There are many reasons one likes a particular theme park ride. Perhaps it’s the rush of a death-defying drop. Or the unique decor that encompasses your surroundings. Why you gravitate toward one ride over another usually has much to do with what you’re looking for out of the experience.
These general theories don’t always apply to me, as I find odd moments in odd rides more appealing than the next guy.
None stick out more strangely than the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. While most patrons marvel at the battle scenes and talking animatronics, I prefer a far more docile part of the ride. Some might even call it boring.
You see, upon entering your vessel, you aren’t greeted with sword-wielding pirates, foolish wenches, or even Johnny Depp. Instead, you amiably drift downstream with nary a sound other than that of a bunch of flitting lightning bugs crisscrossing the bayou. There’s an old man sitting on a porch further down, content at where his life has gone. Other than those charming backdrops, not much actually happens. It’s the calm before the storm. For some reason, I love this part most, even if I'm not exactly sure why. I’ve often commented to The Angel how this pipe-smoking old man’s life seems to be ideal, especially with the banjo echoing out somewhere in the distance. She disagrees, but understands it has more to do with his peace than anything else.
After this, you’re taken to various skeleton-laden scenes, filled with wreckage and subsequent treasure. It’s fairly tame, with little to no fight imagery. In fact, it still lends itself to quiet thought, despite the fact that you're fully aware this a children's ride in a children's theme park. And just before you descend into the real fake chaos below, you’re greeted with a mist-driven apparition slightly above your boat. Quite honestly, it’s a less than impressive special-effect, especially when taking into account all the other astounding effects laid out around the park by Disney’s fabled imagineers. It’s not much more than a hidden fog machine and lighting projector.
Nonetheless, almost every rider stretches their hands out in an effort to touch what they think is there, just beyond their reach. Moments later, you’re thrust downward and off into the storm below, where cretins and scoundrels abound…
The few moments of solitude before this happens are almost always met with reflection by me. Sometimes, the personal moments I have in this spot extend into my every day life. The air we reach out to in that ride somehow makes me nostalgic, as if the past is just beyond my grasp. I can feel it, yet the reality is far fuzzier than I wish it were.
First-Run midnight movie screenings were a staple of my youth. You weren’t just going to a movie, you were submitting to an adventure. I lived and grew up in a sleepy suburb of Illinois, back when most theaters still used some form of a marquee to announce their week’s selections.
Being an awkward geek in high school meant a lot of time spent at the local multiplex soaking in whatever film Hollywood cunningly marketed to me and my friends. There was no specific genre that sucked us in, as we were game for anything. We had our favorites, but we excluded virtually nothing. Friday nights. Saturday afternoons. The occasional drive-in. Even a mid-week showing now and then. We did it all.
But no type of movie generated more excitement than the midnight screening. A midnight screening meant the night would crawl well into 2 AM, where the Midwestern humidity seemed to pause just long enough to recharge for the next day. Time didn’t stand still; it evaporated for a kid like me.
A midnight screening meant the graveyard crew at Rock Around The Clock, where the shakes were thick and the food thicker. Usually after a regular film, we annoyed the weary waitresses as they were counting sugar packets and closing out their shift. They were nice enough, and usually turned a blind eye to me and my cohorts having a basketball shooting competition with their creamers and coffee cups. These were waitresses who probably gossiped too much to begin with, but didn’t really care if you knew that anyhow. They had names like Diana, Shirley, and Luanne.
Coversely, A midnight screening meant we were waited on by guys named Rod. Guys with bushy mustaches and beady eyes that never seemed to focus completely on you unless they were asking you if you had enough money to pay for your meal. The kind of guys that could be crazy in a fun way like early Michael Keaton, or crazy in a crazy way like Keith Moon.
We usually didn’t play basketball with creamers on their shifts.
The midnight screening was a unique and rare occasion, as opposed to the ones out here in Los Angeles, where midnight screenings are anything but that. Midnight screenings out here are called Thursdays, and they play crappy movies like Furry Vengeance, or the latest poorly acted venture starring some reality star looking to ‘branch outwards’.
