Is this a film critic’s or a summer moviegoer’s worst nightmare come true? 1,844 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I was not looking forward to this screening. Even though, after all my years as a film critic for a major metropolitan daily, I still made the effort to keep an open mind before going into a movie. I wasn’t surprised very often by something I had been dreading turning out to be something that was good. More often than not, though, it was the other way around. Still, I was determined to start off with a clean slate.
But this was going to be a tough one. It was a modern dress version of Hamlet starring Adam Sandler trying to reboot his career by tackling the Bard. My money was on Shakespeare going down hard. Sandler had a lot of recent films to atone for: Pixels, That’s My Boy, Jack And Jill. In fact, his films were no longer drawing the audience of his heyday and most of them were now going out directly through Netflix. It wasn’t clear if this new movie was beling released or had simply escaped.
I nodded to a few of my colleagues as I entered the screening room, ignoring the young punks who were making it harder and harder for people like me to earn a living. Why should anyone pay a professional film critic – in spite of our depth of knowledge and finely honed writing skills – when a bunch of children were giving it away for free on their blogs? Worse yet, they wanted to be considered peers.
It was almost enough to make me wish I was dead. And then I was.
I closed my eyes for a moment, steeling myself against the purveryor of Happy Gilmore and Little Nicky as the tortured Prince of Denmark. When I opened them, I was somewhere else. It was still a movie theater of some sort, with dark red curtains framing the screen, and houselights just dim enough to make it impossible to read. I looked around to find my colleagues, but I was all alone. At first I thought I had blissfully slept through the entire film, but then realized that my fellow reviewers would leave without waking me seemed strange. Then a door to the back of the room opened and a man walked down the aisle. I couldn’t make out his features because he was backlit. I was shocked when he came down front where I always sat. Because I saw that it was none other than Clark Gable, the legendary actor who had died in 1960. He had won an Oscar for It Happened One Night and was the only choice for Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. This Gable seemed older, the craggy but still macho presence of one of his late films, like Run Silent, Run Deep.
I would have been happy to conduct a career retrospective. But, for the moment, I was at a loss for words. “Why you’re…”
He chuckled. “Yes, I am. And, no, you’re not dreaming.”
“Then this means I’m dead?”
“I’m afraid so,” Gable said sympathetically before favoring me with a broad smile. “But look at the bright side. Now you’re ready for your eternal reward.”
“But why are you here?”
Gable look hurt. “Don’t you think I belong here?”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I meant why are you greeting me? Shouldn’t I be seeing the King of Kings, Lord of Hosts?”
Gable let out a good laugh at that. “Do you know how many beings die across the universe every day? Even the Omnipotent One would be hard-pressed to find time for His other tasks if He had to greet each dead person individually. Oh, sure, He’ll make an exception for Mother Teresa or Kurt Cobain…"
"He really dug his music. Can’t say I care for it myself.”
This was too much to take in all at once so, as with my reviews, I focused on what was important. “Why are you here to greet me?” I said again.
“Because I’m the King. At least that’s what they called me in Hollywood. And you’re a movie critic. If you were a musician, you would have been greeted by Elvis. If you were a comedian, you would have been welcomed by Robin Williams. If you were an author, Stephen King…”
“Hold on. Stephen King is still alive.”
“Well, in his case it’s a Stephen King impersonator. And let me tell you, Edgar Allan Poe is none too happy about it.”
We were getting off track. “So I’m dead and Clark Gable is welcoming me to heaven. I suppose we should we get on with it. Where do we go?”
Gable gestured to the room. “We don’t go anywhere. You’re already here. This is the screening room of your dreams. Any movie you’ve ever wanted to see is ready for your viewing. Hitchcock’s lost film The Mountain Eagle? We’ve got it. Uncut versions of von Stroheim’s Greed and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons? You only have to ask. Complete, uncut, and without commercial interruption.”
I had to admit that did sound like heaven. Yet something was odd.
