Notes in the Margins: May

Greetings, friends. This month I wrote about something we don’t have in our current pandemic times and which I miss very much: going to movies.

Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL

The last time I saw a movie in a theater was March 8, 2020, almost four months ago. As movie experiences go, it was an astonishing and poignant one to serve as an unknowing end of an era: 2001: A Space Odyssey, screened in 70mm at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. While I’m pleased to have had this experience, its perfection now feels a little jinxed. Maybe if, before movie theaters were closed by the pandemic, I had had a more normal sort of film experience, with a film less grand in cinematic ambition and a theater without decades of accrued mythological glamour, I wouldn’t miss moviegoing quite so much now.

Ultimately, I know the last experience has less significance than other factors, chief among them the simple fact that I really love going to movies. It’s also been a habit that I’ve been able to foster more in recent years, as my daughter has grown older and more independent. What should I do with a little extra free time? Go see a movie, obviously. Over the past few months, I have not been working consistently full-time and so I developed an even more recent habit of going to see a movie at least once a week.

I like all sorts of moviegoing experiences—crowded premieres, serious weeknight screenings, lazy matinees—but I’m particularly attached to the experience of going by myself at an odd time to a more or less random film. It doesn’t need to be a good film. There’s a range of experiences to be had with a less-than-great film, from goofily joyful to demonstrably educational. Sometimes I go with low expectations to a film and am pleasantly surprised. Sometimes the reverse is true. But the essential attraction has less to do with the film itself and more to do with the experience of going to a theater to watch it.

At this point in my life, I’m spoiled for movie theater choice. I rarely resort to large chain multiplexes. For new releases, I frequent a small chain whose slight uncharge is worth the corresponding increased appreciation to experience quality. There’s an arthouse downtown for the other end of the spectrum. And there are a handful of independent theaters throughout the city that screen a mix of new releases, arthouse selections and repertory revivals—including the one I mentioned at the top, the Music Box Theatre, my favorite and an absolute gem of a vintage movie palace with 1929 “Italian villa courtyard at night” theming, an in-house organist and a thoughtfully curated film schedule.

But all of that is now unavailable. The theaters are closed. In my area of the world, businesses and institutions are slated to begin to open up cautiously within the next few weeks, but there has been no distributed plan for movie theaters, establishments that rely on gathering large groups of people together, often with food and drink in hand. It’s difficult to imagine what a pandemic movie theater could look like.

The part of me that is accustomed to solo moviegoing, with tickets bought online and food and beverages generally skipped, feels that I might be prepared for whatever new theater reality emerges. When you go to see movies alone as a matter of habit, the process begins to function as a much more complete escape from the outside world. There is no one beside you to shush, no shared snacks to manage, no distractions from the film or your thoughts about it. When you are enthralled in a movie theater, the lines between reality and fiction, between you and the film, dissolve quite comfortably. It’s the stuff of a transformative experience. It’s almost impossible to have the same experience with the same film in your home, where there is nothing but tethers to your familiar, known world. You need that change of scenery for a full change of perception.

But what about the experience in between those two, when you are fully experiencing a film in a theater along with many others? A collective transformative experience. Recently, I wrote a piece of fiction about a woman who deliberately seeks out movie theater experiences with as little attendant human interaction as possible, so she can completely detach her mind and escape her life. This opens her up to the metaphorical danger (made supernaturally real in fiction) of losing herself entirely. The idea sprung directly from my early solo weekday matinees, where I was often the only person in the theater and I could slip effortlessly away from reality.

There’s something rarer, though, a moviegoing experience where the connections to the world around you, outside of the film, are more than distractions or annoyances. When everyone’s attention is fixed on the film, and you’re all bound together in its world, you can slip into a state different than when you’re alone and different than when you’re at home. Reality is somehow remade instead of escaped. You’ve gone somewhere else and they’ve all gone with you, granting the experience a shared, witnessed legitimacy. None of you are directly interacting with each other but yet there is interaction, of a higher sort than we usually get to access. We’re all thinking and feeling and wondering and reacting, and we’re bound together not necessarily by the fact that we think and feel and wonder and react in the same way, but because we’re doing it in the same time and space. We’re together and still honoring our intact individual selves. We’re connected but the cover of darkness keeps us all safe. We’re somewhere else but our proximity grounds each other. In this sense, moviegoing is an alchemical experience unlike any other we tend to reach in our regular lives.

I don’t know when we’ll go back to movies and I don’t know what it will look like when we do. I don’t know if that alchemy will still exist, at least in the near future. I remain confident it will return eventually. It is, after all, something beyond us, waiting patiently until we figure out how to bring enough of us together to reach it again.

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