I started going to the movies by myself when I was in my 20’s. This was mostly out of necessity because it was hard to find friends who wanted to see the art and independent films I loved. “It’s subtitled?” they’d frown. “Like, I have to read the movie? Can’t we go to that cute new Sandra Bullock one instead?”
“I’m sure Sandra won’t be staring at a pigeon that symbolizes her dead lover’s dreams while a mysterious Italian clown plays the violin in the background,” I’d sigh pretentiously. “But whatever.”
At first, I was embarrassed to be in the theater by myself. Don’t solitary movie goers usually wear a trench coat and do gross things into napkins? Sometimes I’d put my sweater on the seat next to me, like I was waiting for my husband to come back from the snack stand. But then I began to like sitting in the dark alone. I liked seeing the movies I wanted to see, when I wanted to see them. I liked not being interrupted by a companion who urgently needed to tell me, during a pivotal dramatic scene, that she once saw that actress in the rash cream aisle at Walgreens. But mostly, I liked sitting with my own thoughts when the lights came up, lingering in the world I’d just entered, then just as quickly left. The theater became my escape, and thirty-ish years later, it still is.
My most common time to see a movie is on a weekday around 11 a.m. Usually I’m the only person in the theater, but some days there are one or two others. I never talk to these strangers, but I’m curious about them because we’re sitting in the dark together, watching a sad, or funny, or weird story on the big screen. We’re sharing the intimacy of experiencing the same art. Exactly what do I have in common with the man bun who also left his house to catch an early bird matinee of The Florida Project? Is he, too, interested in how film can shine a light on the economic disparities in places like Orlando? Does he also support small movies about marginalized voices? Or maybe he was just high and needed a place to chill for 90 minutes.
Most often the other people in the theater with me are senior citizens. The white-haired women are usually in groups of two or three. Sometimes they’ll bring along an older gentleman who’s most likely wearing suspenders and a cardigan, and who would certainly be happy to tell me why my political views are all wrong, if just given the chance. I don’t mind this golden-aged company, even though in the past few years I’ve been:
- Tripped by canes
- Hit by a motorized scooter
- Caught wearing the same sweater as a 90-year-old
- Yelled at to put away my “godforsaken cellular telephone”
- Told I look like Angela Lansbury (it was meant as a compliment)
I saw the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in the dine-in theater alone, with a row of ten seniors behind me. Everything was fine until the server gave them Styrofoam containers for their leftover food. All I remember of that movie now is Tom Hanks saying, “Sometimes (SQUEAK), we have (SQUEAK) to ask for (SQUEAK) help. And (SQUEAK) that’s okay” while they packed away their lunches. It was like Mr. Rogers had swallowed twenty angry mice. But just like in real life, the community you build with your fellow movie goers, for the 90 to 120 minutes you’re together, can be both good and bad. Won’t you be my neighbor, just a hell of a lot quieter?
Sometimes when I’m in the theater with seniors, I wait in my seat for a few minutes after the movie finishes so I can slowly walk out of the theater behind them. I love to listen to their blunt reviews while we blink our way into the sunlight. Ben Stiller? Overrated. Johnny Depp? Too skinny. Julia Roberts? Well, she’s no Ava Gardner, but then again, not even Ava Gardner’s Ava Gardner anymore. And don’t even get them started on how much they hate actors saying the f-word. I could chime into their conversations, ask them what they thought about the movie, ask if they laughed at the same parts I laughed at. But I don’t. It’s enough to know that they just visited the same pretend world I visited.
This figurative intimacy at the theater is a lot better than actual intimacy, which I learned when my friend Meredith and I saw Fifty Shades of Grey at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin a few years ago. We only went because it was a special screening where you were encouraged to drink cocktails and yell at the screen. Pretty much our dream come true, and the only instance when a movie companion is crucial. Otherwise, you’re just a drunk loudmouth who’ll be kicked out by a 16-year-old usher. I saw that happen during a showing of Field of Dreams to a man who kept yelling, “If you build it, they will come, motherfucker!”
After the fancy skin flick started that day, Meredith and I sipped our vodka sodas and cheerfully let loose a few catcalls like, “You’re going to get a UTI, lady!” and “Bitch, I hope that lube you’re licking is organic!” But then we started to hear moaning. And it wasn’t coming from the screen. We warily looked to the left of us, and saw a young couple fully making out in their seats. “Mmmmmmm, yesssss, ohhhh, baby, right there….” Apparently, they found the movie’s sex scenes to be more instructional than roast-worthy. As his hand crept up her skirt, every ounce of our previous bravado disappeared, and we sat there frozen. We’d swing our eyes to the screen and watch the richer, better looking people having sex, then swing them back to our local XXX actors almost having sex.
“I hope your mother knows what you’re doing! Ha ha! Make good choices!” we half-heartedly yelled at both the real sex scene and the film one. “More like 50 Shades of … I Don’t Want to See That … oh god … how much time is left? If anyone’s listening … we need a lot more vodka in row G!”
Maybe trench coats aren’t such a bad idea.