Sunday, January 29, 2023

Reeling in the Years: Matinee at 30

Thirty years ago today, Matinee, director Joe Dante's nostalgic flashback to a movie saturated '60s childhood not unlike his own formative years spent in the '50s, was released. Ironically, this ode to the cinematic ballyhoo of a bygone era arrived with little fanfare of its own and failed to make an impact in the theaters, only to find its audience on home video. On the occasion of its anniversary I find myself thinking back to Maitland McDonagh's interview with Dante in her 1995 book Filmmaking on the Fringe. Specifically, Dante's description of a version of the film that was discarded in the script stage for being a little too bleak. As he tells it, "...In an earlier version of Matinee the main story was a flashback, and the script ended with the theater demolished to make way for a video store." 

Said Dante: "...It was just too depressing."

In 1993, that ending certainly would have been a downer, a grim reminder of how the theatrical experience was in peril of being sidelined, if not potentially wiped out altogether, by home video. Had they kept it, though, that ending would have hit very differently now in a way no one could have anticipated thirty years ago. A conclusion to Matinee that had a video store being built on the grounds of the old theater would now play more like a bittersweet elegy for the video age than a sad statement on the twilight of movie theaters. 

In 2023, even without the competitive edge of Atomo-Vision, movie theaters have only continued to prove their resilience. Not only did they outlast the threat of video stores but they've weathered a pandemic that kept them shuttered for months, with no guarantee as to when or if they'd reopen. In the meantime, streaming has pushed video stores into the tar pits and physical media itself is currently hanging on by its fingernails (hopefully due for a rebound as both consumers and media corporations come to realize that the intangible digital realm has its own set of limitations). 

Today, Matinee stands as a testimony to the durability of theaters rather than serving as a mournful lament to their fading hold. In 1962, John Goodman's William Castle-esque Lawrence Woolsey was a filmmaker fighting to keep the theatrical experience alive against the rise of television and while in 1993 we knew that particular battle had been fought and won, the then current battle against home video remained undecided. By now, though, we've seen that no matter how much technology changes, theaters will continue to endure, able to withstand the many threats that continually come their way. 

While the brand of showmanship that accompanied the likes of Mant! or its real life counterparts such as House on Haunted Hill or 13 Ghosts might be a lost art, the enduring desire to join strangers in the dark to enjoy that shared experience of watching a movie together seems more secure than ever. Even though today one can watch a movie on their phone if they choose, many still opt for the experience that only movie theaters can provide. As a love letter to the essential escapism that cinema offers, Matinee has only become more relevant - even as one has to ruefully acknowledge that a movie like Matinee would surely go direct to streaming today. 

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