I Watched GET OUT in a Movie Theater and had a Religious Experience.
FADE IN — MEMORY FROM CHILDHOOD — MORNING
The year is 1999. My brother and I are sitting in the back of a ’92 Toyota Sienna, amusing ourselves silly by reenacting the funniest bits from the morning’s episode of The Three stooges. Our father sits idle in the driver’s seat, watching the good folk file into morning service at St. Martha, donning their Sunday best. This was around eight in the morning, the hispanic block of service at St. Martha’s. We’re settled outside in a tiny parking lot and had been for the last half-hour. Why? Our mother wants to readjust her make-up for the third time. So it was, our weekly Sunday morning ritual.
Our mother would turn to us on occasion, lipstick smeared on her chin, and reiterate how lucky we were, my brother and I, that we got to experience the awesome pleasures of our lord and savior in a space such as St. Martha’s. It was an old church built in Sarasota, Florida during the 1940’s and certainly looks the part. Where as most churches in towns with recent heritage resembled grade school pop-ups, St. Martha stood firm as a bonafide relic of some ancient story — — a monument to a shared communal ritual that invoked that history. Sure, it wasn’t anything like the cathedrals of ancient Europe or even the relics from the north-eastern united states, or the cathedral in HOME ALONE — — the VHS that we periodically rented from Blockbuster — — but the qualities of a righteous temple of worship were present.
The Hollowed halls; the beautiful stained glass murals that permeated the church’s interior; the architectural feats of man. In this room, it felt like inspiration could strike you like a bolt of lightning. You can just imagine the wonder in a child’s eyes, bathing in the immensity of it. It totally wasn’t for me. Not at that stage of my life, at least. What’s worse, mass was followed by Sunday classes which took place at a smaller building down the block that had rooms the size of recital closets one would expect in tiny college of music.
Even then, we felt Sunday school was something never meant for children like us. In hindsight, that felt all the more obvious. We had just immigrated from Venezuela just a year prior. I was seven-years-old, incredibly shy and withdrawn. My younger brother wasn’t so mild but, then again, every five-year-old thinks the world is their oyster. A cursory glance around the church would reveal others just like us: hispanic children with little skin in the game, hanging out with people from an old country.
First-wave immigrant children will surely understand this strange realm. One foot dipped firmly in the essence of our motherland. The other, mangled by the alligator of American culture. We were much too young to negotiate the wide breath of the Spanish language and latin scripture. At the same time, we weren’t adapt enough at english to thoroughly enjoy the complexities of American texts. We lived a life between worlds, but damn, did we know how to finagle AA batteries to power our gameboys. Alas, those were deemed naughty playthings in church. In any case, I would sit idle on the uncomfortable mahogany pews of my grand cathedral, stare vacantly at the murals that surrounded me and escape into the inner recesses of my mind. I would fantasize about anything and everything. That included video games and, yes, movies.
Movies, Movies, Movies!
One of my earliest moviegoing experience was watching THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK at a dollar movie theater sometime in 1998. For the younglings reading this and thinking “dollar what?” These were small venues that screened films months after initial release at heavily discounted prices. Often times they were the central fixture of a strip mall. It was a tremendous time for folks like us. Families with little expendable income, clamoring for the not-so-latest movie release. I recall being absolutely floored by the practical effects in LOST WORLD.
Dinosaurs are real, little me thought to myself. They are alive and shining and scary and cinematic. The genuine article, much like that church of mine. Just Like in the coloring books and almanacs from school, these Dinosaurs inhabited lush and expansive biomes, littered with vistas that bursted with life. But then we transition into San Diego, with people and exploding cars!? Oh, what wonders awaited us in this darkened movie theater. Also, there was a fake poster for an Adaption of King Lear starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I would have liked to have seen that.
I vividly recall leaving that theater, mulling over the narrative beats, and reeling in the immensity of the images. It blew my mind that somewhere out there on this god-forsaken planet there were dinosaurs ready (no, pinning!) for the silver screen. It just took Steven Spielberg to execute on that vision. Why Spielberg? Because he was the visionary of a generation. The giant poster of LOST WORLD leading into our matinee screening said so, at least. In that time and place, those feelings of appreciation were real. And yet, a cursory glance of the critical reception of Spielberg’s film would leave you to believe it was anything but the transcendent text of the generation.
In fact, THE LOST WORLD is considered by most to be a failed sequel. Obviously when you’re a child, reviews mean nothing. Less so when the child can’t even comprehend the language. But everything is subjective and, when it comes down to it, we all live varied lives. My truth is not your’s, nor the guy down the street. It was a first boys-day-out with my brother and father, in a new land teeming with crummy strip malls and McDonalds around every corner. The dinosaur movie in my head meant scores more than what anyone could say. That’s the magic of art. It is large, it contains multitudes.
