The “Luxury” Cinema Experience

November 21, 2013


New Orleans not being much of a “cinephile-friendly” city (though it is somewhat better than the smaller city in Alabama where I grew up), there is only one theatre playing Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palm D’or winning NC-17 coming-of-age romance Blue is the Warmest Colour.  The Theatres at Canal Place were formerly owned by Landmark, and as teenager I would make the trek from Mobile, Alabama to the Crescent City to get a chance to see the “indie” movies I couldn’t in my hometown (though The Royal Tenenbaums and Amelie were hardly obscure, even on their release).  Still, it was what we had so I took it.  I recently moved to New Orleans, and having arrived excitedly looked at the schedule for that Landmark, only to find it no longer exists.  It was bought out by another company, presumably because exclusively arthouse fare doesn’t sell a lot of tickets in a city such as this, and hence the new name.  It does, thankfully, still cater to the interests of the discerning middle classes by playing smaller films, though they’re given a screen or two while the big releases such as Thor: The Dark World and Bad Grandpa take up most of the space.  As Blue is the Warmest Colour was the first film of any supposed merit that they had when nowhere else was showing it, I finally made the trek (well, my girlfriend drove us) to the dreaded French Quarter, past the tacky Harrah’s Casino and into the posh mall that houses a Saks Fifth Avenue and, as of very recently, a Tiffany’s.  

It was a Wednesday night, so it wasn’t particularly well-attended as a whole.  There was no box office that I could see, but there were handy kiosks – an invention my anti-social self finds thrilling if only to avoid queues and extraneous human interaction.  The ticket prices were a bit more expensive than other theatres in the region, but I figured that wasn’t a surprise given the surroundings and it’s rather tarted up, “classy” look.  We had to select seats, which is a pain – especially as I hadn’t been in the theatres in so long  – but it’s fine.  It’s Wednesday night and we can move around if we like.  After purchasing the ticket, the first sign that something was amiss came immediately and in the form of a kindly usher who said she would show us to our seats.  Oh, and she would give us menus as well.  Menus.  The lights were up in the auditorium and we were about 15 minutes early for the screening.  It was rather sparsely attended, though more would file in as the showtime creeped closer.  The lady showed us to our seats and handed us the menus, asking if we had been there before and anxious to describe the “experience”.  They had a full menu of snacks and flat bread pizzas, $50 bottles of wine and an assortment of handmade cocktails.  This is distressing but not the worst thing in the world, as the steady expansion of “gourmet” meals at some of the nicer arthouse cinemas has been happening for some time, and of course alcohol is nothing new.  I briefly wondered where the concession stand was, for I hadn’t noticed it as we were ushered in, and then she explained in the most horrifying terms that she would bring us what we wanted.  There was also a little red button on our armrests in case we wanted something else.

A little red button? Table -or rather- seat service?  I started to get very worried indeed.  Surely you couldn’t press the button and get service when the movie started, right?  Wrong.  The only saving grace is that we watched an 8:15 pm showing of a 3 hour movie, and the waiter explained that we’d have to tab out by 10 because that’s when they shut down the bar and kitchen.  I was sinking in my seat and getting increasingly grumbly when I spied a different waiter behind me, bringing some women who was sipping on a glass of red a ceramic plate of food with actual silverware.  Now, I am not generally one to eat as much as a small popcorn during a film, and oftentimes when someone sits near me with a bag or anything that can be ruffled to extract the sickly morsels from their package and stuffed into their gaping gob, I move to a quieter, more lonely area of the auditorium.  The ruffling and chomping of popcorn is nothing next to the sound of clanging silverware against plates, or forks crashing to the floor in the middle of a quiet bedroom scene where the young characters weigh their future against their desire.

I was, then, lucky that I chose what seemed to be a poor, off to the side seat because there was nobody in front of me.  The usual worry of not being able to see the subtitles was replaced by fear that someone in front might want an overpriced red from Burgundy, or perhaps a plate Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Moroccan couscous to nibble on 90 minutes into the feature.  Despite the decent placement, it was hard to notice when waiters are hunched over, scurrying through the aisles to take new orders for drinks or to deliver a flatbread pizza to a hungry viewer.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to see 12 Years a Slave on opening night, when being treated to a visceral depiction of the worst widespread crime in America’s history and being taken out of the experience because somebody in the third row wants a Grilled Lemonfish Salad.

I understand that I  might be coming off as a curmudgeonly snob here, but let me point out that I am in no way against noise or movement in the theatre when it is in response to what is on screen.  Film is an entertainment, sure, but also an art form, and the best art demands a response, whether it’s an uproarious guffaw during a Judd Apatow comedy or a shriek at a ghastly reveal in a shlocky horror film or even just a collective “oh shit” gasp in a thriller.  All of these things are not only fine by me, they’re welcomed.  There is a magic to experiencing something in a communal area with a group of strangers, and the wide variety of reaction is a testament to what makes us human.  All that said, it’s a far cry from someone sending a text or answering the phone, because that’s straight up rude.  We all paid the same amount of money to see the picture, and if we react to the picture differently, that’s fine, but if we engage in some narcissistic urge to do our own thing, everyone else be damned, we should be flayed alive – or at least politely asked to leave the cinema.

Table service during a movie is not about enhancing the experience of going to a cinema, it’s about self-satisfied assholes looking to make a boatload of money off of a supposedly discerning – though probably quite ignorant – section of bourgeois society.  “Away with the riff-raff who stream into the multiplex with their fattening tubs of popcorn and that fake syrup they call “butter”, I’d like to watch a film with “gourmet” popcorn drizzled in truffle oil”, a market executive says to his date, who isn’t paying attention because of the pumps she saw in the window of the Saks on the way in.  “I’m so glad to be somewhere refined, where I don’t have to get up an ask for another glass of La Crema Pinot Noir, for this nice man will bring it to me, and swipe my credit card in front of the whole theatre while he’s at it.” It’s cinema reduced to a distraction – a pastime that’s merely an excuse to revel in luxury whilst taking in some “garishly low entertainment” that the plebs revel in.

The website proudly boasts, “First class has now left the airport and landed in The Theatres at Canal Place.”  What the brain trust behind the venture doesn’t seem to realise is that an airport is a place we go to get from one place to another.  It’s the journey, not the destination, and as such there are amenities provided (at extravagant cost, of course) to make something we have to do more pleasant.  A cinema is where we choose to go – it is the destination and the end unto itself.  We want to be entertained by something many people (hopefully) put their time and effort.  This theatre is what happens when people who don’t give a shit about cinema take over cinema, only at an extreme level.  They cater to a class of assholes who think because they have money they can separate themselves from the traditional, gaudy experience of getting your own food and sitting in a cinema, watching a screen.  So the cinema-owners who don’t like cinema have found their consumers – cinema goers who don’t like cinema.  I hope they all choke on the chorizo in their Spanish Muffaletta panini.


2 Responses to “The “Luxury” Cinema Experience”

  1. Greg Says:

    Hmm. A frightening development indeed. I was aware of the Arclight-ification (I believe they were the first to start with the boozin’ and food movement) of the movie going experience and being the skint that I am have never opted for such a service. But this idea of table service during a film is simply unacceptable. Boo I say, boo.

  2. Greg Says:

    by the way, you’re down in NoLa now? One of my best friend is in the LPO (, next time I’m down that way, we’ll definitely have to sync up and picket this theatre.

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