Notes from the Village Square
By Nicholas Russell
So many of our beloved public spaces are self-segregating by nature. They carry with them a charge of unexamined history that continues to be pushed further and further into the past. The utility of these spaces, and the price at which their resources are attainable, also dictates who comes to them. Often, I marvel at the lack of utility when it comes to the movie theater. There is entertainment, sure, but also distraction. The hope for distraction, at least. Some people pay to sit quietly in a dark room, interested more in killing time than watching what unfolds in front of them.
The composition of a theater’s audience influences our anticipation for what’s about to play on-screen—a string of children turning the corner can elicit preemptive groans; bodies shy away from contact when a stranger has no choice but to sit next to another stranger; a black couple draws the most fervent amount of scrutiny (or pointed lack thereof) while walking by. It’s a house that’s constantly divvied up and claimed. Silence must fall when the lights go out.
Entangled with the repulsion that comes culturally ingrained in racists and bigots is a simultaneous fascination with the people they claim to despise. You have to get close to get granular about what you hate. I think about this as a white stranger follows me while I'm walking out of a movie at Village Square, a local Regal cinema in the suburbs of my hometown of Las Vegas. The dusty wine-red carpet beneath our feet sucks up any sound, overhead lights passing in sporadic flashes that throw shadows below our noses, eye sockets. Darkness as we walk between each light. My skin looks yellow when I reemerge from under each new illumination.
Over time, it’s become clear to me that white people don’t understand the extent to which their movements and actions are taken into account by black people and people of color who are nearby. I know that this person walking behind me is parked in the opposite direction from where I’m going, towards the building’s main entrance. I know that when I sat down in the very last row of theater 8, this person openly stared at me while selecting a seat several spaces away, same row. After I stayed through the credits and the cleaning crew began to ignore the two of us in earnest, I knew this person was here for me alone, waiting to see what I would do.
The back doors that lead to the rear parking lot draw closer ahead of us. Through the years, theater management has put up and taken down signs warning that opening these doors will trigger emergency alarms. My mother and I and every employee who takes a smoke break out back knows this isn’t true. I stop within arms length of the latched bars and turn around. It’s a man following me, which, in my experience, happens most often. His head is down until he notices me noticing him, tripping on his toe as he pauses in the darkness where there are no lights to show our faces.
I keep telling myself in these situations that I am not scared, that the onus is on the other person willing me to say the first word or take the first step. But there is barely a moment between us. His silhouette undulates as he puts his hands in his jacket pockets and turns back toward the theater we came from, toward the car he seemed ready to abandon, toward the light where his face will be seen by anyone in front of him, except me.
For most of my life, the Regal-owned multiplex at Village Square has been a house for me. It is one of the few movie theaters in Vegas that isn’t located within a casino. It stands far beyond the reach of the Strip, in an affluent area of the suburbs dense with people who think they are enjoying an ordinary, vice-free life. It is one of few movie theaters that hasn’t yet upgraded its seats to the kind with turbines that whir and faux leather cushions that squeak. When you wanted to catch up on what was out for cheap, you went here.
The atrium inside leads to a wide concession stand and, on either side, the entrances to the theaters, 1-10 on the left and 11-18 on the right. A continuous hallway connects all 18 theaters and, if you’re careful, you can hop between showings with little effort, as long as you aren’t the only person seated. Even then, sometimes it doesn’t matter. In January 2009, I saw Slumdog Millionaire, the first Twilight movie, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all in the same day, hiding in the bathroom at the start of each film while theater employees did their headcounts.
There are gradual realizations that come with growing up in a city everyone outside it thinks they understand. I imagine it must be constantly surprising for a tourist visiting Las Vegas for the first time; the mundane becomes quaint. Oh, you have neighborhoods and cars and schools and libraries here, evidence of life beyond what happens in the liminal spaces that are designed to steer your focus to the present and nothing after. It was stupid when I was little and it is stupid now to think that anyone would believe we live in hotels, but it is a steadfast stereotype that somehow manages to prevail.
What I mean to say is that Village Square rarely sees tourists, that if you were to sit in one of its seats, there would be nothing obviously special about it. Just another theater, a place for diversion, contemplation, and conspicuous consumption. But what does make the place at all worth talking about is more about how this theater in particular reflects the community it serves.
