Lucky No. VII: A Theatrical Awakening
If nothing else, The Force Awakens is defined by a distinct sense of traditionalism. The film's detractors decry it as all too derivative, while its devotees devour it as if it were the most satiating cinematic comfort food ever cooked up. Though there were certainly times where the movie almost felt too much like Star Wars, I tend to lean much more toward the side of the contented believer than the cynical critic. I saw the film seven times in theaters for crying out loud, so there's something about it that easily drew one back to the box office once they'd fully subscribed (or succumbed) to it. Or maybe seven trips to the cinema simply just felt right given that it was Episode VII. Likely a bit of both. In any case, this post isn't intended to be a movie review.
Rather, its aim is to look back at what The Force Awakens was as a personal cinematic experience. Intrinsic quality aside, Star Wars movies are indisputably best absorbed on the big screen. Once I’d come to terms with how I felt about the film from a critical standpoint and knew that I’d be seeing it again (and again), I made an effort to watch it in a unique way with each repeat viewing – be it the venue or exhibition format, or ideally, both.
Living in Los Angeles has its perks as a moviegoer who can appreciate iconic movie palaces, offbeat little cinemas, or your standard mega multiplex chain. The latter provided the setting for my first viewing at the Regal Cinemas Stadium 14 at L.A. Live downtown. This was by pure chance, as it was fated by the online ticketing pre-sale frenzy (remember the Great Fandango Crash of October 2015?).
Seeing it for the first time in RealD 3D on a rather average screen wasn’t preferable, but was ultimately of no real consequence given the overwhelming fact that I was watching the first new live action Star Wars film in over a decade.
I was also in the company of good friends who had traveled all the way from Murray, Kentucky to see the film with my wife and I, which made things even more meaningful. Leaving somewhat battered and bewildered, I took comfort knowing that I’d be seeing it a second time in a few days in a much improved setting.
The Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater offered a digital 2D screening for members, staff, and their families over the film’s opening weekend that really cemented my position as a stout supporter. In terms of theatrical presentation, is easily one of the most technically sound venues I’ve ever frequented. The picture was big, bright, and clear, and so was my immediate craving to see it another time.
The Force Awakens was lauded for being shot on film, but the opportunities to actually see a print projected on the big screen were few and far between. Less than twenty theaters worldwide presented the film in 70mm, but even fewer offered the option to see it in the 35mm format in which the bulk of the production was shot. When I learned that there was a lone theater in L.A. that was showing a 35mm print, I instantly knew where my third viewing would take place. The Vista Theatre in East Hollywood had already been one of my favorite moviegoing venues since I moved to the city in 2012. Originally opened in 1923 as the Lou Bard Playhouse, the Vista is now one of three historical theaters charmingly restored and operated by Vintage Cinemas.
I ventured over on the Tuesday following the film’s opening weekend for a rare rainy afternoon matinee to find a strikingly long queue outside of the theater. The luxuries of online pre-purchased tickets and assigned seats are nowhere to be found here, which strangely stirs up the excitement and anxiety that going to the movies (especially big blockbusters) used to always instill. Tickets in hand, patrons were greeted by none other than the Vista’s House Manager in full Stormtrooper regalia. Appropriately dubbed “The Epic Manager,” he’s decked out for every tentpole film, which is another thing that just makes this place great.
I got to my seat in the packed house just as the house lights were dimming and a theater staffperson was making an announcement about the special format of the presentation. Rather than a 40 minute slew of trailers, the film was preceded by nothing more than When Magoo Flew – a UPA animated short from 1954 in which Mr. Magoo sets off to go to the movies but mistakenly boards an airplane (you needn’t know much more than that). When the film started up and ran its course, I doubted any other scenario could have come close to manifesting The Force Awakens’ nostalgic underpinnings with such authenticity. Whereas seeing the film digitally at times seemed to expose it as a faithful yet undeniably modern redressing of the Original Trilogy, the 35mm print completed the illusion. This was Star Wars, and it’s painful to realize that so many audiences did not get to see it this way. I am so glad that I did. The properties of the image were timeless, which is what always made Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi stand out. Even at a young age, they simply didn’t look like anything else. Unlike the majority of mainstream films, one can’t visually date them to a specific decade. For the most part, The Force Awakens and its relative simplicity justify its positioning alongside the Original Trilogy, at least aesthetically. But again, this is not meant to be a movie review.
Over the holidays I spent time with family and friends back in my hometown of Santa Barbara. On a quiet Christmas night, I discovered that the film was showing somewhere I had never been. Well, I'd been there, but not to see a movie. Growing up, I only knew of the West Wind Drive-In as the site of the Santa Barbara Swap Meet (which is still is), and as a rundown extinct drive-in theater from a long time ago. In fact, the venue originally opened in the summer of 1966 and shuttered in 1991. The drive-in was reopened in 2010 and in all honesty, its retained shabbiness is what I enjoy the most about it.
Located adjacent to a short and less frequently traveled highway in a semi-industrial no man's land near the airport, the West Wind is definitely off the beaten path in terms of Santa Barbara. Pulling up to the entrance, the marquee amazingly listed "STAR WAR" as the current feature presentation (as an ardent fan of Arrested Development, this was incredibly satisfying). Reasonably priced concessions, pillows, blankets, and watching Star Wars outdoors on a gigantic screen with my wife and younger brother from the comfort of my Jeep made for a entirely enjoyable fourth viewing.
Seeing The Force Awakens at the Arlington Theatre was a required prerequisite being home for the holidays. I delve into my personal history with the Arlington in greater detail in the teaser episode of the SWaTM Podcast, but in short, I'd seen every other Star Wars film on the big screen for the first time there. It's a sacred site for me to say the least, and was the next stop on my Force Awakens tour for viewing number five.
The primary box office just off of State Street had the film's teaser poster (which I like much more than the theatrical one sheet) on display in the window, but with a light afternoon attendance, the main kiosk was closed so we purchased our tickets in the theater's quaint little office just outside the entrance to the lobby. A midweek matinee in the cavernous 2,000+ seat theater allowed for optimal seating with the screen taking up the majority of our view. While the Vista's 35mm print was the most aesthetically pleasing, seeing The Force Awakens at the Arlington was likely the most emotionally fulfilling.
Back in Los Angeles after New Years, there were two cinema landmarks that I was eyeing to visit. The first was Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Our family had made the occasional trip south to see movies at the Chinese before it was converted to an IMAX theater, but this would be the first Star Wars film I'd ever seen there. Given the theater's history with the franchise (and its presence within the lore of the original film's surprise smash success), seeing The Force Awakens in IMAX there (with impressive laser projection) for viewing number six kept up our family tradition of Star Wars movie-going in a new and particularly significant setting that was quite special.
With the film's theatrical run nearing an end, my seventh and final cinematic outing took place with some coworkers on February 2nd, 2015 just across the street from the Chinese at the El Capitan Theatre, where spillover from the world premiere was hosted. A Hollywood mainstay since 1926, the El Cap boasts one of my favorite marquees in town, with enough colorful blinking lights to be a centerpiece in the old Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade.
The Dolby Vision laser projected screening was very sparsely attended, which made the bombastic pre-show Star Wars-themed laser light spectacular slightly awkward yet awesome to behold. In addition to preamble entertainment, Disney has made a tradition of cleverly decorating the theater in the theme of the current big release. With The Force Awakens, crimson curtains were adorned with the emblem of the Neo-Imperial First Order, which I couldn't help but associate with the cinema from the climax of Inglorious Basterds.
VII screenings in VII venues over VII weeks. Much like The Force Awakens, something just felt right about it.