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Secrets of the screening room

In a world. Where the masses clamor like bloodthirsty badgers for early movie reviews. There is a clandestine room where local critics screen films in inky darkness. All who enter are sworn to secrecy about what goes on there. Until now.

Film criticism depends on a low-rent form of time travel: We critics are always a week or three ahead of you mortals on the movie-release curve. Zero-budget indies and high-fiber documentaries we watch on badly mastered DVDs called screeners; blockbusters we preview in downtown multiplexes where we sit in a reserved section, aloof from the plebes who’ve won free passes by staying tuned to WTF-FM, “Home of the Hits.”

But for films pitched between those two extremes, we gather on weekdays at a tiny theater whose location I cannot even hint at for fear of banishment, but which I will arbitrarily call “the Lake Street screening room.”

The Lake Street is a place with an ambience all its own. Admission is at the invitation of movie publicists, who look like very tall, young, blond women but are in fact shimmering, weightless holograms of pure pep, with marketing degrees.

The cinema whose entry they guard is not quite so spruce. It holds perhaps 50 seats, the fabric of which has absorbed subtle memories of numberless breakfast burritos, meatball subs and pizza slices consumed on them over the years by an overwhelmingly male and not terribly fastidious clientele.

Seating is nominally first-come, first-served, but actually works more like winter street parking in Chicago, certain regulars having privatized their places with lawn furniture that’s no less effective for being invisible. Among the landed gentry is a man I’ll call the Most Powerful Film Critic in World History. But in a superbly democratic gesture, this well-mannered 900-pound gorilla has chosen to annex one of the humblest seats in the house (far-left aisle, rearmost row). At first I assumed this was so he could walk out at will, but I’ve never seen him even take a bathroom break. That guy seriously loves movies.

It’s a bit different in the case of a sometime TV personality I’ll call the Chosen Bloody Wonder. Years ago, when I was new to Lake Street and didn’t yet know the seating plan, I accidentally occupied his bespoke chair. Rather than risk losing caste by speaking to me, His Lordship had a publicist ask me to move. I semiobliged by shifting one seat over, guessing correctly that my leprous aura would oblige him to sit elsewhere. It may have been a coincidence, but two days later thugs beat me to death with tire irons.

The social atmosphere of the room is peaceable if not exactly gregarious, with top notes of Asperger’s and undertones of paranoia. Before the houselights dim, the highbrows murmur quietly in pairs about Kiarostami and Claire Denis, while an extroverted populist loudly monologues to no one in particular about Asia Argento and Jessica Biel. During the film, the audience is undemonstrative, even poker-faced, except for the extroverted populist, who shrieks with laughter at anything vaguely resembling a joke. Few talk about the movie afterward, during the elevator ride back down to the street, perhaps for fear their insights will be pirated by their less-creative colleagues. Though I’ve also heard legends about a now-departed critic who used to make postprojection remarks obvious to the point of being unavoidable, and then later bitterly accuse his colleagues of intellectual theft.

Another natural marvel of the screening room is the Deeply Relaxed Man, from whose pockets coins begin to drop within minutes of the opening titles. They continue to drop intermittently until the closing credits. By some unfathomable magic, the sum of change in his pocket is always exactly proportionate to the running time of the film. I’d have long ago claimed the seat directly behind his if it weren’t already taken.

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