Turns out Going Back to a Movie Theater is About More than Movies

The lobby of the Falmouth, Maine Flagship Cinemas location (Photo courtesy of author)

Until last Thursday night, 15 months, five days, and roughly 18 hours had passed since the last time I hustled into a movie theater for a showing. At the outset, I had no concept of how long it would be between ticket lines and overpriced boxes of cookie dough bites. On March 4, 2020, I walked into Jane Pickens Theater with my friend Nova, thrilled to finally be seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), a film I had read an untold number of reviews about in anticipation of a theater near me actually airing it. After parking my gargantuan soccer-mom Honda Pilot a street over and walking through the last bits of snow, we were settling into just the most recent in a string of evening screenings together (a special shout-out here to Nova for going to so many movies with me that the words Fantastic Fungi can now elicit the exact same belly-laugh from both of us). 

I loved Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and wrote about it at the time. Elevating the experience beyond even the profound artistry of the film was the Greek-revival stage and trappings of Jane Pickens. Seeing anything there always makes me feel like I’m a step closer to the elegance that used to be commonplace for theaters before multiplexes. It’s truly nostalgia for a time I never experienced, but the idea of it is dreadfully romantic all the same. My routine was: go watch a new movie at the theater, return home and pour a glass of wine, and assemble all my rambling reflections into a cogent, or at least vaguely readable, piece. Considering that night now, and how less than two weeks later I would call off a trip to New York City because of a mysterious new virus, there is a wistful sadness wafting through it. 

Beyond the incalculable global loss of tangible lives and intangible senses of safety and community, my life has emerged looking quite different than it did that Wednesday in March. I write this piece from my childhood bedroom at home in Maine on account of a string of unexpected curves pertaining to my employment, housing, and health. I spend the daytime hours not teaching, but working as a freelance media contractor for the college I attended for undergrad, a wonderful development that has allowed me to do work I am energized by with people I count as friends. Therefore, reflecting on how I approached going to a movie theater with a friend on one night over a year ago, I cannot help but embrace some of the melodrama of seeing that as a fascinating inflection point, an easy-to-choose final evening of the life and routine I had settled into arguably four or five near-nervous-breakdowns ago.

Getting back into a theater also left me running through the various opinions I’ve held about them over the years, a development held together by the undeniable fact that my lifetime is easily demarcated by when I saw certain movies, and who was there with me. I eulogized the Saco Cinemagic, my childhood theater, when it announced a permanent closure a few months ago, and that only accounts for a handful of formative screenings. All told, movie theaters have existed in my life as a sort of temple, a place to go and pay tribute to the force that has impacted my life arguably more than anything else: movies. I have turned to them for solace and entertainment, used far too many quotes and references to build friendships, and have one degree devoted to them with another one, unless I bungle anything up dramatically, on the way. As a generally agnostic person, movie theaters are about as damn near close as anything has come to approximating church for me. I go to a theater to be moved, and to connect with others who want the same thing. 

None of this is to say that I have ever believed movie theaters are some sort of pristine and holy space. I loved Saco Cinemagic, and I also crunched my way across innumerable pounds of stale popcorn and sticky patches of spilled soda whenever I bought a ticket to a show there. Then there is the matter of the people who open their snacks at the worst possible moment, or decide a quiet stretch of tension is the best time to loudly ask their date if they’ll be getting sex after the show is over (for anyone interested, that was one I heard during a sparsely populated Ad Astra screening). No, seeing a movie in a theater is not the most peaceful of ways to do it, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t something pious about spending two-plus hours in a dark room with strangers all hoping on some level to walk out with more on your mind than you had coming in. I could not help but think of that communal aspect  any time I watched a new movie at home during the darkest days of the pandemic, yearning to have laughed alongside dozens of other folks when Andy Samberg shouts “Roy, you sick fuck!” in Palm Springs (2020), or to have felt the electricity of an audience feeling a generation-defining performance like Daniel Kaluyya in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Consequently, you can imagine the vibrating anticipation I held within me as I walked into the Falmouth, Maine Flagship Cinemas with my brother Aidan last Thursday. We are both fully vaccinated (or marinated, as my friend Anne likes to put it), have been for over two months now, and we were there to see A Quiet Place: Part II (2021).  I fumbled getting in line because, let’s be real, being out of practice with navigating a simple task like queuing to buy candy is a new challenge altogether. Yet, even with Aidan laughing at me, I persevered, and shortly after we looked for Theater 6, walking down a moodily lit hallway lined with alternative movie posters for classic films, and inexplicably one for Frozen (2013). Once we made it to our theater and cozied into the plush reclining seats, I nearly started crying. We were 15 minutes early, because even a pandemic can’t kill my need to make sure I don’t miss any trailers, so I got to sit, and then watch a family, some teenagers, and a mother and son file in to join us. Ten or so strangers, all having made the choice to come out to a theater in Falmouth to see this movie. 

All told, A Quiet Place: Part II was a perfectly fine movie with a number of thrillingly composed sequences even if the sum total of the film only managed to settle somewhere in the realm of acceptable. Nonetheless, it will retain a distinct place in the stream of movies I have watched because it was my return to this undeniable vein of worship in my life. Is that an extravagant way to put it? Possibly. Do I feel it down to my bones? Absolutely. I have no doubt that everyone who is starting to attempt  moments of normalcy and recognition of the lives we lived before COVID-19 have their spaces that exemplify that feeling. None of us will, or should, simply revert back to how we were, but sitting in that movie theater, listening to someone crunch on stale popcorn and whisper about the Venom: Let There be Carnage (2021) trailer, I rediscovered the corner of peace that movie theaters have always brought me. Here’s to more of them, and to all of us finding those places.

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