By Noah Gittell
The last time I was in a movie theater was a little over a year ago. It wasn’t a big multiplex with an IMAX screen, just one of those private, 80-seat cinemas that studios use for advance screenings for critics. The movie was Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow”. As I waited for it to begin, a critic I have feuded with online walked into the room and sat in front of me. I was grateful she hadn’t seen me. I didn’t need a confrontation — or even an awkward moment — to throw me off balance for the film to come. It’s my job to pay attention and be locked in. Sometimes, it’s harder than you’d think.
It wasn’t hard on that day. “First Cow” transported me. My nemesis and I, as well as the handful of other critics in the room, sat in shared, stunned silence for two hours. We chuckled in all the same places. We held our collective breath. Maybe it’s no surprise that I ended up choosing this gentle anti-Western as my favorite film of the year. In a sense, it’s the only one I saw the way movies were intended to be seen.
An 80-seat theater might not sound like much, but that’s about the same size movie theaters were in the early part of the 20th century, when the medium was still young. People in cities crammed into air-conditioned theaters in the summer months to watch newsreels, one-reel Westerns, and early iterations of many genres still popular today. Movies were escapism. At that time, crime was rising in urban areas as a byproduct of industrialization. So was disease, due in part to poor sanitation. People were anxious. The movies offered a place where even the disadvantaged could forget their troubles, lose themselves in a story, and feel connected to their fellow man.
I don’t know precisely when I’ll be returning to movie theaters, but I hope that’s what it will feel like. I used to complain in this space about the dominance of superhero movies and action franchises, but I’ll gladly line up to see “Black Widow” or “Top Gun: Maverick” or “Fast and Furious in Space” or whatever dumb thing with loud noises is coming up next, if the pandemic allows.
After a year trapped in our homes, people will return to movie theaters, but there are still reasonable doubts as to whether the industry has changed for good. Maybe theatrical releases will only be for would-be blockbusters, and adult dramas like “First Cow” or “Judas and the Black Messiah” or “The Trial of the Chicago 7” will simply go directly to streaming sites. For those of who like that kind of movie, maybe this last year really was a glimpse of our future.
If that’s the case, we needn’t despair. I used the last year well. I caught up on classics I really should have seen by now but had somehow never gotten around to — Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes”, Kurosawa’s “Ran” and “Ikir”. So many American gems from the pre-code areas, like “Babyface” and “Footlight Parade” and “Dinner at Eight”. My wife and I did “Hitchcock Friday” for a while, giving ourselves over to the master of suspense for two hours a week. It was time well spent.
But cinema is not meant to exist in a vacuum or a living room. It wasn’t designed to be an intimate experience to share with a loved one. It’s meant to bind us together. All of us.
Some people go to the movies to be overwhelmed with visuals and sounds, but my favorite cinema sensation is when a director makes us shut up. When they play their audience so perfectly that we’re all paralyzed, glued to our seats, afraid to dip our hands into our bucket of popcorn because making any kind of noise would ruin the moment, not just for ourselves but for those around us on the same journey. In these moments, our needs are intertwined with those of our neighbors. We become a perfect society.
Our society at large feels pretty broken these days, and I’m not going to go so far as to say that returning to movie theaters when it’s safe will heal our divisions or end political polarization. What I will say is that it can give us a reminder of what community feels like. A glimpse of better days, although whether they’re in our future or our past I can’t say. A place where a film critic and his nemesis can forget about Twitter feuds and become part of the same audience. Truly, it’s a place where our differences diminish and our commonalities are magnified. That’s where I want to live. I hope it’s still there when I arrive.