In defense of the Palace Cinema

October 25, 2016 @ 10:21 am
Event Photo

One of many Marcus Theatres promotions touting recliners.

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Enjoying big-budget films in comfort is not an insult to cinema.

It’s been over a year and a half since my Tone Madison colleague Mark Riechers excoriated Marcus Theatres' Palace Cinema out in Sun Prairie, sight-unseen and reclining DreamLounger unsat-upon. Since that theater opened, though, it has become one of my and my girlfriend's legitimate favorite places to watch movies, so I humbly submit this thoughtful reassessment of the experience.

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree.”

Thus begins the newsreel in Citizen Kane announcing the death of the titular newspaper magnate. While I have my doubts that Sun Prairie’s Palace Cinema will ever find itself screening Orson Welles’s classic first feature anytime soon (or that anyone else will ever quote Coleridge in relation to this place again), the theater’s designers certainly took that “stately pleasure-dome” line to heart. Alright, maybe not the "stately" part, but bear with me.

Here’s a list of the films I have seen at Sun Prairie since it opened, in no particular order:

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
  • Ghostbusters
  • Krampus
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (twice, because... duh)

If you’ll notice, that list is pretty much all big-budget blockbusters—the kind of movies best seen surrounded by strangers on the biggest screen available and as close to opening weekend as possible. Sure, I love watching little indie flicks as much as the next guy (maybe more!) but outside of the Wisconsin Film Festival and the UW Cinematheque’s Premiere Showcase, I simply don’t feel an intense pull to consume them in the same bombastic big-screen way as, say, Deepwater Horizon. If I’m going to go to a big theater and pay big theater bucks (don’t sleep on the $5 early bird special, y’all), it’s generally going to go hand-in-hand with the sort of broadly colorful escapist fantasy that these theaters stock by the dozen.

In Mark’s essay last year, he complained that there were no limited-release films on the Palace marquee when it opened. But it’s worth pointing out that as I type this Mira Nair’s Queen Of Katwe and last year’s festival darling The Birth Of A Nation are currently on the bill, along with the predictable big budget and family friend lineup, though I’m willing to bet those two outliers will be loss leaders for their run.

There are a grand total of five theaters within a 10-mile radius of the 53703 zip code, four of which screen first-run films, according to IMDB. Factor in the UW Cinematheque's Vilas Hall screening room and the Marquee Theater in Union South, both of which consistently screen excellent films and are open to the public (and are, most wonderfully, free), and you get a comparably well-rounded cinema experience for a city of this size. That said, I absolutely agree with a point Mark made in his piece last year: That the state of cinema in Madison would benefit from some help, most notably on the near-east side.

Even though the now-shuttered Marcus Eastgate theater was located on one hell of a janky-ass bus route, it was a ride I totally made more than once to get out there (I can’t quit you, Tropic Thunder!). The new theater in Sun Prairie (and pretty much every big chain theater in the area, for that matter) is way out of reach by public transportation, which sucks. Marcus might not have put it that far from where Eastgate was, but in skipping just one or two exits down the road, the company made it significantly more difficult for a significant chunk of Madison’s population to get to a decent theater with first-run films, much less fancy-schmancy seating options.

And with that, let’s move on to those reclining seats. As much as I love UW Cinematheque for its consistently inspired approach to film programming, their screening room at Vilas Hall (even after a recent overhaul) is cramped and its seats are uncomfortable. I can, and have, handled more than a few double features there, but they make me and my fat ass work for it, by god! In contrast, Marcus' DreamLounger DLX seats are simply magnificent and gracefully accommodate my not-insubstantial rear end with room to spare. Sure, it’s one more step towards our collective final state as crew members onboard Wall-E’s Axiom, but there are worse things than comfort, however contrived, in a world that offers so little of it so seldom to so many of us.

Yes, there is a “bistro” option for some screenings, where you can order and eat food while the film is playing in front of you, but I for one have found the experience to have a negligible impact on my enjoyment of the cinematic experience. The prices aren’t as bad as you’d expect, and while I’d advise against the cheese curds, some of the food I’ve eaten there has been pretty good. The bistro also, so far as I can see, opens up the option for patrons to tip their servers which, while not elevating them past poverty-level incomes, is definitely a step in the right direction.

The list of things that require you to leave a theater and miss important minutes of your movie is thus: 1) getting refills on food and soda, and 2) having to go to the bathroom. With the bistro, Marcus has cut that list in half and I’m sure that as I type this they’re working on a way to even siphon up your mid-movie eliminations too. Am I the type of person who would welcome just such a technological step forward? Thankfully, that is still a question that lies in the (potentially not too) distant future.

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last updated: October 25, 2016 @ 10:23 am

Chris Lay

Chris Lay

Chris Lay is occasional standup comedian and sometimes storyteller living in Madison. He writes stuff for Tone Madison and Isthmus every now and again.

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