by Scott Neuffer
Silence reigned as the credits rolled. Not a sound from the screen or audience. Not a person moving in their seat. Then I could hear it: the creep of tears behind me. It started like the whispery sound of rain, and then it grew louder, into softly breaking sobs, gentle waves collapsing on a distant shore. This thing that had happened was terrible. It had wrought some unfathomable loss in us, the audience, with which we had to reckon in those dim seconds of scrolling credits. I haven’t seen a church as solemn.
This thing that had happened was the film “American Sniper.” I’ll talk about the film later on, but the important thing now is the venue of this experience—our very own Ironwood 8 Cinemas in Minden.
Why do we love going to the movies so much? In this age of instant streaming and on-demand video, there’s really no need to leave the house for entertainment; yet movie theaters still generate tens of millions of dollars every weekend, if not hundreds of millions of dollars.
My cynical self would say it’s all about escapism and self-indulgence. Cough, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” cough, cough. A film I did not see. Although I read the first page of the book a couple weeks ago while standing in the checkout line in Target, and the writing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. No, I didn’t buy the book or read more. And yes, there may be an element of escapism in our inveterate movie-going. For example, the movie theater is the only place I allow myself to mix Dots and buttered popcorn. Pop a few Dots in my mouth followed by a handful of popcorn—a delicious combination of soft and hard, sweet and salty. I also allow myself one medium-to-large Icee, preferably Coca-Cola flavored. I don’t care what my doctor says. Being at the movies is kind of like eating over the holidays. Just let yourself go. Enjoy it.
But my more rational self recognizes that we don’t go see films like “American Sniper” for escapism. I would argue the opposite is true. Good films don’t help us escape life. They help us face life. They awaken life within us. As a medium, film combines a number of other art forms—literature, music, photography, animation. It’s a language in itself, both visual and audio, capable of seizing the senses, enthralling the mind like few art forms can. A raw and immersive experience film is, and that’s why both reformers and dictators use it to further their political ends. Film speaks directly to the emotions.
Needless to say, I love film, maybe even more than I love literature. I consider myself a film buff, though not a very versed one, and an aspiring filmmaker, though not a very good one. I’ve been watching movies at the Ironwood since it opened in 1998. I was in high school then. The first movie I saw there was “Saving Private Ryan.” Not an ideal date movie. Yes, I took a date to “Saving Private Ryan.” We went to Katie’s afterward. I wasn’t sure how to transition into making out after such an intense war movie. We didn’t make out. More like a goodnight-you’ll-be-alright-it’s-just-a-movie hug.
I saw many films at Ironwood during my adolescence. A lot of cheap horror films with my friends. You know, insolent and reckless teenagers being stalked by some deranged, hook-handed lunatic hell-bent on teaching them an important lesson by, um, killing them. SCREAM IF YOU KNOW WHAT I DID LAST SUMMER. That variety. But I saw many good films there, too, including “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line,” “The Insider,” “The Sixth Sense” and “The Matrix.” We must have watched “The Matrix” like half a dozen times. Just the pulsing beats of the soundtrack, mixed with the super sleek and surreal action scenes, were enough to drive some of my friends into a macho-hipster frenzy. And “Armageddon.” Is “Armageddon” a good movie? Not really, but it seemed like a good movie when we were in high school.
I could go on and on, but let me get to the point: Carson Valley is fortunate to have an independently owned and operated theater. The coolest thing about Ironwood Cinemas, besides the movies, is the owner himself.
Minden resident Jim Sheehan resurrected the Ironwood out of bankruptcy a couple years back. I haven’t run into him for a while, but I had the honor of interviewing him for The Record-Courier when he took over the business.
The first thing about Jim you have to know is that he is a serious film buff, a veteran of the film industry. He has stories about running theater chains in California as a top executive, about working as a film buyer and negotiating with distribution companies to book the best titles for the big screen—pretty much the coolest job in the world.
Jim lives and breathes cinema. “Doctor Zhivago” is one of his favorite films, I remember. There was another one, an Italian film, but I can’t remember the name. I do remember Jim took me up to the projector rooms in what became a man-behind-the-curtains moment—peeling back the veil of an illusory art form. At the time, he explained how Ironwood’s half-a-million-dollar digital upgrade was necessary to compete with theaters in Carson and Reno.