It’s where the creationist documentaries and Christian anti-abortion movies get sold out. It’s where anyone with large pockets or a visibly stiff arm gets checked to see if they’re smuggling in candy from the Rocket Fizz next door. It’s where the lolos and lolas go after grabbing fried chicken at Jollibee to watch some of the only films in town that come from the Philippines. It’s where the geriatrics go to see foreign films they shake their heads at after the lights come back up.
It’s where you go to watch a movie, and it's where everyone around is likely also watching you, lest you think that being black and alone in a public space has finally become unremarkable.
Like most public spaces in the United States, movie theaters are, by law, desegregated. Under this idealized mandate, there is room for sanitized diversity at the same time that there is the hope that we all generally experience the same things without much variation. This communicates nothing about what it’s like to, say, watch The Hurt Locker in a theater full of white men and women stitched with American flags in their skin or on their clothes who stare at you as you find an open seat. There is ownership, always, for the pieces of art that move us, that loom large in our memories. For many white people, that sense of ownership might come simply from being familiar with a well-known thing made by others like them. A film starring famous white actors is usually among these objects, as is the space in which the film is shown.
The night Village Square hosted a screening of Rear Window, it was clear that much of the white audience in attendance hadn’t actually seen the movie. A classic to be sure, but one that existed as more a collective memory for an experience they might never have had. So when the theater filled, anticipation in the air grew. It was no small thing to be in an audience so fully captivated by what was onscreen that no one got up to go to the bathroom. That’s a testament to a film that’s aged well.
However, it was also no small thing to know where Rear Window stands in an American history often elided in favor of nostalgia. The second of Alfred Hitchcock’s four collaborations with star James Stewart, as well as the second of three with Grace Kelly, Rear Window was released in 1954 when segregation was still a norm of daily life. Many theaters were vertically segregated, with the colored section on the balcony above the whites-only section. There are apocryphal stories of black patrons hurling popcorn and shoes and spit onto captive crowds of white audience members below. But, as UC Berkeley Professor Elizabeth Abel notes in her essay “Double Take: Photography, Cinema, and the Segregated Theater,” “the silence of white audiences on the subject suggests that the popcorn may have traced an imaginary arc more often than a real one.”
Those who lived through Jim Crow and the long era of segregation remember the colored balcony well. “When I was a child living in Van Buren, Arkansas, the only theater that we could attend, we had to go up a real steep stairs,” said Dr. Mamie Clayton, founder of the Black American Cinema Society, in an interview with NPR. “And then you open up a little door for the black people, and you go into the theater.” There was the clicking of the projector just behind their heads, sometimes a knowing glance at the black man working inside the booth. It’s interesting to note that many black elders have said that the vantage point on the balcony was superior to that of the seats on the ground floor. “Yes, we as African Americans had to go up in the balcony to watch the movie, but that was the best place to view a movie,” said Roosevelt Rick Wright, Jr., professor of film and television at Syracuse University. Often, the screen and projector were at eye level and the railing along the balcony’s rim presented a chance to prop your feet up. “And then, of course, you're near the projection booth, and then you've got the ambience of the projection machine, and that light coming through those portholes. I mean, that's magical.”
For these reasons, I imagine Village Square would have been an uncomfortably democratized theater for most anyone involved to visit if it had been around during segregation. There are no balconies, no steep stairs leading to seats significantly higher than others. Each row of red velvet slopes gently up at an incline so slight you could scarcely roll down it if you were on wheels.
So on the night that they played Rear Window, more than 50 years since its original release within the purview of segregation, the audience was open to choose any seat, no section off limits. But this was a white movie populated by white faces, and I was the only person of color there. Even in the 1950s, black people were going to see what was on offer to a “general public” that wasn’t even aware there was such a thing as a black-led film. As with nearly all the Hollywood films we regularly call classics, the jokes and references in Rear Window all point to a sanctified and hermetic society made nearly impossible to reach if you weren’t white.
At one point in the film, Stella (Thelma Ritter), the nurse sent by the insurance company to look after L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) following an accident that leaves him languishing in a wheelchair, muses on the possibility that L.B.’s neighbor has murdered his own wife. It’s one of my favorite lines in the film. “Mr. Thorwald could scarcely put his wife’s body in a plot of ground about one foot square. Unless, of course, he put her in standing on end, and then he wouldn’t need a knife and saw.” I had seen the film so many times that I silently mouthed the words to myself as Thelma Ritter said them onscreen. Next to me, an elderly white woman turned her head and raised a stern finger to her pursed lips.
