As the circle is drawn, the people feel a small rush of energy run from person to person, the familiar arousal of ceremony. The quarters are called. The fires crackle. The ritual begins.
The Tennessee Theater pushes itself back from the cramped Gay Street sidewalk, buried within itself like a wolf spider in a trap. The pavement changes color from grey to a dark brown, and patrons wander in like unsuspecting grasshoppers, awed by the intricacy of the architecture and the anachronistic ticket booth, separate from the rest of the building, like cleverly placed bait.
Customers wander in, dazed, hypnotized by the almost criminal use of fleur-de-lis. Ushers show them to their assigned spots, plush maroon seats that do not recline and defy the existence of cup-holders. The quarters are close, and smelling the person next to you is not difficult.
Sitting inside the auditorium is like being trapped inside a Fabergé egg. Sequins adorn the curtain that hangs in front of the screen. The ubiquitous fleur-de-lis runs in giant arches around the stage, as do depictions of castles, dancing bears, and crests of long-forgotten families. History lives in the Tennessee like dinosaurs live in Jurassic Park; its existence is undeniable, but remanufactured. A refurbishment project a few years back made everything bright and shiny again. Some grime would be welcome, a slight layer of stickiness on the floors. It’s a theater, not a museum.
Maybe it should be, though, and perhaps all of us gathered here on this Sunday afternoon should be on permanent display. Eighty of us, maybe ninety, here to see The Godfather, Part II, a movie released in 1974. I have this movie on DVD. I tend to think a lot of people do. I have a fairly decent home entertainment system, nothing too high end, but it is manly overkill for my small apartment living room. Also: I can, and do, quote this movie on a regular basis. What’s the sense of leaving my comfortable home, dragging my wife with me, to pay hard-earned money to see a movie already burned into my subconscious?
“Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.”
The woman across the aisle from me is wearing her Sunday best. She may have just come from church. In her late 70s, I estimate, she sits alone, her hands fluttering about nervously. In front of us: a well-dressed father and son. The father looks like his name could be L.L. Bean; the son is actually wearing a watch. Hipsters wander up and down the aisles, wearing adorable hats and elaborately constructed facial hair. Demographics mean nothing here. We’re just here for the movie. There are no previews; no car commercials, no shilling for the new season of television shows on your least favorite network. Just the glory of the auditorium and that red sequined curtain.
When the organ music begins, it’s confusing for a moment. It is obtrusive and strange, shattering the quiet, like the mating call of a giant reed-throated monster. The house lights go down. From the orchestra pit rises The Mighty Wurlitzer, one of only three pipe organs of its kind left, a bright red object of questionable beauty, adorned with two giant fleur-de-lis. The man playing it raises his left hand, acknowledging the applause of the audience. He may as well be Ronnie James Dio in his prime, raising the sign of the Evil Eye, praising the dark lords of Metal. This music is far from Metal, though.
The organist, a professor from the University of Tennessee, is pounding his way through a rollicking medley of songs your grandmother should know. “There’s No Business like Show Business.” “Embraceable You.” His left foot, operating the bass pedals, stomps and pumps like mad. He segues into “The Godfather Waltz” and the small crowd goes apeshit. This is his Holy Diver, and he raises his hand again, horns high. With a flourish, the organist presses a secret button on the organ, and the whole thing begins to descend back into the stage. The music doesn’t stop as he sinks into the floor and the crowd continues their applause.
My grandmother was a church organist for most of her life. I was compelled to attend services until my mid-teens, when I was deemed a reprobate recidivist, left to pursue my own damnation. I remember the music, though: when to rise to our feet, when to solemnly take a seat. Choreography by Jesus, music by John Wesley, directed by my grandma. She would say that, when she played for church, there were no show tunes involved. I would tell her they were all show tunes, love themes for a musical where the star hadn’t been seen in over two thousand years.
The curtains rise, and there is a sound like ancient machinery, rumbling and spinning back to life after decades of moisture and neglect. The curtains rise and the movie begins. All applause dies down and we settle in for the show.