JUNGLE 2 JUNGLE shares a similar place in my heart as a pertinent text. Of course it would. It’s about a little Venezuelan jungle boy who’s whisked off to the concrete mayhem of New York City. It was funny, and appealed to children. Most importantly, I felt a kinship with Mimi-Siku, the jungle boy. Not that I could fish in the ponds of Canaima, or even forge bows from hardwood oak, for that matter. It was the scenes in which Mimi-Siku interacted with “civilized society.” The awkwardness and lost sense of balance. He was the outsider looking in. I think back constantly on the words of the ever-prescient David Bowie, a man who wore funny outfits. His take on the relationship between the artist and their audience and how
a piece of work from the former is not finished until the text has clashed with the interpretations of the latter. The “gray space in the middle,” as Bowie put it, that meant different things for everyone.
So, there I found myself, a seven-year-old in the backseat of a ’92 Toyota Sienna, in my grey space. Whole-heartedly convinced that the film I watched was the greatest of all time. No film would ever top THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK. To hell with movie history. In fact, this wasn’t a movie at all, it was a strike of lightning. A wise man named David Byrne, who plays the guitar, once said: “What time is it? No time to look back.” My seven-year-old self would have added “No time to waste on the future.” We got back home to our mother, who was weary of Dinos and carnage and suspicious of our screening. Our father gently assured her that we actually watched the more kid-friendly, FLUBBER.
February 23rd, 2017
I’m 24-years-old by this time and had made huge leap. I left the beach town of Sarasota for the homely swamplands of Tallahassee. Something about school, about making it on my own and whatnot. The date labeled above was a Thursday. I worked the early bird shift as cook at a local kitchen. Anyone out there who, like me, lead a rather uneventful life in their early-twenties will know full well the strange sensation of getting out of work early, reeking of smoked food, and thinking: Now what do I do with myself?
This was a particular time in my mid-twenties when I had little to do besides work long hours as a line cook, and attend classes at FSU. Meaning, if I weren’t seized by the tendrils of work or school, I would be laying in my couch, felled by the over-arching power structures that have long spawned the iniquities that plague us to this day. That, or the frozen pizza I ate didn’t square right. With little in the way of personal prospects on a Thursday night, I headed for the movies on nothing but a whim.
Thursday night previews are totally my bag. You get to avoid the Friday night crowds. Thankfully, most people lead busy lives, things to do, people to see. I derive pleasure from the cool, dark silence of a movie theater. No group of dumb kids lining the final row in the rear, giggling to themselves and making strange noises; No family of seven, stringing along large cardboard boxes filled with hot-dogs, pizza, cotton candy, copious amounts of sugary drinks sloshing back and forth; no old couple sitting behind you, constantly complaining about the noise, or how cold the room is.
I never understood the need to socialize in a movie theater. Go to a bar, go on a walk at the park. Hell, stay home. Whenever I tell people I enjoy going to the movies by myself I’m often given the side glance, like I’m some weirdo. Maybe, but if the alternative is to bring an entire book club into the movies to guffaw at everything Tom Hanks says in A MAN CALLED OTTO, then maybe we’re all weirdos, but I digress.
The Regal theater in Tallahassee is a relic of a different era. It had a vintage, 50’s look and decor that would have felt at home in 1997, when “radical” was all the rage. Every beam that held up the joint resembled a bolt of lightning and tiny designs of popcorn and confetti littered the rugs. “THE MOVIES” was splayed out in large, green neon letters on the marquee alongside exaggerated caricatures of Groucho Marx, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid. Inside, stars of decades past litter the high walls like murals. Among the images were Humphrey Bogart, Kathryn Hepburn, James Dean, and Bruce Willis.
Strangely enough, a large picture of Irwin Winkler stood as the centerpiece of this mural to the stars of ages past which I found fascinating. I mean, sure, he is a Hollywood legend who’s produced some heaters, including ROCKY, RAGING BULL, THE RIGHT STUFF, and GOODFELLAS. But should he be in company with screen actors? Maybe not. Including myself, the screening room must have been populated by eight people in total. We settle in and the lights dim. The projector hums behind us and the screen ignites with the opening credits of Jordan Peele’s GET OUT.
