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Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

Think about your favorite night at the movies ever. Was it the road-show revival of Lawrence of Arabia at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the old World Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, with vigorous audience response? Apocalypse Now at the Cinerama Dome? Now ask yourself: What made it so great? Was it strictly the movie? Or was the experience more synchronistic, the delicate confluence of art and happenstance?

Or was it the venue itself?

The ArcLight Cinemas complex is betting on the last, as evidenced by the $14 ticket price that went into effect on opening night last Friday. Local movie-theater buffs heaved a sigh of relief two years ago when Pacific Theaters yielded to public pressure and announced that it would preserve (not raze, as it had intended) the historic Cinerama Dome and surround it with a state-of-the-art 14-theater multiplex, cafe, nightclub, retail mall and upscale health club. The question is, Does preservation of a film-historical landmark and creation of the kind of $60 million luxury cinema ”where movie lovers belong“ really justify the markup in admissions?

I may be in a position to say, having just shelled out $14 to see the 7:40 p.m. show of 40 Days and 40 Nights -- an expenditure, my editor assures me, which, in the interest of verisimilitude, will not be ”expensed“ by the L.A. Weekly. (The movie itself is a feature-length rehash of Seinfeld‘s ”master of my domain“ episode, and the only one of the 11 films playing at ArcLight that I hadn’t already seen.)

What $14 -- and ”cheaper“ (that would be $11) on weekdays and non-peak weekends -- buys adult viewers under a certain age is topnotch projection and sound, no L.A. Times or Moviefone ads, celebrities on loan from Madame Tussaud‘s Wax Museum in the lobby (including, inexplicably, Barbara Walters), and advance purchase with assigned seating, available online at www.arclightcinemas.com or by telephone. A quick call to the reservation line required something called a ”Loyalty Card number,“ which sounded a tad ominous, here in the long shadow of the Hollywood Ten. Fortunately, there are on-site ticket booths and plans for automated kiosks, although spending $3 for parking to purchase advance seating seemed a bit counterproductive.

Or would have if there had been any sort of crowd lined up to buy tickets. Entering through a courtyard that resembles the TWA terminal at LaGuardia, or maybe a Frank Gehry--designed elementary school, I encountered a throng of 25 or less -- and many of these ”customers“ had TV cameras in tow -- milling about in the giant convention center--like lobby. Inside the main concourse, an enormous lighted marquee, resembling the huge electronic scoreboard at Caesar’s Palace, noted features and times. Having purchased my ticket, I was shown a laminated blueprint of the theater layout, selected a seat in the center of the third row and, skirting the carpeted grand staircase, made my way up the escalator.

There were six people total in theater Number 13, which seats 100, and the usher told me to sit wherever I liked. When I insisted on being shown to my reserved seat, it turned out to be four rows from the back and all the way on the left of the auditorium. The rows are arranged stadium style for unobstructed sightlines and start way back from the screen, so every seat is good. The seats themselves have high backs, maybe three inches more elbowroom than normal, and thick, retractable armrests of hard plastic with built-in cup holders, but aren‘t noticeably any more comfortable than you get anywhere in Westwood. Other than sausage baguettes ($4.50) and gourmet chocolates ($4), the concession stand offers traditional fare, with popcorn maxing out at an eminently reasonable $4.75. The decor -- corporate, sanitized, with posters on loan from the Toronto Film Festival, and the walls all circusy blues and reds -- is still a far cry from the cafe coziness of the Angelika in New York’s East Village, and more akin to the General Cinemas of my youth.

Back downstairs, a store sells ArcLight T-shirts and caps, film books and post cards, and a selection of trades, New York papers and even Le Monde. The ArcLight Cafe offers a selection of salads, pastas, panini and desserts, replete with espresso bar and $7.50 martinis, for those needing sustenance or who plan to sneak into all 11 features over the course of a weekend. But it‘s still more Marriott than Mocambo.

Wim Wenders, a student of both architecture and history, called the Cinerama Dome his favorite movie theater in the world, and used its once massive parking lot and exterior for the L.A. section of his film The State of Things. He was right. The Cinerama Dome is a treasure. And if enduring the sort of hubris currently on display is the price we pay to keep it open, then so be it. But probably not much longer at $14 a pop.