Pushing through twin doors at the end of the hall, I arrive at an empty theater. What have I come here for? What do I want the theater to do for me–to do to me?
An usher steadying herself on an upright dustpan directs me towards theater three. She nods up and away, keeping a set of concrete stairs in her eye line. I thank her and ascend. My six-dollar coffee burns into my palm as I climb. The lady at concessions had offered me one of those flimsy cardboard koozies, but I refused it along with the extra sugar packets and my receipt of purchase. Forking over six bucks for a black coffee activated a series of twitchy side-to-side jerks of the head and a reflexive set of no-thank-yous. Movie theater prices before noon disorient like a mugging in broad daylight.
Another attendant is posted at the top of the stairwell. His walkie-talkie chirps and blips. He gestures further down the hall. “Thin Man? Straight ahead. First right.” I nod and lurch past, shoulders tensed. I do as the attendant suggests. Pushing through twin doors at the end of the hall, I arrive at an empty theater. I feel fussy and alone. Not all alone though. Björk is somewhere above me, singing. I aim toward the middle congregate of seats. What have I come here for? What do I want the theater to do for me–to do to me?
I count fifty-nine seats. Some are the color of hydrangeas. Some are spotted. Mine is leather and fatherly. My coffee and I bob against the relentless Björk playlist while we wait for the others to come bumbling in. A slideshow of IFC’s upcoming events and premieres flits across the screen–documentaries dominate the foreseeable future. It’s a quarter till start time and I am still alone. There is not a single radiant thing in the room. All is stone and microfiber. All is in need of a hug. The coffee is bitter and I begin to entertain the possibility of a private, Howard-Hughes-type viewing. I could blockade myself inside. I could switch seats every time Nick Charles pours himself a cocktail. I could walk up and kiss the screen. I could leave.
The smell of popcorn turns crisp and new faces curl about the door. They’re giddy and middle aged. They come in scarved pairs like cross-walking Kindergarteners. They aren’t at all what I pictured. They aren’t geriatric, for one. None of them wear ascots or little white gloves. None of them have coffees burning into their hands. The audience of this Saturday morning screening of W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934) is, if anything, strikingly disorienting–a morning offering masquerading as a midnight mass. Soda, popcorn, and cheeky exchanges give our theater a hushed, buttery air. The bodies settle. There are seventeen including mine. By the time Björk quits, my coffee is cold. There’s sighing and chatter until the lights give way to that fidgety and bated movie-theater darkness.
I want for the forty-two vacant seats to tell me something. I want to be able to announce some kind of death, to predict an end, to foresee something both obvious and obscured whether it be about the arthouse or the more generalized movie-going drive. But declarations of extinction may not do any good. They may not capture what it feels like to attend a space that makes disorientation precious. I find myself clutching the armrest, holding the plastic cup holder like a hollow and fingerless hand. Why are we here? Perhaps, like the couple seated behind me, we are here to consider leaving. Their shadowed bodies exited somewhere toward the beginning of the middle, just after the scene where Nick and Nora climb into their separate twin beds. For $17.75, the freedom in jilting some domineering, presumptuous movie can be yours. You can wear that freedom on your way out. It will break across your face along with the light.
Or, for the same price, you can sit tight and let the screen have its way with you. In his writings on David Lynch, David Foster Wallace dismisses this seduction. For him, “film’s overwhelming power isn’t news.”1 But for me, the big and awesome movie-theater screen is in fact news. If, as Wallace argues, “the magic of going to a movie is surrendering to it, letting it dominate you,” what gland does this voluntary submission stimulate? When in the movie-going experience is this domination granted to us? Perhaps we are dominated by the limited options offered to us by our theaters. There are only a few movies to choose from, and those movies are regulated by time slots and seating charts. The cinema promises the contemporary viewer manageable choice. It promises us a space in which we are rewarded by submission and limitation. Perhaps the “overwhelming power” of a movie screen lies in its ability to momentarily make our world black and white. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the movie–or get out.
Of course, there are distractions that challenge said surrender. Your neighboring movie-goer is bound to chew loudly. A runny nose will sniff incessantly. Trips to the bathroom will let light in. Children will wriggle and kick the backside of your seat. But the attention is yours if you want it and the offerings are slim enough for you to choose from them rather than be swallowed up by them. And above all, there’s that precious communion of bodies, smell, and time. The dark and over-air-conditioned classrooms which we call movie theaters are not magical so much as contractual: We are here because we figured others would be.
