The AMC Lincoln Square IMAX
we come to nicole kidman's house for air-conditioning
It’s a long weekend in summer and the air is bad but we’ve been inside our apartment too long so we go to the movies. The air conditioning inside the Lincoln Square AMC is as big as a house, as big as a city, as big as a whole map. Movie theater air conditioning is a feeling about the mall and other people’s cars, anonymizing and blank. Every movie theater is every other movie theater; I open the door from the street and I’m not in New York, but in America, its corporatizing vastness, its false comforts, its faith in an unbroken timeline. Outside the day whirrs and growls. Humidity sits down heavy as a bad news phone call. But inside a movie theater there’s no weather, only slightly too much of whatever your body wants.
In here, we’re all pretending that we still live in the fuck-around century. We buy too many snacks and put too much butter on too much popcorn. Movies aren’t cheap but they’re cheaper than just about anything else, in this city, anyway. I’ve tried to shed so many versions of myself and succeeded maybe more than I should have, but who I was at this movie theater ten years ago and twenty years ago is who I am at this movie theater now, happy to be inside the air conditioning with a fistful of sugar and a faceful of light, wasting a slow afternoon in the cool and the dark, in the museum of the obsolete.
The Lincoln Square AMC is objectively terrible and also the best movie theater in New York City or maybe the world. Most movie theaters are pretty bad, but this one is worse, which is to say, it’s the best one. I’ve been seeing movies here since I was a teenager, when the seats were state-of-the-art comfortable and the finishes in the lobbies gleamed with new money. It has not once, as far as I can tell, been updated since. Every time I’m here it’s a little more visibly disgusting, but its age and grime seem to act like a marinade, making the whole place a more concentrated dose of the thing that it is.
The Lincoln Square AMC sits across six lanes of Broadway traffic from Lincoln Center, the glossy and self-important cultural hub that houses the New York City Ballet, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera, among others. Standing outside the Lincoln Square AMC’s doors, you can just barely see Lincoln Center’s fountain springing up toward the concrete edges of the sky, and sitting on the edge of that fountain, you can narrowly make out the dim red neon letters on the AMC’s marquee. They’re a twinned pair, or the same word in two different accents, Lincoln Center dripping with clean, airy wealth, and Lincoln Square looking like shit in the way that all temples to the end of the twentieth century do. The joke, though, is that both places are the same, vast structures raised to the habits and importances of the past. The IMAX movies at one are no different than the symphonies at the other, both grand, spacious, self-satisfied, and barreling toward the brick wall of their own obsolescence. Both places, just like this whole wealthy-old-folks-home neighborhood, are indefensible, and I love both of them with my entire heart.
Three days before Christmas, we went to the movies. The move theater was in a suburb, or right near one, one of those American nowheres, not quite fields and not quite office buildings and not quite malls. After dark, going to the movies there felt like going to the ends of the earth itself despite being maybe five minutes from a freeway exit. It was cold outside and the giant posters in the mostly-empty lobby couldn’t believably perform enthusiasm for the movies they advertised. Geometric pastel tile underfoot blossomed in the nightmare glow of squiggly lights overhead, as though time had run out of gas sometime at the end of the 1990s and decided to progress no further. Suspicious clusters of teens in ratty department store clothes rode the escalators in the opposite direction from us, and an overwhelmed, glassy-eyed young person in a Santa hat took our popcorn orders. Inside the auditorium, the recliner seats were visibly dying, their leather no longer shiny, showing patches of a lighter color beneath. The bathroom mirrors made me and everyone else ugly but I didn’t mind; the way the lights in a movie theater bathroom pull at all the circles and shadows on my face has always made me feel glamorous, like a woman having a nervous breakdown in a film with subtitles. We settled into our disgusting seats with our popcorn bucket the size of a small body of water.
We were in Delaware, not at the Lincoln Square AMC, but every movie theater is the same movie theater and all of them are the Lincoln Square AMC. If the Lincoln Square AMC doesn’t look nearly as bad as this theater in Delaware did, it knows in its heart that it’s only a matter of time. Many doors in many cities and countries around the world all open to the same place, and that same place is not a movie theater in general, but the Lincoln Center AMC in particular. The Lincoln Square AMC is a movie theater portraying The Movies in a medieval passion play, one individual standing in for the concept in its entirety.
In a now-viral ad for AMC movie theaters released in September of 2021 (I truly can’t believe it was that recent, I feel certain I’ve been watching this ad my entire life), Nicole Kidman gets out of a car. We see her stiletto heel strike and defeat a puddle. She takes a hood down from over her head— nominally an indication that it’s raining, but meant to reference Star Wars— and looks up at a glowing AMC sign. She’s dressed in a pantsuit shot through with sparkly thread, like if business attire could wear body glitter. “We come to this place for magic,” begins her rhapsodic, bizarre ode to the magic of the movies, which switches from voice-over to direct address with no warning. As the voice-over continues, she strides through the hallways of a strangely empty space. Her demeanor is that of a religious zealot on a pilgrimage who’s stumbled across an abandoned church in the wilderness. She opens a door to a theater in which a movie seems to have already started or, more accurately, to be playing endlessly and yet not playing at all, some kind of sisyphean loop in which only trailers ever play and no movie ever begins. She sits down in a cushy leather seat. She has popcorn now! It’s unclear how she got popcorn, since the building seems to be some kind of ancient undisturbed tomb that’s also a movie theater. The screen illuminates her face, the light from a projector breaking like an eclipse behind her head. “Somehow,” her monologue continues, “heartbreak feels good in a place like this.”
