"Why aren't you seeing Harry Potter?" an usher said to the reporter sitting alone in the audience
When the clock struck 12:01 am today, AMC theaters in select cities were permitted to start showing "The Undefeated," a feature length documentary about Sarah Palin. As it happens, I'm visiting my parents in Orange County, Calif., home to one of just 10 theaters where the film is being rolled out. Watching it didn't interest me so much as going to interview folks who decided to attend. I figured I'd meet some nice people, perhaps run into someone who knows my grandparents, press five or six Palin fans on why they like her, and convey their worldview. It's my experience that the grassroots doesn't fit the caricature of its champions or its detractors.
In the parking lot of The Block, an outdoor mall in the City of Orange, I worried that arriving 45 minutes early was cutting it too close: it took 20 minutes to find parking, and folks were lining up scores deep outside the theater box office. Our airport is named after John Wayne. Ronald Reagan remains a hero to many. Even Richard Nixon's association with this place is treated as a point of pride. When I was growing up here, a local hotel broadcast the Rush Limbaugh program everyday in its restaurant. I should've known there'd be a big turnout, I thought.
As I approached, however, I realized that most people present were dressed in costume. The crowd was either showing ironic solidarity with Christine O'Donnell, the tea party candidate who is not a witch, or else everyone was there to see the Harry Potter movie playing on a majority of the theater's 30 screens. Without any way of telling Palin moviegoers from Potter fans dressed up like muggles, I'd have to pay, go to the assigned theater, and look for interviewees.
I hurried through the teenage hordes, bypassed a concession stand that sold 1,020 calories of soda for $5.25, and entered theater number 30, hoping I'd have ample time before the previews to talk to some people. But inside, the theater was empty. I sat there alone for 20 minutes, at which point an usher stuck his head in the door, gave me a quizzical smile, and said, "How come you're not watching Harry Potter?" Then he left me by myself again, and without any good answer.
It isn't strictly accurate to say that I sat through the whole movie alone. Just as the previews started, two young women walked in giggling together and took seats three rows behind me. Afraid that they'd ruined the only story I had at that point -- What If Sarah Palin Starred in a Movie and No One Showed Up? -- I hoped they'd at least oblige me with an interview, and so they did.
Jamie Watkins, 22, is a Missouri native, which qualifies her as a real American. She only recently moved to Southern California, and her little sister, Jessie, age 18, was visiting for the first time.
"So, um, what made you come out here tonight?"
"We're going to Disneyland tomorrow," Jamie said, "but she just got here, so we decided we should go out."
"We looked online for the latest movie playing," Jessie added. "But all the Harry Potters were sold out, and then we saw 'The Undeafeated.' We don't even actually know what we're seeing."
"Well welcome to California," I said. "You're about to see a documentary about Sarah Palin."
"Oh, really?" they said, and started giggling again. I think they were expecting an action flick. When I returned to my seat, I thought maybe I'd talk to them after the movie, and get the perspective of two people who went in with no expectations. But they only lasted 20 minutes before walking out.
After that, it is strictly accurate to say that the theater was empty, except for me. On screen there were clips of a younger Sarah Palin helping to reform Alaskan governance. "In politics, you're either eating well or sleeping well," she said. I jotted this down: "And which of those are you doing now?"
Shortly before the end of the film, a young couple entered, walked to the back row, started making out, then interrupted their session and left (spoiler alert) as Andrew Breitbart, who made one of several guest appearances, started talking about eunuchs. Then I was alone again, working. Instead of researching civil liberties violations, or the war in Libya, or the contest to elect the next president of the United States, I was both a journalist and the only member of the public willfully paying attention to Sarah Palin, as if standing in for the pathologies of my profession.
Afterward, I found a theater manager, told him I was a reporter, and asked if he could give me numbers about ticket sales. "Did anyone pay and not show up?" He said that they'd sold out all the Harry Potter movies until 2 a.m., and that all 5,000 seats looked full. "No," I said, "I saw the Sarah Palin movie. Do you know the figures for that one?"
"Oh," he said, "I can't release sales figures."
"In hindsight, do you wish you'd had one more screen showing Harry Potter?"
He had no comment.
Image credit: Reuters