The AMC on Broadway and East Nineteenth Street could double as an airport terminal. Security guards pull at their belts and lock their knees. Little infantries of retractable stanchions make uninspired mazes. There is a well-stocked bar beside an escalator. Ticket kiosks buffer and spit out receipts. The overhead lighting tries to bore through your brow bone. The aesthetic components necessary for commercial flight are all here.
It’s just after seven in the evening and I am in the concessions line waiting to purchase a humiliatingly large fountain soda. I look around. There are no children or old people. The average age of the patrons is probably somewhere between thirty and thirty-five. It’s November of 2019 and there are five movies playing. Two are kiddish (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and The Addams Family). Two are dramas (Joker and Motherless Brooklyn). And one is an action movie (the sixth Terminator installment). That’s the one I have a ticket for––Terminator: Dark Fate. The employee at concessions is friendly and unamused with the Saturday-night traffic. His forearms glisten with the oil from the popcorn maker. I charge $6.29 to my credit card for a soda so large it requires that I carry it with both hands.
The theater reminds me of the one I went to as a kid. The brown, abstractly patterned carpeting and the aquariums of hot popcorn are interchangeable. The restroom floors are perpetually littered with ghostly strips of unused toilet paper and an omnipresent employee roams around with a lobby broom. But the differences are easily spotted. Instead of a bar there was a miniature arcade. The tickets were stiff and perforated instead of digital. And most importantly, the theater of my childhood was much, much darker. Perhaps this gets at the only meaningful difference between an airport and a movie theater–it’s a matter of foot-candles.
I arrive to the designated theater and take my assigned seat. The seats are brown with red piping. Little buttons along the armrest’s innermost side activate the as-advertised power reclining and heated-seat functions. Attached to each seat is a faux-granite tray table. Many of the other patrons carry boxed meals. I see pizza, nachos, and what appears to be a burrito. There’s chatter and ornery griping about prices, unsatisfactory reclining angles, and seating choice. Advertisements for insurance, M&Ms, and luxury cars play while the movie-goers dine. Those nearest to me place their phones face down on their little desks. I copy them and crane toward my straw. We are instructed to silence our phones. The lights dim.
An AMC ad kicks off the standard twenty-five minute procession of trailers. The ad is essentially a grossly inaccurate imagining of the experience which we’ve already purchased. There’s a futuristic roller coaster that whizzes through a much more glamorous version of the aforementioned movie-theater lobby. Giant CGIed popcorn kernels explode beside carbonated waterfalls of soda. The actors portraying the employees have perfect haircuts and greaseless forearms. There are no receipts or cash exchanges. The movie-goers beam at their dates and sip martinis.
At this point, most of the seats are filled. Bodies shuffle and chew in the dark. The audience is hungry and restless. Supposedly, we are here to see Linda Hamilton throttle a rocket launcher at an AI; we’re here to see a weathered Arnold Schwarzenegger come back. But it becomes clear early on that we’re also here to masticate and mock. Most of our laughter directs itself at the movie’s trouble areas. We jeer at the meandering plot and its reliance on dizzying explosions. We are crowning the fool, and our laughter begins to feel like an exit. We’ve left the world of the movie.
It’s true that Tim Miller’s two-hour chase scene entertains. But in the context of a peopled theater, the chase is loved for its hollowness; for its choreographed tropes and nutritional shortcomings. We’ve each bought our way to the table and cracked open an empty fortune cookie. The delight of this clichéd commercial drivel comes in the sharing of it. Our movie thinks we’re dumb––drawn like flies to exploding lights on a screen. And perhaps we are. Perhaps we’re here to be dominated into a zone where bazookas and mushroom clouds shield us from thought. But then there’s the laughter. The audience is squirming and giggling because the movie isn’t doing the work of domination. The choice presented by the theater reconfigures itself. For $16.99, you are free to leave. Or, for the same prince, you are free to stay and laugh at your incompetent master.
