Rick Tucker

If I were a criminal with no conscience, which I sometimes long to be, I would probably just shoot my way in, but I follow the crowd and go through the front doors like everyone else. I stand in line and weather the crush of teenage gigglers, date nighters, and family entourages. Their small talk and casual manner belies the frivolous nature of their visit. I, on the other hand, inch forward with the faltering patience of someone with a gallon of milk behind a cart full of groceries. Discipline is the only thing keeping my anxious tension from turning in to an explosion of clenched hands. Damn, I take this way too seriously.

From the outside, many theaters could double as prisons with their cinder block facades and auditorium capacities. I half expect to read "Welcome to Shawshank" on the marquis of some of the megaplexes, but that wouldn't be a deterrent; it would beckon my soul. And just inside are the bank tellers with their red vests sitting behind bullet proof glass. Guards, if you will. They just lack the guns and night sticks, but the cheerless, government-worker disposition is intact. Their voices ring hollow and metallic through the intercom, like air traffic controllers. And the prices of the tickets they dole out could purchase a couple of super-sized meals for a binging glutton.

Tickets in hand, I get funneled by the ticket taker toward waxy-cupped drinks of carbonated syrup, vats of overheated corn topped with a congealing sheen, and rattling boxes of molded units of sugar. I ignore it all like rancid organ meat. It's not difficult to pass up. All of it is just a distraction before entering the theater itself; a corporate temptation that advertises itself with the subtlety of a sucker punch followed by a greeting.

I've gone through this routine hundreds of times since I was a kid. My first time was as an 8 year-old to see Star Wars. It was 1977. The theater was no bigger than a 3-bedroom ranch and situated in a shopping center dominated by the local supermarket. It was the malnourished 3rd cousin of today's megaplex. There was no glass "protecting" the employees and the ticket sellers were more like eager fast food workers ready to take your order. The sundries were emaciated versions of the bloated portions of modern America. And the ticket price couldn't even buy a gallon of gas in today's world. But once I stepped through the swinging doors it was all the same. It was dark inside and the screen was bigger than life itself. As for the movie, I couldn't get the image of the trash compactor monster out of my head. I loved it so much I went back 3 more times. Such are the inclinations of 8-year old boys.

But what I couldn't articulate as an 8-year old - and here's the seed of the seriousness - was that movies were as much an escape as they were entertainment. They were an edifying substance I drank in for a few bucks and got a payoff of inspiration and exposure to new possibilities, but most of all, a respite from a salty world outside the fire exit doors.

Now I wasn't a popular kid and I also wasn't a freakish outcast, but I did attract a bully's attention from time to time. I would get chopped down to a stump because I looked different, didn't fight back, and gave off a cowering vibe. Ripe for the picking, I suppose. Were I blessed with a stinging wit to put a bully in his place, I might have thwarted an oncoming tirade. If I had tapped my aggression, which there was plenty of, he might have backed down, or at least I would have held my own. But I didn't. So I did what any kid with a target on his back might do. I walked like a wary mouse in an open field. It was as though I'd snitched on the mafia. I was in a perpetual state of looking over my shoulder, always scared of stepping boldly in any direction for fear of drawing attention to myself.

Going to the movies transported me from my meek reality. The experience provided in two hours what I couldn't achieve in years - distilled, unadulterated, inconsequential emotion. What do I mean by that? I mean there was no one to belittle my tears, ridicule my awe, or roll their eyes at my laughter. There was no one to diminish what I felt. It was, and still is, an environment that liberates me from the complexity of being a player in the game. It doesn't react to my emotion, but ignores it as though I were a trusted person in the room on the periphery of a frank discussion. It allows me to be distant and invisible and experience humanity on my own terms.

