I’ve been going to the movies more or less consciously since 1956 now. I say “more or less” not out of deference to those features that were of such a nature that I took a short nap during them, nor due to mental numbing generated by such events as Sex and the City 2. No, it’s simply because my earliest memories are sketchy to say the least. Some things are fragmented or jumbled. I’ve only a few images from going along with my parents to see The Searchers (1956). For years I thought the opening to Portrait in Black (1960) was part of an Elvis movie. (It may have improved them both had it been true.)
Of course, in one’s early moviegoing years, the question of where to sit doesn’t arise. Assuming you’re not one of those children who do Elvis impressions during Loving You (1957)— I name no names here (and besides I don’t remember doing it)—you sit wherever your parents decide to sit. It’s later on that where to sit becomes an issue. I don’t recall it being something to be considered until I was about 10, at which time my friends and I discovered the immersive quality of watching movies from the third row of the State Theater.
Why the third row and not the second or first? I’m not entirely sure. I’d like to think it was something like the difference between buying a Rolls Royce and a Bentley—the latter proving that you’re so classy that you don’t feel the need to flaunt it with the showy “Spirit of Ecstasy” hood ornament. I’m not saying that we weren’t precocious, mind, but I somehow doubt we were that precocious. My best guess is that it was vaguely rebellious. After all, it was something our parents would never do. I suspect we were even cautioned that it would hurt our eyes. Even the theater looked down on those rows. When they reupholstered the joint, the first three rows were left with their worn red vinyl coverings—as if to say, “This is good enough for the likes of you.”
At the same time, I think the reason it became the standard position for a couple years was because it truly did immerse you in the film being so close that you couldn’t actually take in the entire screen at one time. This was especially true of the State, which was one of those cavernous single screen theaters from the 1940s with a big screen that truly was big. If the movie was in a true widescreen process like Cinemascope or Panavision, I’m sure we looked a bit like spectators at a tennis match looking from one end of the screen to the other. In any case, an image like the one at the right has a good deal more impact if it’s all you can see.
The whole concept of sitting very close to the screen is addressed in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2004), which is perhaps the most on-target film ever made about people obsessed with cinema. The immersive aspect is there addressed in more psychological terms, being read as a desire to get nearer the film itself on the part of people whose whole lives are filtered through the movies. It’s an expression of a life lived vicariously with actual human interaction kept at bay for whatever reason. I’m not prepared to say that this reading is filled with the juice of the prune—even if it does make me somewhat uncomfortable by perhaps being a little too close to home.
The up-close-and-personal seating gave way to sitting somewhere around the middle of the theater in the teenage years—mostly I suspect because we’d become too cool to sit down front. That just evidenced way too much involvement in those years when one tries to adopt a kind of Noel Coward world-weary sophistication. It’s simply not cool to express actual excitement, you know. After all, when you’re 15 or 16 you want the world to think—or you want to think that the world thinks—that you’ve seen it all before and it’s going to take a lot to impress you. This was especially true of my most common viewing partner in those years, the late Bill Wheeler, who I am convinced emerged from the womb with a martini in one hand, a cigarette in the other and an Oscar Wilde epigram ready for use. Instead of wailing, I expect he took one look at the doctor and yawned.
As time passed and the question of where to sit lost most of its social status—except as concerns balconies, which I’ve always been a sucker for—I gravitated toward slightly closer than mid-way down and as close to viewing the screen from the center as possible. That second notion was thwarted for a time with the rise of the first multiplexes and the shoebox auditorium where the aisle was straight down the center. Sitting in the aisle tends to be frowned upon and is generally uncomfortable.
Of course, individual circumstances and theaters present different considerations. If your seat of choice is not available, you have to alter your habit on the spot. And, of course, there’s the case of having the world’s tallest human being plop down right in front of you. Now, my take in this is to move. On one notable occasion—at a screening of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976)—the infrequent commenter on these columns known as Rufus, actually leaned forward and requested the offending party to please not sit directly in front of us. It was not unreasonable since the theater was far from full, but it was beyond my basic reticence in such matters. Of course, neither option is always available. Ken Russell once complained that he’d gone to see David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and been seated in a packed theater behind “the man with last afro in London.” I’m sure this made for an unusual moviegoing experience—like peering at the film through the shrubbery.
Theaters are definitely a consideration, too. The Tampa Theater in Tampa, Florida may well live up to its claim of being “The South’s most beautiful theater.” It most certainly is a wonder to behold with its recreation of an Italian garden by starlight—complete with a domed ceiling of twinkling stars and projected clouds. It also has the downside of having been built in 1925 when the only consideration in terms of acoustics was how the Mighty Wurlitzer (and, yes, it really does rise up out of floor) sounded like. The fact is the sound tends to echo in the Tampa—unless you grab a seat under the balcony. That’s a rather unusual concern.
Of recent years, I’ve tended to be fairly ambivalent about where I sit and usually let it be dictated by whoever I’m watching the movie with. I have one viewing companion who is too vain to wear glasses and too blind to really see the movie any further back than that good old third row. I don’t mind. It’s like revisiting my childhood—with the definite advantage of not having to stay there. For the most part, though, I do avoid the first rows, especially if I’m reviewing the film, because I like to be able to take in the whole frame for that. (If I like the film, I will probably try it from an immersive, up-close position later.) The sole local exception to this is the Beaucatcher where, for some reason, you could put a small skating rink between the front row and the screen.
The last time I was in the actual first row was in March of 2009 at the Florida Film Festival for Crimes of Passion (1984). The festival people had saved that row for Ken and Lisi Russell, Barry Sandler and myself because Ken and Barry were doing a Q&A afterwards and this put them near the makeshift stage that had been put together for the purpose. To make matters worse, this was in a stadium seating theater. I know I am in the minority in disliking stadium seating, but whatever debatable merits it may have are definitely cancelled out from the first row. My neck has yet to fully recover.
Left to my own devices (read: when no one wants to or can go to a movie with me), I do have certain default preferences. Downstairs at the Fine Arts Theatre for example, I like to sit on the aisle on the right directly in front of the projection booth. I don’t know why, but it suits me. If there’s someone in that seat, it puts me mildly out of sorts. In the upstairs theater, it makes me downright (yes, I’m going to say it) cranky if I can’t sit in the second row.
Generally speaking, though I’m pretty much OK with any seat—so long as I can see the screen and am not next to someone of dubious hygiene, a penchant for text messaging during the movie, or who laughs at such peculiar things that I fear for my well-being. I should note that I have never sat through a movie in the manner depicted at the top of the column—that was strictly the idea of the director of the documentay that image is drawn from. There have, I admit, been numerous films that might have been better viewed with my back turned toward the screen. However, I have noted a marked tendency for me to seat myself at the back the theater nearest an exit door during things like The House Bunny (2008) and Meet the Spartans (2008). Whether this is fear of contagion or simply a desire to be able to make a speedy retreat I can’t say, but either seems reasonable.