10 years of entropy

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

It is Jan. 15, 2020. Ten years ago today, I caught a matinee showing of The Book of Eli, a deeply forgettable Denzel Washington vehicle boasting Mila Kunis and Gary Oldman as the villain, at AMC Irving Mall. It was my first published movie review for the Tarrant County College Collegian, which I’d begged my way onto as a high schooler. I have been doing this now for 10 years.

I am writing this at the Oak Street Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. I am sitting on the same bench I sat at the first time I came here in June six, soon to be seven, years ago, when a colleague summoned me out to drink with the rest of the summer Daily staff soon after I’d turned 21. I look up, and I see the mural wall, in front of which I sat outside in 4 degree weather on the night of Jan. 1, 2018 to observe the supermoon that year. I was the only patron of the night, and when I insisted on staying outside, the staff pulled out a blanket for me to wrap myself in. To my left is the table where Paul and I celebrated our graduation in 2017. He and the others splurged for cigars, and I quickly stole a drag of his, the only tobacco I’ve ever consumed.

I can see these things, these ghosts of myself, as if they are solid and real. I have lived in Denton for seven years now, my current apartment for five, and it is my home. My first home, I mean. I grew up in Arlington, the fetid anus at the center of the glorious buttcheeks that are DFW, and that’s not home. I have no connection to that place, and never did even in the decades I lived there. The city’s only interest has ever been collecting tourism money, and once they get it, they’ll only spend it on more tourist attractions. It has no interest in the people who live there.

Denton is interested in the people who live here. It’s the seat of the fastest growing county in the nation for several years running, mostly in the reclusive mansions built to escape ever further from the center of Dallas and business development in the ritzy parts of Frisco, where I now work. Its primary import is students to its two universities, both of which are highly accessible and offer several nationally renowned programs. To the city’s constant chagrin, these same students are its primary export, many of us strongly desiring to build a life here, but unable to find work.

Where Arlington attracts people from other cities to traditional tourist traps, hoping they spend entirely too much money in privately owned stadiums and theme parks that the city itself will never see, Denton attracts people from other cities to partake in its daily life, the things those of us who live here get to enjoy every day. It has by far the cheapest, youngest and most robust nightlife scene in the Metroplex, with the broadest array of bars and music venues that are most likely to be booked even on weeknights, and at least twice a year, the entire city grinds to a halt to flex them at full capacity in locally driven music festivals, all set surrounding our glorious Courthouse on the Square.

There is much romance for Denton, much of it the standard half-truths and exaggerations of any college town where, by definition, many of its residents are experiencing their first real taste of adulthood, but it is The Square that makes Denton truly unique.

Every county seat in Texas has a courthouse, and most of them are surrounded by a square of one-way streets. The first time I went out to Odessa to visit Paul, who took his first post-college job at The Odessa American, I took the scenic route, 380 west and then a smattering of other state highways south, only hooking up with Interstate 20 in Abilene. State highways, unlike the Interstate system that supplanted them for most purposes in the 1950s, pass through the hearts of the cities they visit, often necessitating drivers to drop from 70 mph to 30 or even 20. They become the main streets of these towns, and many of them form borders of their county squares – this is as true for Denton as any other city. Elm Street is incorporated into State Highway 77, which winds its way 1,305 miles from Brownsville, Texas to Sioux City, Iowa. It is absolutely not the quickest way to get from one of those cities to the other.

Taking my scenic route, I passed a lot of courthouse squares, and they were all silent. I made this journey on a weekday, and I’m sure if I’d gone on a Friday or Saturday night, I would have seen revelers from all across the respective counties, but if you go to Denton’s courthouse, you will always find yourself in a bustling business environment. Even on weekends, even when the colleges are out of season, you will still find the people who live here.

There are, of course, larger county seats, two of them as close as Dallas and Fort Worth, but those courthouses no longer carry the same gravitas. They’re hard to find now, overwhelmed by the metropolitan splendor that surrounds them. Denton’s courthouse is the dominant aspect of its skyline, an ever-present monolith that, from miles away, welcomes me home.

There are 254 counties in Texas and 234 of their historic county courthouses still stand, and none of them are nearly as iconic, beloved or widely known as Denton’s.

I can see myself everywhere at Oak Street, Lucky Lou’s and Eastside. I must have sat in every seat in these bars at some point.

The view from the Cool Beans roof in the summer, some years ago.

I can’t see myself at Riprock’s. I can go to Youtube and see Paul and myself there anytime I like, but after they closed and reorganized the bar, I cannot go there and remember where I was before. Everything’s wrong now. I can only see myself in the entryway, where during the grand reopening last March, a drunken literature grad student and fellow returning regular defined “uncanny” for me, using the newly rearranged bar as the perfect example. It is so familiar, and yet so alarmingly alien.