I also know Jim works hard maintaining diverse offerings for Valley moviegoers, procuring the latest blockbusters to lesser-known prestige films. It’s a balancing act he performs, trying to make teenagers happy but also his more selective adult clientele.
Jim also boasts the best popcorn in the valley, at least that’s what his ad says. I won’t reveal his secret recipe here. In fact, I’m not sure it’s a secret at all, and I’m not sure I remember it right. But know that Jim Sheehan takes great pride in his popcorn, an epicurean relish, if you will….
I had eaten a whole bag of the stuff, along with a box of Dots, during my latest visit. When the credits rolled, my gut rolled. Dots aren’t great for digestion, and the emotional wallop of “American Sniper” didn’t help settle my stomach. There was at least a minute of silence, a pervading solemnity, then soft, murmuring cries in the seats behind me. Eventually we all clambered up out of our seats. Outside, there was still light, not much, but enough to see everything in its seemingly stable place. Parking lot. Cars. Trees. Sky. Mountains. No explosions. No gunfire. Strange how after some films, the images and sounds stay with you, meld with the real world around you, as though two previously separate realities are now one. Good films make you see the world anew.
Strip malls are like cities, or, more accurately, microcosms of cities. They each have their own identity, their own character. Some follow design standards and particular color schemes, others are more unpredictable. All have their own micro-economy. A diversity of tenants. Businesses that complement each other. Or businesses that don’t necessarily complement each other but nonetheless create a synergy. Yes, a synergy. Sundries more than the sum of their parts. Trinkets and curios. Whatnots and whirligigs. Neon signs. Shop windows. Each strip mall offers a different impression of miscellany, a unique sense of commerce. For example, the Stratton Center in Gardnerville always evokes in me nighttime taco and beer runs, mainly because J.J.’s Mexican Food (formerly La Salsa) and Sierra Market have provided both for me for so long. For others, the Stratton Center probably evokes bicycling, pizza or a trip to the bank. How about The Record-Courier Center across the street? For me, fine art, jewelry, the exquisite smell of flowers—thanks to A Wildflower, Joyce’s Jewelry and East Fork Gallery. And I’ll never forget the smell of The R-C offices themselves. The inky, papery smell of newsprint, though no newspapers are printed there, just stacked up in the corner.
I mention all this because after watching “American Sniper,” my wife and I strolled down the concrete arcade of the Ironwood Center. We found ourselves in front of La Hacienda Carniceria, a little Mexican market/butcher shop right next to another notable taqueria, La Hacienda Del Sazon. The shop window alone was a glowing collage of strange and exotic products. It lured us inside. Fortunately, my wife speaks Spanish and was able to converse with the clerk on duty. I perused the candy aisle, shocked at some of the concoctions. By “shocked,” I mean delighted beyond rationality. So many lurid colors and labels. It was a sugar-crusted guava candy roll I ended up choosing. We also picked up some delicious Mexican sweet bread for the following morning.
As a side note, whenever strip-malling in Carson Valley, especially ethnic strip-malling, remember that Mexican sweet breads are very different than Basque sweetbreads.
Back to the story: Using my wife as an interpreter, because my Spanish is never as good as I think it is, the clerk told us that about eight months ago, La Hacienda Carniceria bought out San Miguel. I was a little confused which Mexican shop I stood in because the banner sign outside was missing—another casualty of February’s windstorm. For some reason, I thought San Miguel was in Gardnerville in an entirely different strip mall behind AM/PM. But no, I must have been thinking about something else. The clerk was nothing but courteous in responding to what must have seemed a rather random line of questioning. Yes, La Hacienda Carniceria replaced San Miguel. Yes, the store gets a shipment of Inca Kola—my favorite addictive Peruvian soda—every fifteen days. Yes, business is going well, the clerk said.
The next morning for breakfast, we ate the Mexican sweet breads. They were delicious.
