On Going to the Movies
Dear Phantom Reader,
Do you remember the last time you went to the movies? I do. It was last February in the small town of Bad Tölz in Southern Bavaria. The movie theatre was called Capitol Theater and it was exactly the kind of place I love: a 1950s arthouse flick kind of place with old school faux velvet chairs and red curtains in front of the screen. Even if it weren’t the last time I went to the movies–and who knows when any of us will be able to go again–it’s an evening I would still remember. Because going to the movies is magic.
Do you miss it as much as I do?
A woman in my writer’s group mentioned The Isolated Cinema, a strange-but-intriguing offer made this year by the Göteborg Film Festival in Sweden: one person gets to spend a week on a remote Swedish island (basically a rock with a lighthouse and guesthouse on it) with no phone, no computer and no books, only the wild sea and a personal solitary screening of all the film festival’s films. Whoever is chosen will also have to do a daily video journal about their experience.
I love the bizarre extremeness of this idea, the intentional amping up of isolation in a time of isolation, plus the chance to focus on one thing and one thing only: watching films. Truly a rarity in our modern lives.
As for the video diary, I think this newsletter is proof that I don’t really mind sharing with strangers, if strangers even read this (hi mom!).
Anyway, I applied for the experience and suggest you do too if it sounds like your cup of unique experience tea.
Wish me luck, as I wish you if you choose to apply!
In the meantime, enjoy the post the idea inspired, about films and movie going and what they mean to me.
On Going to the Movies
My parents didn’t have a happy marriage.
It wasn’t that quiet poison kind of unhappiness, where a pair uncomfortably slides into the dining dead, those sad older couples you see sometimes in restaurants with turned down lips, who ran out of things to say to each other a long, long time ago.
No, my parent’s unhappiness, like everything in our family, was loud and in your face.
Heated discussions at the dinner table, arguments in the bedroom, a wedding ring thrown out the car window on the freeway (this was my father, who was most definitely the drama king in the relationship), you name it, they brought it on. The word “divorce” loomed large throughout my teens and 20s; once they even drew up the papers but then changed their minds.
Did my parents love each other? I think they did. But they were two people with mismatched temperaments who had difficult childhoods in very different ways. They stuck it out for nearly 40 years and, when my father was dying, together they healed so many of the wounds they’d inflicted on each other over the years.
But that is another story for another time.
My parent’s marriage was heavy on war and short on peace, but there was one thing that always brought a truce: going to the movies.
My parents were both cinephiles in the unpretentious sense of the word, my father’s taste both lowbrow and highbrow whereas my mother preferred arthouse fair. Whenever they came home from the movies, they both had a gleam in their eyes. Sometimes they loved the film they’d seen, sometimes they said ho-hum, occasionally they hated it.
As usual, they didn’t always agree.
But even when this was the case, when my mother thought a film was brilliant and my father said ho-hum or the other way around, there was still always a softness in the air, like their love for going to the movies and talking about what they’d seen afterward reminded them of why they’d fallen in love in the first place.
Later, I had the same movie going connection in several important but troubled relationships.
Like with my sometimes mostly best friend, who I watched Pulp Fiction with at Century Bayfair, a sad multiplex in the parking lot of one of the world’s saddest malls. We sat in his car for nearly an hour afterward talking about what we’d seen.
I remember the moon and how bright it was when we drove back home from Berkeley down two-laned Highway 13. We’d just seen Crumb and I was upset about Crumb’s misogyny and he couldn’t understand why. When I think back now, I think I was more upset about how the movie depicted the dramatic disintegration of a family, which hit too close to home.
The same movie truce happened later in my own unhappy first marriage.
My father was emotionally volatile with boundaries issues, but at his best, he was intensely loving, eccentric and endearing. The first time around, I decided to marry a man who was his exact opposite: emotionally controlled and controlling, a super intelligent ideas person, yes, but also distant and cold.
When I think about our marriage now, which ended almost 20 years ago, I still remember many of the movies we saw and where we saw them: Crash at Shattuck Cinema, Black Box BRD, Im Toten Winkel–Hitlers Sekretärin, Swept Away, Princess Mononoke, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Amores Perros, Ghost Dog, Dancer in the Dark, In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Drive, 21 Grams and Being John Malkovich at Odeon (our theatre of choice it seems), After Life and The Man Without a Past at Babylon.
Although I still think these are great films, would I remember them as clearly if they weren’t tied in with the happy times of a complicated marriage to someone I once loved so intensely who has since become a stranger?
In my second marriage, which is happy and still going strong, movie going played less of a role.
Because kids came into the picture.
Anyone who has kids, at least little ones, knows that going to the movies get much harder, at least as a couple. Once the kids are in bed at eight, you’re worn out yourself, which ultimately makes Netflix more appealing than mustering up the energy to leave the house.
But I still never stopped going to the movies, sometimes with a friend but often just by myself.
Every once in a while you see one of those articles in a newspaper questioning whether we will soon see the death of movie going, in the same way they sometimes question the death of the novel. Whenever I see these kinds of articles, I shake my head.
Watching a great film in the dark with strangers, with popcorn (always salty, never sweet), a beer or Fritz Zitrone if I’m not in the mood for alcohol, this is what it’s about for me, the ultimate impersonal-yet-intimate experience.
Why would we ever give that up?
But the world is changing.
We’re in the middle of a pandemic with no real end in sight and I’m worried what the world will look like once the dust has settled.
What will we have lost?
So many of Berlin’s small movie theatres have been struggling for years now. Babylon, Sputnik, Moviemento, Odeon, Arsenal, will they all still be there when the virus is finally under control and the world reopens? We already lost Eiszeit to gentrification in 2018.
I had a semi-nightmare a few weeks ago where I was wandering through the streets of a city that was supposed to be Berlin, but it looked more like a mixture between Munich and Manchester. I strolled through the winter streets alone, with strangers rushing past and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong.
I walked into a toy store and realized what the problem was: no one was wearing masks! In a panic, I put mine on and everyone looked at me like I was crazy.
I wandered on until I came to a movie theatre like the ones I’ve mentioned here: small, independent, uncomfortable seats and not a cup holder in sight. I wandered in and saw the people staring at the screen, the light from the film flickering across their maskless faces.
I had the same panicked feeling for a second, but it went away. I felt such a comfort, watching these people watch a film in a public space, the same feeling I had last February in Bad Tölz, when I didn’t yet know that going to the movie, a simple, ordinary act, would soon become so strange and precious.
I’m a writer and love reading and I love movies. The first two are solitary acts and yet when I do them, I never feel alone.
But films, great films, I can’t shake the feeling that they are made to be shared with a loved one and strangers in the dark. These days I’m more likely to watch series on Netflix because watching the kind of films I liked to see at the theatre alone on my laptop in bed seems almost profane.
Can the intimacy of movie going ever be transformed and reimagined, say live viewing with a group of strangers from around the world and a chat session afterwards where I would probably lurk but not participate actively because that’s mostly how I am online?
Or do I need to rethink my movie watching philosophy and learn to feel the same power and connection to the story that I do when I read a good novel, a feeling which makes you feel a little less lonely and more alive, even if the future means more and more watching these films all on my own?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that once all this is over, I’m going to the movies. I’m not even sure I’ll care much what’s on.
I’ll save you a seat in the dark.