In the more than 10 years I lived in New York City, I went to hundreds of movies, but they were all at multiplexes: the UA Union Square 14, Loews Village 7, Clearview Cinemas Chelsea, Regal (and then UA) Battery Park, the AMC’s on 19th St. and Kips Bay, and the Village East, now run by Angelika. When I wrote about seeing Beavis & Butt Head Do America at the age of four a few months ago, I was pretty sure my dad, Michael Gentile, and I went to the Cineplex Odeon Chelsea, the same Clearview a little bit later. But Michael emailed me and insisted that we saw the Beavis & Butt Head movie at the Art Greenwich Twin, an art house that closed in 2000. I’ve no memory of the theater, but any pictures might jog my memory—unfortunately, I’ve found in writing these columns that most movie theaters live and die undocumented. It may sound pretentious or totally woo-woo to say the movie theater’s a sacred place, but how many pictures are there of people in theaters watching movies? How many pictures of the theaters themselves? Where are the books on the history of movie theaters?
If any of you have written one, please tell me. If, in fact, I did see Beavis & Butt Head Do America at the Art Greenwich Twin, then it would provide a convenient bookend for my time growing up going to the movies in New York, because one of the last movies I saw before we moved in June 2003 was Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. My dad and I saw it at the Angelika, and as far as I know, it was the only time I went to an arthouse theater when I lived in New York.
I was born and raised in the center of the universe, Manhattan 1990s, and even now the city is still one of the best in the world when it comes to cinema and repertory screenings. I had none of that, but by the time we moved, I was beginning to become more interested in more adult, sophisticated movies. In 2002, my brother and I saw our first R-rated movie, Death to Smoochy, a brilliant comedy that filmed outside of our apartment in early-2001—director Danny DeVito designed the shot himself, so Robin Williams dancing triumphantly with our apartment building right behind him, along with the Twin Towers remained in the movie.
A few months later, my dad took me to see Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, my first R-rated drama. My brother didn’t come, and dad asked me to be sensitive when talking about this movie with him, only because it hinged on a tragic younger brother’s death. Both of these experiences were significant, because it meant we were free. I didn’t have to worry about movies I wanted to see, like Zoolander, maybe getting an R instead of a PG-13. I remember Zoolander cut it close! Most of those trailers didn’t have a rating yet. But as I’ve written before, the difference between an R-rated comedy and a PG-13 one is almost nil. I wasn’t shocked or particularly excited about anything “novel” in Death to Smoochy, because there wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard or seen before.
Road to Perdition felt like more of an event, an initiation, and not for any particular moment in the film—I don’t remember any specifics—but for the thoroughly dark and oppressive mood of the movie. The violence wasn’t more extreme than things I’d seen before, and I don’t remember feeling any excitement about the novelty of “excessive” swearing. I’d already seen women’s breasts in countless comedies and male crossdressers and transgender women in classics like Little Nicky and Dude, Where’s My Car? The late-1990s and early-2000s weren’t as homophobic as the 1980s—watching the Police Academy series for the first time last week was insightful, because the homophobia is open and abundant. I’m not talking about Steve Guttenberg’s masterful delivery of the throwaway line, “Sleep is for fags,” but the philosophy of these movies, and what the movies themselves are saying. If you’ve been sent to The Blue Oyster Bar in a Police Academy movie, you’re about to be (presumably) gang-raped by a bunch of leather daddies.
Every era has acceptable targets, and through my childhood, the blunt racism and homophobia of the 1980s was pushed down into the substrata of pop culture (racism less so—if you look at comedies from this period, black people and black culture are common targets). There were gay jokes, but the notion that gay people were scary predators rather than an oppressed minority that had just been through nearly two decades worth of biological warfare was gone in the late-1990s. Adam Sandler’s comedies had the kind of bro-y gay jokes typical of their time, where being gay was merely something people could make fun of you for, not either a death sentence, instant pariah status, or an enemy of the state of middle America. The latent homophobia of this era was still homophobic, but watching Police Academy one through five confirmed that progress was made in the decade that followed, however little.
