Sunday, September 30, 2012

The circumstantial acceptance of an Odd choice

I've been scheming to see a movie at the Rustic Theatre in Idyllwild, CA for about four years now.

When my wife extended me the opportunity on this, our third trip since 2008, I told I'd see whatever was playing, as long as I hadn't already seen it.

And had to put my money where my mouth was when she told me a couple days ago that The Odd Life of Timothy Green -- a movie that was released on August 15th, mind you -- would be beginning its run on the Friday we arrived.

Not Looper. Not Hotel Transylvania. Not even Trouble With the Curve, its opening time-shifted by a week for this small artist community in the mountains above Palm Springs.

No, a movie that was already gone from most theaters in L.A.


As I've told you a couple times before -- here, for one -- I love seeing movies in single-screen theaters nestled into towns that seem like they should be too small to have a movie theater. On our trips to Idyllwild in 2008 and last year -- both on visits related to my wife's job -- I would walk longingly by the theater, like a kid walking longingly by the toy store window displaying the toy he couldn't afford.

See, on neither of those trips was a movie going to be possible for me. I don't remember what was playing in 2008, but last year it was Contagion, a movie I hadn't seen but desperately wanted to. Especially in the unusual setting of this little mountain town, which would make the experience all the more memorable. But I was on babysitting duty, so it just wasn't going to work.

This year, when my opportunity arose, I was not so lucky to get a movie in my wheelhouse. In fact, I'd found the trailers for The Odd Life of Timothy Green to be painfully shmaltzy, and the only review I'd read of it was one I'd heard: Kenneth Turan on NPR, confirming with prejudice the movie's tendency toward preciousness.

But I said I'd go, so I was determined to go.

The experience got off to a rough start. This theater is literally a three-minute walk from the cabin where we're staying, which just contributes to the sense of intimacy of this small town center. But I was still on the verge of being late due to a last-minute crisis on the home front. I won't go into details, but it was one of those situations that could have forced me to skip the movie out of my husbandly duty to support my wife in times of stress -- which the start of this work weekend certainly is for her.

But at about three minutes before the movie's one 7 p.m. showing, she unleashed me with her blessing. The crisis wasn't exactly resolved, but it was close enough to it that there wasn't anything else I could do for her.

The lingering stress I felt was only heightened by the scene I was met with at the theater. I arrived to find a crowd of mostly old people streaming out of the exits. Had I somehow gotten the time wrong? It's an odd sensation to know that the movie you're supposed to be seeing is supposed to be starting right now, yet people are heading out of the theater rather than in.

I picked my way against the flow of traffic and found a single counter just inside the door with only a single person ahead of me buying a ticket. Well, it wasn't exactly a ticket -- "buying admission" is perhaps the more accurate thing to say. You see, this theater is so small and so quaint that they don't even bother with the formality of giving you a physical artifact that demonstrates you paid.

Still under the impression that I might be late to the movie, I hurried over to the concession area to buy my popcorn, since I wouldn't be getting a proper dinner until after the movie. Except, there was no one there. I quickly realized that the same person who sold me the ticket was also manning -- or not manning, as the case was -- the concession stand. After bustling around the theater for a few other urgent responsibilities, she arrived behind the counter, almost out of breath, with a knowing sense of the absurdity that she was doing this unusual double duty. She filled my popcorn hurriedly (but with a smile) and then disappeared again.

It was then that I noticed that the lobby full of people (full = about seven people) were not just sitting there for their health. They were waiting for the janitorial staff (a single dude with long hair) to finish cleaning from the previous performance. Whatever that performance may have been, because there had been no previous showing of the movie advertised.

It was then that I strolled over to peruse the gallery of DVDs, at least a thousand of them, on shelves in the lobby. At first I couldn't imagine their purpose, then decided that this movie theater rents videos by day. Double duty for everyone.

I guess we started finally entering the theater before it was all clear, because the guy was still going through the aisles with his broom as we entered. This guy was some kind of character, I thought -- good willed, but definitely odd (there's that word again) in some way. Seeing the torrent of 11 theatergoers entering the theater, he made a strange kind of flourish with his broom and announced "I ain't cleaning the front row" before exiting stage left.

It was then that I noticed that this theater of about 100 seats wasn't cooled by air conditioning, but ceiling fans that were lazily going through their rotations.

The trailers got started and the movie followed. The only other comment I'll make about the place is that it was one of those theaters where the seats have almost no give, meaning if you're trying to insert a leg between two of the seats in front of you, you're out of luck. Much shifting and repositioning ensued.

For about the first 30 minutes of the movie, I was nodding along with Turan's dismissal of the film. It was just as shmaltzy as I could have imagined.

And then I slowly started to realize that The Odd Life of Timothy Green is up to something a lot more profound under this sheen of excessive sweetness. I started to realize that the whole story is basically a metaphor for the trials, tribulations and uncertainties of becoming a parent. It was just masquerading as a precious bauble about a boy who emerges from a garden, born during a magical rainstorm, because the grieving couple inside who just learned they can't have kids got drunk and buried a box of little sheets of paper, which have the character traits of the child they can never have written on them, in said garden.

Maybe the movie eventually won me over because I am a parent, so I understand the mistakes parents can make, and the mistakes they can make trying to fix those mistakes. (I'm paraphrasing a line from the movie there.) But it's actually got a lot more to say than that, grappling with the way we place unrealistic expectations on our children that have to do with our own unfulfilled dreams, and the way familial bonds can be complicated in all families. (Each of Timothy's parents has a strained relationship with one of their own family members.) There's also a lot to be said about how we try to make children "normal" when they appear to be "different."

The brilliant thing is that it's feeding us these ideas with the kind of aesthetic that buries them deep in the subtext. You can also appreciate it (or be scornful of it) as a bauble that pulls on your heartstrings in obvious surface ways. Only by digging a little deeper do you realize the more genuine points it's making, which deliver a more genuine sense of emotional catharsis.

Okay, if you still don't believe The Odd Life of Timothy Green might be worth watching, well ... you may be right. It does have its moments of real shmaltz. But what can I say, in the end it worked for me.

Or maybe it was just that I was charmed by the quirks of a small town movie house in the mountains, where the ticket girl is the popcorn girl and fans scrape the ceiling of the theater.

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