Superman in Bryant Park: An Exercise in Suffering

Movie Madness

Blankets and sheets separate the lawn into camps full of barefoot people, picnic baskets, and small children. Tonight is the last night of HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival,an outdoor event held behind the New York Public Library June through August. The focus is on classics from the 30’s all the way to the 70’s—but no later—and tonight’s feature is the 1978 rendition of “Superman” starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, and Gene Hackman.

The lawn is opened to picnickers at 5pm and the movie begins at dusk, sometime between 8 and 9pm. A large screen and powerful speakers are set up at the front of the lawn and people position themselves all around it. Blankets on the lawn itself, and all around the lawn are chairs borrowed from the front of the library and the Bryant Park Grill and Cafe. Although it looks pretty packed at 6pm, when d42 and I get there, turns out hundreds more people will pack themselves in during the next two and a half hours, and then some.

People who showed up early enough to enjoy themselves but are probably going to leave when the movie starts

The bulk of our experience can be summed up by one word: waiting. Although no, one more word is required: frustration. The movie itself falls somewhere in the background. Those dedicated enough to hang around the park as early as 4pm, waiting on the go ahead to populate the lawn, get the choice spots in front of the big screen. Those arriving two hours later still get a chance to place their chairs in the first rows, getting a fairly choice spot with no one’s head in it. But people keep arriving… and arriving… and arriving. And then leaving. In fact, there is pretty much never a time when at least one person is not either standing up waiving wildly while chattering into their cell phone or stumbling around the lawn. Even the start of the movie does not deter this behavior.

As we wait we observe those around us. Folks sport Superman sweatshirts, t-shirts and even costumes (the latter generally limited to children). Waves of applause and cheers break out across the lawn the cause for which is never worked out by the likes of us, all the way in the back, asses already going somewhat numb in rickety chairs. At about 8pm speeches are being made via microphone by the still blank screen. An organizer is thanked; someone important is perhaps present. We can’t tell who is speaking and most of the distorted words sound like gibberish.

We are glassed in

At 8 30 the movie starts. And it is glorious. I’ve never actually seen Superman and I will not hide the fact that I probably would not have been so excited about it if I had just rented the DVD to watch at home. D42 summarized it best, “Now that the movie started, I’m actually happy.” But not for long.

Once everyone apparently finds their friends, finds a bathroom (potties were stationed around the block), and buys sufficient amounts of snacks, many people begin to leave. Some only showed up for the picnic, others realize that their children are tired or that they no longer care about the movie. A trickling exodus begins about thirty minutes into the film. Most people trying to get out generally get struck wondering if it is OK to squeeze into someone’s lap just to squeeze out of the crowd somewhere on the sides. Our seats, though far in the back are in the middle. We still hate everyone.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t really blame the escapees. My legs are hurting, my back too. My ass is too numb to complain. We’ve already been here for over two hours when the movie only began and after the initial excitement wore off, our bodies started sending difficult to ignore signals that this was not OK. Eventually I dropped off to sleep. Last thing I remembered was Lex Luthor showing Superman Kryptonite and then California is exploding.

I stare blearily at the screen for a while and then the sound disappears. A few minutes later the picture goes too. We stare and stare and finally decided that we don’t really care about how Superman ends, but we do care about being trapped in this sea of humanity once the movie is properly over or people decide that enough is enough and begin to riot.

So we awkwardly make our way out, not because of the several dozen people we had to get around, but because our bodies have been discomfited for much too long and are no longer cooperating. The movie comes back on once we make it out of the park. We entertain the notion of finishing it while standing outside, we could still see and hear everything, but then realize we just don’t care and stumble off towards Grand Central.

In conclusion, it really does seem like a good idea: get hundreds of people outside in beautiful weather to enjoy a great movie. In practice, it is a lawn packed with increasingly annoying yuppy New Yorkers half of whom are ignoring the movie while waiting anxiously for friends as newcomers eye hungrily the spots being saved. The popularity of the event is its downfall. Maybe if the movie wasn’t a cult classic, maybe if the lawn was bigger, or a limit enforced to the amount of people packing themselves onto it, the experience could have been better—or at least good.

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    • Rob
    • August 24th, 2008

    Based on the pictures, almost, but not quite as crowded as Mardi Gras. There seemed to be less flashing, too. Welcome back, by the way.

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