I can’t see myself at Cool Beans. I can’t go back to the roof, the first place I went on Fry Street, age 20, getting a cheeseburger and hiding up there past the time underage patrons weren’t allowed in. It used to be the only place in town to see July 4 fireworks, even though so few came. They’d already closed the rooftop bar before I got here at the request of those ugly new apartments, then some idiot started a fire up there and they closed the whole place off. I can’t even go out onto the patio where I observed the last solar eclipse anymore – they’ve put up this awful, cheap aluminum roof, and now you can’t see the sky.

And if I see these ghosts of myself at local bars, what would I see in a theater? I only went out three or four times a month at my most active, but I go to the movies three or four times a week now, and have for the past several years. Can I remember where I went to see certain movies? Which arenas? Which seats?

The oldest regular theater I remember is the Cinemark Tinseltown at Six Flags Mall. I know now that the mall opened in 1970 and the theater opened in 1996, but it was such a big deal at the time that 4-year-old me thought the entire mall was brand new.

It immediately became the closest and nicest theater to the apartment complex where I spent my pre-adolescence, and it was the first theater I went to with stadium seating, rows of chairs rising up, removing the potential of someone too tall blocking your view. I was old enough to be familiar with standard flat seating in theaters, and the possibility had concerned me greatly. Stadium seating also greatly compressed the space required for a full house, dramatically reducing the overall square footage requirements for the building. It always seemed so small to me from the outside.

The main entrance on the south side of Six Flags Mall, May 2015.

My earliest clear memory of the theater was my father surprising me by taking me to the first Spider-Man in May 2002. He made a big deal out of making me guess where we were going, and once I realized we were heading to the theater, I was so laser-focused on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, which came out weeks later, that I thought he’d somehow managed to get us into an early screening of it. It made more sense as a surprise than taking me to a movie that I knew was out but had no interest in.

Spider-Man is a classic and Attack of the Clones is reviled today, of course, but there’s a moment in the latter film that I remember so clearly, a moment Spider-Man could never have provided. It’s at 47:33, when Obi-Wan Kenobi steps out on a balcony overlooking the cloning facility on Kamino, watching stormtroopers march into their star destroyers for the first time. I remember on this shot, the existence of this movie hit me all at once, the surreal fact that this thing I had been looking forward to, so long something in the future, had passed into the present. In that moment, I felt every second that had passed since I saw the first trailer until that point in the film. I still get that feeling sometimes, not watching movies that I was necessarily looking forward to, but ones that are generally awaited, with advertising heavy enough that it still reaches me even now that I don’t watch television. I usually only consider movies as far in advance as a week or two now, and the ones that manage to grab my attention earlier are what trigger it. It is a feeling I do not enjoy.

I know now that Six Flags Mall’s decline started in part when the Parks at Arlington opened in 1988, but again, my perception of this was delayed several years. I didn’t realize it was even there until the AMC at the Parks opened in November 2002, part of a whole new wing of the mall highlighted by an ice skating rink downstairs, which was much more interesting to me at the time. By that point, three of Six Flags’ four anchors had closed, and anyone could tell that it was dying, but my parents, whose divorce was just now getting underway, and I continued to patronize it regularly – mainly because the Tinseltown was still much closer and much, much cheaper than the AMC at the Parks.

Driving to the theater over the next several years, my mother and I observed the massive industrial park north of the mall fall into disrepair. In the 1960s, when the tollway that would become Interstate 30 had just been completed, this industrial park was to be the Arlington’s primary economic engine. Six Flags Over Texas was set up in 1961 as a summer attraction, just a little something to pull people onto the tollway immediately. The theme park boomed, eventually becoming the franchises we know today, but the industrial park struggled, even as the new mall opened at its south end. It’s still there, sprawling lazily southeast from the corner of I-30 and Highway 360, a ghost town right in the center of one of the largest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the world, crumbling.

The box office at Cinemark Six Flags Mall for a matinee of Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the biggest movies of 2015.

As the mall began to spiral into abandonment, the Tinseltown continued to thrive, and the general lack of foot traffic that strangled businesses did so almost in concentric rings furthest away from the theater, the mall’s last true anchor. Reportedly, there were a dozen stores still in business when it went into foreclosure in 2008, but all I ever saw was the by-the-slice pizza joint, the last stalwart of the food court right across from the theater. I remember spending many moments in front of the box office, spread out over several years, looking out at the abandoned, cavernous expanse, in visible disrepair even within sight of the theater, with a sense of dread and wonder I’m still not quite sure how to describe.

