Walt Whitman, McTeague, and We Go to the Movies

Having established our ethos to write film reviews (prior experience in the film industry as an usher for a few weeks at the Paradise Theatre in Los Angeles), and having surveyed the literature (from reviewers and neuroscientists), and synthesizing the results (two thumbs up; two down) on the most recent blockbuster, “Avatar,” and dispatching our own contribution (thumb down), we turn now our attention to the theatre itself, the room in which we sit and watch the movie.

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman moves from the grass outdoors to rooms: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes….the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it. The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.”

Were he writing today, Whitman might have mentioned the smell of buttered popcorn, the greasy, creamy butter already all over his fingers and lips as he makes his way down the aisle toward his favorite seat (perhaps Jonah Lehrer, also now taking up film reviewing, could next explain why it is the brain always wants the same seat), his hands full of popcorn box and semi-toxic coke spilling and bubbling over the butter on his fingers. Hard to not let this intoxicate you, and the movie hasn’t even started yet.

Our brain always goes for the first row in the balcony, or some other seat with an unobstructed view; if one isn’t available, we sit behind an empty seat, but it’s often our fate that a late arriver with a Jimi-do sits in front of us. Once, at the Paradise, in a packed house, the movie was about to begin when a guy the size of the Hulk with an afro like a Banyan tree found the last seat in the house, in front of us. To see around this obstruction we had to sit in Susan’s lap.

It is our habit to arrive early to movies, the better to find a good seat, settle in with the popcorn and coke, and not miss the previews (these days, the previews can be so long and engaging we often forget what movie we came to see), and as we sit, particularly if we have arrived ridiculously early, we are reminded of Frank Norris’s masterpiece, McTeague, and Mac and Trina’s night at the theatre. After his panic thinking he has lost the tickets, then remembering he’d stored them in his hat for safekeeping, “The [McTeague] party entered and took their places. It was absurdly early…the ushers stood under the galleries in groups…McTeague was excited, dazzled…he beheld himself inviting his ‘girl’ and her mother to accompany him. He began to feel that he was a man of the world. He ordered a cigar.” Later, during the show, “McTeague was stupefied with admiration…Think of that! Art could go no farther.”

Such is the parentage of our prefrontal cortex in the darkened but illuminated and intoxicating halls called theatres, originally natural spaces in the open air, where Whitman, McTeague, and we might have enjoyed a show taking our ease on some summer grass.

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