He felt the need, the need to bleed
A story about movie fandom, seeing the Top Gun sequel, and working for The Mann
A QUICK PROGRAMMING NOTE
I’m going on vacation to an undisclosed location, so Situation Normal will be on hiatus for the next two weeks. I’ll return June 26 with new stories from the road!
TIME FOR THE STORY 👇
Like tens of millions of people around the world, Christina and I felt the need, the need for speed. We saw Top Gun: Maverick on opening day, but we didn’t love the movie. Christina thought the pacing was off and felt that the emotional beats could’ve landed with greater oomph. I wanted more homoeroticism, which along with killer aerial photography and a kickass soundtrack, is what made the original so great. I also felt Top Gun: Maverick owed a narrative debt to Iron Eagle 2, but I kept that complaint under my hat because aside from Louis Gossett Jr., I’m probably the only person alive who even remembers that there was a second Iron Eagle.
Of course, a few days after Top Gun: Maverick came out, the word on the street was that movie was so amaze-balls that it might single-handedly resurrect the ailing movie theater business.
Obviously, Christina and I needed to rethink our take. But as Maverick famously said in the original Top Gun, “You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Christina asked.
“That the critics, the fans, the hundreds of millions of dollars in worldwide box office are wrong, and that we’re the only people with integrity and taste on this godforsaken world?”
“No. I’m thinking we need to buzz the tower.”
The next thing I knew, we were sitting in the AMC Woodland Hills about to see Top Gun: Maverick for the second time in three days.
As it turned out, the second time was the charm for Top Gun: Maverick. On the second viewing, Christina thought the story moved like a fighter pilot going mach two with his hair on fire. Just as important, all those action sequences of manly men doing manly man shit resonated with Christina, who blamed herself for not being in the right “head space” to appreciate the emotional beats that gave the perilous flight sequences meaning. I also had a better experience the second time around, although I stand by my original comments regarding the debt to Iron Eagle 2 and the need for more homoeroticism. But both of us enjoyed OneRepublic’s I Ain’t Worried, and Christina even went so far as to proclaim it “the song of the summer.”
At this point, you’re probably wondering what kind of maniacs would go see a movie opening day, tell their friends they didn’t really like it, then upon seeing critical acclaim and box office success, return to the theater a few days later to give the movie a second chance? The simple answer: movie fans.
I mention our recent experience at the movies not to burnish our cinematic bona fides, but as a preview for the coming attraction. Our feature presentation, as you’ll soon see, is a story about the dark side of movie fandom.
I spent the summer of 1996 working at a movie theater in Westwood Village called the Fox Theater. It was one of those old movie palaces with one giant screen and nearly 1,400 seats. At the time, the Fox Theater was owned by Mann Theaters, and since I was a cynical 19-year-old who didn’t trust authority, I liked to tell my friends I was working for “The Mann.”
Of course, working for The Mann had its perks. The movies were free. Ditto for the popcorn and soda. Later that summer, when the Fox Theater hosted the premiere of Independence Day, I was put in charge of holding reserved seats for The Mann’s executive team—an assignment that put my sideways with Matt Dillon, who wasn’t in the movie, but was nevertheless certain that the reserved seats were meant for him.
But it wasn’t all fun and games working for The Mann. Pay was low, so the assistant managers supplemented their earnings by stealing candy and promotional posters that they sold on the internet. Near the end of my time there, The Mann realized he was being robbed blind, but he foolishly tasked the middle managers to solve the crime. The middle managers blamed the employees. Remarkably, nobody was fired and the theft continued unabated. But employee perks like free popcorn and soda were canceled.
With two weeks left on the job before I returned to school, I raised the issue with The Mann’s general manager, who didn’t appreciate hearing that her assistant managers were lying thieves. Words were exchanged, and in that exchange I tendered my resignation. But the general manager was both inept and cliched. “You can’t quit, you’re fired,” she told me.
“Too late,” I said. “I already quit.”
“Well, you’ll never work for Mann Theaters again.”
“Yes, that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make.”
I clocked out, then walked out the door for good. Fifteen years later, Mann Theaters ceased operations.
But all of this is backstory, context you really don’t need to understand what happened opening night for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called Eraser.
All these years later, I can’t remember if Eraser was one of the good movies Arnold Schwarzenegger made in the 1990s, or one of the terrible movies he made in the 1990s. According to Google, Roger Ebert gave the movie three stars, writing there were so many plot holes that “it helps to have a short attention span.” But Ebert went on to say, Eraser is “actually good action fun, with spectacular stunts and special effects.”
OK then. For our purposes, Eraser was a good movie, one that was maybe worth seeing two times opening weekend, especially if you’re a movie fan of the Arnold Schwarzenegger persuasion.