How many ghosts was I seeing, in those moments? How many thousands of people how many thousands of times had walked these great halls, had sat at these tables, which still somehow retained their mass-produced sheen even in shadow after they stopped bothering to turn on the lights? Some closest to the box office still saw traffic, couples and friends greeting each other and chatting before a show, but for most, their only company was the thick smell of grease and cheap Italian spices.

The Tinseltown was the theater I went to with my mother and friends in Arlington as I got older, but most movies I saw with my father, and his primary theaters changed with his location after the divorce. His first apartment was at Centerport Station, when the area was still fledgling, and his second was in Las Colinas, up the new tollway, both adjacent to AMC Irving Mall. We spent many Saturday afternoons there, though I mostly remember it for trips I went on alone after I started working at The Collegian.

There are some posters I remember particularly well. This one, an early one for Spider-Man 2 with Doctor Octopus reflected in the eye of Spider-Man’s mask, is the first time I remember learning about and being deeply excited for a sequel when I saw it at AMC Irving Mall almost a year before the movie’s release. It remains one of my favorite films.

I remember seeing The Dark Knight there on Friday night. It was a last-minute thing – I was going to spend the weekend with my mother, but my girlfriend had something pop up and wouldn’t be available, so we switched – so we got there just before curtain and having skipped dinner. He ordered a hot dog and made a big show out of chewing out the cashier who’d taken his money without realizing it would be a few minute wait for fresh ones. I remember the entire theater jumping in unison when the Joker did his magic trick, like a shelf of people lifting up in unison off the stadium seats.

That was a watershed night for me, my personal Citizen Kane, as it was for a lot of people my age. That was when I realized how good movies could be. Until then, I’d only seen things I was looking forward to, and when asked if I enjoyed it, I’d just say “it was good” and quickly change the subject, not really wanting to think about it. I think X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3 were the only movies I’d really disliked up to that point. After this draconian crime saga of terror and guilt, a distinctive and unmistakable vision of chaos encroaching on a highly questionable order, everything else seemed like shit.

I had my first real “day at the movies” there in September 2011, where I dropped $30 and saw Moneyball for a second time, Dream House and a third screening of Drive. I can still have those from time to time, when the release schedule slows down and there are still great offerings rolling, even as double-features have become almost weekly necessities.

In between the Centerport and Las Colinas apartments, my father spent four years in the mid ‘00s living in Corinth dating a horrible woman named Lacy. I had no idea where I was on a map, and I barely recognized it because we never went north of Loop 288, but those weekends were my first in Denton. We had lunch every Saturday at the Cici’s in the same shopping complex where I have gone to the Jason’s Deli every time I’ve been sick for the past half dozen years, and our regular theater was Cinemark Denton.

It was a regal sight back then. The apartment complex to the north and restaurants to the east weren’t there yet, meaning you could see it clearly from the highway, with 200 yards of parking lot stretching out to lead you to the multiplex, which seemed a shining theater on a hill even as the ground noticeably dipped on your approach. The way I remember it, the strip mall to the south wasn’t there either, and the inlet existed just for that movie theater.

Long after my father had moved away from Centerport, I picked up my first real job delivering sandwiches for a Jimmy Johns just down the road from his old complex that didn’t exist when he lived there, and explored the neighboring grounds more thoroughly than he ever did. I would start at UNT several years after he left Corinth, and I would come to know these environs much better as well. I do not speak to my father anymore, but I have often noted uncomfortably that I seem to be following in his footsteps, geographically at least, his old places becoming my new stomping grounds in sequence.

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

In January 2010, still in high school and attending TCC as a dual-credit student, I began working at The Collegian, with my first piece reviewing The Book of Eli. I would spend three years writing movie reviews there, quickly learning I’d lucked into the best college journalism program in the country. It’s apparent from the array of awards it earns year over year, in spite of the horrendous rate of turnover inherent for an inauspicious two-year college, and it’s even apparent in personal interactions. Advisers Eddye Gallagher, who’s since retired, and Chris Whitley were like royalty at state and even national conventions, always the center of their conversations, always the elbows that other advisers wanted to bump into. I need to visit that newsroom again soon, that warm smell of steam I always get, for some reason, whenever I enter it.

The review itself is a crude, 277 word thing that I don’t fully remember writing, but I stand by it. I objected strongly to the film’s gaudy twist ending, and I didn’t really know how to handle it without a flat spoiler. In my first draft, almost every paragraph had “(except for the ending)” inserted somewhere in there, all of which Chris delicately convinced me to remove. Now I hate parenthetical statements – it’s a massive cue to your reader that what they’re about to read is unimportant, and if it’s unimportant, why is it in front of them? – and I edit them out of other people’s work whenever I have the opportunity. I definitely don’t remember “abysmally maudlin.”

That’s not the original publication date in the link. The Collegian’s website crashed sometime in early 2013, and all of our archives had to be rewritten by hand. The guy they hired to do it was kind of an idiot and didn’t get the packaging right in the recreation. There were definitely paragraph breaks and italics in the original version.

Probably my signature review came that April on Clash of the Titans, one of the first movies to take over the no. 1 spot at the box office from Avatar after a hasty post-production 3D conversion. Only about 10% of the movie was in 3D, and I’m told it wasn’t even the good parts, but they sold those $20 tickets and ran. My lede, “Well that sucked,” was the toast of the newsroom for a day or so – Eddye assured me they could have gotten in trouble for even that degree of crudeness. Until then, I’d mostly stayed in my lane, quietly filling content into the back half of the paper and helping out on production days, but I think it was around that time I was mentally drafted into a larger role with the paper in future semesters. Me becoming a crusty, hard boiled reporter was their idea, not mine. I do not remember where I saw the movie.

This was another poster I remember for Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, with Anakin’s cloak flowing into the foreboding mask of Darth Vader. It was massive, draped in the corner of Cinemark Six Flags Mall, but ironically, I can’t find a higher resolution image of it now.

With its well-below average ticket prices and convenient location, Cinemark Six Flags Mall was still the spot through the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. I took many dates and friends there, even exploring the attached commercial ruins with some of them. I saw the first movie I went to alone there, the fourth Fast and the Furious movie in April 2009. Going to the movies alone was still an oddly transgressive thing for me, despite it being an inherently private activity, and I considered it vital preparation for a career as a critic.

I stole my first movie there in September 2011 – I walked into Drive, which I had seen three times and knew would be worth stealing, but they switched the arena over to Contagion, a movie I had not enjoyed, after I snuck in, and I walked out as soon as I realized. I would steal many more screenings in college, and weirdly, I never had this problem again. I saw Avengers there at midnight. I remember walking out after seeing Sinister in October 2012 and complimenting a man on his gorgeous white robes, and feeling awful when he lowered his voice to a whisper to tell me he was a Muslim.

Cinemark Six Flags Mall was still my theater of choice, but this time in my life was marked by increased freedom and a variety of choices that came with it. I spent a lot of time at AMC Irving Mall, as well as UA Eastchase behind the old Toys R Us. AMC bought it a while back and renovated, and the seating is all fucked up now. For some months in 2012, the AMC at the Parks took over as my regular theater – I was trying to see things consistently on Friday mornings, and it usually had showings soon after 10 a.m. even on weekdays, whereas Cinemark Six Flags Mall wouldn’t open until noon.

The one special theater during this period, one that I would consistently go hours out of my way to patronize, was Angelika Dallas, in the heart of residential Dallas just across from Mockingbird Station. Its arthouse fare was an important stopgap, allowing me to review new and more interesting movies every week even when there were gaps in the mainstream release schedule – this was back when there actually were gaps in the mainstream release schedule.

Angelika Dallas, and its sister Angelika Plano, are some of the theaters that have grown in importance to me over the years. There are six Angelika theaters in the world, and two of them are in DFW. Los Angeles and New York City are the centers of the consumer cinematic world, but Dallas and Austin, unbeknownst to many, combine to constitute a close third. It’s one of many factors that have made this area so pliable to me, and the presence of these top-end, nose-turned-up arthouse theaters are the tangible proof.

As The Collegian’s primary critic, I was invited to many advance screenings, which introduced me to several theaters in North Dallas. I still worm my way into advance screenings from time to time, but they’ve since been reassigned overwhelmingly to either Angelika Dallas or AMC Northpark. Those days, they were mostly at the Studio Movie Grill on Royal Lane, my first dine-in theater, a novel but unexceptional concept.

There’s no such thing as good food at a theater. It’s a matter of logistics – most restaurants could only hope to seat half an arena full of people at peak rush, and their orders all come in at different times, meaning an efficiently run kitchen can churn out satisfying, fresh-cooked food in good time. But a dine-in theater has far too many people all ordering their food at the exact same time. You would need a kitchen the size of a full theater in its own right, and a staff to match. And so, from Studio Movie Grill to Movie Tavern to the sacred Alamo Drafthouse, it all defaults to microwaved crap. Just popcorn and hot dogs for me, thanks.