“Where’s everyone else? Where’s Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael and Judith Crist and Richard Corliss…”
“They’re in their own screening rooms. You’ll see them in the lobby after the movie, but you each get your own space to see what you want to see when you want to see it. So why don’t you take a seat and let me know what you’d like to see first?”
I started to walk over to a seat in the center of the row, my preferred spot, when I noticed how sticky and gummy the floor was. “I would have thought the theaters would be in better shape than this.”
“Sorry about that. Here, have something to eat." The star of Mutiny On The Bounty tossed me a sealed bag of pre-made popcorn.
“It’s not even freshly popped,” I complained.
He shrugged his shoulders. “You’re here for the movie, right?”
The shoddiness of it all was off-putting. Then something occurred to me. “I’d like to tour the projection booth.”
Gable looked surprised. “Why?”
“I’d like to see the equipment you’re using.”
“There’s no need for that. I can tell you. We’ve got a state of the art digital projection system with all the latest bells and whistles…”
I threw the bag of stale popcorn to the floor. “Digital? You’re not even showing actual film?”
When Gable didn’t reply, I decided I’d had enough. “I’ve been in third-rate grindhouses that were in better shape than this. I assume you answer to somebody? I want to speak to him or her immediately.”
The actor gave me a look I couldn’t quite read and then snapped his fingers. He vanished and was immediately replaced by a short rotund guy with gray hair and a receding hairline. It took me a moment to place him.
“I’m Louis B. Mayer. What seems to be the problem?”
I quickly recovered and decided that, unlike the actors he terrorized at MGM in the 1930s and 1940s, I could not be intimidated. “I’ve devoted my life to the art of cinema and this is my eternal reward? A crummy screening room with sticky floors and ersatz popcorn that can’t even project actual film? What kind of racket are you running here?”\
Mayer was utterly unruffled. He could be tough as nails heading up the studio that was the top of the food chain, but he could also be avuncular and paternalistic. At times he could leave the people he was manipulating with the impression that they had put one over on him. “My dear boy, you’re absolutely right. You deserve far better than this. I don’t know what they were thinking.”
Mayer snapped his fingers and we were suddenly in a very plush space. The seats were wide and cushioned. When I sat down, I found I could lean back and a leg rest came up. Mayer motioned me to follow him up the aisle. We were in a theater lobby that would have put Radio City Music Hall to shame. He led me over to the concession stand.
“Some fresh popcorn?”
The smartly uniformed attendant scooped the popcorn right out of the machine and into a tub. She added a generous helping of what was labeled “fresh creamery butter.” Mayer handed me the tub. “No need to worry about cholesterol now, eh, my boy?” he said with a wink.
The concessionaire then gave me an ice cold bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, my favorite and the first time I’d ever ever been in a movie theater that offered it.
Mayer wouldn’t let me finish the question.
“Everything is possible now. Shall we return to your theater?”
We went back in and I took my seat. There were holders for the soda and the popcorn tub. As I settled in, Mayer began giving his spiel.
“We can project at both silent and sound speed, provide the proper aspect ratios, and screen anything from Super8 to Cinerama and IMAX. Every film is shown precisely as its maker intended it to be seen.”
“Now you’re talking,” I said as I settled in. “This is heaven.”
“Ah, not quite.”
With that, metal clasps emerged from the seat holding my arms, legs, and head in place. My soda and popcorn were just out of reach.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
“You get optimal screening conditions, my boy, but you lose the right to select the films. You’ll have to watch what we show you, for as long as we dictate.”
“But I’m dead. That could be forever.”
Mayer gave me a wan smile. “Yes, it could.”
He started to walk up the aisle. I could not turn my head to see him but I shouted after him, “So what am I going to be watching?”
Mayer came back down the aisle and stood in front of me where I could see him. He had a clipboard which he examined before looking up at me.
“It’s a special retrospective that has been curated just for your benefit. All new pristine prints of the director’s extended editions. It’s a fifty film look at the works of…” He paused to look at the sheet on the clipboard. “Ah yes, Adam Sandler. Enjoy. Remember, movies are better than ever.”
This story appears in the new collection One Star Reviews Of The Afterlife.