Picture it: opening night! The afternoon show had sold out. The evening show sold out too. Then came the late show, which was also a sellout. Somewhere across town Arnold Schwarzenegger’s agent was probably celebrating with a brick of cocaine and the best sex workers Heidi Fleiss could provide. But down in the trenches, where Hollywood magic meets the general public, I was working the concessions stand.
Working the concession stand at a single-screen theater that seats 1,400 people is to understand what Charlie Sheen’s character in Platoon meant when he wrote in a letter home, “hell is the impossibility of reason.” One minute, it’s all quiet on the snack bar front. The next minute, you’re knee-deep in popcorn, desperately trying to clear a register error with artificially-buttered fingers, and all the while you’re throwing boxes of Raisinets like they’re hand grenades at a human wave that won’t stop until the previews start.
Concessions at that speed and scale are a relentless twenty-minute assault on the senses. And when it’s all over and the last customers waddles away with a large soda and popcorn you up-sold them, it’s time to regroup, lick your wounds, and run before the assistant manager asks you to clean up.
OK, nobody actually ran. For one thing, the employee manual forbade running. For another thing, the carnage of a mass-snacking event left so much detritus behind the counter that you couldn’t escape without first cleaning a pathway.
So, we cleaned up the concession stand. After about forty minutes of filling garbage bags, wiping down the counters, and mopping the floor, the concession stand was looking good. The assistant manager sent most of the concession crew on a break, but I stayed behind with Yafet, another employee of The Mann, in case anyone wanted a refill on their soda, or another box of Red Vines.
“Do you know the secret to charming anyone in any situation?” Yafet asked.
I didn’t know the secret to charming anyone in any situation, but Yafet, who had worked there three years, seemed wise. So, I played along.
“No. What is it?”
Yafet removed a Snickers from the candy drawer.
“Candy,” he said. “Free candy.”
Of course, the candy wasn’t free. The Mann only gave employees free popcorn and soda because the margins on those items were out of this world. But there was a loophole to The Mann’s free stuff policy. If the candy was broken, damaged, or otherwise unsalable, an employee could eat it for free.
Yafet dropped the Snickers bar on the floor. Then he knelt down and performed a cursory inspection of the candy bar.
“This is damaged,” he said. “We cannot sell it.”
Yafet ate his Snickers, while I stood behind the counter and tried to look busy.
Yafet spotted the trouble first, and being a veteran employee of The Mann, he knew to make himself scarce whenever there was trouble. I, on the other hand, was a newb, and therefore slow to spot the bloody mess walking toward the concession stand.
“I need napkins,” a man said. “My friend is bleeding.”
I looked past Mr. Napkins and saw a man standing about twenty feet from the counter. His head was wrapped in a bandage, and there was a stream of blood running down the left side of his face.
“What happened?” I asked. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” Mr. Bandage said.
“He’s fine,” Mr. Napkin agreed. “We just need napkins to stop the bleeding.”
I took a closer look at Mr. Bandage. I couldn’t remember a wounded man entering the theater, but then again, he would’ve been one of 1,400 people. Easy to miss. Then I had a terrible thought. Actually, I had two terrible thoughts.
The first terrible thought was that someone had cranked the surround sound up to full blast, causing Mr. Bandage to bleed from the ears. Might a wave of moviegoers, each of them bleeding from the ears, follow? I didn’t think that was realistic, but in the movie business sometimes you have to suspend realism for the sake of a good story.
The second terrible thought was that someone had attacked Mr. Bandage inside the theater. This thought sent a chill down my spine because it was exactly the kind of dreadful and barbaric act a culture of violent action movies had conditioned me to expect. The only question was whether I would call for backup, or make Arnold proud by charging in there and doing some real-deal hero shit.
“Did someone attack you in there?” I asked. “Do I need to call the police?”
“The police?” Mr. Napkin said. “No, no. This happened yesterday. We just need some napkins because he’s bleeding.”
“We’re missing the movie,” Mr. Bandage said. “Hurry.”
Mr. Bandage began to walk toward the counter. A voice inside my head said: health department. I didn’t know if that voice knew what it was talking about, but I didn’t want a front row seat for whatever protocol The Mann had for reopening the concession stand after someone had bleed all over the counter.
I handed the napkin dispenser to Mr. Napkin.
“Take all the napkins you need, but keep him away from the counter.”
Mr. Bandage froze about ten feet from the counter. That’s when I noticed the carpet in the lobby was a dark red with a floral pattern. The Mann had probably bought a dark red carpet to hide dirt and food stains, but now the carpet would hide the blood too.
“Can I call an ambulance? UCLA Medical Center is right up the street.”
“No doctors,” Mr. Bandage said. “I want to see Arnold!”
Mr. Napkin helped Mr. Bandage apply pressure to the wound. But no matter what they did, the bleeding wouldn’t stop.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can let you back in there,” I said.