Quickly, I’ll give you my review: This film fucking rocks. I could ramble on about any scene but one stuck out in particular as being it’s definitive statement. Consider the private conversation between Chris and Georgina early on, in which the housemaid addresses Chris’ agitation about his stay at the Armitage residency. Chris confides in Georgina, citing his general anxiety being around so many white people. Georgina’s subsequent meltdown is what got me laughing to myself. It’s creepy on its surface, sure. But it also borders on parody and the beat almost loses its potency. Almost. Just as their conversation ends, the housemaid throws one last reassuring comment: “The Armitage’s are so good to us, they treat us like family.”
Boom. The writer/director’s doubts and terrors laid bare. Us. One word. All the implications. Truly some scary shit. In the long tradition of “scary house” films, there is an element of camp that is mandatory. A stalker that roams the exterior of the abode; A creaky tool shed stands firm off in the distance, housing tools for murder; a fucking basement. Something that’s introduced in the beginning or along the way that nevertheless highlights the inevitability of a conclusion. This scene from GET OUT serves as that inevitability — — the intense close-up on Betty Gabriel’s uncomfortable, tightly strung-back face. But by including US, Peele drives the dagger in. An element of real life cuts through the camp.
On the drive home, I mulled over the narrative beats. The guy from MADTV made this?! The one-half of KEY & PEELE, the sketch comedy? Hell, given the pedigree, you half-expect a character to look down the lens and say “get it?!” that’s how on-guard I was watching Peele’s feature. And yet, it’s that history of slap-stick comedy that breaths fresh air into a film like GET OUT. It is a film that is sincere, but can’t help but shroud its sincerity in a veil of slapstick humor. If you wade through its thick genre roots, you’ll eventually find a director who’s attempting to communicate a pessimism and doubt harbored by those in similar circumstances. People who are strangers in a strange land, either in the realm of the cultural or the interpersonal.
What Peele does with GET OUT he repeats again, in his subsequent films, US and NOPE. They are shotgun blasts of genres and moods. They are horror; they are comedy; they are family stories; they are sci-fi; they are social commentary. The filmography doesn’t walk a fine line, it straddles it, one foot firmly rooted in established cannon while the other is partly rooted in something extra ordinary. Because of this tussle, Peele’s filmography exist in a mercurial space where each text presents a heightened pastiche of troupes that bend toward the comedic while still being rooted in honesty.
Perhaps the reason why I watched GET OUT so many times at that period of my life was because I yearned for the warmth of a dark room and an attentive audience,
So now I want to pose a thought experiment: there is a sense of gravity in a film like AIRPORT which solicits a certain reaction from audiences. AIRPLANE, on the other hand, is a spoof. A comedy that succeeds because it taps into the seriousness of that original text and lampoons it within an inch of its life. But I’ve always wondered: what if we swapped the release dates. What if the Zucker brothers had released their comedic opus first — — an aviation disaster flick teeming with nutty personalities and innuendo. Then, sometime later, George Seaton pointed to that and said: “Hey guys, I have an idea. What don’t we play this straight?”
What then, are we left with? If something serious is made funny, that’s parody. But what of the other way around? What if the parody is played straight? Is it truly straight or does it register in our minds as something else? Do we transpose our shared histories of those zany characters from AIRPLANE into AIRPORT? What is lost and what is gained? For me, it’s in that gray space in which Jordan Peele’s films reside.
I watched GET OUT for a second time that weekend. When I liked something at that young age, I’d do it again and again. Forget about the sixty day window before VOD. The third viewing was on a date. I did the typical film-bro thing where I spent half the feature glancing over at this poor girl to gauge her reaction of the unraveling plot. “See! isn’t this the most awesome thing you’ve ever witnessed?! Wow, what a twist am I right?!” I would think this to myself, eyes beaming. Truly cringe incarnate.
Mind you, I was also still relatively new to town and struggled to foster the kind of friendships that invited more than a dull wave and smile. Perhaps the reason why I watched GET OUT so many times at that period of my life was because I yearned for the warmth of a dark room and an attentive audience, all partaking in joyous communion the way a fan of baseball might yearn for the camaraderie and friction of a field, despite all the advancement in camera technology.
It’s all a known quantity. A precious jewel, like my gymnastics-laden dinosaur movie from childhood days. That’s the best explanation I could scrounge up for myself. Otherwise I couldn’t explain what compelled me back into that Dr. Seuss-inspired heart of Tallahassee littered with strip malls and one-way roads that gradually, and unfathomably morph into unending channels sloping into hidden, far-off suburbia.
