or seeing the right movies!”

Unfortunately, I was seeing every movie shown in the theater I worked in together with another one across town owned by the same chain. Yes, there were many good movies during that decade, but there were many more bad ones. But I expect that’s always the case.

Posted By JLewis : May 16, 2015 2:43 pm

I guess the one plus about the 1970s was its “anything goes” mood… and offering a lot you could not see on TV. Thanks to the onslaught of more “liberated” foreign imports and the collapse of the Production Code in the late sixties, you could now see “in motion” stuff you could only read about in books. This, of course, was the Golden Age of Porn, when the film-makers actually added dialogue and story plots between the anatomical close-ups (a.k.a. THE OPENING OF MISTY BEETHOVEN). I do think this “anything goes” mood went too far by the close of the decade (a.k.a. shockamentaries like FACES OF DEATH). After all, there are limits to what one wants to see on screen… and you MUST question some viewers’ tastes.

These days, you have to wait for an “uncut / extras added” DVD release, since what is offered at the movie theater these days is so chaste. Just the 3-D and/or bigger screen is the advantage over your TV set.

One thing I have noticed over time is that much 70s junk ages more gracefully than 80s junk, being less topical, less over-produced and less retro in fashion styles. The later decade was unfortunately too conservative with sci fi special effects and obnoxious rock scores replacing all other “novelty”. (Also… oddly… so many 80s films were shot darker, often more indoors than outdoors. It was bad enough that the theater was as dark as it was.) It was hardly surprising that the VHS market boomed as it did, since theaters no longer boasted the wide menu the video store now offered.

With that said, I still favor the 1930s over the ’70s. Just the fact that there was no TV (just radio) made all of the difference. You did not just see a “movie”, but also newsreels and short subjects of all kinds. The whole atmosphere was more “run down” by the time I saw HERBIE RIDES AGAIN.

I should point out though that this decade was also a golden age for movies-in-school-on-16mm. Many of us Generation X-ers saw as much Frank C. Baxter and Learning Corporation of America as we saw JAWS and STAR WARS. We even saw movies on an actual screen with the window shades pulled down, not a laptop computer.

Posted By george : May 16, 2015 8:30 pm

“One thing I have noticed over time is that much 70s junk ages more gracefully than 80s junk, being less topical, less over-produced and less retro in fashion styles.”

I recently watched HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (1976) and ROCK ‘N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979) back to back. They’re prime examples of Roger Corman-produced ’70s junk that are still funny, creative and entertaining. I’d rather watch them than any Transformers, Twilight or Harry Potter movie.

Posted By Autist : May 16, 2015 9:56 pm

I’d rather watch grass grow than see a Transformers or a Twilight movie. However, I’d rather see a Harry Potter movie than grass grow, and you can quote me!

Posted By george : May 16, 2015 10:05 pm

OK, Autist, some of the Harry Potter movies were good. I just haven’t had any desire to see them again.

Maybe I should have said “every Pirates of the Caribbean movie after the first one.”

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 16, 2015 10:24 pm

well autist as a “non-kid” for quite a long time now, I am in my 60′s, it’s really a “toss up” to me between watching grass grow and seeing any Harry Potter movie in terms of what could excite/stimulate me!

Posted By george : May 16, 2015 11:25 pm

JLLewis said: “With that said, I still favor the 1930s over the ’70s.”

The pre-Code early ’30s are tied with the early ’70s as my favorite eras for American movies. For foreign films, the late ’50s and early ’60s are the best years.

Posted By JLewis : May 17, 2015 12:32 am

I am rather fond of the period from 1968-1972 (clunky and hit-and-miss that the movies were then), since it was a nice comparison to 1930-1934. Hollywood discovered that sex sold tickets during the Great Depression (until the “righteous” complained and The Code needed to be enforced)… and, once again, when the collapsing studios suddenly discovered that the audience that had previously flocked to see THE SOUND OF MUSIC was now home watching Lawrence Welk instead of attending STAR!, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG and HELLO DOLLY. Again, desperate times called for desperate measures and I AM CURIOUS YELLOW was making a fortune.