Midnight screenings used to be events that only came but twice a year! It meant the arrival of Batman! Or at worst, a bad Star Wars prequel. The audience was usually filled with diehards, the kind of people who dressed up just for two hours in a darkened theater because they had to. To not do so would have been an insult to the very creation and characters they were emulating. Assessing the people at a midnight screening back then was like staring into the dance floor of the Mos Eisley Cantina. You’ve never seen a more interesting group of folks, especially in farm country. Looking back, maybe it was a bit dangerous, but that's what made it special!
Midnight screenings contained massive applause for the opening credits, and so much so if the movie was good that it wasn’t uncommon to see a standing ovation. I’ll still never forget the eruption that occurred when Jim Carrey’s name swooshed by during the opening credits of Batman Forever. It was as if some major rock band had taken the stage. It was that crazy.
Now midnight screenings aren’t events. They’re mostly like going to see any other film on a Saturday night. This has just as much to do with the number of screens than anything else. Not to sound all old-man on you, but I remember when waiting in line before the manager let you in meant something. There were velvet lines you had to adhere to, and many times the rich idiots who thought it’d be fun to show up and have a laugh at the nerd's expense were shut out because they showed up too late. Ha! Who were the nerds now!
Nowadays, they open as many screens as needed to meet demand. I recently went on a whim to a midnight screening of Iron Man 2. An usher was playing trivia with us while we waited for the opening credits. He was handing out radio-controlled cars for correct answers. He asked us to name three Iron Man villains. When I successfully answered The Mandarin, Crimson Dynamo, and M.O.D.O.K., I wasn’t greeted with cheers. I was greeted with indifference. The usher said “I’m guessing that’s right”, and the crowd moved backed to texting. It wasn’t that the usher didn’t know that bothered me, it was that the crowd didn’t know. Back in the day, everyone would have known. That question was a softball. Sure, by allowing everyone in, theaters are taking in more immediate money, but they’re also losing a valuable commodity.
I don’t want to see anything at midnight now because there’s no rush. No excitement. No reason. If I’m desperate to know spoilers, I can read about it four days before on websites like aintitcoolnews.com
What’s the point?
And so it was just another sad realization in a year of many sad realizations that I came to understand the midnight movie as I knew it was dead. The only midnight movies that mean anything now are special screenings of past hits. And while those are exceptionally fun to attend, they're not the same as first-run unknown films unpsooling in front of your eyes...
The sticky floors, the heat-infested theaters, and the need to plan my bathroom breaks accordingly had vanished. The crowds ceased to be diehards, instead filled with bored suburban teenagers that don’t exactly know who the Avengers are. Yes, I was a bored teenager once too, but I was emotionally invested.
And in some ways, those are the ones I feel worst for, the ones that really do bleed to see their heroes on-screen. The kids that wait all year just to see flashes of the new villain pop up in a moment that can only be described as communal. Because, let me tell you, there’s nothing like turning to your best friend and having you both discover how awesome it is that the filmmakers onscreen are alluding to a possible future storyline. Having a theater full of like-minded individuals come to that same conclusion is something that gives you a rare moment of genuine thrill. Your heart beats… you smile… and you never forget where you were. Those kids will probably never know that feeling. Maybe it's still like that in the Midwest, I don't know. I hope so, but I'd guess not.
I’m 33 now. And I know things change. I know that in order for me to get out of my living room and see a midnight screening, the gods would have to smile upon this kid’s dream and give us the Star Wars movies we truly deserve.
Until then, I’m going to see Thor on Monday with my fellow geek The Blue Beetle. At least there we can share our experience in relative peace. Eventually, in time, I suppose I won’t even want to do that. Again, what’s the point? The exclusivity is gone, erased by the need for a studio to get extra profits in for Monday’s gross returns. They’ve oversaturated what was once a brilliant rewarding experience for those that cared most. The irony is not lost on me, as the whole idea of a midnight screening was to bring the diehards together, and now it’s driving us apart. I wish midnight screenings could return in the way that really pumped up the fan-boy in you.
Instead, they'll remain a memory I can’t quite reach anymore. Just out of my grasp.
Like a foggy air just above my head… somewhere close by… but somehow still in the past.
The boat descends. The air is gone.
Nostalgia and reflection will have to wait until the next ride…
ps- what was your favorite midnight movie experience?