“Are we still doing the social distancing thing?” someone asked me one recent morning, eyeing the empty seat next to me at the Walter Reade Theater at New York’s Lincoln Center. We were there for a press and industry screening of Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nun movie Benedetta, but the movie wouldn’t start for another 20 minutes or so. I told her that I didn’t think so, and as she settled in alongside me, I explained that the crowd for this highly anticipated movie by a beloved director would probably be too big to allow for an every-other-seat arrangement. I was right. As more people filed in, the woman I’d share an armrest with for the next two-plus hours mumbled some things about surviving the pandemic and grumbled about having to wear a mask for the duration of an entire film. Naturally, I couldn’t see most of her face, and she pointed her speech a few feet ahead of us, which gave me the sense that her comments were intended for my ears only if I chose to receive them. Otherwise, this person, whose age I’d place around 70, was just saying. At one point she mentioned off-handedly and with no acknowledgment of what opened our conversation or the soft resistance she expressed to ongoing covid safety measures, that she wasn’t feeling well that day.
“Oh,” I responded, trying not to breathe in her direction. We stopped talking after that.
The movies are back, baby. There’s an uptick in film festivals, most of which were relegated to online-only (or online-mostly) during the first year of the covid-19 pandemic; increasingly healthy box office returns from the general public (including Venom: Let There Be Carnage’s opening haul last weekend of $90 million, a domestic pandemic-era record); and releases that are theoretically worth making an effort to see (many of which, like Zola and Candyman, were postponed due to the pandemic) after 2020’s relative dry spell. It is especially in a cinephile’s interest to get their butt in a theater seat since not everything new is going directly to streaming, as it did initially during quarantine. That was just temporary, like wiping down our groceries.
But along with the cinema’s imperative for those interested in remaining pop-culture literate, its attendant irritations have also come flooding back—or so it strikes me having now spent more time in a theater than at any time since before the pandemic, thanks to the NYFF screenings (sometimes multiple in a day). The festival requires proof of vaccination, so covid fears don’t vex me so much, though whenever a phlegm-fueled cough rips through the air, I have to wonder if it was any match for that person’s mask.
What truly plagues me is the formality demanded of me upon entering a public space. This formality is low level compared to, I don’t know, dining at Per Se or high tea at a palace, and yet having to interface with the public and act accordingly can be jarring after the lifestyle of leisure I have grown accustomed to, spending my life at home. I’m leaving one kind of confinement for another, and at least I got to wear pajamas in my apartment. In lockdown, being physically comfortable was never easier. I didn’t have to be upright for any movie, I could shift positions however I wanted without having to worry about kicking the head of the person who’s sitting a foot in front of me, and I had a lot more to work with than, say, half a square yard of space. I hate having to feel self-conscious about my flailing. I hate that I have to hate when someone imposes himself on the little space that I have in a built-for-function-not-comfort theater like Walter Reade (no shade at all, but I prefer the modern convention of movie theater seats that recline into single beds spaced as though in business class). But I was jolted out of Memoria’s thrall the other day when the stranger seated next to me crossed his jelly-covered foot into my knee. As we watched the movie practically arm in arm, I suppose this gave our bodies a deeper sense of symmetry. Even worse: During a screening of Dune, the person in back of me whispered a request in my ear: “Could you please lower your head?” Because emergency surgery to have some vertebrae removed didn’t seem feasible before the movie’s finish, I told him no. When I returned from a bathroom break, I noticed the seat next to him was empty, meaning he could have solved the problem of my head without me. God helps those who help themselves.
And yes, having to watch a movie wearing a mask the entire time absolutely sucks. I do so without complaint or under-the-nose-style cheating because I believe in science, while cursing science for being so damn Calvinist.
I am someone who covered this year’s Sundance Film Festival from the comfort of my bed and loved it. I like being able to schedule my day according to my absolute convenience, when I’m able to turn off everything and just focus on the movie at hand. I do not say this to negate the specialness of the cinematic experience. Being in a giant room with a giant screen and a giant sound system has an absorbing effect and over the course of the recent weeks, I’ve been reminded of how sci-fi a trip to the movies can feel, regardless of the genre of what’s being projected. It feels like jumping into a dream that unfurls effortlessly. This is especially true of a surreal movie like the aforementioned Memoria, which I didn’t particularly enjoy but did admire. With Dune, I truly felt beamed into another galaxy and I appreciated the big screen’s ability to offer me such eye-popping details. But not every movie, in my experience, requires a theatrical experience to be appreciated. I’m someone who came of age at the height of the VCR, someone who has always valued the convenience of home entertainment, someone who has a decent enough setup in my living room to credibly mimic a theatrical experience. It’s not the same, but it’s close.
When the pandemic set in, many of us wondered just how much of our lives we were going to have to give up as a result of our “new normal.” Now new normal is transitioning back to old normal, and it’s time for concessions all over again. The past 19 months have prompted previously unknown levels of mindfulness for me personally, which means my focus and concentration are like never before and that I can sink into a movie with ease, regardless of how it’s being delivered and what level the darkness is of the room in which I’m viewing it. I like a movie theater, but the restructuring that took place over the course of quarantine showed me that I do not need one. What I came to appreciate during lockdown was the level of control I have over my immediate life, regardless of the chaos just outside my door. Perhaps this is me investing in my own illusion, a sort of mental theater in the round. But at least, that theater is mine.
Still, leaving your home ups the potential for exposure to life’s wild cards. Outside the public screening of Benedetta (I saw it twice, as I had promised a friend to go with her before the festival started and then liked the movie enough to not consider begging myself out of our plans), the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (“an organization of lay Catholic Americans concerned about the moral crisis shaking the remnants of Christian civilization,” per their website) protested the “blasphemy” that was taking over Lincoln Center that day. Some held signs (“Why the endless insults to Jesus?” “Stop Offending God”), some played bagpipes, some were dashingly handsome young men whom I thought would look great in harnesses. The group recited several Hail Marys in a row and then recited a single word that sounded a hell of a lot like, “Reparations!” (Were they actually demanding reparations for...Jesus?) My partner in blasphemy and I watched them in glee for about 10 minutes. It all felt so exciting, so ‘90s, to see Verhoeven protested so vociferously. It was the kind of spectacle you don’t see everyday, something that I might never have even known about had I not gone to the movies.