Missing our missing movie theaters

I was in a movie theater when Notre Dame first went online.

It was the Wednesday of spring break. I was back home with no plans and no friends. Painfully aware of the homework I would return to, I dedicated my week to something I struggled to find time for on campus: going to the movies.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I first walk into a theater. You know those candles your mom buys at HomeGoods, the ones that are supposed to smell like “home?” Just me? Well, I imagine mine might smell like a Cinemark.

But it’s more than just buttery popcorn — it’s the dim lights, the comfy seats, the tearing of the tickets. Most of all, it’s the conversation: the murmurs of people waiting in anticipation, the debates in the lobby once it’s over. Walking into a movie theater is like sinking into the couch. It’s as if I can breathe underwater.

I went to an early screening of “Emma.” It was really good, but that’s beside the point. The point is when I checked my phone at the end; I had never seen so many notifications. And when I scrolled to the bottom, I saw why: I couldn’t return to campus. The email was sent at the exact time my movie began.

I was sucker punched. I called my parents and paced in the hallway. The virus was on everyone’s mind, but Americans had yet to fully grasp the severity of the pandemic. I don’t even think it was declared a pandemic at that point. Businesses were open, people were social and masks were misconstrued as paranoia. This was the first time the virus changed my life.

But I had already bought my ticket for my second film of the day, “The Invisible Man.” It was at a theater in the next town over. As I drove there, all I could think was, “This will be the last time, for a long time.” Reality sunk in — movie theaters would be next.

So I went into “The Invisible Man” with a heightened self-awareness that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. I was aware of the sights, the sounds, the smells. More than anything, I was aware of the people.

That I saw a horror film — a very good one, no less — proved particularly fortuitous. With the exception of comedy, no genre is better suited to be seen with a crowd. It’s not just that people shoot up in their seats during a jump scare. In the case of “The Invisible Man,” the horror is all in the detail — the way the audience, for example, might gasp when they noticed something floating in the background. Now I know some people prefer to watch movies in stone-cold silence, but nothing makes me happier than audience participation. It means they’re invested in the movie; it means the movie made them care.

I left “The Invisible Man” with a smile on my face. In part, that was because it was good. But it was also because it had reaffirmed for me something I’ve long held true: that movies are all about people. They’re about people, not just in an artistic sense — as a medium through which we can share our stories — but in the very way they’re meant to be consumed. Seeing a movie on the “big screen” isn’t just about scope and spectacle. Doing so enables us to watch them all together. Movies are people watching people. They’re the human condition projected on a screen, reaching out to every one of us.

So while the industry is changing, I hold on to hope. Theaters will be back… it’s in our cinematic blood.

This article was originally published on August 17, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.


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