Moviegoing During a Pandemic

The debate about going out to movies during what is still very-much-ongoing pandemic keeps spiking every time Denis Villeneuve or Christopher Nolan gives an interview, and every time a movie trailer ends with the proud declaration: “Only in Theaters.”

Because obviously, it’s not quite as simple as: “don’t go to in-theater movies yet, it still isn’t safe”—the way we experience art is important, the communal nature of moviegoing is important, and supporting the work of artists, especially marginalized artists, is important. As the months have gone on, the three of us have talked endlessly about our relationship with movies in general and theatergoing in particular, and after the one-two punch of seeing The Green Knight and Shang-Chi together we decided to hash out some thoughts.

 

Leah! 

Screenshot: Netflix

For the last eight years, seeing movies has not just been my favorite thing to do, it’s also been my job. Going to the theater, allowing myself to be swept up, listening to the reactions in the dark, putting out all of my various antennae to gauge the audience—ideally when I write about a movie I’m writing about the experience of seeing the movie in a group, as much as the film itself.

Obviously it’s been a little weird, doing this job alone, in my room, during the pandemic.

Now let me hasten to say, I am IN NO WAY saying that “a little weird” is even on the same planet as “my ER shift starts in 15 minutes, and I can’t stop crying” or “if I ask my students to wear masks the superintendent will have to fire me.”

I’m unspeakably grateful for “a little weird”.

There was that brief spasm of normalcy. At the beginning of the summer, I was lucky enough to get my shots; I stayed in for two weeks to marinate, and then, theoretically, it was safe to go to the movies again! Hot vax summer! New York was BACK, baby! ….annnd it lasted less than a month, really, before it became clear that being inside with strangers wasn’t actually safe. How did I spend that time? Well, I saw Bo Burnham: Inside three times during the single weekend it was in theaters, and The Green Knight once on opening night. And I very nervously decided to see Shang-Chi in the theater.

I’ve spent most of the pandemic in a small room, alone. My real life matches Inside’s main character’s startlingly closely—I even have those weird half-moon doorways—and much like Burnham’s character, I‘ve spent my time trying to fight back despair and mental collapse through creative work, with similar results. I’ve been flat on the floor, trustfalling backwards into hopelessness, only to sit up and shake it off and type the funniest sentence I’ve ever thought of into a Slack conversation. I’ve experienced the last 18 months through a haze of unreality.  I’ve re-assessed my relationship with myself (tbh we should probably see other people). And watching Inside, from about 10pm until about 1 am on the Saturday after it came out—sitting in pitch blackness of my room, washed in the blue light of my TV—broke me. In a good way. I wasn’t expecting to Feel Things, you see. I’ve been trying very hard not to Feel Things for a while.

Screenshot: Netflix

I contend that the special’s first real joke is buried in the opening song: Burnham’s character’s response to depression is to “try just getting up, sitting down, going back to work—might not help, but still it couldn’t hurt!” Of course it hurt. The narrative of the special is that “going back to work” drives the character into the very breakdown he was trying to avoid. In my case, trying to work through this, and tying a lot of my sense of self-worth to whether I could still produce anything meaningful in the face of this disaster really, uhhh, fucked me up.

(And there’s more there, obviously—my job is important in that writing and cultural work are important, but I also don’t work in a lab or a fucking ER. So there was definitely a sense of having to work as hard as I could to make up for the fact that I wasn’t personally working on a vaccine or whatever.)

But what I wanted was to see Inside BIG. My experience of it was literally singular—I was alone in a room with my screen. Then I watched some reaction videos for it, creating the simulacra of a shared experience, in which I allowed myself to feel kinship with people I’ll never meet, based on their emotional reactions to something I liked—some of which may have been genuine, some of which may have been staged. Because of this I was at best apprehensive about seeing Inside in a theater—this specifically, this special that’s about staying home, isolation, panning for meaning in the backwash of Very Online. What would it be like to experience this particular flood of emotions in a room full of other people. All of whom would be having their own experiences?

And underneath all that, the growing concern tugging at my sleeve that it wouldn’t be safe?