The film she’s watching, as far as one can tell, is a series of clips from movies that were recent when the ad was made; we see the dinosaurs in Jurassic World, a few seconds of Gal Gadot in 2017’s Wonder Woman, the briefest possible flash of a dance from La La Land and a fight from Creed. The clips aren’t in slow motion but it feels like they are. Nicole Kidman reacts to each of them as though she’s never seen a movie, any movie, before in her life. If a train appeared on the screen, I assume she would abandon her mystery popcorn and flee out of the theater. She concludes this minute-long hero’s journey by speaking directly into the camera; the tag-line isn’t “when you’re here, you’re family,” but I nevertheless expect to hear that sentence in Kidman’s self-serious Australian accent every time. The fact is, I don’t remember the tag-line, or really how the ad ends, because by then, other people in the theater are always screaming and applauding too loud for me to hear it.
I’ve seen audience members stand up and salute the ad. I’ve heard whole rows recite every line along with Kidman. I’ve see the ad get standing ovations. It’s been made into endless memes, used as a punchline for just about every joke imaginable, and has ensured that no one trying to explain the concept of camp will ever again be at a loss for an example. Its popularity isn’t exactly complicated; it’s a patently insane ad, and every frame presents itself as a pre-packaged meme. It’s absurd, and campy, and bizarre, and features an absurd, campy, bizarre, beloved movie star. It first appeared at a time not only when theaters were newly re-opened, but when lavish sentimentality was at an all-time high, when florid fellow-feeling and hyperbolic rapture over the mundane were briefly and wildly in vogue.
Little has survived from the high sincerity era that followed the first wave of Covid-19 vaccinations in the US, but heartbreak feeling good in a place like this has. In part, I suspect that’s due to the ad functioning first and foremost as a joke. Its camp hilarity has sustained it past the era when we all talked about everything in an affect not dissimilar to Kidman’s. But I also think it’s persisted because a lot people feel this way, while knowing at the same time that feeling this way is kind of a joke. The language of the ad is vague, hollow, and nonsensical, and so is most everything anyone says about the magic of the movies. It’s childish and embarrassing, a type of sincerity that always lapses into camp. But a lot of us feel it even if we know it’s cringe to do so. The ad offers a way to admit those feelings by making fun of them, and, by extension, making fun of ourselves. Self-roasting allows us to keep hold of our most sentimental attachments while partially absolving ourselves of their sentimentality.
The maximally corny thing at the heart of the ad, and the sales pitch there, is that each movie theater is every movie theater. “A place like this” is any of these places, whether in Kansas or in Los Angeles, the coast of Maine or a strip mall in Arizona. When you walk into a movie theater, you always walk into the same room. That’s true, and all of them are the Lincoln Square AMC. The Lincoln Square AMC is, canonically, where the Nicole Kidman AMC ad takes place.
It looks nothing like the building in the ad, but that doesn’t matter. The ad was filmed in Los Angeles, but that’s not relevant. The AMC Lincoln Square is Nicole Kidman’s house. Heartbreak feels good in a place like this, and every single Icee machine is always broken. The concessions stand never actually has half of the items they advertise, including coffee, and the self-serve soda machines have been left to fend for themselves like a garden giving over to wilderness. The faux-Egyptian decor was once intended to reference grand old movie palaces, but now just reads as awkward and lightly racist. The gilt paint is chipping around the edges, and it’s begun to be hard to tell which of the shapes in the rug are supposed to be there. Sometimes there’s not popcorn; relatively often, there’s not butter. I know at least three people who’ve had their theater accidentally play the wrong movie, or play the movie sideways, or upside down, or forget to dim the lights before the movie started. The only thing that reliably works is the air-conditioning. To be very clear, the Lincoln Square AMC is currently one of the most successful movie theaters in the United States; this is the absolute pinnacle of how well this type of business is doing.
What keeps the place afloat — I assume — is the single, gigantic, foreboding, ruinously expensive upstairs IMAX screen. Lincoln Square’s IMAX screen is the largest one in the United States, occupying multiple floors of the building in which it resides. Housed inside an enormous windowless structure, from across the street it looks as though some kind of nuclear lab sat menacingly atop a small neighborhood movie theater. The escalator by which one accesses this gargantuan screen is so steep and so long that it sets off my fear of flying; I feel the same panic halfway up this escalator that I feel in a plane at 30,000 feet. The terror I experience on airplanes is about the fact that I fundamentally don’t believe in air travel; I know it’s science, but I encounter it as religion, and I’m unable to have faith in its things unseen. That same lack of faith applies to the Lincoln Square IMAX escalator, which the theater once claimed was the largest free-standing escalator in the world. It’s too long, too big, and too high; I simply don’t believe in it.