Studio Movie Grills are more interesting to me for their penchant for purchasing and repurposing various spaces, often to noticeably strange results. The one on Royal Lane is in a strip mall, for instance. The one that stands out the most to me, though, is Studio Movie Grill Lewisville, where I infrequently found myself after I started at The Lewisville Texan Journal in 2016. I have no idea what the building used to be, and it looks enough like a theater, but the arenas are bizarre. They look more like call centers than theaters, with standard, flat seating. The tables are long, skinny rows that attach to the wall on one side, and the seats are office chairs, really nice ones, that you can roll and spin around the aisles during the movie.

A Collegian early showing pass also lead to my first visit to Cinemark West Plano, one of Cinemark’s massive flagship locations north of the 820 and 635 loops around Dallas and Fort Worth alongside Cinemark Alliance Town Center and Cinemark Legacy at the western and eastern edges of the Metroplex. My first time going up there for an advance screening of Paranormal Activity 3, I spent enough time lost on the way that I thought I’d miss it. It’s one of my primary theaters now, just five minutes south of the office.

I would later learn it’s a massively important location, right next door to Cinemark’s world headquarters. It’s probably the reason the Cinemarks in DFW are so much nicer than the AMCs, even though AMC is a much bigger chain. I spend much more time at AMCs now because of their much stronger subscription deal, particularly AMC Stonebriar, also just a few minutes from the office.

I also spent a lot of time with a dear friend who lived in Grapevine, which meant I spent a lot of time at Cinemark Grapevine. I saw my first real midnight movie with them there, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – there was a young woman sat beneath us dressed up as Roxy Richter who thought I was throwing my Skittles at her.

We also spent some time at the nearby AMC Grapevine Mills, but they didn’t like that theater so much – it’s a dine-in, and some of the showings would be more expensive than others without warning. The Stubs deal offers free showings to any screen, so that’s not a concern for me now.

I still remember the first time I went there – many years before, in 2002, my father took me there to see Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It was very far, but it was the only showtime that worked. I remember seeing the strange scaffold towers on the north side and feeling, somehow, like my world had gotten much larger.

The Texas Theatre.

Collegian early screening pass is also how I was first introduced to the Texas Theatre, my cathedral in Oak Cliff. My first movie there was an adaptation of Brighton Rock, which only got a VOD release in the U.S. in 2011. I shouldn’t ever have even heard of it, let alone seen and written about it, but that’s the Texas Theatre. I usually only make my way down there for special screenings of classics, but many of their showtimes are dedicated to direct-to-video releases that I never otherwise would have heard of. After seeing The Irishman there in November and having the opportunity to see Marriage Story in December, I’m honestly not sure what direct-to-video means anymore.

The Texas Theatre was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1931, the first air-conditioned theater in Dallas, funded by Howard Hughes himself. It became nationally known in 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald hid inside after assassinating President John F. Kennedy. The façade was remodeled in 1991 by Oliver Stone for his movie JFK. This was during a volatile stretch for the theater – it closed its doors, ostensibly forever, in 1989, ’92 and ’95, the last closure after a five-alarm fire completely hollowed it out, and plans to demolish it were staved off by new ownership in ’93 and again in ’96. The 1996 buyer, a man named Pedro Villa, couldn’t afford to renovate it from the fire damage, and the theater stood vacant for three years.

The Oak Cliff Foundation preserved it permanently by getting it designated as an historic landmark in 2001 and eventually raised the money to renovate it. In 2010, the theater opened its doors once more. I realize now that I was probably one of the first to see a show in the new theater. The Oak Cliff Film Festival was established in 2012. I make a point of volunteering every year, just so I can spend more time in the Texas Theatre.

Everything the Alamo Drafthouse pretends to be, the Texas Theatre is. Every time I enter, I can feel the immensity of its history, every second that has passed since it opened. It is endlessly astonishing to me to see everyday business continue to take place here, business as usual right alongside the ghosts of all the everyday business that has taken place there since before my grandparents were born. In 2019, I run fresh buckets of ice up the narrow staircase, almost too small even for one person, to the VIP bar, then move trash into the supply room next door. What else have those rooms been used for, I wonder? They’ve been here for almost a century!

One of my greatest joys is getting to the Texas Theatre early, taking a drink upstairs and watching the foyer fill up with people. For a theater that seats 645 in the downstairs area alone – the balcony has been closed since the fire – the foyer is far, far too small, and even a mid-size crowd can be difficult to move through. The bar, which on weeknights and ahead of matinees is a lonely yet forbidding prohibition-era saloon where one can delight in the small library about filmmaking nearby, becomes a writhing bustle of ordering, pouring and shifting to get through to the arena during rush, pulsating from the 1930s to now and back in the span of a two hour screening cycle.