Screenshot: Netflix

Because I’m me, I decided the best way to deal with this apprehension was to go three fucking times. First in a small-ish theater in the East Village, a later showing, with the most raucous crowd of the three. People lost their shit for “Bezos I”. When Comrade Socko came onscreen, people screamed his name and cheered for him. And—people laughed. They laughed a lot. They laughed when the Netflix logo appeared, and when Burnham hit his own canned laughter button. They laughed during “White Woman’s Instagram”—even the sad bit. They laughed during “Sexting”, and at the pirate map joke. (The two girls behind me, who were more emotionally invested in the darker parts of the special, were openly disturbed by how much people laughed.) Actually hearing other people laugh at these moments, together, convulsively exhaling explosive, potentially deadly microbes into their masks—it had been SO LONG since I’d heard that. Even the muffled, masked version soothed a part of my brain that’s been a clenched fist for over a year. By the time the special ended (and yes, a few people put their fuckin’ hands up) my face ached from smiling so much, and I’d hit a point I think you could call “beyond crying”.

The second viewing was in a New Jersey Multiplex, special because it was my first time seeing two fabulous Tor/Nightfire coworkers in eighteen months. The crowd was scattered through the theater, we sang along quietly—except during “Problematic”, when we were laughing too hard to sing. The third screening was at a boutique indie theater in Brooklyn with another friend I’d only seen once since January of 2020—we got food (outside), we caught up, we yelled about the collapse of civilization, we went to the movie. The third time I was able to sit back a little and observe my own emotions, notice nuances in the music I’d missed, notice details in the room’s clutter that I hadn’t seen before: Comrade Socko hangs from the dresser at one point; the White Woman’s Buddha statue sits on a shelf. Thanks to the size of the screen, I basked in symbolism I’d only suspected when I watched the special on TV, like that the half moon doorways mirror the Moon Projection mirrors the Spotlight mirrors the Camera mirrors God—and all of them are standing in for the Eyes of the Audience.

Maybe.

In each case seeing Inside inside was… hard to describe. The thing I had watched in the dark in my room was now huge, imposing, overwhelming. The sound washed around me.

I feel anonymous; I feel invisible in the dark; I feel communion with everyone in the theater; it’s been so, so long since I’ve been able to lose myself in something bigger than me.

Which brings us to The Green Knight.

Screenshot: A24

I volunteered to review The Green Knight for us ages ago, long before I knew how fraught everything was going to be. A group of us tordotcommies decided to go together, we got a block of seats, we got there early, we camped out. How had I forgotten the sheer joy of mocking the shit out of terrible movie trailers for my beloved co-workers’ amusement? The spine-fizziness of seeing that holy A24 logo come up onscreen? And this movie! These images towering over me and pushing me back into the seat. Lowery’s movie is so beautiful, weird and dark and wholly its own thing. And Dev Patel?????

But hang on, this is where I turn it over to Christina.

 

Christina! 

It is my firm belief that A24’s The Green Knight is a film that is meant to be watched at 1 in the morning in a dark room, on a laptop screen 2 inches from my face.

I will admit I have watched most films this way. Even pre-pandemic, I wasn’t a big cinema-goer, with the exception of the occasional Marvel blockbuster. That was, of course, until I met these two dingbats. These fools go to the theaters for everything. And I love that about them, I love their voracious hunger for film consumption, and their desire to have the experience a cinema provides. Personally, I have always enjoyed the more intimate experience of watching films on my laptop. Perhaps at this point I’m just more used to it, after years of less-than-legally downloading what I wanted to watch, a result of both not having money and not having friends to go to the cinema with. For me, there’s nothing like being curled up in my bed, illuminated by the the blueish glow of the screen. I like being able to see things close up, to pause when I need to catch my breath, and to get up and get snacks when I want. I’m sure I’ll pay for this vision-wise later on, but by experiencing movies this way, the films become mine—my experience singular, uninterrupted by the coughing or chatter of others, a story fed directly into my brain for me to keep, exactly the way I like it.

Now, I am in a position where I have money and friends to see films with, but also a desire to support films by and for people of color. I know how important the first weekend box office is—the more money a film with a lead of color makes, the more likely studios are to invest in films with people of color down the road. So many films coming out now are the direct result of the successes of Black Panther (2018) and Get Out (2017), whose box office numbers and critical reception smashed expectations in Hollywood and beyond. I care deeply about inclusivity in storytelling, and believe that while every film may not be for every audience (and this is a good thing), good stories should be supported and given the opportunity to reach their intended viewership. I believe that the systems that both Hollywood and traditional publishing operate on were created for the cis, straight, white consumer, and more often than not, creators of color are set up to fail. The People With Money look for any excuse to say, “well that film with a Black lead failed, so why would we make another one?” or, “audiences won’t find a Desi man like Dev Patel sexy or relatable”.

