“Ram-bo! Ram-bo!” the fella in front chanted, punching the air with his fist every time Sylvester Stallone did something worth a cheer — like take a spike out of his side and cauterise the wound with flaming gunpowder.
The audience in the cinema liked the main attraction, Independence Day, cheering the spunk of Captain Steven “Will Smith” Hiller when he clouted the alien with the old one-two, gasping collectively in the spaceship-to-fighter jet battles for planet earth and shrieking at every near miss.
It was 16-year-old Samantha who said it sotto voce during one of these group responses, in her south Florida accent, “Gorsh, everybody participates. . .
Just then, the management made an announcement that drowned out the voices from the screen. “Will Mr Porter please come to the lobby …?” It was loudly cried down by a spontaneous chorus: “Shut up!”
No Trinidadian has a problem getting into the act when faced with the big screen. I must have been Samantha’s age when I saw Lana Turner’s Madame X in the sixties. The cinema was packed. The action moved from drama to pathos, and when in the final five minutes the destitute Madame X found her son, her defender in the courtroom, the audience heaved a choking sob followed by a lingering sigh; there were no titters. On the other hand, when the first “made in Trinidad” movie was released, the antics of the actors, including Trinidad and Tobago’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs, had everyone rolling in the aisles. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as picong flew from pit to balcony. I knew then that in the dark mustiness of a Trinidad “t’earter” there is a singular consciousness, a collective soul in which you can relax and find comfort. “T’earter” was a magical place, as cathartic as any Greek tragedy of centuries ago.
Trinidad’s cinema houses have the style of grand colonnaded palaces built at the start of the film age; they provided the ultimate cave of the subconscious, in which anyone could lose himself and forget the petty demands of the immediate world in the cool, dark fantasies of the big screen. Here, the great stories of our time unfurled in glorious technicolour, sensurround or 3-D.
Those who prefer a measure of detachment sit upstairs, in balcony or box, looking eye to eye at the stars. But true “t’earter” fans choose to sit below in house, and gravitate to “pit,” as the seats nearest the screen used to be called (from “orchestra pit” or from “pit of the stomach”, which is where the sound and action reverberate when you sit there – who knows!).
In Pit, the best viewing position is a deep recline, bottom perched tentatively on the edge, the back of the neck supported by the top of the chair, both arms on the rests, hands clutching the curves. From this position, you gaze up as the action thunders over you, filling even the periphery of your vision. It’s heady stuff, this. “T’earter peons” is what we called these devotees. This is how the fifties homeboys looked at all the great blockbusters: The Guns of Navarone, The Magnificent Seven, The Alamo. This is where we absorbed our understanding of heroic deeds — Bridge on the River Kwai, Casablanca, Ben Hur, Spartacus, Judgement at Nuremburg, Sayonara, Cleopatra. We were those people on the screen; we internalised them in our lives – Desperadoes, Renegades, Casablanca, Tokyo, Red Army were the names we gave our gangs and steelbands.
The advent of television provided other portals for escape, more easily accessible, less grand, petty even. That’s why the people on The Young and Restless and The Bold and Beautiful don’t fire our imaginations; they seem mean, small, their passions and concerns too much like everyday life.
This is why, even though we voraciously subscribe to video clubs and surf the cable channels to whet our insatiable appetites for movies, the greatest thrill is still to see movies on the big screen. There, the mythic battles — good against bad — still make sense. So that when we emerge from a matinée show blinking against the harsh tropical evening sun, we are coming back from another world, and we understand the demarcations.
It’s not hard to grapple with our own disasters after being blown away by those “fingers of God”, this generation’s Dorothy in last summer’s Twister. We know whose side we’re on after fighting the War of the Worlds again in Independence Day. And even in Rambo’s simplistic pitting of sinew and strength against the might of tanks and bombers, there is a lesson about the power of a human person.
For less than the price of any “fast food” meal on the islands, anyone can participate in “t’earter”. And hope there will always be enough peons of the pit to keep this wonderful, luxurious tradition of storytelling available to ordinary people.