There is only one screen, one of the biggest in the Metroplex, and everyone who is there is there for the same show. There is a strange camaraderie here that is mostly absent in multiplexes, one that makes the crowd and congestion much more palatable. The especially smarmy breed of upper-class hipsters who make up the local Dallas film community have progressively made the Texas Theatre into a fashionable place, and even as the showings get more and more appealing later in the evening, so too does the appeal of simply being there to rub shoulders, the movies of past decades secondary to what you and your new friends might make tomorrow.

When I am there, I feel as though I am taking in a death match at the Coliseum at its height, as though I am perusing the library at Alexandria before it was sacked, but somehow fully aware of its place in history. I can feel the entire continuum of this place, of people coming here for decades, for generations, never to absorb it an antique, but because they decided it was the best show in town that evening. I can feel my own place in that continuum, a part of human history, fully integrated into the grand tapestry that I can usually only see as if from a distance. It is an honor merely to exist in this space, merely to wander in and out of this hall, and one that I will remember as an honor on my deathbed even if I were never to set foot here again.

The interior of the foyer for the IMAX on Webb Chapel. The main theater has its own separate, unremarkable foyer, and this one is only ever be seen by IMAX customers.

If there’s one theater that could even begin to be as special to me as the Texas Theatre, it would  be Cinemark Webb Chapel. I have never lived or worked anywhere near it, and it has never been my regular theater, but at the corner of Interstate 35 West and Loop 635, it somehow manages to always be on the way. I met my father there with some regularity after he moved in with his new wife in North Dallas, and eventually met many other friends from the area there as well. I find myself there at least once a year, often on whims when I have ventured further south than usual, sometimes as a pre- or post-feature to a screening at the Texas Theatre. It always seems to have the right screening starting at the right time for me to start or finish a much longer day there.

It doesn’t offer much that I couldn’t see anywhere else, but it does feature the best IMAX screen in the Metroplex. The AMC subscription deal offers free tickets even to premium large-format screenings, which the Cinemark subscription deal does not, so I spend a lot of time now in AMC IMAX arenas, but for AMC, IMAX just means a larger screen and a nicer sound system. These do not compare to Webb Chapel.

I was first introduced to IMAX as a young child in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History’s massive dome, four times the size of a normal arena, housed in a distinct building that looks from the outside like an unnatural growth threatening to swallow the museum. The IMAX at Webb Chapel echoes that. It is functionally an entirely separate theater, with its own entrance, foyer and concession stand. The massive, curving screen takes up the entire eastern wall, and the seats, a stadium so steep that customers are lined up almost on top of each other, curve against it, forming a massive sphere in the center of the room. During trailers, you can see the massive IMAX film reels shifting in front of the projector.

As many times as I have been to Cinemark Webb Chapel, I have only been to its IMAX twice, once with my father for a second look at The Dark Knight, and once much more recently with Paul to see Ad Astra. My father and I almost saw Blade Runner 2049 there, but it was sold out when we arrived, so we diverted to the Studio Movie Grill on Technology Boulevard. That building used to be a Cinemark – I saw Alice in Wonderland there with a friend up from Houston – but it went out of business, and Studio Movie Grill, for some reason, decided to move into a space that had already failed as a movie theater.

That’s one of the only reviews I don’t stand by in hindsight, for Blade Runner 2049. The “10/10” is absolutely correct, but the review itself is lacking. The film had truly left me at a loss for words. I saw it six times in its first run and still leap at any chance to see it again on the big screen. I never did make it to an IMAX showing, though.

If the Texas Theatre holds my attention by maintaining its 1930s mystique, Cinemark Webb Chapel maintains the mystique of a more modern movie theater, a mystique that should be completely lost on me by now. If Cinemark West Plano and the Angelikas indicate Dallas’ underlying importance to consumer cinema, Cinemark Webb Chapel indicates what is important about Dallas to a moviegoer, the permanent mystery of this overwhelming urban sprawl. There’s something around every corner, as long as you go far enough past it. For me, that means always finding the perfect showtime, which somehow always seems to be at the corner of Forest and Webb Chapel.

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

In January 2013, I moved to Denton to go to UNT. I immediately became the workhorse news reporter for The North Texas Daily, but they already had a critic, and so I started this blog in March. The first review was for Jack the Giant Killer, and again, I think it’s a bit unrefined, but not bad.

I reacquainted myself with Cinemark Denton then, going to midnight showings every Thursday through the end of the semester. It was so close down the highway, I would usually walk out of the dorm right at midnight and still get to watch a few trailers when I got there. I had no roommate on the seventh story of Kerr Hall that semester, all alone on the campus’ southeast tower, and my sleep schedule was wild. I was regularly up until 3 a.m. writing. As time moved on, Thursday night previews moved earlier and earlier – they can start as early as 4 p.m. these days – and my midnight rides became Thursday evening double features.