Which, of course, is very, very wrong.

Screenshot: A24

So it felt important to go see The Green Knight in theaters. Not only did I, as a fan of both surrealist media and Dev Patel, want that beamed into my eyeballs as soon as humanly possible, I wanted to make sure that film made MONEY. The $75 I spent on tickets (three theaters, and one ticket for the digital stream A24 put on) is a minimal contribution to the total, but it matters to me that I do what I can, and encourage others to do the same. I want to make sure studios take notice. I want more films with brown and Black leads getting made.

But this meant putting my health at risk multiple times. I was faced with a dilemma—do I stay home, and risk this film failing (not that it’s all on my shoulders, but.), or do I don my mask, distance from others as much as possible, and hope no one is especially gross with their popcorn?

I stand by my opinion that The Green Knight is a film meant to be viewed solo. It’s an incredibly quiet, careful, and intimate film. It’s a film I wanted to watch up close so that I could study the clothes, the set, all the small ways the actors looked at each other. I wanted very much to pause the film so I could scream into my pillow about Gawain’s jizzbelt. I wanted to rewind the moment when Essel asks Gawain if he’ll ever make her his lady, and his pained expression tells her everything she needs to know about how their future will go. I wanted to shove my face through the screen and enter the beautiful Green Chapel, the fantastical forest set of my dreams. But I also wanted the film to make money. I want Dev Patel to get more jobs. I want more films featuring people of color that aren’t about race or pain or oppression. I want more POC in fantasy worlds. I want Desi knights, I want Latinx witches and wizards, Black superheroes, Asian Chosen Ones.

Screenshot: A24

I felt the same way about Shang-Chi, which we also went to the theaters for. I want this film to make money. For now, it seems like theater sales are the only numbers Hollywood really cares about or knows how to understand. I hope this changes, especially for accessibility reasons, but I’ll play by their rules until it does. This is the long game. Two hours spent masked in a movie theater is worth it to me if it means more years of films by and for historically marginalized communities. My investment now, just like the time I spend promoting books by writers of color, makes me feel like I’m doing my part to bring about the creative future we all deserve.

It sucks. It sucks that we’re in this situation. We do our best—we mask, we only go to theaters that require proof of vaccination, we keep seats empty between social groups. But it also sucks to feel like opening weekend theater-going is the only way to make sure films like this keep getting made.

 

Emmet! 

Families all have personal mythologies. This is often particularly true in those first years of life before we have solid memories, or remember making choices—people tell us the tales of those ephemeral beginnings, so we have a sense of the self we harbored before we knew what “self” was. In my family, there are several about me as a babe: I sang well before I could talk; I resented having to cry to get people’s attention and would often half-ass the attempt; I woke my parents each morning with a recitation of my vocabulary; the first movie I saw in a theater was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and when they released the whales at the end, I waved my infant limbs in a resounding cheer.

Movies matter a lot to my family, and movie theaters maybe moreso. Though there were a fair share of years during my childhood when we were extremely broke, my parents always squirreled away enough to go see films on big screens—it was our joint activity, something that we loved doing as a group no matter our moods. (It definitely helped that we eventually moved to a town with a theater that had matinee showings for under five bucks.)

I bring this up because, while movie theaters are far from the most accessible medium to the world, they have become part of my internal makeup somehow. This wasn’t really something I knew about myself until the pandemic hit and I was suddenly unable to go to a theater for… the longest period in my life. There are a lot of things I adore about theaters, from the immersive quality that requires me to zero in on a single experience to the heightened nature of seeing a film on opening night with an audience that has been waiting just as fervently as I have—like Leah, I love soaking in other people’s reactions and energy during viewing. But the most important aspect for me might be the “sound bath” effect; I can’t get the true surround sound experience from good TV speakers or even over-the-ear headphones (too close), and nothing is so soothing to my nervous system as the encompassing nature of film soundscapes, especially when a good soundtrack is involved. It has a genuine therapeutic quality for me that I never recognized until it was gone.

For over sixteen months.