But also, there was something to be said about the voyeuristic thrills of a repeat viewing, where pleasure isn’t necessarily derived from the feature on screen, but from audience reaction in your periphery. Call me a weirdo, but I fucking love that. As a writer, I get a kick out of another writer’s work hitting on just the right cylinders. You get a rush of excitement cheering for your peers, seeing a project come to fruition from a script that’s probably been gestating for years, then BAM. Eureka. You’re left on wings.
The fourth viewing was on a discount Tuesday. It was 7:00 pm, and the neon-green fluorescents of the Regal theater pierced through the magic hour sunset. Old reliable Groucho watched over me from the marquee, along with Butch and Sundance, as I speedily file into an oddity: a packed screening room. Wall to wall, there were people talking amongst themselves, laughing, and joking. Friends and families fidgeting with their snacks and drinks, vibrating with excitement, struggling to make sense of their seating arrangements.
Even the seat that I had reserved on the mobile app had been taken, so I scurried off like a wounded creature to an open seat at the end of the screening room, high above the crowd, where I proceeded to sit and stare daggers at the lovely-looking couple that took my spot. Hell, I must have been the only person sitting in their seat and we were five minutes till showtime. In essence, this wasn’t a movie theater, it was hangout spot at the local mall. A banging club with all the panache of a Chucky E. Cheese.
The lights dim but the chatter continues, unabated. We fade-in on Lakeith Stanfield portraying a young black man, Andre, strolling down the sidewalk of a darkened suburb. A snazzy-looking Porsche creeps out of the darkness and proceeds to tail him. “Jump the damn hedge!” someone from my row hollers out. When “Run Rabbit Run” is audible enough to discern from the Porsche stereo, a woman near the middle of the screening room yelled: “Hell no, Why’re you stopping?! Run the fuck out of there stupid!” That one played well.
Now, where they laughing with the movie or at it? Perhaps it was too early to tell. I felt the scene worked because the implications were difficult to miss. Black man. White suburb. Mystery car. Above that, the looming specter of violence in the guise of vigilante justice. But the way Stanfield reacts to the situation, with a sort of joke-y trepidation had my theater in hysterics. Now the game is afoot. Stanfield is assaulted just as the war-time jingle reaches a crescendo and the Porsche disappears into the night. GET OUT. It’s such a powerful opening statement, even on the fourth viewing. A perfect micro story that leaves you intrigued. More amazing, still, was that my screening room was now dead quiet. Magic trick.
The silence didn’t last long, nor should it. This is a film that demands audience reaction, but now that noise was pointed, organized. Later on, when Chris snaps a picture of a freshly possessed Andre, and the flash rang out in the sound design, the longest, most pronounced gasp I’ve ever heard in was bellowed in my theater. From my vantage, I could faintly make out the silhouettes of my audience against the light of the projector. People were squirming; they were getting up off their seats and jerking around. The party of four sitting beside me clung to one another and mouthed along “no, no, no…”
GET OUT was now a receptacle for our excitement. The film wrapped us around it’s finger, transited by it’s well designed symphony of tones. To that effect, the movie cements its maestro in the affable Lil Rel Howery, the film’s pièce de résistance. You always know when a filmmaker respects their audience by the way they invite cooperation. Peele knows that we’ve seen this kind of movie before. We know the cliches, the twist and turns. He knows that the best way to foster the relationship between artist and audience is to insert a voice that represents us, our doubts and terrors. Someone who’s hip to horror and will make the film feel less two-dimensional. Enter TSA agent, Rod Willams — — Chris’ close friend and confidant.
“Never go into a white girl family’s house!” Honestly, what better opening statement from a friend character. (And true!) “Sex-slave!” a jerky Rod screams over the phone when Andre reemerges with an entire new identity. His subsequent musings on Jeffrey Dahmer brought the house down. It was by this midway point I’ve stopped watching the movie. Instead, I sat back and and watched everyone else rollicking in the good time. This room was alive, and for some reason, I felt like a part of something bigger. Something that I couldn’t quite pinpoint.
You hear so much about “the movie theater experience.” How vital it is to “Cinema,” and the theatrical arts writ large. Those always felt like argument fostered in some far-flung past, laminated for future proselytization. Then you listen to people like Quinten Tarantino speak more fluently on the matter — — that his mother’s boyfriend one day took little Quinten to a screening of a Jim Brown movie and the crowd erupted in excitement — — and the concept crystalizes somewhat. You start thinking things like:
“Yeah, I kinda get what you mean, and I can hear the passion in your voice, but something isn’t registering.” Or, “Look, I love movies as much as the next guy, but really? Streaming things on my T.V is just too convenient.”
