LOS ANGELES — The air is cool, the audience silent, the night is full of anticipation. Suddenly, a face is illumined in the darkness, a voice cuts through the quiet. The story begins....
Three thousand years later, not much has changed. The eternal nighttime of the movie theater suspends us from daily life, and we enter the "storytelling zone" much the way our ancestors did when they gathered around a fire and huddled close to hear tales from the elders of the tribe.
The fire is now a technologically advanced movie screen, and the audience now sits in comfortably padded seats, but the basic reasons for going to the movies haven't changed since the first child bounced on its grandmother's knee and whispered, "Tell me a story, Grandma!"
"Emotion and experience" are what we look for at the movies, says Brian Stonehill, director of the media studies program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. According to this professor of media literacy (and a passionate movie lover himself), there are three basic reasons people go to the movies.
No. 1, he says, we go to learn about other people. Next, we go to have the emotional experience of the story. And last, but certainly not least, we go to feast our eyes on the beautiful and exotic. "Movies teach us, touch us, and take us to different places than we've been before," Stonehill adds.
Movie stars bring all these reasons together in one body. We want to know about them, the more details about their personal lives the better, and we experience the story through their performance.
And, of course, these stars are often beautiful and carefully groomed to be exotic - bigger than life. "We lift our eyes to them," Stonehill says. He adds that just as people erected monumental totems to their gods, we project movie-screen-size images of our stars and worship them. "We create people to look up to - literally, aesthetically and spiritually."
Sherri Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate School goes to the movies for a host of reasons: To see friends, to have an evening on the town that won't break the bank (compare the $6 to $8 average movie ticket price with $25 to $36 for an amusement park or $35 to $75 for a theater production), and to get the cultural spin on the political worlds she studies for a living.
She hosts a yearly Oscar night party, complete with ballots. It's a good excuse to see friends, Jeffe says. And also, of course, to see the movies everybody's talking about.
Indeed, while movies may be intensely personal, they are also intensely social. Movies are also the repository of our national storytelling impulse, part of the process by which we define our values and goals. When politicians look for a common ground, positive or negative, they often turn to Hollywood.
Film-industry veteran and writer Buck Henry speculates that many people see movies for a sense of shared experience. "They're lonely, and it's a low-maintenance way to establish a relationship."
Mr. Henry, who is a self-avowed media freak, doesn't get to the theater much, but participates nonetheless by virtue of television and cable. "I basically see everything at one point or another," he says.
He'll see "just about any melodrama," but he walks out of many comedies. "I'd rather see a dark, depressing good movie than an easy, happy one that confirms all our prejudices," he says.
International business consultant Tom Drucker sees movies for both personal and professional reasons. "Apollo 13," for example, inspired an idea for his management training. "The scene in the film where a group of scientists jerry-rig a connection out of masking tape and odds and ends is a brilliant model for teamwork," he says.
Mr. Drucker admits he is "probably a movie addict," explaining, "Occasionally I feel movie deprived, so that must mean somehow I need them." He chooses movies that suit his mood. "Sometimes, I go to see into another reality, but I also go to have a great roller coaster of a good time."
Teenager Matthew Collins has a simpler but no less compelling reason for going to the movies. "I go because movies are cool."
Even when movies disappoint us, we never stop hoping the next one will get it right. So far, ticket sales for this year have surpassed where they were this time in 1994 ($4.95 billion in 1995 vs. $4.93 billion in 1994, according to Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations in Los Angeles). "This a record-breaking year," says John Krier of the same company.
Willa Cather wrote: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." The same could be said about the movies.