Cinemark Denton was my primary theater on and off for four years. The biggest gap was when I switched to the old Carmike in Hickory Creek, which was initially built as a Rave and has since bought by AMC, for most of 2016, partially because they offered week-long student discounts and a refillable popcorn bucket, but mostly because I was stealing so many showings on the back end of double-features at Cinemark Denton that the staff was actually starting to notice.

I’ve had just about every experience you could imagine at Cinemark Denton, and plenty that I never would have imagined. It’s the only theater I’ve been a regular at for long enough to have been able to watch it change, to watch the Alamo Drafthouse’s gentrification take over in an isolated way. My first experience at an Alamo Drafthouse was the one in Richardson, when I went to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in Maggie. My date had talked up the food for a week, and I skipped lunch in anticipation, then the waiter didn’t place my order and I had to leave the theater and re-place it an hour into the movie, still starving. That’s where my grudge against the chain starts, if I’m honest. I know that’s irrational, but it continues into much more damning territory.

The Drafthouse’s extremely successful branding is that it’s essentially making theaters great again, with increased prices so you know you won’t be bumping shoulders with the gumchewers, a full bar where you can get overpriced drinks to go with your overpriced tickets, assigned seating so you don’t have to get there early or wait in line, a Big Brother apparatus to kick out anyone who disrupts other viewers by talking too loud or using their cell phone and a full menu and waitstaff, so you can have overpriced microwave dinners to go with your overpriced drinks and overpriced tickets, the delivery of which will completely destroy the serene stillness they demand the audience maintain. Converts will insist that the food is better than other dine-ins, but of course it isn’t.

Under normal circumstances, I would simply avoid the chain, and I do at almost any cost, but because the branding has been so successful, because this is what upper-class moviegoers are perceived to want and expect now, the chain has come to me. Over the years, I’ve watched Cinemark Denton incorporate almost all of these amenities, always to the same ill effects. The prices are up, that was easy enough to implement. After a long struggle for their liquor license, a third of the concessions area has been converted into a bar, which is rarely staffed or patronized. They’ve renovated to incorporate expensive recliners and about a yard of legroom, moves which probably worse than halve each arena’s capacity. This becomes apparent for the really anticipated Thursday night movies, which are almost all MCU or Star Wars properties, when every single arena is showing the new hotness nonstop. It’s a symptom of a clear problem, but I don’t dislike it.

Cinemark Denton for the premiere of Captain Marvel in March. As you can see, they were very determined not to run out of seats.

What I do dislike is the assigned seating that’s come with the renovation, an amenity the appeal of which I absolutely do not understand and have never understood. It doesn’t “eliminate the line,” it just moves the line back a few days and onto the Internet, where ticketing websites can charge more for the privilege of buying earlier – it’s no coincidence that assigned seating went mainstream at the same time that theater chains started pushing reservations via their own websites instead of Fandango.

The reality is, most people don’t take advantage of the ability to choose their seats early. Most people, even now, select their seats in person at the box office and seem taken aback, overwhelmed when presented with the opportunity, the old pileup of idiots that traditionally stopped just at the mouth of the hallway to the arena to stare slack-jawed at the seats, not eliminated, just moved back, now in between me and my tickets. It is highly inconvenient when I’ve walked out of my apartment right at midnight and know I only have a few more trailers before the movie starts.

Cinemark Denton was my main theater on and off for years, more or less replaced by Cinemark Vista Ridge when I started working at The Lewisville Texan Journal. I spent a lot of time on-duty at that mall – Vista Ridge Mall was dying, but was auctioned to new owners while I was managing editor there, and Lewisville Texans couldn’t read enough about it. The new owners, by coincidence, managed Music City Mall in Odessa, and that was the weekend I was already driving down to visit Paul. I hadn’t called in advance – I wasn’t there on a business trip, I didn’t even technically work for the LTJ at the moment – but the new owner, John Bushman, dropped everything to give me an interview when he heard I’d come all the way from Lewisville.

Cinemark Vista Ridge will always be Cinemark Vista Ridge to me, even long after the mall has been rebranded Music City Mall – Lewisville. I’m not sure why I feel that way. The current building opened in 2006, and last I checked, general manager Natalie Boyer had been trying for months to fill the massive space of the old theater, a walled off portion inside the mall under the second-floor foodcourt. She said the posters from 2006 were still up and promised I could go in for photos first before they started renovating, but it didn’t come to fruition, at least not before the LTJ went defunct at the end of 2018. I hope she figured that lease out.

