I’d like to be ignorant enough to call the possibility – in some though not all places – of returning to the movie theater a universally anticipated triumph. In reality I know from reading accounts online and from conversations with friends and family that the possibility of going to a movie in the theater is far from a regular priority. In some cases it’s an undesirable proposition even without the lingering threats from the pandemic hovering over the experience.
As should come as no surprise to anyone who tolerated my meticulous personal chronicle with MoviePass, the theatrical experience is one I hold dear. A glance at my letterboxd tags – when adding titles watched at local festivals – shows theatrical viewing is my third most frequent viewing option in the past three years, only a couple titles behind Netflix. If fifteen months of that time hadn’t been spent in quarantine, it’s safe to assume theaters would have the number one spot. Of course, if you added together each streaming option plus watches from the (small) personal and (large) library DVD and Blu-Ray collections, the total would overwhelm theatrical watches. I’m not a movie-watching luddite by any stretch and I’ve had incredible movie experiences at home.
Though I’m very much not alone in my passion for the theater, it’s increasingly feeling like a niche, something to be congregated around with like-minded people. This only feels strange because I’m old enough to remember when watching movies in the theater was the default, so it takes some adjustment to find it becoming a hobby. For you wee babes just born in the 90s, imagine scrolling facebook becoming akin to knitting or hearing open discussions about how buying coffee isn’t worth the cost or effort. Most troubling, studios seem to be leaning into this trend with big guns like Warner Brothers and Disney offering exclusive releases of films on their streaming services on the same day it debuts in theaters. Soon, like probably now, it may be hard to remember that once upon a time seeing something in the theater was the easier way to watch.
Now that schlepping it to the theater is an option again, it’s an opportunity for a gut check on why/whether the effort is still rewarding. I don’t anticipate the theater experience disappearing and I’m still rooting for something like the days of variety and discovery that a box office slate can represent (theatrical subscription services may still be the answer!) But wishing something alive past its prime can lead to scary monkey paw situations; I have learned form generations before mine that if you ache for a 50s diner under any circumstances you may find yourself in a sad-ass parody of one filled with poodle skirts and the same three Elvis songs on rotation. The time comes to consider what I want from the theater experience and recognize if it’s still there.
My first film back in the theaters was the middling Angelina Jolie thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead. It’s a movie that would have smelled nostalgic under normal circumstances – a star-driven thriller one-off based on a novel. It came to theaters the same day it debuted on HBO Max (I am not a subscriber). The movie is more serviceable than artful. If I flipped over to it on free HBO I would have considered it a bonus to my hotel stay, presuming I stayed awake for the whole thing. In the theater it got my unbroken attention. This sounds like a benefit for the movie more than me, but between kids and work and phones, giving something two hours of my time is meditation for me. And if all meditation involves a firefighting Angelina Jolie I shall achieve Nirvana.
I had a friend describe why he listens to music on vinyl even though he’s not much of an audiophile. When he streams music, he explained, it could be for noise or it could accompany washing the dishes or working. But when he puts on vinyl that’s what he’s doing. Sure I could have pulled out my phone and stuck my head back into the world at any point even in the theater. And maybe I did. But I sat myself down in the dark with a screen the size of my house. My priority was set. There’s an opportunity for magic when you direct your attention.
My second film back in the theater was A Quiet Place Part II (future readers: options were limited at the reopening). As Those Who Wish Me Dead met expectations for a thriller, so this sequel met expectations for a jumpy monster movie. Here I could take advantage of not just the large picture but the quality surround-sound system. For all the plotting foibles, the Quiet Place movies have some great sound design, with monster roars and tense silences tickled by precise rumbles. As long as the theater hasn’t been too derelict with its maintenance, the audience has the advantage of its intended presentation. Not once did the picture buffer.
Finally, my most recent trip was a joyous experience with In the Heights, a film with an eye on classics in the traditions of Busby Berkeley and Astaire-Rodgers fused with a modern music and performance sensibility. It was a spectacle with scene after scene seemingly designed to welcome everybody back to what they missed over the past year: a family meal, spontaneous afternoons at the public pool, crowds, embraces. The music is catchy, the mood is bright. The simultaneous shared experience is the other big reason I love the theater, and I couldn’t think of any better way to return to the movie theater than to share the experience with a crowd.
Except I watched it alone. In fact, two of the three movies described above I watched in otherwise empty theaters. I possibly could have seen them safely any time during the past year-and-a-quarter in these circumstances.
Because of those kids I mentioned earlier, I tend to see movies at the latest showtime possible and on weekdays, not exactly peak crowd time. So I’m not looking at this as any kind of useful observation on filmgoing trends. But as part of that consideration of what I go to the theater for, it’s something to ponder. Suppose empty theaters became the norm, would I keep going just out of determination to keep the tradition alive?
I can put my phone away and focus on a movie in my living room. I can invest in a good sound system and big screens are insanely cheap now, at least compared to paying for a movie ticket every other week. And I can watch the latest streaming release and join the conversation about it in the moment. Come what may, I’ll still enjoy the movies.
So when I say I enjoy the theater, I mean to say I enjoy the way we chuckle after we startle. I enjoy how we laugh more and harder when we all laugh. I enjoy how restless the room gets when the movie gets boring. I enjoy when we scoff in superiority and when we gasp at having been tricked. I enjoy how we politely choke on tears before we let on to that we’re crying. I’m sure my movie-going life has these experiences in store again. But how I’d love to take them for granted.