Going Back to the Movies

On February 8th, 2020, I went to see 1917 at my local theater. I didn’t take any special note of the occasion at the time. It was the day before the Oscars and I was in the midst of catching up on the nominees for Best Picture. I had no reason to suspect as I walked out that I wouldn’t be back inside of a movie theater for over 15 months.

I’m sure this isn’t my longest hiatus ever. My parents were never big moviegoers, so when I was very young it’s quite likely that I went much longer without seeing a movie on the big screen. But I certainly wouldn’t have felt the lack of it at the time, and this is definitely a personal record many times over calculated from when I started taking myself to movies. I hope I never break it.

It’s been a long, weird year-plus for all of us, and much worse things have happened in the world than my not being able to go see a movie in theaters. Nevertheless, in addition to this being yet one more reminder that things were Not Normal, the pandemic has obviously been incredibly disruptive, even devastating, to the entire movie theater industry.

At this time last year, there were two first-run multiplexes in my town, plus a small downtown theater with three screens and full dine-in service and a reasonably nice dollar theater. Today, the dollar theater and the downtown theater have permanently closed, and one of the two multiplexes is closed with an undetermined (and perhaps unlikely) reopening date. The last theater standing is only open for a few hours every evening during the week . . . Just long enough for a single screening of most of the films they are showing.

Things aren’t completely hopeless; another first-run multiplex is currently under construction here and will hopefully open within the next year. But the local movie scene has been dealt a crippling blow, and I don’t know when or if it will recover to anything resembling what it was like before COVID-19. I stayed away because it was the responsible thing to do, but this was the cost. I don’t regret that decision, but I am filled with sadness by the results of it.

So it was with very mixed feelings that I drove to the movies tonight and settled into my usual spot with a tub of popcorn and a large soda. I’ve been fully vaccinated since the beginning of April, and I noticed a day or two ago that I was about to log my 4000th film on Letterboxd, and I immediately knew that I wanted to mark the occasion with a return to the theater. I was excited, thrilled even, to park in that familiar lot and walk through the doors into that lobby once again. I can’t single-handedly keep a movie theater open, but I want to support its continued existence nonetheless. That’s been on my mind for months, particularly each time I watched a movie at home that I would normally have seen at a theater first. I hope that others like me are starting to trickle back as well.

Despite my excitement, there was an almost funereal atmosphere once I got inside, and I found myself feeling somewhat subdued. There were only 2 other moviegoers in evidence when I arrived, contemplating the menu board. Everywhere I looked there was another sign of a facility limping along and only partially operational; most of these were literal signs, declaring various areas to be out of operation or reminding patrons of the masking and social-distancing policies. I picked up my mobile concession order and went to find my screen. There wasn’t anyone to direct me, and in fact no one checked my ticket (or whether I was lying about my order, for that matter).

The first trailer was already rolling when I walked in, but the theater was empty. A few minutes later, the couple I had passed on my way in took their seats, and another couple arrived shortly after that . . . So five of us for tonight’s showing. And to be perfectly honest, that wouldn’t have struck me as very unusual on an average weeknight pre-pandemic (although Tuesday, discount ticket night, used to be pretty lively), but it still felt a bit grim.

It’s not terribly important what movie I saw. It wasn’t anything remotely deserving of the significance of either my 4000th movie or of my long-awaited return to theaters, nor did I intend it to be. In fact, I saw Those Who Wish Me Dead, which I could have watched at home on HBO Max. It won’t be on my top ten list for the year. It wasn’t a transcendent artistic or spiritual experience. It wasn’t a big-budget, visual-effects extravaganza demanding of a giant screen. But I was engaged and entertained for 100 minutes and I left feeling really, really happy.

The sights and smells of the theater were so familiar and so comfortable . . . The feeling of taking my seat in my usual place . . . Half-watching 20 minutes of mediocre previews while eating handfuls of popcorn . . . The dimming of the lights as I mentally prepare to give the movie my full attention. No interruptions from kids. No pausing to pop out of the room. And then after, watching the rest of the audience file out right away and then staying to watch the end credits alone . . . Nodding to the (one-man) cleaning crew as we wish each other a pleasant evening on my way out . . . Refilling my soda in the lobby, and then the walk to my car, still forming my thoughts and opinions about what I watched. It was just . . . nice.

I hope what I got tonight was an experience that is slowly returning to life rather than slowly fading to black. It was good to be back. I hope we’re not too late.

~ by Jared on May 18, 2021.

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