What sounds like the more highbrow date? Going to see the artsy film I'm Not There while sitting on a couch, eating a pizza and drinking a cold beer, or going to see the mainstream blockbuster National Treasure: Book of Secrets while sitting in a VIP section with reserved, "luxury seating," eating a "sophisticated entree" and drinking an "elegant martini creation?" Both options feature wait service, great picture quality and the benefit of not having any youths around. In their own way, each is equally lowbrow and highbrow, but depending on your definition of those terms (dumb vs. intelligent; cheap vs. expensive), you might have said one or the other. To me, highbrow is intelligent and intelligent is cheap; so I pick the former, which will cost a whole lot less.

The first option was what you might have experienced this weekend at Oakland, California's Parkway Speakeasy (other movie choices were Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and American Gangster). Your movie ticket would have been a mere $6, your personal cheese pizza a fair $8.50 and your pint of Sierra Nevada only $4.50. The second choice was one of this weekend's offerings at the new Lux Level of Randolph, Massachussetts' Showcase Cinema (the other available movie was I Am Legend). The movie ticket cost $21.25 (you definitely bought it online and paid that $1 service charge), the personal cheese pizza about $8 (I don't see anything on the theater's online menu appropriately considered to be "sophisticated entrée", though other Showcase Cinema menus feature items such as "Bourbon Street Steak Medallions") and your Raspberry Mocha Tini was about $9. Certainly you could have had a beer at Showcase, but then you wouldn't be having as classy a time (you actually could have had some Freixenet bubbly if you wanted to be classy without being so Sex and the City). Either way, you'd still be paying more for your night out than you would across the country at the Speakeasy. Not as much as you might think, however. That $21.25 ticket price includes a $5 voucher to be used toward your food or drink, an obvious plus for the theater, which is automatically guaranteed its much-needed concession sale -- collected whether you actually get concessions or not. Still, the ticket then cost you $16.25, which isn't the $11.25 (surcharge included) you'd have paid for a regular auditorium experience in Randolph. What else do you get for your money? Here are some of the amenities: preferred parking, which includes having snow brushed off your car, if need be, or an umbrella-clad usher to assist you during rain; an escort to the auditorium; coat check; "deep-cushioned, custom-designed seats;" and a wireless ordering device that sends your pizza and "Tini" request straight to the kitchen.

Personally, I could do without some of those hoity-toity benefits of the Lux Level experience. I feel like I couldn't just go to the movies in my sweats; that I should be dressing to the nines to go to the movies. I don't even like the reserved seating idea that National Amusements (my former employee of many, many years and the owner of Showcase Cinemas) was using as a foundation for progress with its last innovative theater plan, the Cinema De Luxe. Just because you get to pick your seat in advance doesn't mean you're guaranteed a good one (if everyone is trying for the middle, some latecomers will still be stuck with the bad seats, right?). There is great appeal, however, for being able to have a special kind of movie-going experience. And even though this still-multiplex-set location seems on paper to be a cold, impersonal business, I'm sure that in reality it makes a lot of moviegoers feel more important than they do at regular multiplexes, where they're shuffled in and out of auditoriums like cash-paying cattle.

In contrast, the Speakeasy is the best example of a warm movie-going experience I've ever had. I won't say it's completely personal since I was never acknowledged by name or distinction when I recently attended the Cerrito Speakeasy, but I was a guest from far away, and I'll assume that some community regulars are in fact recognized and addressed in such a manner. One of the most charming things about the Speakeasy theaters is that they are very much community-oriented. For instance, the Cerrito location exists partially thanks to support and funding from the city of El Cerrito and its residents, many of whom made donations through a project called Friends of The Cerrito Theater. And the Speakeasy owners give back to that community by booking films the people want to see (the Parkway and the Cerrito crowds apparently have different tastes), holding all ages screenings on the weekends (the Showcase Lux Level experience is always 21+), showcasing local filmmakers, hosting fundraisers (next Sunday the Cerrito is showing The Goonies as part of a benefit for the El Cerrito Mountain Biking Club) and most attractive, free screenings (the documentary At the River I Stand is being shown for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday).

Most importantly, though, the Speakeasy seems to promote and encourage the experience of community. One of the odd things I find about these dinner and drinks and a movie establishments is how much they seem to be looking to your living room, home-viewing experience in order to see how to advance their out-of-the-house movie-going experience. At the Speakeasy they even put your popcorn in a large metal bowl, much like the one I use at home. Combine that with the comfort of their couches and I feel like I'm in my apartment. The only thing different is that the screen is about 100 times larger. Well, there's also that community of people around me, as if our living rooms have been transported and plopped down side by side. I can imagine that some agoraphobic or simply private people wouldn't like that idea -- I was a bit turned off, in fact, by the couple canoodling a tad too comfortably in front of me -- but then, I guess some of those people wouldn't go out to the movies in general, anyway.

I don't mean to specifically and definitively champion one experience over the other, here. I haven't been to Showcase Randolph and can't accurately describe the experience. I have been to a Speakeasy, and I loved it. But it's important to realize that people in the Boston suburbs or in California's East Bay don't have the option of choosing one or the other. They only have what is their respective experience. Meanwhile, most of the people in the rest of the country may not have anything resembling either experience. Of course, it might not be long before they do get one or the other.

What I mean to point out here is the very similar yet very different directions that art-house and multiplex theaters are going these days. The Speakeasy model is becoming an attractive norm for movie fans across the country, with the famed Alamo Drafthouse chain in Texas receiving most of the media attention. Meanwhile, other large corporations besides National Amusements are expected to follow the Lux Level model of having a ritzy dining experience accompanying their movie-going experience. I've admitted my bias and preference for now. Which would you like to see in your neighborhood?
categories Movies, Cinematical