Being Umberto Tosi
I should have anticipated the 21st century's demented clown show in 1999 on the rainy November night that I saw Being John Malkovich at a multiplex theatre in San Francisco.
The harbinger wasn't so much Spike Jonze's brilliant, surreal comedy itself, but what happened in the theatre that night.
I had dropped off my youngest kid after a daddy weekend that Sunday night and felt too awake to go straight back to my apartment. I diverted to catch the late showing of this well-reviewed, bizarre film, which more than lived up to expectations.
About halfway through, when I had finished off my popcorn, the screen went dark, followed by a canned slideshow advertising snack bar treats. There was little reaction from the two dozen-or-so in the theatre. So I waited. And waited. And waited. I checked my watch (This was before our cell phones became smart.) Twenty minutes! Then thirty!
The sparse late night audience settled into soft murmuring. Nothing from management. No apparent activity up in the projection booth. Projectors were automated by then, with no one up there to react to the kind of shouting, whistling and stomping (a la Cinema Paradiso) that would have ensued in my youth.
I left my seat to check things out for myself. The corridor was dimly lit by emergency power, I presumed.
I made my way to the main multiplex lobby. A pasty faced usher stood waving a flashlight by the main entrance directing a flow of patrons leaving the premises."Fire?" I asked. “What's up?”
"Power outage," he responded. "The whole place. The whole block, far as I can tell."
"Nobody told us back in theatre 6B," I pointed back down the hallway from where I'd come. "...where you're showing Being John Malkovich."
The usher kept waving his flashlight at the line of folks exiting onto the street. "Boss just told me to man the front door," he said. "I don't know anything about 6B." He turned away from me. I was distracting him from his assigned duty. Screw those Malkovich watchers. "You can get a raincheck at the ticket window as you leave," he added.
Might as well go home myself, I figured, but what about the folks in theatre 6B? Were they still sitting there? I walked back. Sure enough, there they were, murmuring patiently. Nobody had bothered to tell them anything.
I climbed the short stairway to a narrow stage in front of the screen. "Ladies and Gents." I announced in my best MC voice, spreading my arms. "There's been a power outage." I explained the situation briefly. "Management requests that everyone leave. They'll give you credit for another showing as you go out."
Slowly the patrons began to file out. I made my way out too having done my good deed.
I recalled this incident often as the 21st century revealed its preventable horrors, through 9/11, endless wars, the crash of ‘07/‘08, climate deterioration, and most of all, Donald Trump’s fluke election to the White House in 2016. Then four years of all-too-familiar threats, lies and other depredations, ending with his January 6, 2020 insurrection.
Here we are approaching 2024 and his possible reinstatement by a sizeable minority vote and racist voter suppression. When will his followers ever learn to think for themselves? When will the rest of us find ways to deal with it all?
Perhaps I'm being harsh when I equate the passivity of that 1999 movie audience with the general public’s malaise in this century. Perhaps our small cohort simply was being polite, or smoking weed, or snoozing. Perhaps the theatre's ushers were too green to know what to do, or perhaps their supervisors were stricken with food poisoning from rancid buttered popcorn.
After all, nothing serious happened in that theatre at least. It could have been a lot worse. The staff's incompetence, amplified by the audience's complacency could have cost lives had it been been fire, a gas leak, or a shooting that caused the shut-down.
The worst case scenario applies to our public lives at the moment, not just a power outage. The free world's body politic is on fire - like our planet. This is time for dithering and passing the buck. It will be our fault if the Orange Monster returns to power somehow in 2024 the way that voter diffidence helped Trump prevail in 2016. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem.” This time we need to wake up, figure out what we must do, and do it ourselves.
The infamous cynic H.L. Mencken put our dilemma this way: "No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby," he wrote in a 1926 Baltimore Sun column.
I take hope in remembering that this same audience had paid good money to watch a surreal masterpiece on film that night. They may have thought the blackout was part of the show. I did for a few moments myself. After all, too many of us, particularly in the media where politics is covered as show business, took Trump as performance art too - as well as Hitler and Mussolini long before him - until he wasn't.