I bring this up because while the film directors who go off about how their work “wasn’t meant to be seen on televisions” are being jackasses—plenty of people have neither the means nor the physical capability of attending theaters even under normal circumstances, so this argument is classist and ableist at its very roots—it doesn’t change the fact that movie theaters are a net positive on my mental health. And I’m willing to bet money that I’m not the only one.

Screenshot: Bleecker Street

In this way, I’m probably the opposite of Christina; I’ve certainly watched movies and television on a laptop inches from my face, but it’s never my preferred method. It’s fine. It’s great for screencaps, and pausing, and making sure you heard that line right, and picking up those errant details for cosplay, but for me it’s missing vital pieces. While virtual screeners should be available for all film reviewers in perpetuity, I noticed those pieces while reviewing films this past year. I noticed it while watching Save Yourselves!, and Black Widow, and Space Sweepers—there were so many moments where I wanted more or better immersion, where I missed the laughter or gasps of a crowded theater, where I needed to be enveloped by the explosions or the swelling string section. We talk often about how humans are a social species, and I suppose this is just my preferred method of social interaction: Me and one or more close friends, surrounded by strangers. All of my favorite activities work this way, from theaters to co-errand running to favored local bars. Not solitary, but keeping my own little corner of chaos.

So we decided to break the seal, as it were, and go see The Green Knight together.

And I was terrified.

I cannot stress enough how much that film was a perfect back-to-theaters experience. The sound production is gorgeous and meticulous and forces its audience to hold their breath for each whisper and crunch of leaves. It was eerie and beautiful and strange, exactly the right atmosphere for someone in my headspace (knowing it wasn’t safe, but needing to try all the same). It rained as we traveled to the theater, so I arrived soaked and shivered for the first half of the film. I was able to let go for the majority of the movie itself, but the before and after was wrought with panic; we were too close to everyone, the theater wasn’t checking vaccine cards, the stadium seating was at the perfect steepness for the people behind us to breathe on the back of my head the whole time. The push-pull between cautiousness and neuroses has been a tightrope walk this past year and change—and no one who has taken this situation seriously is going to come out well from it.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

By the time Shang-Chi rolled around, there were theaters checking vaccination status before entry that also offered space between seating groups. I had already committed to giving the film my dollars and bought a ticket for an opening night showing that I didn’t attend because, as Christina succinctly put, this matters. The appearance of a slightly safer theater environment meant that I was willing to try in person again, and get my sound bath. Shang-Chi was an absolute delight, and the company I watched it in made it even better; because that’s how I prefer to watch movies.

But the success of Shang-Chi (thank goodness) came with a different sort of price. Because this is how the effects of this pandemic have been weighed from the very start—how much are you willing to endanger yourself and others… because if you don’t, it’s on you that the mega-corp with infinite resources and IP and investors decided to cut out every scrap of representation you’ve begged them for. I am so glad that Shang-Chi is making money, and that Marvel will hopefully take that lesson to heart, but I find it absolutely mortifying that this is how we were forced to get there. And that it means more films will be released “theaters only” when the pandemic hasn’t ended at all because they’ve forced their audiences to weigh the costs for them instead of being responsible on their own terms.

I want to be in theaters, but I didn’t want it to happen this way. I could say the same for every aspect of life that the pandemic has taken away. It isn’t on all of us to make sure movies theaters and restaurants and local shops survive, but the world is determined to guilt us over it anyhow. And I can’t imagine what the true cost will be somewhere down the line.

***

 

Our conversations about MEDIA and CONTENT and THE STATE OF THE WORLD are long and winding. We spent last winter talking about our post-pandemic movie plans over Zoom and groupchats, looking hopefully at release schedules, trying to have remote movie nights and media parties. One of the big elements of this summer, and one of our first intentions for this post, was a pure celebration of THIRST, which is why I made this ridiculous triptych:

CHOOSE YOUR FIGHTER. (Screenshots: A24, Netflix, Marvel Studios)

Because one of the things that’s brightened this time has been allowing ourselves to be ridiculous with regards to Dev Patel, Bo Burnham, and Tony Leung. (Respectfully.)

But as ever, the more we talked the less silly the conversation became. And now we ask: how have you been dealing with the particular anxieties of Moviegoing in a Pandemic? How have you been shoring up your cultural life in general? Here in the northern bit of the U.S., we’re facing another long, dark, pretty lonely winter, and we’ll need all the art and culture and media we can get—but we’re probably not going to be able to share it together in a room.

 

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