The horrors of art houses.

Dissecting the mainstream.
Jan. 27 2006 3:55 PM

Cinema Purgatorio

The horrors of art houses.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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As moviegoers, we have been trained to fear the multiplex. It's inside the AMC 24s and Loews 36s of America where the movies are said to be dying a loud, embarrassing death. Teenagers yak on their cell phones and shout at the screen. The plush stadium seats are filled with gigglers, wailing infants, and amorous couples who should be paying by the hour. It's all true—there's no defending the multiplex—but the hatred of big chain theaters obscures a similar and more insidious problem. Art houses, the sanctuaries of cinephiles, have their own peculiar horrors. Despite their noble commitment to the movies, what happens there on a nightly basis is far more absurd than anything that happens in the multiplex.

Stepping into the restored Art Deco lobby, the art-house patron brings with him a great deal of baggage. By this, I mean actual baggage—I have seen men (always men) buying tickets to a terrifyingly complex French film with one hand and carrying two overstuffed garbage bags in the other. What's in them? These men seem prepared to live out their days in the art house, growing old alongside the films of Eric Rohmer and Luis Buñuel. Once inside, the bags are crammed under the seats as on an airplane, or plopped into the seat next to them. From the bags, they will extract even more bags (preposterous as it may sound), or else notebooks filled with writing in extremely small print. "If the art house did a thing like the public library where you can only bring in two bags," says Grady Hendrix, a New York film programmer, "I think a full third of the theatergoers would vanish."

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Lately, the New York art houses have been beset by stealth diners. Strange, because many art houses now have gourmet cafes that offer vanilla bean cake and, in the case of New York's IFC Center, organic popcorn topped with truffle butter. But art-house patrons, more so than multiplexers, prefer bringing their own. As soon as the lights dim, a loud collective unwrapping begins, signaling a furtive meal that will last through the opening reels of the movie and end, somewhat dramatically, with a loud crunching of paper. Instead of the smell of buttery popcorn, the art-house aroma is one of contraband sashimi and Whole Foods takeout. Harris Dew, a programmer at the IFC Center, reports encountering high levels of raw carrots and celery: "It's not an odor you expect in a movie theater, and it's kind of disconcerting." The munching seems to reflect a sense of entitlement, a snobbery that says if you're smart enough to select the right kind of movie, then you should be able to act however you want when you get there. Which brings us to the curious story of the Crinkler.

The Crinkler is a mythic art-house figure—perhaps you've heard of him. Or, rather, perhaps you've heard him. As the lights go down, he is the guy three rows back who crinkles plastic wrap, restlessly and maniacally, for the entire length of a picture. I have had the displeasure of watching two films that he crinkled through: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at Film Forum, and then, a few months later, White Heat, the film noir,at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The ethical dilemma presented by the Crinkler is that crinkling doesn't have an obvious rejoinder. At Film Forum, a man seated behind me screamed, "If you don't stop that crinkling …" and then trailed off, as if his brain were unable to fully process the problem. The crinkling continued. It is possible, I suppose, that there is more than one Crinkler carrying plastic wrap all over the city, but the taste in movies (he seems to prefer muscular American cinema of the late 1940s) leads me to believe there is a single Crinkler, an omnipresent evil genius. Further proof comes from a friend who claims to have encountered the Crinkler at an uptown art house. When the familiar sound began, she tried to silence him with stage whispers. He was unfazed. My friend's companion, who finally quieted him with sharp hand gestures, sheepishly reported that the Crinkler was deaf. He was gone by the time the lights came up.

Even the ideal vision of the art house—cinema-lovers watching Bergman in hushed reverence, then kibitzing afterward in the cafe in the lobby—is somewhat suspicious on its face. "It's worse than all the yammering teens in the multiplex," says Christopher Kelly, who reviews movies for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Everybody in the art house sounds like Andrew Sarris." Pumped up after studying the critics, the art-house patron comes in with a hipper-than-thou attitude, with carefully timed verbalizations to indicate a superior "understanding" of the material. Extreme violence, for instance, will be applauded as an artful commentary on contemporary society. "I remember watching Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," says Hendrix, "which is one of the most uncomfortable and unpleasant movies to sit through. And people were laughing! A woman is being electrocuted to death and urinating on herself while she dies, and they're tittering like it's an Oscar Wilde play!" After years of intensive study, LA Weekly'sScott Foundasmay have discovered the height of art-house snobbery: laughing at an unsubtitled bit of dialogue in a foreign film.

As much as I love them, I've often felt lonely in art houses. It needn't be a Charley Chase retrospective at which four people showed up, either. Even in a sold-out show, the art house seems to be filled with 150 people who came alone. You might chalk that up to the sad state of moviegoing, which forces anyone who goes to subtitled French dramas to fly solo. Or you might say, as with the multiplex, that there's something about the nature of the place. Moviegoing, we're told, is dying as a communal activity, thanks to DVDs and video-on-demand. And yet every time I hit the multiplex and sit among the teenage hordes, I feel like moviegoing has gotten new life—loud and often obnoxious life, but new life all the same. Try this thought experiment: You'd go to an art house by yourself. When would you ever do that at a multiplex?

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.