Then, lightning strikes. We quickly barrel through GET OUT’S third act. The Armatiges are revealed to be a cult of heretics obsessed with immortality. They kidnapped African Americans and puppeteer their black bodies for their physical prowess. Chris narrowly escapes surgery and fleas, but not before one last confrontation with his girlfriend, Rose. My audience gets rowdy as the former lovers tussle over a weapon. Some were on the edge of their seats, others were are audibly shouting at the screen. Then, just as Chris is on the verge of winning, we hear a police siren, flashing cop lights. Chris peers over in terror. Rose grins. You should know that the creaking noise I made repositioning myself in my seat was louder than anything else in that screening room. It was as if the air was sucked out.
Now, the world is full of scary things. The thought of a white cult, going around kidnapping folks, that’s a scary thought. Being tailed by a car while you walk down the street — — that’s scary, as well. Being surrounded by angry T-Rex’s, just because you happen to be in possession of their child, that’s frightening. And yes, it’s also scary to be a young, native Venezuelan boy exposed to the cacophony of New York.
But for me, there’s nothing scarier than Chris’ situation — — of being in the right and it simply not mattering. The image of a black man hanging over a white woman. Our shady history with police. A powder keg of implications igniting before our eyes. In terror, we pan over to the police car and, through the streaks of red and blue, we see the words emblazoned on the driver side door: AIRPORT. It isn’t some random authority figure that pops out, its Rod Williams. Salvation.
There are about one hundred seats in this regal theater and as I mentioned, this was a packed night. About seventy of those siting jumped out of their seats and hollered out in triumph. It felt as if an earthquake had just erupted in the heart of Tallahassee. The party of four next to me jerked up, and invited me as well. The cheering came fast and thundered on even after Rod uttered his famous line: “I’m T-S-Mutha-F’ing-A”. It was around then that the lights in the screening room flashed on with sixty seconds left in the film. The manager and about four other employees burst into the screening room with blank faces, trying desperately to make sense of the commotion.
I’m convinced that what I witnessed that night was art. This thing that felt precious to me, now spoke to others. My little grey area had now expanded to include a hundred-seat theater and adjacent projection closet. The lights come on in the theater and the obvious is confirmed: This was an all-black audience coming in to watch a discount horror flick weeks after it originally released. These weren’t the know-it-all fans of Jordan Peele, or those with the expendable income to invest in premium ticket prices on a Friday night release. My audience was here for a good time on a Tuesday night in this, the lower income area of Tallahassee, Florida just outside the oh-so-sacred gates of the capital building and adjacent Florida State University.
The movie theater had served a communal function. It was the same function offered by any physical space: a concert hall, a baseball stadium; a local bar; an after school program; a church. The purpose of these spaces vary in degree but the function will always be the same: to foster community. To reveal something about ourselves which initially feels unique to our history, but actually implicates the universal. And in that cheesy way I feel like I learned something about myself. The faces that lined this popcorn-scented theater weren’t so different from the immigrant faces that lined to isles of St. Martha. The tired and slightly confused, and the jubilee that beamed from some but not from others. I left that theater thinking “I get it.”
What has transpired here was much more transcendent than any experience the sacred church had to offer for me. But like I said, we all live our own truths. Some people thrive in the rigors of sacred belief, others in theatrical exhibition. Please don’t extrapolate anymore than that. But on the other hand, to argue that Rod yelling, you lying bitch! at his phone was any less invigorating than reading up on St. Vincent Pallotti’s vision for the Union of the Catholic Apostolate, would be disingenuous. No thank you, I say. I’m sure others would be thrilled. I got my point. After all, I saw Lakeith Stanfield wear a funny hat and funny clothes.
Still, there were remnants of that little boy trying to connect with a culture that wasn’t his own. A boy trying desperately to find his space in the world. Such is life. If that’s the struggle for the immigrant man, then so be it. Beyond anything I am an open — minded observer. One on a mission like us all. Still, I connected with the rapturous applause. I did so because the film spoke to the African American community around me at that perfect time and place. As I exited into the lobby I ruminated once more on the large images of Bogey and Hepburn and Willis hanging over the departing crowd.
Like I mentioned, these are the sort of moments that invigorated me. One of the rare moments in which one looks inward. Was this perhaps a call to action? maybe I should try my hand at something at this. Where would this go? It didn’t matter. What time is it? No time to look back. In any case, I decided to wait in the lobby of my cathedral while the exiting congestion lessened. Perhaps this chapel wasn’t so different from the St. Martha’s, my old stomping ground. Perhaps the differences were more profound than I could fathom. I fixed my gaze on the central fixture of this mural to the stars once more and wonder: Does Irwin Winkler own a stake in Regal? Is that why he’s featured so prominently?