I mostly cut myself off from Arlington theaters when I moved to Denton. I still visit my mother there monthly, and when I take her to a movie, it’s mostly the AMC at the Parks. There’s a Studio Movie Grill that moved into an old department store in Lincoln Square though, and I took her to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi there – the space is utterly bizarre. The seating is almost aggressively blocky, and the screen, at least for the arena we were in, was tiny. It looked like it took up about a quarter of its wall. I’m 5’7, and when I went and stood against it, the bottom of the screen was about flush with the top of my head. Many of the already narrow, horizontal shots on Crait at the end of the movie looked like they were vanishing into the screen.

Six Flags Mall was demolished in January 2017. Apparently the Tinseltown was still doing quite well – the mall only lasted that long because Cinemark sued the mall owners for trying to deliberately sabotage their own business in order to hurt the theater and run them out before their lease so they could demolish faster.

I had no idea it was happening. I cannot remember the last movie I saw there.

I went back to AMC Irving Mall for the first time in years last August to see the extended cut of Midsommar. It was only playing in a few theaters and I think I had just been visiting my mother, still in Arlington. It was an 11:10 p.m. showing, and everything but the theater was closed. It had changed in all the ways you’d expect, all the same ways Cinemark Denton has changed, with a new bar, oversized new recliners that dramatically reduce each arenas’ capacity and increased prices. I enjoyed walking in its familiar foyer again, but for the most part, I felt nothing.

I am leaving Denton in the summer. I’m driving 60 miles every weekday to get to and from work now, a decently paying copy editing job that makes the time pass, but only demands about 5% of my attention on any given day. Looking at apartments in the area, there are several one-bedroom setups in the north end of Dallas that cost about $100 less per month than my Denton studio for almost twice the square footage, second floor apartments that teenagers can’t shine their headlights into every night, with in-unit washer/dryer setups that don’t charge quarters. I loved being able to walk to both Fry Street and The Square, but I go out so rarely now, and so many of the times I do go out it’s to Oak Cliff, that I could Uber myself up here and back just as often and it would still be much cheaper than living here.

Those are all reasons, but they aren’t the truth. The truth is, now that I’ve decided to leave, I cannot stand it here any longer. I barely have a relationship with this city now, leaving my office and apartment on most days only to transit myself from one to the other, a twice-daily ritual that seems more and more ridiculous with each passing performance. The music festivals stopped years ago, and the meteoric growth has driven City Council to bitter partisan divides and catering to voting blocs. Every time I arrive at a bar, I do a quick scan for familiar faces, searches that used to scare up good nights more often than not, but are now almost always fruitless. Since graduating, I’ve spent many of my weekends in Odessa or Ardmore or Waco or Houston visiting friends from school who’ve already moved on from Denton and then already moved on from the next city after that. The truth is this hasn’t been the city I fell in love with for a very long time now.

Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.

It is a persistent and urgent discomfort, waking up every day in an apartment I used to love, the first place I was happy, but that I am only just now starting to take care of in the vague hope of recovering the previous tenant’s deposit, waiting for the lease to run out. All my life is waiting now. Every day, I launch myself to work at 80, 90 mph on a commute that inevitably takes 45 minutes, wait on these absurd, glacial elevators, clock in, wait for material to come in for my edits knowing it’s just as likely I won’t see anything at all that day, and wait to clock out. Wait for the weekend, as if there isn’t a whole other week coming right behind it. Wait for your vacation, which must be planned out and approved at least a month in advance. Wait for the next big movie. Wait for pay day. Wait for your tax return. Do a set of deadlifts, then wait to recover. Pull your back, then wait to feel strong enough to return to the gym. Wait for the next solstice or equinox. Wait for these atrocious Frisco stoplights. In the company’s off-season, wait for things to get busy again, but I’ve made newspapers before, and these people don’t know what the word “busy” means. Wait for the monthly staff meeting and quarterly outing and the free meals that come with them. Wait for the next full moon.

I must go. I must leave this place I fell in love with, the city that opened my eyes to what a city can be. I must go deeper into the colossus, the dreary suburban wasteland that stretches north from Dallas, which seems endless to me even now that I have lived for so long at what I know to be its border.

I have been struck by a great wanderlust. I will explore the Midwest in the coming weeks, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, and have plans to see Milwaukee and Denver within the year. There’s still a long list after that. Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and Montreal, Western Europe, New York City. I’ve always been a New Yorker in my heart. Maybe I can fall in love with another town before I’m too old.

Maybe I can find another story to tell.

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2 Responses to 10 years of entropy

  1. Pingback: ‘Onward’ made me very uncomfortable | Reel Entropy

  2. Pingback: Performance anxiety and real-world rage of Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ | Reel Entropy

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