The Universal Notebook: Back to the movies

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Lately, Carolyn and I have taken to going to the movies at the Nickelodeon in Portland on Tuesday nights when admission is only $5. We go with our good friends and fellow empty-nesters Don and Colleen. Even watching the latest hit films, there’s something very old-fashioned about actually going to the movies.

Going to the movies with friends is itself kind of an odd thing to do, since you can’t really socialize during a movie. You can go out for a drink afterwards, but we’re old farts now and head home to bed at 9 or 10. We just sit there in the dark together, sharing a bag of popcorn and a vicarious screen experience.

Fifty years ago, I was watching movies in Portland alone.

Back in the late 1950s, my Nana Gibson, who lived on High Street, would sometimes give me a quarter and send me two blocks up to Congress Street, where I could take my pick of the State, the Strand, the Empire or the Civic. You just kind of wandered in to continuously playing double features, watched matinee showings of kiddie flix like “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” and “The Shaggy Dog,” and wandered out again when they got to where you came in. Can’t imagine sending an 8-, 9-, 10-year-old kid to the movies alone today.

In the 1960s, going to the movies became a social occasion. Every kid I knew in junior high went to the Star Theater in downtown Westbrook. It hardly mattered what the movie was. We were 12, 13, 14 and getting to sit in the dark next to a girl, strategically slip an arm around the back of her seat, and maybe even get to kiss her was the main attraction. Come Monday, who sat with whom, who made out and who broke up was big news.

The only time the wild boys of Westbrook stopped our cinematic seduction of the opposite sex was when there was a movie in town that fueled our shared male fantasies. After seeing “The Hustler,” every kid in town fancied himself a pool shark and wanted a pool table for Christmas. When “The Cincinnati Kid” came to the Star, every kid in town became a poker player with an ace up his sleeve. (Why aren’t there any Steve McQueen movies on TV anymore?)

Movies mostly make sense for dating these days unless you’re a film buff who can’t wait for the DVD. Until our daughters grew up and fled the nest, I much preferred watching movies at home, where I could stop and start them at will. Funny now to think how VCR technology baffled me when I first experienced it in the early 1980s. How was it possible to watch a movie that wasn’t in a theater, to watch it anytime you wanted, and on your own television set? Incredible!

In those early days, we actually rented the videocassette recorder at the supermarket along with the videocassettes. I guess I’m a late adopter, but the technology of film is constantly changing. VHS begat DVD, Netflix by mail turned into streaming Netflix and Hulu. I’m sure I’ve never even heard of whatever (or however) hip techies are watching these days. That’s another reason I’ve gone back to the movies.

The Bowling Alone phenomenon was well documented a decade ago. We are loosing real civic associations and social life to the anti-social virtual reality of email, text messaging, chat rooms, and online “communities” of “friends” we don’t know and never see.

So as I sit in the dark with my lovely wife, a couple of my best friends and a bunch of strangers, watching famous people on the big screen pretending to be people they are not, I take some small satisfaction in thinking that I am doing my part to preserve a great American pastime, not to mention my own past time.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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