Now, I’ve written a lot about going to the movies and growing up in New York and my reactions to these films and how they informed who I am today and what impact they had on me at the time. I rarely discuss the movies themselves—A Mighty Wind doesn’t need any summary or introduction beyond the basics: one in a series of brilliant mockumentaries directed by Christopher Guest with much of the same cast, including Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Harry Shearer, Catherine O’Hara, and Guest himself. Like most people, I love A Mighty Wind, and when the four of us revisited it in the spring of 2020 early into quarantine, we found it as funny as ever. A testament to any film is its ability to spread itself to people who haven’t even seen it: I’m not sure when my mom or brother eventually saw it, because it was just me and my dad on that day in June 2003 at the Angelika, but since then, Fred Willard’s “Wha Happen?” entered the family lexicon. I know we aren’t the only ones.
What was different about this particular day the movies, besides the excitement of going to a Soho Arthouse Theater for the first time, was my relationship and interaction with the crowd. Unlike the theaters run by UA, Regal, and AMC, the Angelika had predictable arthouse flaws, I mean charms: you could hear the subway right underneath (still the case when my brother and I saw Wiener-Dog there in 2016), and the theaters are all absurdly narrow, the sight lines are terrible, and on that summer day, I was sitting behind some very tall people in the back.
I could tell immediately that this was a different kind of crowd than the ones in Union Square and the East Village. I wasn’t around any other kids or a diverse mix of adults—this was a homogenous audience of white hipsters laughing at dozens and dozens of jokes that went right over my head. That didn’t happen often by the time I was 10: at that point, my media literacy outpaced everything I saw, and it wasn’t until I saw hardcore pornography for the first time a few years later that I actually saw something new. Guest’s film isn’t particularly obscure or even sophisticated or high-brow, and if I saw it at 13, with some knowledge about the folk scene in New York, I might not have felt compelled to fake-laugh along with all of the hipsters, something I noticed my dad noticed. Either he knew I was playing along, laughing at the wrong time, or simply bemused by my enjoyment of a movie that most parents would never take their 10-year-old son to see.
A Mighty Wind isn’t a dirty film, nor is it rated R, but what 10-year-old would be interested in an ironic mockumentary about an uncool music scene that was, by that point, 40 years gone? Well, I saw everything, and I know my dad and I both wanted to see it: him for the possible Newport and Bob Dylan connections, and me for the Angelika, to go there for the first time, just as we were about to move away. I’ve still only been there three times: 2003, 2016, and 2019 with my friend Jack to see Claire Denis’ High Life. We spent some time in the cafe upstairs beforehand talking about New York, him living there, and me maybe moving back at some point. Despite his urging, I knew then I was never coming back. This wasn’t a theater I got to know. I had one memorable experience there. This wasn’t one of my theaters, and this wasn’t my city anymore. Later that night I walked aimlessly around Soho, inexplicably depressed. I stopped by the Puck Building, where the New York Press offices were first located. I remember hanging out there for hours with my dad and brother before the offices were moved to 7th Avenue in 1998, another place I remembered well that I can’t go back to. I can’t go back up to the Puck Building or the offices on 7th Avenue any more than I can visit my old apartment, the one in Death to Smoochy, on Hudson and Duane—as soon as we moved out, our neighbors tore down the walls and expanded their own apartment.
Nearly everything and everyone I knew are gone now. Washington Market Park remains, along with the Village 7 (now run by AMC). But when I walk around Midtown or the Upper East Side or Chelsea or even Tribeca now, most recently last summer, all I feel is the glass I’m pushing against, on the outside looking in, trying so hard to connect and relocate whatever I lost in 2003, and always coming up blank, always returning to the same thought looking at the skyline, buildings, and horizons of the city that made me: There is nothing left.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith