Discover more from Gideon's Substack
My first trip to a movie theater since the start of the pandemic
Yesterday, I went to the movies.
Obviously, since I’m making a point of writing about it, this was something new for me — the first time I’ve been in a theater since the pandemic began. I’m 3 weeks out from being vaccinated (J&J), it was raining, and the Film Forum was showing the new 4K restoration of La Strada for only a few more days, so it seemed like the right time to take the plunge.
What was it like? I’ll tell you.
First, there was the rush of excitement simply to be in the space. I couldn’t stop thanking the people working there, expressing my gratitude that the institution was still around. I went in and took my seat early, even though I didn’t need to since seating was reserved and spaced well apart. I was alone in the theater, and I found myself hoping that it stayed that way — that I’d be able to experience the film without having to think about the presence of other people.
It didn’t; by the time the film started, there were about ten people in the theater, maybe not even that many. That’s far fewer than I normally share space with when I go shopping, and (as I said) I’ve already been vaccinated, but nonetheless, I kept wanting to crane my neck to check whether everyone is masked. I kept feeling the impulse to move on, not to stay put in a closed space with no windows and strange people breathing, breathing. Telling myself not to think about it, and that I have no reason to worry about it, didn’t help; it’s like being told not to think of the elephant.
For the first 20 minutes of the film or so, I was distracted by these thoughts and sensations. I was acutely aware that I was in a strange chair and not on my couch, that the little bits of light down by the floor or from the exit signs were in different places than the little bits of light in my living room. The unfamiliarity of the space mingled with the sound of respiration to just feel wrong, horror-movie wrong.
And then, finally, the film took hold, and the world slipped away.
That’s the funny thing about going to the movies: it’s an experience of a very particular kind of solitude and a very particular kind of communion. You’re with other people, but you’re alone; you’re drawn in to what’s happening on screen, but the actors aren’t actually there. When you watch at home, you are alone and you know you are alone, but in my experience that often makes it harder to sink in to the experience because there is nothing stopping you from distracting yourself. It’s not just that you can pause the movie if you need to go to the bathroom or get a drink. The social aspect of communal silence and stillness is, in my experience, actually essential to the experience, and even you’re actually alone in the theater, the possibility of someone else being there is part of what works the magic.
A rabbi friend of mine who died a number of years ago once used going to the movies as a way of explaining Sabbath prohibitions. If I suggested that we all go into a windowless room, sit in the dark for two hours, with everyone facing the same way and nobody allowed to talk, you’d probably say, why on earth would I want to do that? But if I said: let’s go to the movies, you’d understand. All those things, the darkness and the stillness and the no talking, are essential parts of the experience of immersion, and communion. I think the presence of others is, too — just as the presence of others makes for a different experience of prayer, even though frequently (as in the silent amidah) you’re supposed to be blocking them out. You can’t block them out if they aren’t there. (This is one of many reasons why Zoom-based services really aren’t a substitute for the real thing.)
The communion side of the experience is as funny as the solitude side, and fundamentally unlike theater, because of the one-way nature of cinema. The filmmaker is reaching out to you, yes, but she can’t know that she’s reached you, can’t feel your presence. And while you can feel her presence, you can’t feel that exchange, can’t feel that she hears you laughing or sobbing, because she can’t, and you know she can’t. You can have a communal experience at the movies with the rest of the audience if it’s a kind of showing that breaks the rules — talking and shouting back, laughing together, putting on a show yourself in response to the one on screen. Sometimes that’s precisely what you want; I wouldn’t have wanted to see Black Panther in a hushed theater, and I’ve had a blast at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But unlike with live theater, these actually trade off against the communion with the screen that is the heart of the cinematic experience. All I’m saying is that experience is a very solitary communion, in which what is happening on screen resonates inside you. It feels like the film is in you, and it is; that’s why you might be crying at the movies when you don’t cry otherwise. But the actors on the screen can’t see you crying, and if they could, well, let’s not go there.
Anyway, it was extraordinary to recapture an experience I haven’t had for over a year, and boy did I pick the right film to do it with. Amazingly enough, since I write on film (among other things) I’d never seen La Strada before, and I’m ready to see it again and again immediately. It reminded me what film can be, and so rarely is. I’m going to touch on just one aspect of the film that strikes me as so special — the way it blurs the lines around the very concept of performance. Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina), the main character, is sold at the beginning of the film to replace her dead sister as the assistant to the thuggish carnival performer, Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), and from the moment we meet her she’s also performing — performing sadness, performing joy. There’s a sense of play in her every gesture. It’s not surprising that she’s regularly compared to Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx and Stan Laurel, holy fools all — but what struck me, over the course of the film, was that I grew less and less sure where the line was between when Masina was performing and when Gelsomina was. When she would give a little Stan Laurel-like smile, was Masina doing that for us, was Gelsomina doing it for herself? The latter, I think — but then what of her moments of distress? How much was she actually performing those for herself, playing death and betrayal like a movie in her mind, lingering over them consciously and letting them resonate in her? That, I decided, was precisely what made the character feel so deep, and so real; I could feel the possibility of layers upon layers below the surface, the complexity of being this person who, to those who met her, radiated simplicity.
I can’t wait to go back.