At the mention of being barred from entering the theater, both men freaked out. Mr. Napkin complained that they had paid for their tickets. Mr. Bandage said it was his goal to see Eraser as many times as possible on opening day.
“I’m Arnold’s biggest fan,” Mr. Bandage assured me.
“We started with the earliest show of the day, a morning screening in Santa Monica,” Mr. Napkin said. “This is our sixth showing.”
It sounded like they were going for a record. Not a Guinness World Record, more like a personal best. I appreciated their commitment to fandom, I really did, but I held firm, even though the employee manual didn’t speak to the issue of admitting audience members who were actively bleeding. Thankfully, one of the assistant managers came to my aid, and she backed up my decision on the grounds that The Mann couldn’t accept legal liability in this situation.
“I can refund your tickets,” she said. “Just please go to the hospital. Please.”
“It’s nothing,” Mr. Bandage said. “Just a little blood. No big deal. I want to see the movie. This is Arnold’s best film since T2.”
I ignored the slight to True Lies and I handed over another handful of napkins.
“We’ve been waiting months for this movie,” Mr. Napkin said. “We love Arnold.”
“Arnold loves you,” the assistant manager said. “And he wants you to be safe. Please, go to the hospital.”
I saw what the assistant manager was trying to do by using their Arnold fandom against them. But I had a hard time believing Arnold really cared, and they had a hard time believing that a true Arnold fan could be stopped by a head wound. After all, Arnold had suffered far more serious wounds in Commando, and despite those wounds, he managed to rescue his daughter from an army of mercenaries, win Rae Dawn Chong’s heart, and fly off into the sunset in a stolen sea-plane!
For the next few minutes, the assistant manager went back and forth with Mr. Napkin and Mr. Bandage. I could tell she had given up on the idea of talking them into going to the hospital. Now, it was all about getting them off the premises so that The Mann wouldn’t be on the hook if Mr. Bandage’s condition worsened. But no matter how many free passes she offered them, Mr. Bandage and Mr. Napkin wouldn’t budge.
“We made a promise we would see Eraser six times,” Mr. Napkin said.
“And we never break a promise to Arnold,” Mr. Bandage said.
There it was. They had backed the assistant manager into a corner. She had one last card to play, which was to call the police. But of course, that would only bring a call from The Mann’s lawyers, who would have questions like, why did you let a bleeding man into the theater in the first place? That’s when I remembered The Secret, Yafet’s secret to charming anyone in any situation.
“What if we sweeten the pot?” I asked. “In addition to refunding your tickets for tonight and free passes to use anytime, we’ll throw in all the candy you can carry.”
The assistant manager shot me a sideways look. The Mann hadn’t authorized me to deal at that level, but it didn’t matter. Mr. Napkin and Mr. Bandage quickly accepted the deal.
Yafet, who had the good sense to disappear at the first sign of trouble, had been right about charming anyone in any situation.
The assistant manager was happy to be rid of the bleeding moviegoer, although she warned me never to bargain on The Mann’s behalf again.
Mr. Napkin and Mr. Bandage saw Eraser five times on opening day, falling just short of their goal. I don’t know if they went to the hospital, but based on the amount of candy they walked away with, they probably needed to visit a dentist too.
As for yours truly, working for The Mann still haunts me to this day. I can’t eat the movie theater butter because once you clean the butter machine, you’re forever changed. But more to the point, I can’t watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie without feeling like an inadequate fan. Sure, I’ll pay to see the Arnold make bad puns while cracking skulls, and sometimes I’ll even return to the theater for an encore performance. But deep down I know my fandom is weak because there’s no way in hell, or Hollywood, that I’d bleed for Arnold.
TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT THE STORY!
I love hearing from readers like you because it makes writing Situation Normal so much fun! If you enjoyed this story, please let me know by leaving a comment below👇
Or, if you’re the type of person who likes a prompt, consider the following questions:
Have you seen Top Gun: Maverick yet? Is it the greatest movie ever, or are we experiencing a mass-delusion due to the 36 year gap between films?
Is there a movie you’d literally bleed to see? Hint: the correct answer is a remake of Ishtar.
This Situation Normal story is rich with references to war films. But what about anti-war movies. My favorite is Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. What’s your favorite anti-war movie?
Despite all the weirdness, or perhaps because of it, working at a movie theater was one of my favorite summer jobs. What was your favorite summer job?
Who would win in a fight: Maverick or The Terminator? Keep in mind that Maverick has laser-guided bombs, while The Terminator enters the arena butt-naked and without weapons.
SHOW YOUR SUPPORT BY SPREADING THE WORD!
Situation Normal grows because readers like you share these stories. That means the world to me. Please forward this email to a friend (or enemy), post this story on social media, or hit the share button 👇
STILL WANNA SHOW YOUR SUPPORT?
Hit that ❤️ button 🙏👇