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The first time I remember going out to see a movie was at the old Mattoon Skyway Drive-in Theater. My sister was still an infant, and all four of crammed into the front seat of my dad’s pickup truck to watch a double feature of The Cannonball Run and Taps. I was five, and both movies were way too scary for me; I ended up crawling in the back, in the cab of the truck, and trying to sleep. I don’t recollect much about either movie. I mostly just remember looking up at the stars and hearing the dim hum of the audio receiver on Dad’s window, car crashing, people yelling, gunshots, tense music. I had no idea what was going in with the plot—I couldn’t even see the screen—but I still felt transported. I felt taken to the world of the movie, wherever that was. It was clear that the movies were about escape. It was clear they were about getting away.
I have seen literally thousands of movies in a theater in my life. I remember the first time a movie emotionally devastated me (E.T.), the first time I sneaked into an R-rated movie (The Silence of the Lambs), the first movie I never wanted to end (JFK), the first I saw with my old college mentor Roger Ebert (Mighty Aphrodite), the first movie I took my son to (The Lego Movie). I have seen hundreds of movies with my friend Tim Grierson, who is as responsible for my love of movies as anyone on earth, though none since Rogue One back in 2016. I have my preferred place to sit in a theater—typically the third row from the screen, in the middle—and my decades-old rituals, most famously that I don’t like to talk about the movie until I’ve at least left the theater and in my car going home; I need some time to process what I just experienced. I go to the movies often enough that I don’t feel the least bit awkward telling you, nicely the first time, less so the second time, to stop talking and turn your phone off while the movie’s playing. We’re not in your living room. You are in public. We are going through this together.
People always argue that sports are escapism from the real world, but if the last few months have taught us anything, that’s not remotely true, however much we might like it to be. But I have always found that escape more reliably with the movies. Going to the movies, every single time I go, thousands of movies later, still takes me outside of myself, to a different world entirely. I am able to completely lose myself in a movie, even a bad one. That’s the primary reason I sit so close to the screen (and, all told, sort of prefer going to movies by myself); I want the film to wash over me, to take me away. I don’t need to be taken somewhere better than my actual life. I just want someplace different. Ebert once wrote that “movies are a machine that generates empathy,” and to me, that’s what movies are truly about: They’re about walking around in someone else’s shoes for a few hours. They’re about exposing yourself to experiences and people and worlds that you’d never be exposed to otherwise. They’re about cracking open your mind, about traveling to another place and returning back to yourself, a little bit different from the journey. I love going to the movies because they take me places I otherwise can’t go. I love going to the movies because they are bigger than me.
It’s something you cannot get from watching television. I love television shows: The Sopranos remains one of the most powerful pieces of art of my lifetime, and shows like Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul, and The Wire, and Mad Men, they have illuminated my understanding of humanity and the way we connect, and don’t connect, with each other. And I certainly watch movies at home all the time. But watching television, or watching movies on television, does not transport you. It meets you where you are, where you are already comfortable, and it allows you to stay there. You can do many other things while watching television, which is one of the excellent things about watching television. But it is difficult to be transported when you are multi-tasking. I don’t want to be reminded of all the clothes I have to fold when I’m watching a movie. I want to be in an airport in Casablanca, or zooming through space, or learning about a culture and a society that I knew nothing about before I was plunged in and living among them. You never know where a movie is going to take you. But you do know you are going somewhere.
But during a pandemic, there is nowhere to go.
The last movie I saw before the pandemic hit was The Hunt. That film opened the weekend after the March 11 Sniffly Trump Speech/Tom Hanks/Rudy Gobert triumvirate, that day that still marks to me the beginning of all this, at least in the United States. We knew very little about COVID-19 at the time, and as far as I knew, the coronavirus was falling invisibly from the sky wherever you went. The theater to see The Hunt was not packed, but there were people there, with no one wearing masks of course (this back when the thought was that wearing a mask meant that you were taking them away from a health care professional that needed one), and they were loudly chomping away and chattering like our lives hadn’t changed one whit. It was a miserable experience, and I could not get out of the theater fast enough. The Hunt is a bad movie, but all told, even though I’ve seen it, I can’t know for sure. It was impossible to escape into The Hunt. There wasn’t a single second where I wasn’t keenly aware of where I was and what was happening around me. That is not how you’re supposed to watch a movie.
I’ve seen dozens of movies since then, for the Grierson & Leitch podcast and my own personal enjoyment (I randomly watched Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio last night), but they all have been in my home. I have seen some fantastic movies, from Boys State to Hamilton to Da 5 Bloods. But it hasn’t been the same. It just hasn’t. I do everything I can to simulating the theatrical experience, from turning the lights down to shutting the doors to putting my phone away. But I still am never in the world of the movie. I’m still in my own. Our lives keep changing a little more every day, nearly six months into all of this, in big ways and small. This is one of mine. The movies brought me calm. They made me connected to the world. Now I only live in mine.
Which brings me to Friday. On Friday, I saw my first movie in a theater since The Hunt. It was a movie called The New Mutants, an X-men spinoff that has had so many problems since it was filmed three years ago that the studio decided the only thing to do with it was dump it in theaters in the middle of a pandemic. I saw the movie on assignment—Grierson and I did X-Men movie rankings for Vulture years ago, and this was an update for it—but I was also curious about what it would be like being back. Would I feel as terrified as The Hunt? Would I feel safe at all? Could this possibly be an escape?
