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March 15th, 2019

Musing for a darkened theater

80s All Over continues to remind me of films I'm glad to remember. The December 1984 episode from last month gave me a very specific memory: 2010: the Year We Make Contact. It was the first film I saw in a theater after, a few months previously, we'd moved to Northern Virginia. (We moved a month into fifth grade. I have no memory of that month of fifth grade, down at Trantwood Elementary in Virginia Beach; I do vividly remember the rest of fifth grade, at Louise Archer Elementary in Vienna. That could be its own entry.)

No, I didn't see Dune that month, though I was aware of it. I didn't see a PG-13 movie in a theater until Cocoon in 1985, so Dune was off the list. But the Vienna branch of the Fairfax County Library that month prominently displayed Joan D. Vinge's storybook retelling of the film, because enough people at Universal Pictures hoped that Dune would draw in the kids like Star Wars had, and: nope. (But I remembered that book, and years later, bought it.) I also, obviously, didn't see Beverly Hills Cop until a year or so later, on video. Another December 1984 release I saw later on video and liked: Garry Marshall's The Flamingo Kid, starring Matt Dillon. (Trivia: The Flamingo Kid was the first movie to get a PG-13, but not the first PG-13 to be released; it sat on the shelf while Red Dawn, followed by The Woman in Red and Dreamscape, came out.)

But 2010 was my first movie in Northern Virginia, and it was destined to be an important film for me. I was already a fan of Arthur C. Clarke, having read the novel the year before when I was around 10. I knew it was an adult-focused film, tackling big ideas, and I was excited to see it.

The theater I saw it in was, like a lot of the theaters I went to in the Seventies and Eighties, kind of ragged, kind of a hole. It was the Fair Oaks Mall theater, off in its own building on the north part of the mall campus, between the road circling the mall and one of the ramps to get to the mall off of Rt. 50. (The building still exists, not a theater any longer but instead a venue for receptions.) It was a United Artists multiplex, some of its films having a preview announcing its twice-weekly "Midnight Madness" screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "EVERY Friday and Saturday! The ULTIMATE late-night entertainment...at THIS United Artists theater!"

(No, I never went to those screenings, either.)

I didn't really appreciate it at the time, but I would later: that Fair Oaks theater, as sort-of-junky as it was, marched to its own drum. In the early Nineties it was the only theater I'd patronize that was OK with showing (and showing the posters of) films with the NC-17 rating, which had been meant to better legitimize adult-aimed movies but almost immediately became both a joke and kind of a scarlet letter: so many theater chains wouldn't even acknowledge NC-17 films' existence. (That became kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. 1990: the major NC-17 release was Henry and June. 1995: the major NC-17 release was Showgirls. Nowadays, essentially no mainstream film gets released with that rating.) Fair Oaks was a little grindhouse in spirit, and booking smarter horror films like Day of the Dead. Plus, of course, it showed many other types of films. Some of which I saw!

Like 2010. A film I appreciated and appreciate, still, decades later. I liked how big the film was, as well as its humanity, and its stakes: director-screenwriter Peter Hyams raised them by adding and escalating the U.S.-Russian conflict, which wasn't in the book. I noted that the film was streamlined from the novel, dropping the subplot about the Chinese spacecraft beating the Russian-U.S. mission to Jupiter but then meeting with disaster. I didn't realize it, but that was a good lesson for me in how film adaptations must, well, adapt. I mainly just went Oh: it's different, in a way I hadn't really done before with other films. And of course, it was beautiful with some nicely epic special effects.

That was a family trip to the movies. Dad was on shore duty at the time, working at Navy offices in Crystal City near the Pentagon, so he was around. My brother was in eighth grade. Mom hadn't yet started working outside the house; that would happen a few years later. So all of us were there. Off to the corner of the building to a screening room near the westside exit, walking on carpet that would never seem completely clean, and going into a darkened theater to watch evolution happen near Jupiter. Oh, yeah.

I'm looking forward to how 80s All Over will remind me of more films I got to see. Those memories are likely, as the show progresses through the decade, to get more vivid.