There is a yellow line running through the right side of the picture. Sometimes, the dialogue sounds like someone whispering through an oscillating fan. Dirt and hair invade the frame like gnats. The mono soundtrack, imperfectly mixed, comes tumbling from the center channel without subtlety. Signs of age and haphazard reel assemblage shoot through this print like sciatic nerve spasms.
Car commercials. Muzak. Previews for trailers. Big D IMAX digital presentations in 3D and THX-approved 12.1 sound. People with their phones out, texting, tweeting, Tetrising. Everyone all together. Everyone still compartmentalized.
“And the Red Death held sway over all.”
Michael Corleone sits alone in a chair, outside of his heavily guarded compound in Lake Tahoe. Everyone he has ever loved has betrayed him or died. The world around him has changed in ways he never could have imagined. Things were simpler in the old days, not so complicated. He’s behind now, consistently lagging, surrounded by the trappings of the modern man.
Fade to black.
The service is over. We rise from our chairs and applaud the movie, respect for the creators that they would never hear. It is our closing prayer here at Our Lady of Imperfect Presentation, The Temple of Creative Disrepair, The Church of What’s Happening Then. The elderly lady across from me has a strange, self-satisfied look on her face, the sad smirk of someone who remembers. She looks at me quizzically, hoping I remember, too.
In the theater I worked at as a teenager, I learned movies by halves. For Lethal Weapon, we changed reels right after Dixie’s house exploded. For Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the switch came right after Supes turned Nuclear Man into a giant space icicle. For Crocodile Dundee. . . I don’t remember, because fuck Crocodile Dundee. Time was spent looking for cigarette burns in the upper right hand corner of the frame. Before and after that, we waited for rubes to buy three-day-old popcorn and ridiculously expensive soft drinks. They did it, too. It was part of the tradition. This was church. You bought your own sacraments.
We lost something in our maniacal quest for perfection. Don’t get me wrong. I like my Blu-Rays. I enjoy owning a Playstation 3. I don’t even mind riding the fader on my surround sound system when the dialogue is unintelligible, but explosions make my scrotum vibrate with sub-hertz fury. I will, though, be the first to tell you: I don’t need it.
The human element keeps moving further and further away from our most popular art form. Handcrafted latex puppets and physical effects disappear. Computer generated effects take over. Only a few people take a stand and say real life is better. Digital takes over to the point where Kodak stops making film. Hardly anyone notices.
One of the things that separates us from the apes is our ability to make mistakes. Art must encompass those mistakes. Don’t you remember how angry you were when George Lucas “fixed” the Star Wars movies? Everyone screaming about childhood memories being raped and mutilated? You’d have thought the Holocaust had started again. Who doesn’t want to get rid of that godsdamned Praxis Ring when the Death Star explodes?
Slap, slap, slap, goes the film against the projection gate. This movie is over.
Whir and a return to menu. This product has reached the end of its current play mode. Press a button to exit. Press a button to replay.
The sound of the popcorn machine is the call to worship. The clicking gears of the film projector are my prayer requests. The flickering of a 35 millimeter print, with all its blemishes and problems, is my circularity: childhood meeting adulthood with open hand. It is a loop I cannot leave. Everyone, in one room, together, with no handheld electronic devices to divide us while pretending to connect us.
It is the only church that makes sense to me, and it is ancient and orthodox.
O god I do not believe in, bring us back our manners and remind us of the community we once felt, strangers in the cinema together, in reverie.
Dear Lord of my dreams, return us to the days when we enjoyed movies for the thing of marvel they are, not fodder for flame war on the you-damned Internet.
Show us thy mercy, oh great god of the cinema, and do not doubt our commitment to Sparkle Motion.
The Tennessee Theater hides like a ghost in the teeming petri dish of Gay Street. Every weekend during the summer, it beckons the true believers in for the last services of its kind, where the non-digital reign supreme, where the soundstage is imprecisely positioned, where the movies feel like they used to. They feel like life. Smudged, grimy, fucked up, and yet, ultimately making sense. The fanatics are here, the true believers.
For some of us in Knoxville, it is the only the church that matters. World without end.