My giant soda and I make it to the end. It feels as though the audience has annihilated the seemingly unavoidable disappointment of a bad movie. I imagine Pauline Kael reclined somewhere in the first three rows, laughing. “The movie doesn’t have to be great,” she wrote in her 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies;” “it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line.”2 And if there are no discernable joys within the movie, there are joys to be had outside of it––in the theater. The reactions of others (be they collective or anomalous) poke little holes in an otherwise vapid consumer experience.
Entering the Regal Cinema on Delancey Street is like boarding the Death Star. The floors and walls are tiled with glittering black quartz. A thick ribbon of LED screens drenches the lobby in artificial light. Tron-style oranges and blues flash across the tiles. The interior design promises something galactic. It’s sleek in the way of commercial sci-fi and high-speed rail lines.
I roam around with my e-ticket in hand, riding the escalators to each of the theater’s three floors. I find two concession stands, an empty bar, and clusters of grey lounge chairs. The snack offerings are standard and identical from stand to stand. Police officers in uniform man each floor. They keep their hands on their hips like bored and assertive parents. I explain to an usher that I’d like to look around, but that I’ll be back for the 6:40 p.m. showing of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019). She nods and glances at the cop designated to her floor. He also nods.
Beyond its glossy, neon encasing, the Regal on Delancey is a typical movie house. It smells of salted butter and vacuum cleaner bags. Its bathrooms are abused and filthy. Where there is carpet, it is worn and grotesquely patterned. Behind their flashy attempt at futuristic decor, there is that familiar crummy coziness. The purchase of a diet soda and a small popcorn matches the price of my ticket ($17.90). I pay and settle into another vacant theater. The others will trickle in during the trailers (a consequence of pre-arranged seat assignments, I presume). By the opening credits, there is a body in each power recliner.
I look around. The twenty-something to my left is flossing his teeth. His eyes are glowing and wide. On my right, there is a man in his thirties eating gummy candies. He chews rigorously, biting in time with the score. The shadowed heads in front of me tilt up like moon flowers. Some of the heads rest on a neighboring shoulder. Dark arms reach out for caresses. These arms gesture at a reason for our gathering. Critic John Berger attends to them in his 1990 essay “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”:
Cinema is perpetually about leaving “If there is an aesthetics of the cinema,” said René Clair, “it can be summarised in one word: movement” One word: movies. Maybe this is why so many couples when they go to the cinema, hold hands as they don’t in the theater. A response to the dark, people say. Perhaps a response to the traveling too. Cinema seats are like those in a jet plane.3
We are here to be moved by Bong Joon-ho and his actors. And in that expectation, we brace ourselves. We brace ourselves against our dates; against the architecture of the theater; against our chairs and tray tables. But why must we be here? Parasite could move me in my living room. The architecture there is less poetic, but surely it could rise to the occasion. The traveling that Berger talks about can be achieved from a horizontal position with a screen no bigger than a sheet of printer paper. There are darker, cheaper, and more intimate spaces to be moved in. And yet, we’re here.
The default response to these questions usually points to the size of the screen, to the sound quality, and to the ever-elusive intentions of the filmmaker. That a larger screen allows for a more pure or more realized viewing is an opinion at best. The supposed power of the big screen goes unchecked; we accept it because it aligns with our gut feelings. But perhaps the appeal of the movie theater is a result of combination. Perhaps it’s not the screen. Perhaps it’s the screen in conjunction with the popcorn and the excursion and the opportunity for ritual. Perhaps the movie theater is appealing because it can be performatively exited. Here, we can signal to others what we will and will not tolerate.
Or perhaps it’s something else entirely. There is another aspect to Berger’s observation. Cinema seats come in rows. They come in the tens and hundreds. In the theater, we are stacked together––elbow to elbow. We are set into motion alongside strangers. When we brace ourselves in the movies we do so collectively. We distribute our terror and delight across one another like an even snowfall. If there’s any burden or weight, it gets allocated, shared, and passed around. This collectivity is never the movie-goers focus. It is in her periphery and it comprises her perspective. It’s a kind of democratic love that can’t be gotten elsewhere. It’s a love from which we can come and go as we please.
- David Foster Wallace, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” 1996, in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997), 169.
- Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” 1969, in American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, ed. Phillip Lopate (New York: The Library of America, 2006), 338.
- John Berger, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” 1990, in Selected Essays, ed. Geoff Dyer (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001).