The first thing you notice in a movie theater now is that, well, there aren’t very many people there. Many movie theaters are open—and while they’re not open in NYC and Los Angeles, they’re open in almost every other state—but it’s clear people aren’t ready to come back, and not just because it’s just The New Mutants. At the University 16 here in Athens, the parking lot itself was nearly empty; I actually had to knock on the front window to be sure it was actually open. My theater had only one other person in it, and he sat at the literal opposite end of the theater as me; I wouldn’t even have known he was there had I not made a point to look. Everyone I saw, in the theater and in the lobby, was wearing masks, lanes were clearly blocked off to herd all moviegoers to exit in the same direction, many of the seats were roped off and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. The experience outside of the movie itself is nothing at all like it was before the pandemic.
But that not the real question: The real question is how you feel watching the movie. And a lot of that comes down to risk assessment. Is being in a movie theater riskier than just sitting in my house? Yes. But I am not sure it is riskier than going to the grocery store, or eating at a restaurant (inside, obviously, but even outside), or, you know, sending your children to school. (For those of you who get to do that.) Of all the things I’ve done in this pandemic, I can rank about 20 things riskier than sitting in a silent movie theater with a mask more than 20 feet from the closest person to me. And I feel like I’m generally pretty cautious. This just didn’t rank as particularly scary.
That doesn’t make a difference, though, if I spend the movie running all these risk assessments in my head rather than giving myself up to the movie. And it was obvious Friday I wasn’t quite ready to do that. The movie was dull, which made it easier for my mind to wander. Did that guy back there just cough? What if I have to use the bathroom? Is someone going to come in late and sit closer to me? What’s the air circulation like in this room? Also: It’s an active time in the world. Has something big happened since I got in the theater? Should I check my phone and just make sure? Escapism wasn’t happening.
But it was a start. I didn’t feel transported, but I didn’t feel terrified either. It was anything but normal, but after a while, it did start to feel familiar. I started to lock a little into movie-watching mode: Oh, that’s a stupid scene; man, those effects look terrible; where have I seen that actress before? And then the movie was over, and I walked back to my car, and I’d done it, I’d seen a movie. I didn’t die, though it was only yesterday: There’s plenty of time left for that, I suppose.
I’m not all the way back. But I can see how, at some point, I could be, at least a little closer. And to me, that’s what a lot of life is right now: Trying to find little ways to crawl back, to reach a level of equilibrium, to find coping mechanisms to get you through this part, then this part, then this part. A nationwide reckoning is going on every day, and as a citizen and active participant in human society, that reckoning requires our attention. But we gotta take care of ourselves too. And part of that is not walking around terrified that everything is going to kill you. You can take every precaution you can to keep you and yours safe: I do, every day. That does not mean that hiding away until this is over, whenever that is going to be, is healthy. That’s not good for you, or anyone, eitherr.
So we’ll see. Tenet, a movie I actually want to watch, a movie I wish to escape into, comes out next week. It’s the next step, the next test to see how much more comfortable I will be, the next little dipping of a toe in the water. Getting back to a movie theater was a hard decision to make, and it’ll continue to be a hard decision each time I have to make it. The movie business is at a crossroads at this moment, and like a lot of things in danger during this pandemic, it’s clear it’s not going to be the same when this is over. It is possible that this is a death knell for in-person, big-screen, mass-gathering moviegoing. I desperately hope not. One of the hardest parts of the pandemic is not knowing, of the things that are gone from our lives right now, the ones that are going to stay gone. I don’t know whether to lament them, to hang on tighter for their survival, or both. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing at all during this. Do you? How can you?
The world is not a place to escape right now. It’s a place to engage, and a place to fight for. But solace is something we all need, in our own ways. I have most often found my solace in a movie theater. I do not know when I will be fully ready to lose myself in the movies again. But I sure do hope they’re still around when I am.
Like everyone else, I was staggered by the death of Chadwick Boseman last night. I don’t have much more to add to some excellent pieces from David Sims and Rob Harvilla and surely many, many more to come in the next week. The success of Black Panther is one of those moments when a movie seemed to augur a legitimate paradigm shift; it’s the rare movie that truly changed things, and Boseman’s inherent goodness, that calm, regal stillness at its center, radiated out, made the rest of that movie possible. For my money, my actual favorite performance of his is as James Brown in Get On Up, a movie that was ignored at the time but absolutely would not be right now. I mean, look at this guy:
I have a suspicion that in this disjointed, erratic movie year, the death of Chadwick Boseman is ultimately going to be the only thing anyone remembers. It’s still hard to wrap your mind around. But death always is.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The NBA Strike Was Jarring. That’s the Point, New York. Also, a pretty hugely historic week in sports too. I did my best to capture it, though I’m not sure I did.
Who Will Be the Champion of the “AL Middle?” MLB.com. To be entirely honest, I don’t think I did my best work this week. I’m deep into book edits, the children still aren’t in school and we moved back into our house after construction. Those are excuses, and weak ones, but I’ll do better next week, I promise.
Where Are All of Trump’s Athletic Supporters? New York. I tried to find a sports tie-in to the RNC, but it didn’t work, I don’t think.
The Best MLB Player at Every Age, MLB.com. I do write this one every year.
The Playoffs, If the Season Ended Today, MLB.com. Cardinals finally back in there like they’re supposed to be.
The Thirty: Surprise Players for Each Team, MLB.com. All hail Brad Miller.
Grierson & Leitch, “Unhinged” (and boy does Russell Crowe look like shit in that movie, “Tesla” and “Burn, Witch, Burn!”
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Un-Adopted,” Caitlin Moscatello, New York. There have been a cavalcade of stories these days that make you wonder not whether or not the world is falling apart, but whether it already has. Here is one more of them.
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
We had a week delay on these that isn’t even USPS related. But they’re coming your way next week.
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Armageddon’s Back in Town,” Drive-By Truckers. I discovered this week that I haven’t chosen a single Drive-By Truckers song in this segment. Let’s correct that now.
I’m not saying the kids need to get back to school. But ….
Have a great weekend, all.