Of all the movies I saw, there were many that stood out. My Bodyguard, which I saw as a 6th grader, was the dream of every geek, loser, and fat kid. It catered to anyone in the gaze of a bully's interest. The concept was so appealing – hire someone to keep the bullies off you. Let the market place solve your problem. It never occurred to me that middle-schoolers had so many resources for hiring protection. So farming out my problem to a third party wasn't necessarily plausible, but the idea was a sermon on what was possible. It was a daydream, a construct, to fill my head as I walked the narrow gauntlet of my life, like thinking of a relaxing place while having a tooth drilled. I haven't seen the movie in close to 30 years. It would probably seem like a cheesy after-school special now, but it spoke a language I ached for in my young mind. Some one was on my side. It didn't matter that it was just a character.

I saw Dead Poet's Society in my early twenties. It made me realize we all had it in us to burst forth with descriptions of snaggly-toothed men, if only someone believed in the lion within and supported our fledgling creativity. I yearned for an unconventional, engaging teacher like John Keating (Robin Williams) to create a space that discovered and encouraged expression. He challenged his students, sparred with them, corralled them, inspired them, stirred in them the spirit to stand on desks, take stands, and love life. Under such a teacher my wit might have blossomed in to a deft skill that repelled even the most determined thug. Or maybe it would have sent an invisible signal to all those who preyed on weakness that I wasn't chum for their feeding frenzy. Unfortunately, I had no such teacher and no such wit. But I have the movie. I can watch it anytime. I can even stand on desks.

And of course, “Get busy livin or get busy dyin” - that culmination of will in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) foreshadows the ultimate act of his life. It is a mantra I say to myself when life is a blur of the slow motion tedium of eating, drinking, sleeping, and repeating. And he's expressing this final do or die commitment to a man, his friend, Red (Morgan Freeman), in prison. I might expect it in a war scene at the moment of a friend's death, but a prison film? And Red is the key to the beauty of this movie. He starts off the film as callused and crass as the next con, but reveals a heartbreaking tenderness toward Andy unlike I'd ever seen, or may ever see, in film again. He transcended macho. His friendship with Andy was a bond that subverted layers of social taboos; a bond that expressed truth, cold, naked and shivering, with no artifice needed or reading between the lines required. The entire film shined a bright light on the endurance of hope, the unwavering nature of one man's will, and the singular connection of two isolated souls. The tag line for the movie is “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.” And although Red denounces hope as a dangerous thing inside the prison walls, he eventually agrees with Andy's assessment of living or dying when he's paroled and floundering outside those walls. He proclaims, as if kicking himself for ever doubting the idea, “Get busy livin or get busy dyin. That's goddamn right.” This film fills every crack in the human spirit and makes it whole again. It's a movie as close to a bible as I'll ever get.

These are only a few of the movies I could mention that have stirred my core and bolstered my resolve in the unsavory outside world of bureaucracy, bromides and bullshit. Because of that I always go back in. I cloister myself in a theater's comfort like it was my own bedroom. It's a place where I can find my way in the dark. I know it from the muted air engulfing my ears and the cushioned space between the pleated walls that swallows echoes like a flame covered by a glass jar. And whether it's a newly constructed megaplex or a tiny independent theater from yesterday; whether my feet are stuck to the floor from the patina of Coke or the screen is the size of twin bed, I always savor it. I show up early for fear of being rushed and unfocused. And I am always ready for that moment, after the previews, when the sconce lighting dims and I transform in to a set of floating eyeballs taking it all in.

A theater changes in those two to three hours. It transforms from a public venue to a private room; from St. Peter's on Easter to an empty church with a single pew. It holds an overdose of possibility. By the time I leave I want to be drunk on images, have phrases imprinted on my tongue like tattoos, and leave the theater with a lingering sense that things will never be the same. But I step outside and the experience fades, no matter how profound the moments before, like a dream upon waking. I try to block out the increasing rumble of conversation, the abrupt fresh air, and the closing of my car door, but I can't. Reality quickly seeps in like spilled juice on shag carpet. It's the perfect excuse to go back again and again and again.

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