My friends keep trying to get me to watch movies in the theater, but it’s kind of hard for me to justify the expense. For reasons of economy and personal taste, it has been several years since I have visited a multiplex. Even before the advent of streaming video and (judging completely by rumor) Bittorrent, on those rare occasions when I left the confines of my home to see a movie, my theater of choice was a second run cinema which served as the only draw for a dying shopping center which was little more than an enclosed strip mall. If you were willing to wait 2-3 months to satisfy your curiosity, you could watch a movie on the big screen for $2. And if you could go to the matinee or any time on Tuesday, you could get in for a little as a $1.50. This was instead of the typical ticket price at the time of $8.

The mall was so heavily dependent upon the theater that the local dollar-ish store had a whole section dedicated to candy and drinks that could easily be slipped inside the theater, so as to avoid purchasing the exorbitantly priced snacks in the lobby. In case you were too slow on the uptake to realize the intended audience for the aisles of neatly packaged M&Ms, chip bags, and cans of soda, the section was decorated with movie stills and other film related paraphernalia. I have a sneaking suspicion that the theater and the dollar store were in cahoots, because faced with the prospect of cheap easily procured sugar, I would see whole families waddle from the dollar store to the cinema, each one with a saddlebag laden with treats, having spent more than most people would if buying directly from the theater’s snack stand. And, unlike some of the more reputable local movie houses, the budget theater never once checked for items brought from the outside.

Each screening room would be stuffed full of the dregs of humanity. In the winter, when the temperatures in Michigan plummeted, and the homeless shelters disgorged their charges back out into the street from 9am until 6pm, some wise soul had figured out that the theater was more hospitable and less policed than the library, and that, once inside, the teenagers who were paid minimum wage to tear your ticket stub or offer you tubs of popcorn big enough to bathe in (if you were into bathing in butter and salt, which considering some of the treatments currently advertised in health spa commercials, I wouldn’t exactly be surprised to see available one day) were not willing to risk life and limb to confront a patron about the length of their stay.

Boundless amounts of free time combined with practically unlimited access to an average of up to five movies at a time, which only changed on a semiregular basis, led to the emergence of that rara avis, the vagrant film critic. Indeed, this was an actual plus in terms of my film experience. Going to a show, you would be treated to a stream of freely given film commentary, ranging on topics from shots, to actors, editing, and dialogue. On a few memorable visits, there were heated arguments about whether a movie was a masterpiece or a failure, with the audience serving as a jury more critical than Cannes. I was in the audience when the Christopher Nolan movie Momento received the coveted Cannibis D’or, with the audience struck speechless, reduced to standing and applauding. And I heard the death knell of M. Knight Shyamalan’s career, when a witty bon vivant yelled to a packed house over the closing credits of Lady in the Water, “the only thing surprising about this movie was how bad it was!”, and everyone erupted in peals of laughter and agreement.

It would take that kind of atmosphere to lure me back inside a theater now; where the spectators are the show, and it’s okay to join in as part of a communal experience. One day, I’d possibly like to open a theater like that myself. I imagine elevating even the most banal movie into a triumph of audience participation, in the mold of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And more importantly, where people don’t have to take out a loan to pay for a seat.