Barry Saunders

Give me a theater that shows movies grownups can enjoy – Saunders

Swiss Army Man

A hopeless man stranded in the wilderness befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home. The movie stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Daniel Radcliffe, and Paul Dano.
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A hopeless man stranded in the wilderness befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home. The movie stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Daniel Radcliffe, and Paul Dano.

You’d be surprised at what you can pick up hanging out in public restrooms.

On second thought, maybe you wouldn’t be.

Me? I picked up some erudite, incisive film criticism last week in Durham’s artsy Carolina Theater after watching “Our Kind of Traitor.”

The two college-age kids were passionately comparing the merits of this particular celluloid translation of a John Le Carre thriller to the book upon which it was based. I resisted the urge to interject my opinion – public restrooms are fraught with enough controversy these days – but I nonetheless appreciated the articulate art-film critiques.

I also know you’ll never be exposed to such critiques in the local multiplex loo after watching “Ghostbusters” or “Finding Dory.”

The bathroom Siskel & Ebert had been the only other two people in the theater to see the film that night, which naturally leads one to fret that perhaps the nonprofit entertainment complex was too unprofitable, that the credits were fixing to roll permanently on the 90-year-old theater.

“There’s no danger of that,” Joe Student, marketing manager of the theater assured me Friday. “One thing you’ve got to remember is that some movies screen as many as four times a day. There is,” he acknowledged, “a limited appeal” for movies such as “Swiss Army Man” – the enchanting story of a man and his wacky adventures with his friend ... who just happens to be dead.

Limited appeal, indeed. When I saw “Swiss Army Man,” a very weird but creative film for which you wouldn’t expect to have people bursting through the turnstiles, there was only one person other than I.

True, ‘Swiss Army Man’ won’t make anyone forget cinematic classics such as ‘Truck Turner’ or ‘Disco Godfather,’ but it had more creativity and less condescension in the first 20 minutes than the last five ‘Die Hard’ movies combined.

That person was Hans Riess, a recent Duke University graduate with a degree in mathematics. As the credits rolled, and we left the theater, he looked at me and went, “Wow. That was weird.”

Riess, as did I, fretted that there were so few people in the theater, although he was less surprised by the paucity of paying patrons than I. “It wasn’t very good,” he said.

True, “Swiss Army Man” won’t make anyone forget cinematic classics such as “Truck Turner” or “Disco Godfather,” but it had more creativity and less condescension in the first 20 minutes than the last five “Die Hard” movies combined. It’ll be a shame if we no longer have smaller theaters willing to show flicks that don’t rely on animated talking pets and superheroes, theaters willing to show – imagine this! – movies for grown ups.

Student said the theater’s “retro” film series “just set a record for attendance, and that allows us to offer” offbeat flicks. “Maybe you just hit a couple of screenings when the attendance was light, which will happen when it’s not a blockbuster and people are out at the ‘popcorn’ movies. Both of those movies had already been there two weeks. That’s 14 showings, so everybody who wanted to see them had probably already seen them.”

The retro series last weekend showed, among other films, “The Godfather,” which you haven’t really seen until you’ve seen that horse’s head on the big screen. Student said the theater has an advertising budget, but it reaches thousands of fans through its Facebook page.

In addition to the movies it shows, there’s another reason to love the Carolina Theater. It serves the best popcorn I’ve had locally and it only allows you one refill. The multiplexes permit – or at least allow – you to get unlimited refills on its mammoth tubs of popcorn, and considering that a tub and a soda cost about $39, you often feel compelled to keep eating and slurping past the point of satiation even when it doesn’t taste good.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in ‘Casablanca,’ it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of one little theater don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

I know, I know. With the intrusion of evil into our real lives the past couple of weeks, with the world in such a mess, you’re wondering why someone would be worried about a theater.

Frivolous? You bet, and to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of one little theater don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Sometimes, though, you want to escape this crazy world in a way that won’t destroy brain cells by, you know, smoking or drinking or going to a dumb movie that insults your intelligence.

It’s no less true today than when I first wrote it several months ago – the Carolina Theater is a gem in Durham, one that needs to be preserved and patronized.

There are a limited number of theaters that regularly show movies for grown people, and we’re going to miss them when they’re gone and our only movie options involve talking dogs, ghosts or Samuel L. Jackson riding Tarzan’s back through the jungle.

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