I find myself in solitude most days. Not alone, but turned inward rather than outward, not seeking conversation or companionship, just existing by myself. Part of it is a reaction to the summer-induced diaspora that has driven my friends and family miles away from me; part of it is the desire to preserve some energy to make the day-to-day demands of living independently less exhausting.
Inevitably, my solitude drives me toward a movie theater. Last semester, I had only been in New York City for one full day before I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Brooklyn, where I caught a screening of “Pretty in Pink.” It was the eve of my 20th birthday, and I knew I wouldn’t be celebrating it with anyone whom I cared deeply about, and I’d suddenly become overwhelmed with sadness and loneliness. So I went to the movies.
Movie theaters have always been deeply therapeutic for me. It’s not about film as a medium, per se — that’s a different conversation altogether — but the establishments themselves, the idea that whenever I walk into a cinema, I’m connecting to a cultural practice that’s been shared for well over 100 years. And, across different venues and cities, I can expect a relatively unvarying process and experience. It’s a way to immediately ground myself in the familiar no matter where I am.
So I suppose it’s my version of going to church. I methodically pick a seat that centers me exactly within the auditorium, the best vantage point to view the screen. I tuck my phone away, because even if it turns out to be the worst movie I’ve ever seen, I would never text in a theater. And when the lights veer into darkness and the projector’s bulb flicks on, catching dust in its beam of illumination, I fall silent, like a pastor has opened his Bible, and I hold my breath in anticipation of bearing witness to something beautiful and spiritual and godlike.
Nothing holds more importance in a cinema than a film, certainly not the patron nor his concerns or woes; quite literally, everything else surrenders to the shadows. In the darkness, film works its magic, and you begin to understand why Plato’s subjects stayed in the cave — although projections on a wall are supposed to be mere replications of reality, once you stumble out of the theater and into the light, you find that nothing is quite as in focus or immediate as the images you saw onscreen. And if you’re watching one of the greats — Kurosawa or Fellini or Hitchcock — the sheer detail of a film’s composition floors you, and you quickly realize that you never want to watch a movie on your iPhone again.
It’s indisputable that the technological era has given us every reason to avoid movie theaters, or perhaps even view them as nearing obsoletion. Movies are no longer restricted to cinemas and televisions since the rise of the screen era, and some filmmakers don’t even shoot movies with big screens in mind anymore, given the understanding that their film will most likely be watched on a 13-inch laptop. And, sadly, we have less time in our day for indulging in movie theaters, with our bloated 40-hour work weeks and hourlong commutes, and phones are easy to pull out on the train or bus. Plus, I get it, movie theaters can be shitty. Old, torn fabric seats and overpriced popcorn, couples making out in the back row, someone chewing with their mouth open, sticky floors and loud whisperers — they suck.
And yet, we still flock to stadiums to watch football games and arenas to see bands perform, in spite of the fact that watching the game at home or streaming an album are far more economical, convenient, and superior in quality. Of course, we all know why we do those things — to experience what we love with other people who love it too, to view art in a communal setting, to feel a little less alone. (I’d also like to point out that all of these places — stadiums, arenas, movie theaters — have been targeted by violent men with guns or bombs. Remaining in public is an act of resilience.)
Perhaps most importantly, movie theaters are one of the only tangible things we have left with regard to movies. Film lost its body when celluloid was rejected for digital cameras, and DVDs are slowly slipping into extinction with the rise of online streaming. Cinemas are spaces in which film is treated as a medium deserving of full, undivided attention, where everyone collectively agrees to reserve two uninterrupted hours of their day to participate in a communal film-watching experience. And, most certainly, no one cares if you’re alone in a movie theater, because when the lights dim and the projector flicks on, “me” and “you” fade into a movie and its audience, a pastor and his congregation, preaching its sermon to an enraptured crowd.
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