Something else delicious is brewing near the Ironwood Center, and I’m not talking about the Minden Starbucks. I’m talking about what recently opened next to the Minden Starbucks: The Tahoe Lobster Company.
Here’s their website: http://www.tahoelobstercompany.com. Notice the picture at the bottom showing succulent-red lobsters dashed together with potatoes and corn. A good ole fashion lobster feast… Wait a minute. Those aren’t lobsters. Those are crawdads. Signal Crayfish, to be exact. Now notice the company’s slogan: “Clarity by Cuisine.” That’s right, the Tahoe Lobster Company is apparently clarifying Lake Tahoe by reducing the lake’s overpopulation of crawdads, by catching and selling the little monsters for culinary purposes.
Now, I don’t use the phrase “entrepreneurial genius” often; but if you can figure out how to turn water-scuzzing lake pests into delicious delicacies, then you, sir, are an entrepreneurial genius. According to its website, the company has found a real market for Sierra crawdads, including a host of restaurants and a new distribution partner in the U.K. that will introduce Tahoe lobsters to the greater European Union. Demand already appears to be outpacing supply. This season, for example, the company is hiring independent harvesters to help fill orders. In other words, this will be the last column I write for Carson Valley Times, as now I must pursue my true passion.
Seriously, I have experience crayfishing in Tahoe. Years ago. Three times I crayfished with a standard fishing license, all because I had grown tired of catching and eating trout. I never used traps because that would have ruined all the fun for me. Rather, I used my snorkel and a pair of prongs. Yes, if you’ve seen a weird guy at the beach walking out into the water with nasally sounds emitting from an overly tightened snorkel-and-mask, and with a shiny pair of metallic cooking prongs in his hand, it was probably me. I had a floatable, pin-holed container, too. I’d take it all with me, usually to the outskirts of a cove, any place where huge boulders had formed shadowy caverns in the deep blue water. Sometimes I used bait. Sometimes I just waited, floating on the surface, hoping some queen lobster would decide then and there to take a leisurely stroll on the lakebed floor.
As daring and adventurous as this might sound, the truth is I was a terrible crayfisher. Out of the three times I went, I got one catch that was good. I found a recipe online, from someone in Louisiana or some other crayfish-consuming state, and I cooked up this catch with potatoes, corn, dill, salt and pepper. I got my wife to eat it, served it with cold beer, and it was freaking delicious, a feast fit for kings. The other two times, though, my catches were scrawny. I tried to repeat my success in the kitchen, but the crawdads ended up tasting terrible—dank, gluey, almost inedible. I don’t know what happened, where I went wrong. I guess this is all a roundabout way of saying I want to hang out with the folks at Tahoe Lobster Company and learn their trade secrets.
Speaking of roundabout ways, I’ll end this month’s column where I started—talking about “American Sniper.” I dragged my wife to this film because I had always enjoyed Clint Eastwood’s other fine, if depressing, films: “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Gran Torino.” The man’s a gifted director. “American Sniper” had looked good in TV previews but had also generated an inordinate amount of headlines and controversies, mostly partisan, social-media-sparked controversies. “It’s all pro-war propaganda!” went the Tweets. “No, the movie’s patriotic, pro-American!” Blah, blah, blah, blah. I was curious to see it for myself.
And this is what I’ll say. I thought it was a fine film. I didn’t think it was a political film. People can ascribe political views to any work of art, and that’s their right, but the effect this particular film had on me wasn’t political at all. In the beginning, when we, the audience, first met young, cocksure Chris Kyle, I was worried the film might become some one-dimensional glorified action movie. But it didn’t. By the end, it felt real, human, a realistic depiction of war and heroism. The best thing I can say about the film, the best review I can give any movie, is to say that after the credits rolled, when we walked back outside into the faded daylight, I felt the desire within me to appreciate life more. A sad and quiet desire. A wistful reverence. To appreciate life and the people around me.
Scott Neuffer is a freelance writer who lives in Gardnerville with his wife Maria and son Andres. He recently published his first book, “Scars of the New Order,” which is available in local bookstores and on Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Besides reading and writing obsessively, he enjoys long walks on the beach, any beach, and poorly scripted romantic comedies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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