Returning to my car’s driver’s seat, I lock the doors like most white women tend to do if I walk within 20 feet of them. I fish out the ticket stub from my pants pocket and slide it into my wallet.
I started collecting stubs in earnest in 2009, which is why I’m able to say which films I saw and when. There are over 70 saved tickets from Village Square crammed inside a square metal box resting on my bookshelf, though I know this is an incomplete number and a truncated span of time. I’ve been coming here as long as I can remember, and certain movies stick out in my memory better than others. I remember seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, remember my mom leaning over halfway through to tell me that she’d be waiting outside until it was over. I remember a drizzly day crammed with five people in my friend’s truck after The Perks of Being a Wallflower and thinking that, apart from a pretty great soundtrack, I would have to feign recognition with a movie I couldn’t relate to. I remember seeing Get Out on the Thursday night that it opened, peeking into an adjacent theater full of people, not one seat empty, as a “science enthusiast” in a Christian documentary about the evidence of God’s creation explained why the existence of the Grand Canyon proved the Earth was only several thousand years old. In the theater for Get Out, there were fewer than ten of us.
I think about all the movies I’ve seen where Vegas appears as a location, where the audience will either cheer or boo depending on how favorably and stereotypically we see the same mile-and-a-half patch of the Strip depicted time and time again. I think about every time I’ve been asked to explain what a movie starring a predominantly non-white cast means to someone who didn’t understand it. I think about all the intrusions that have come through those screens, the challenges and provocations that make white people shift uncomfortably in their seats when all they wanted was to laugh or cry then leave feeling they had gotten their money’s worth.
The ticket in my hand says ‘Hidden,’ showing at 4:00 p.m. It takes me a moment to realize the movie was Hidden Figures. It’s a film that proved enjoyable, mostly because I found myself laughing at how earnest it was in its cartoonish depictions of racism and small triumphs in the face of it. At one point, Kevin Costner smashes down a Coloreds Only bathroom sign at NASA, the audience erupting in applause.
I took off my glasses as the scene unfolded and wiped the lenses with the hem of my shirt. In my periphery, I could see the white stranger looking at me. Maybe it was then that he took an interest, when he decided he had to inspect what he read as aberrant behavior by following a stranger down darkened halls. I’m not sure. In the weeks and months following, when I return and return, I keep an eye out for people like him.
It is not a double standard to say that, despite the pronounced and persistent othering I have experienced in movie theaters and other public spaces, I do miss going to the movies terribly. In the same way, criticism does not exist to occupy a binary of celebration or condemnation. In the weeks since COVID-19 has forced us to stay in our homes and away from each other, the conversations surrounding the future of movie theaters and the film industry at large have dipped toward the dour and pessimistic, and I am inclined to agree with many of these diagnoses, though there has been an ironic bright side. The way has been paved for a plurality of marginalized voices to be heard, not just in the context of the current situation, but in the context of the normal day-to-day before disaster struck. Films that were once difficult to access have either been made available to stream or are at least easier to obtain. I believe there will be a period “after this is all over,” where my fellow critics and moviegoers will breathe a sigh of relief thankful that the fatal blow to our beloved industry, at least in terms of dedicated brick-and-mortar movie houses, did not come. I believe that there will be a swift return to the status quo, but I don’t just mean big blockbusters, controversial sleeper hits, contested instant classics, and the festivals that spawn noteworthy works of art. As critic Kelley Dong astutely points out, “What is missing are polemics that seize upon a most opportune time for overhaul.”
I hope we reify our love for the movies and demonstrate that passion by putting our money in the hands of independent cinemas and filmmakers. I also hope we question, as Dong does, “Why, for instance, is public access to films screened at festivals—from avant-garde shorts to restorations and features—only now a priority, now that the threat of death is imminent to those who might never afford to attend a film festival in their lives?” Access is not simply about being let in the door, but also having the privilege of knowing what there is available to see. Mutual and collective discovery, rapture, and broadening of the ongoing cinematic conversation—in my eyes, that’s what makes movies worth seeking out and what makes the theater experience special.