At midnight on Sunday, Los Angeles shut down its movie theaters. On Tuesday, New York did the same. These closures were part of an urgent and necessary effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus and are the right thing to do, no question. Even so, the news filled me with a sense of loss. So much of my life has been defined by — and literally organized around — watching films in theaters. Moviegoing is who I am.
For those who came of age with home video it can be hard to grasp why anyone still bothers to go out to see movies. This bafflement has become part of a steady drumbeat of complaints about watching movies in theaters: the pricey tickets, bad projection, overpriced junk food, the creeps, potential maniacs and selfish people texting or talking on their phones. Just stay home, kick back and binge on another suboptimal Netflix show. But moviegoing helped make me who I am, shaped my world and my sense of self, beginning in childhood.
It started with my film-crazed parents, young East Village bohemians who couldn’t afford babysitters and so brought me everywhere, including to the movies. This was in New York in the mid-1960s, a heroic age of cinephilia before home video. When I was 3, they took me to see Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life,” a glorious, overheated drama with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh. I cried so loudly when van Gogh cut off his ear that afterward, my mom says, some of the other patrons smiled, as if to reassure me everything would be OK. I like to think that this was the start of my life in film.
By the time I was 8, my favorite movies were Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” and François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” which sounds ridiculous but is true. As I got older, I started going to theaters by myself. I went to everything, often without knowing anything about what I was seeing. I’d ask for a buck or two and trot over to St. Marks Cinema, a second-run theater on Second Avenue, or Theater 80, a revival house. The prints at Theater 80 were criminally battered and the rear projection appalling, but it had jaw-dropping concessions and a sustained commitment to Astaire and Rogers musicals.
So many of my memories are connected with moviegoing; some are of being alone in a theater full of people, which is a metaphor for my life, though also a metaphor for being alive. I love laughing and crying and shrieking with an enthusiastic audience. And while I now go to the movies for work, I also go to the movies for pleasure and for the love of the art. I go because I’m curious, because I like the director or star. I go because I’m happy, anxious or depressed. I go because films have provided comfort throughout my life, offering me an escape from my own reality but also a way of making sense of it, giving me glossy and gritty worlds to discover and reassuringly disappear in.
When I write about movies, I tend to frame them in aesthetic and cultural terms. What I don’t write about are the people I saw them with and whose presence — their bodies next to mine — can become inextricably bound up with how I think about certain films. I love “The Road Warrior” for many reasons, but part of what makes it still feel meaningful is the group of friends, now scattered, I saw it with in the front row of St. Marks Cinema. Whenever I rewatch “The Silence of the Lambs,” I think about my close friend Amy and how we clung to each other when we first saw it. I can’t think of “The New World” without flashing on sitting in my car with my husband afterward and sobbing, overcome by the emotions the movie had unleashed about it, life, him.
Cinephilia has profoundly changed since home video took off in the 1980s. Before, you had to leave the house and tailor your viewing desires to the theater’s schedule, not yours. To see a film required planning, determination. You had to juggle calendars and scour newspaper listings that you invariably taped to the fridge. The more interesting theaters had their own programming sensibility and calendars that often included capsule reviews. As a kid, I also pored over TV listings, and my favorite critical take of all time remains a one-sentence tour de force that frequently ran in The New York Times: “This dog has fleas.” (How could I not become a film critic?)
There are more ways now to watch films than ever, but I still vastly prefer seeing them on the big screen, even if it means navigating rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles, where I now live. I am committed to the rituals of moviegoing: scrutinizing the new posters, cruising past the concessions, checking out the crowd (and exits), landing the perfect seat and savoring the delicious moment when the room darkens right before the screen lights up. In that instant, I always hope for the best and on occasion actually see it. Because even though I love moviegoing, I don’t love every movie.
But I always love thinking about films and puzzling through both how they work and how they work on us. It’s easy to understand why a drama about a dying parent can knock us sideways (or cause us to sneer at its cheap tricks). That little old lady onscreen may be your personal Proustian madeleine, tapping memories of your own mother. And if you drive a bit faster after seeing the latest “Fast & Furious” blowout (yes, I’ve done that) it may have to do with what the Italian neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese calls “mirror neurons,” the neural mechanism that fires in our brains when we perform an action and when we watch someone else perform one. The idea being that when Vin Diesel revs his engine, our brains react as if we’re gunning ours too.
Gallese asserts that we live in a “we-centric space,” which is a perfect metaphor for movie theaters and moviegoing. However films do their work — create their magic — they do so because of other people: making movies is a social act and so is moviegoing. And while you can watch them sitting alone on your couch (I regularly do although usually with a few cats), there is something qualitatively different about going to a designated space and sitting, and staying, in the enveloping dark with a lot of people you don’t know and maybe some you do. It is an exquisite, human thing to sit with all those other souls, to be alone with others.
With social distancing, quarantines and self-isolation, many of us are now physically alone. I am fervently hoping for the best for us all. When we at last can go out again and be with one another, I hope that we flood cinemas, watching every single movie, from the most rarefied art film to the silliest Hollywood offering. The movies can be exasperating and worse, but they have seen us through a lot, including economic bad times and wars. And there is nothing like watching a movie, leaving the world while being rooted in it alongside friends, family and everyone else. I miss that, I miss you.