Several years ago, at an independent South Jersey movie theater that would later be overtaken by AMC corporate, I saw The Secret Life of Bees. My mother and I had read the bestseller it was adapted from just a few years before and growing up in the kind of family that went to the movies at least once, maybe twice per week, it felt like essential viewing. We arrived late, settling in the dark with our popcorn behind a pair of blue-haired old ladies in the first few rows. And not even a few minutes into the movie, when a character appeared on screen, one of the older women in front of us leaned into her viewing partner, pointed upwards, and screamed in what I am sure she must have thought was a whisper, “THAT’S THE ONE WHO DIES!”
It was true, the character would die much later in the film. If you were someone attending the movie and hadn’t read the book, this announcement in the dead silence of the theater was probably annoying, possibly movie-ruining depending on your sensitivity towards spoilers, but it wasn’t unusual. My local theater had the distinction of being located practically within walking distance from a senior living center. It was common to go to a movie and find the median age of the heavily perfumed audience was 85 and up. It was also practically a given that you’d get a loud, added commentary track from that same audience, grumbling that they “DIDN’T KNOW THIS MOVIE WAS ABOUT CANCER” during a showing of a weepy drama, shouting choruses of “OH MY GOD” and “THIS IS TOO MUCH” through torture scenes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The movie theater might as well have been their living room, assumed niceties when the lights went down be damned. I loved it.
It’s been a horrific year for movie theaters. In the pandemic, movie chains have shuttered hundreds of theaters, and smaller indie theaters have turned to virtual cinema. The announcement that Warner Brothers would release their delayed 2021 films, like Dune and Suicide Squad, on HBO Max at the same time as they’d get a wider release felt like another jarring death knell for American movie theaters. And then there is the effect of the absence of theaters on movie watching itself in 2020, films destined for the big screen premiered instead on a laptop, or worse, an iPhone. “I hung sheets over the shades and even taped Trader Joe’s shopping bags over one small window, which was as ridiculous as it sounds,” New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote of trying to replicate a screening room to watch movies at home. Like Dargis, I mourn the concentration a darkened movie theater provides, sealing me off from the outside world and into a vacuum of a movie’s reality—and the deeply considered programming of local theaters. But what I miss most are the people.
I miss watching movies with strangers. I miss loud strangers who talk back to the screen and yell at Viola Davis to leave Denzel Washington’s ass in Fences. I miss kids who confusingly ask in the middle of A Quiet Place as to why “the kids even have school” in the aftermath of an alien invasion (a fair question!). I miss seeing every Twilight movie on opening night in theaters and the audience of teenage girls screaming “Team Jacob!” or “Team Edward!” before the lights went down, and my friends and I offering up “Team Carlisle!” as a joke. I miss crowds of chatty, drunk wine moms passing around open bottles of pinot grigio at a showing of Magic Mike XXL because nobody cares, and also I’m near drunk too. I miss something many find sacrilegious: bad movie theater people, the sort who inspire angry thinkpieces.
What I really long for is the vibration of an audience in agreement with one another; horror movie fans screaming at a protagonist on-screen to stay out of the basement, a crowd so collectively tense for the entirety of Uncut Gems that tickets should have come with a free massage afterward. Earlier in the pandemic, I remembered seeing Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 mother! in theaters, a bad movie obsessed with its own miscalculated profundity. There were maybe only 10 or so people during my showing, and as the movie rolled on, through Jennifer Lawrence screaming about the sink not being braced, people eating the corpse of a dead baby, absolute chaos that was supposed to sort of be about climate change and humanity’s destructive tendencies, I was relieved to find that everyone in the theater was laughing, making fun of it. In our separate seats, giggling, we had prematurely but rightfully anointed the two-hour movie a future camp classic, at the most. I’d sit through mother! again in theaters just to experience a theater at all.
Before the pandemic, I frequently saw movies, as many critics do, in small screening rooms around Manhattan in corporate office buildings or swanky hotels. It’s a privilege to see these movies for free ahead of their release date, so I can take my time thinking about what I want to write about them or speak with the people who make them. It’s perhaps the ideal way to see a movie, and I miss it. But sometimes there’s a joylessness in seeing movies in these settings among polite, professional movie-watchers and their notepads. I always appreciated how Pauline Kael, ever obsessed with a perceived “audience” response to film, included how fellow movie-goers reacted to movies in her reviews. “During the first part of the picture, a woman in my row was gleefully assuring her companions, ‘It’s a comedy. It’s a comedy,’” Kael wrote in her infamous 1967 review of Bonnie and Clyde. “After a while, she didn’t say anything.” Before this year, when I wanted to see a movie with an audience that would amplify its impact, I’d choose carefully among New York City’s sea of theaters. Which theater is more likely to be filled with rowdy teenagers for a slasher film, Regal Union Square or Court Street?
Maybe this is offensive to movies and the people who make them, who ideally want me to immerse myself in their work and not be drawn out by real-world chatter and traffic. But experiencing a movie with strangers, friends, family, is another kind of immersion. In the past few months I’ve experienced the collective movie-watching I crave in small doses, live chatting with friends on Zoom while watching Strictly Ballroom for the first time, talking via three-way call during a movie marathon, though it’s not quite the same. Even before the pandemic, it was easy to stay home, scroll through Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or Youtube or whatever On Demand service, and find something to watch. It wouldn’t necessarily be the newest blockbuster, and considering what gets “popular” on Netflix these days (or so the company says) sometimes it seems like the bar is pretty low.
To go to a theater then and spend money on a ticket was a deliberate choice to give in to an experience larger than mere movie-watching, one you can’t control the way you can from the comfort of your living room, one that includes a crowd of strangers who will undoubtedly shape the way you experience a movie. To choose movie theaters is to choose movies, but to also choose people: programmers, concession stand attendants, janitors, ticket-takers, projectionists, and audiences, no matter how imperfect. I hope one day soon I can make that choice again.