Posted By gregferrara : May 17, 2015 1:35 am

You know what I also miss from that period? Cheesy sci-fi titillation. I remember seeing LOGAN’S RUN with my brother in 1976 before STAR WARS changed that kind of thing and I personally loved the gratuitous section where they chase Logan through the sex room where everything’s wavy and psychedelic.

Also, everything about AT THE EARTH’S CORE. I really miss cheesy sci-fi. CARNOSAUR was one of the last great ones.

Posted By gregferrara : May 17, 2015 1:39 am

Yes, the seventies had loads of crap like some of the ones I mentioned and VIVA KNIEVAL to boot. I think it was that the better ones had a less polished quality than their pre-seventies studio counterparts so something that looked as spontaneous and freewheeling as THE LAST DETAIL seemed refreshing in many ways for a lot of people. The decade still had big studio productions too, like THE GODFATHER and CABARET, but movies like THE CONVERSATION and NASHVILLE and DOG DAY AFTERNOON felt different I think. I’d say there were as many good and bad movies as any other decade, it’s just that the style of moviemaking took a stylistic shift, briefly, in the first half of the decade.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 17, 2015 1:50 am

Greg it was well before the 1970′s but actress Anne Francis looked mighty good in that old sci-fi movie “The Forbidden Planet”. Too bad Leslie Nielsen didn’t seem to know what to do with her, if you know what I mean!

Posted By george : May 17, 2015 3:10 am

Jenny Agutter has a couple of nude scenes in LOGAN’S RUN. Those were the days — when nudity was allowed in PG-rated movies.

I think of the ’90s as the worst decade for movies, especially for the major studio product. If not for that decade’s indie boom, the ’90s would have been almost completely worthless.

Posted By george : May 17, 2015 3:24 am

” … something that looked as spontaneous and freewheeling as THE LAST DETAIL seemed refreshing in many ways for a lot of people.”

Yes. Movies of the ’70s, especially in the first half of the decade, had a sense of life as it’s being lived — of people improvising their lives. You had no idea what would happen next because, thank God, the rigid 3-act structure had not yet been imposed.

Robert Altman was the master of this style, but you also feel it in AMERICAN GRAFFITI and even in action movies like THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and DILLINGER.

It also helped that test audience-mandated happy endings were not yet the rule. I read a book about Peckinpah that mentioned several people walked out of the one test screening of STRAW DOGS, calling the worst movie they’d ever seen, but very few changes were made. A minute or two were cut to pick up the pace, but that was all. Nothing major was changed.

Posted By Elizabeth : May 18, 2015 6:16 pm

I still remember going to Westworld with my dad and brother. I was 8! What was that thing rated, anyway? They took me to everything – The Godfather, Part II as well. Why did we go to Westworld? Two reasons: One, like the author, we were 70s people and that’s just what we did and two, my father, a child of the Depression, went to the movies virtually every week of his life until he hit his 80s.

Posted By John S : May 19, 2015 7:06 pm

I will extend this because I can’t help myself, such is my rose-colored fondness for Westworld. I find it quite well-directed, especially the long chase that is probably, what, 1/3 of the movie? Look at the way Crichton uses the monitors and, no doubt, the same hallway over and over.

The ’70s were my movie wheelhouse, and so still are. I recall going to see, in Los Altos, Calif., a TRIPLE-FEATURE of “Planet of the Apes,” “Beneath …” and “Conquest.” I bet it was a buck fifty. I saw a lot of movies that weren’t first-run in theaters as a kid, including “Gone With the Wind” (headache) and “7th Voyage of Sinbad” (more than once). In fact, the downtown movie house (!) ran “kids” movies on Saturdays. That’s where I introduced to adolescence by Miss Caroline Munro.

I love digital access and the ability to watch, say, “Viy” on YouTube or “Andrei Rublev” on Hulu. So I feel lucky to be sentient during this Golden Age of Access. But yes, yes, yes, I do miss the days when we watched movies at the movies.

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