The theater to which the terrifying escalator leads is more of the same, a stomach-dropping act of faith, a monument to the vast and easy-handed hubris that drives technological advancements and theme parks about dinosaurs. The screen is so large that it hurts my eyes if I sit any closer than the back three rows; one time I looked up at it from the aisle in the front row and it felt like the Total Perspective Vortex, the torture device in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that shows you your tiny position in context of the universe’s true vastness. The enormous size of the screen means that the seats have to be fixed on an eye-watering rake across from it, requiring everyone who buys a $35 ticket to an IMAX movie to watch it while sitting at a roughly eight-seven-degree angle. The whole experience is like viewing a movie while bolted to a cliff-face five thousand feet above the ground. When I watched Free Solo during the pandemic, it made me miss the Lincoln Square AMC IMAX.
IMAX technology was new thirty years ago, and at the Lincoln Square AMC no time has passed since then. While every single mall-brand store to each side of it —GAP, Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble, and the Century 21 that replaced the Barnes & Noble— has folded and transformed into an empty store front, the Lincoln Square AMC creaks along like the one saloon open for business on Main Street in a ghost town.
Old-fashioned, slightly gross, and generally outdated, movie theaters that don’t aggressively update their technology and decor quickly turn into poorly-funded museums. A movie theater is no more or less special than an arm’s-length list of other moderately-nice public spaces that seemed like the fabric of life itself when I was a child, and are now rapidly disappearing out of the languages and habits of the world. It’s one more thing that I thought was part of what it meant to be a person that turned out to be just another technology, as surface-level and impermanent as disposable cameras and dial tones. Something works until it doesn’t, something stays in fashion until something else pushes it aside. One day there won’t be movie theaters, and I’ll be sad about it, but several other things in my life will matter more.
Mothers of America, said Frank O’Hara in the page-break center of the previous century, Let your kids go to the movies! What he was talking about wasn’t the movies, not really, but there was a reason the movies were what he employed to talk about it, freedom and danger, risk and hope, exchanging one’s family of origin for the anxious possibilities of an adult world where you could get an anonymous hand-job in a dark theater. O’Hara was born at the right time to experience the movies as a longing for the future, cheekily co-significant with sexual awakening in the poem; forty years later, by the time I could go to a movie alone in the middle of the day by myself, I experienced the AMC Lincoln Square as a longing for the past. There’s a thing in my heart that’s always seeking stasis, that believes the world can stay frozen in the form in which I first encountered it; this is a delusion I learned from the movies, which, like all obsolete technologies, were once another word for the future itself.
It’s always four in the afternoon on a weekday at the Lincoln Square AMC, the most paint-chipped, decaf-coffee, senior-discount hour of any day. At the Lincoln Square AMC, it’s always the fuck-around century; streaming has never been invented, and no one has ever seen an iPhone. This quality is compounded by the clientele, who are basically the same people you’d find across the street at Lincoln Center, dressed down on a weekday afternoon. Last year, I took myself to see a 2pm showing of Tár in a theater populated entirely— it seemed—by people who either worked at or patronized the symphony hall and music school directly across the street, both of which feature heavily in the film, and all of them proceeded to audibly editorialize the tale of Lydia Tár, a real person whom all of these well-dressed senior citizens definitely actually knew in real life, for its whole two hours and thirty-eight minutes, and I hate that every single person who ever watches Tár can’t watch it in exactly this way.
Every Lincoln Square screening has at least one person over sixty who’s brought their own lunch wrapped in aluminum foil, and at least one other person wearing an unreasonably large hat in the middle of the day. Someone very often brings their dog, which isn’t allowed but is rarely enforced, and there’s almost always someone stage whispering DON’T WE KNOW THEM about any beloved elder character actor (it’s also not unheard of for those same beloved character actors to be among the attendees, half-heartedly hiding in a row in the back). No one in this room is interested in modernity; that’s not why we came to Nicole Kidman’s house.
I understand that feeling nostalgia for things has little if anything to do with the merits of the things themselves. I only got sentimental about this big dopey movie theater with its ancient carpets and horrific fluorescent lighting after all the better, smaller theaters in the neighborhood closed. What had once been the big bad corporate usurper became the endangered animal. Sentimentality is hungry and undiscerning and whatever is left gets swept up in it. The twentieth century has far more to answer for than it has to be proud of, and to long for any part of it is to intentionally misunderstand it. All nostalgia is an intentional misunderstanding, a form of love that’s half pity; it’s only possible to feel this way about something that’s dying, left alive in a landscape grown hostile to it. The past was a dingy and unremarkable place, and we came to it for magic.
thanks for reading. this is the public edition of griefbacon. if you enjoyed this and want to read more, maybe consider subscribing or upgrading to a paid subscription. subscriptions are on sale this month, so now’s a great time for it. xo