In one of my favorite scenes of Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso,” the camera lingers on a young boy, Toto, shrouded by curtains as he peeks into the cinema. A couple on the screen share a passionate kiss, and the scandalized reaction of the town priest — who sits alone in the audience as he combs through films to censor them — is juxtaposed with Toto’s face, hidden in the red curtains, illuminated by the screen, eyes alight.
“Cinema Paradiso” is widely known as a movie lover’s movie. Named after the local cinema in the small Sicilian town where the story is mostly set, it tracks not only the main character’s love of film, but his entire hometown’s. The residents of Giancaldo pack into the Cinema Paradiso at every screening, filling not only the seats but all of the space in between and around them. Sometimes the crowd is raucous (they boo and yell at the screen as every film jumps over a kiss that the priest cut) and sometimes their attention is rapt. Toto is always there, first as an audience member, then as an apprentice projectionist to the aging Alfredo and ultimately as a lone visitor, walking through the abandoned space days before it’s due to be demolished to make room for a parking lot.
The film also goes to lengths to contrast the town’s somewhat reluctant, repressive Catholicism with the delight and freedom they find at the theater. This creates clear comparisons: film as object of worship, love of it as spirituality, movie-goer as adherent, theater as church.
I’ve always loved movies, but growing up I never really thought of movie theaters as places that could hold weight of their own. The theaters where I grew up were gray auditoriums, only ever exciting because of what they promised rather than what they were. It wasn’t until I moved to Ann Arbor that I could begin to understand them as their own entities.
I don’t remember the first time I went to the Michigan Theater, but I remember the first time I bothered to look up, and it was too long after I’d started to see movies there regularly. After stepping out of the auditorium, I glanced up at the second floor, which I’d barely registered was even there before. I looked at the grand staircase — which immediately reminded me of “Titanic” — the chandeliers, the sparkle and gold everywhere, and I understood the theater as a place with its own history and life for the first time. I can’t say how many movies I’ve seen there since then, but I can pick out a few favorite memories.
One night in February, after a viewing of “Annette” — my least favorite movie of last year (and maybe of all time) — a group of friends and I made our way over to the Michigan Theater for a 10 p.m. showing of “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.” The eight of us took our seats in the first row of the auditorium’s mezzanine. Someone — apparently the person responsible for getting all of the prequels screened as part of the Michigan Theater’s Late Night series — came on stage to greet us and marvel at everyone gathered who were there to appreciate the “best movie in the trilogy” as much as he did. With all due respect to the (admittedly unfairly) maligned “Star Wars” prequels, I only agreed to the double feature because I felt that I was fully committing myself to a night of fun, bad film, more of an excuse to hang out with my friends than anything.
And the movie was bad, but something happens in the Michigan Theater after 10 p.m. Maybe it’s the lateness and the early signs of sleep-deprived delirium, but the hush that usually falls over and blankets the theater is much more easily punctured. In the case of “Attack of the Clones,” the appearance of Jar Jar Binks created the first hole. A cheer went up through the relatively sparse crowd as he ran from encroaching droids, and that typical, polite hush never settled again. I’m not proud of it, but during one of the many scenes Anakin spends sulking and pouting, I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “Asshole!” at the screen through the crowd’s adjoining groans. Someone below threw an exasperated “Fuck you!” at him a few minutes later.
Another cheer erupted when Anakin bemoaned the unlikeable properties of sand. At some point, one of my friends grabbed a piece of popcorn and threw it in the direction of the screen, only for it to float down slowly and land six inches in front of us on the mezzanine ledge. The crowd sang along with the choral parts in “Duel of the Fates.” As we were walking out of the theater, someone in a “Star Wars” t-shirt approached us, glassy-eyed in unironic wonderment at what we had all just witnessed, to correct us on a piece of lore we were debating.
A month or so later, on April 1, I was back at the theater for another late-night showing, this time of the universally and fairly maligned “Cats.” The late hour, preceding cocktails and shared acknowledgment that we were all seeing the movie to commemorate April Fools Day promised a similarly, if not more, unhinged viewing experience than the one at “Attack of the Clones.” As soon as someone a few rows in front of us yelled, “Release the butthole cut!” before the title card even came onto the screen, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.
The rest of the evening included a collective scream when Rebel Wilson’s cat unzipped her cat skin to reveal another cat skin; the same butthole-cut-advocate yelling, “You need to calm down!” when Taylor Swift’s cat descended through the ceiling on a crescent moon; a theater-wide singalong to “Mr. Mistoffelees”; and, at random but frequent intervals throughout the movie, meowing from every corner of the Screening Room.
The Michigan Theater is the first place I experienced “Rocky Horror Picture Show” with a sold-out crowd, where I — perplexed but very much along for the ride — joined in chanting “Asshole! Slut!” as windshield wipers went back and forth between Brad and Janet. One of the only quiet moments of the night, Frank N. Furter’s death scene, was punctuated by someone yelling, “It was a No Bones Day!”
These nights at the theater were some of the most memorable of my senior year because of their absurdity, this communal understanding that everyone was there to have fun, to laugh with other people, to turn something bad into something good. But this isn’t to say that I only ever went to the Michigan Theater to act like an idiot with my friends. More often than not, I go to the theater with what I can only think to call reverence. The first time I was treated to the sound of the auditorium organ, I was seeing “Casablanca,” and my friend and I walked in as the organist started playing “As Time Goes By.” I spent my second viewing of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” in the front row of the mezzanine, laugh-crying silently over rocks. Most recently, I watched “Kiki’s Delivery Service” there for the first time in over a decade and was reminded of how much a simple story can make me feel.
Sometimes I find it hard to talk about how much I love movies. My belief in the medium as the most powerful and versatile artistic mode and the admiration that comes along with that isn’t something that I’m very comfortable describing, at least aloud, for fear of coming across as too pretentious or too earnest or both. When I joined The Michigan Daily as a film writer in early 2021, I did it in search of a way to communicate that belief with and without words. The Daily Arts section was the greatest gift in itself, a place that’s given me an excuse to write about things I love (and sometimes hate) and, more importantly, that’s given me some of my favorite people, who in turn populate some of my favorite memories — “Star Wars”–related, “Cats”–related and beyond.
The Michigan Theater is an embodiment of that love or, at very least, the best home for it. The late-night showings, the free screenings, the organ, the Wes Anderson and Spike Lee and Ghibli series, the one employee at the concessions counter who gave me a free bucket of popcorn when I forgot to bring my wallet — these are all things that have made the Michigan Theater feel like the greatest custodian of film that I could’ve asked for over the past few years.
In the closing sequence of “Cinema Paradiso,” Toto sits alone in a screening room back in Rome to view a film reel his mentor Alfredo left for him after his death. Toto, in wonderment, watches kissing scene after kissing scene, which Alfredo saved and spliced together over years. Illuminated by the screen, Toto watches with tears in his eyes until the final frame. I’ve spent more evenings and nights crying at the Michigan Theater than I can count — over stupid things, sad things, beautiful things — and I’ve loved every minute of it.
Statement Correspondent Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.