When your apartment doubles as your office, a workday can decay into a deserted arena for rival compulsions. Eventually you need to be among people again. That’s why I head to the movie theater at weird hours, seeking some semblance of ceremony. One ticket buys the ability to be privately public. Without companions nearby, the conversation becomes visual: I glance at the whispers and flirtations in the audience, at those people leaving early, the ones staying serenely behind. I listen to the crickety rustle of popcorn. I run my fingers over oxblood velvet. Whether you’re in church or in a theater, sometimes the frescoes are prettier than the liturgy.
I don’t buy into the rather precious notion of cinema as ritual, at least not the solemn kind. A laptop or a smartphone has its uses, and its charms. I’m just too distractible to relax in front of a computer screen by myself — it always feels like research. The piety of moviegoing is ahistoric, anyway. Orson Welles once described how it was in the 1930s: “You strolled down the street and sallied into the theater at any hour of the day or night. Like you’d go in to have a drink at a bar. Every movie theater was partially empty. We never asked what time the movie began.” You’d leave when you realized the reels had wound back to the point at which you entered. As late as 1960, Hitchcock could use “no latecomers” as a novel marketing gimmick for “Psycho.”
The studios have since become mere adornments of multinational conglomerates, producing films merged into “cinematic universes,” and the theaters have consolidated, too. They are fewer but more elaborate. And to counter the routine of streaming something or other whenever, both multiplexes and art houses increasingly frame every screening as an exclusive occasion. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” sold $100 million in advance tickets, more than all but a couple of dozen films grossed over their entire domestic runs last year. Manhattan’s new Metrograph is a distant corner of the industry, where you can see beautiful restorations of Dorothy Arzner pictures from an assigned seat, and they sell every ticket that way. Such convenient hassles will never feel quite like sidling spontaneously into a cinema alone, the moth circling the marquee’s light.
That volatile mixture of introspection and sensation has on occasion fueled films themselves, like Tsai Ming-liang’s “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” which takes place entirely during the final screening at a condemned Taipei cinema, the walls as cracked and stained as the hull of a shipwreck. A Japanese tourist clumsily attempts to cruise; a ticket taker drags her leg brace around, trying to bring the projectionist a steamed bun, pining. Tsai’s static camera dwells on these islands in the audience; the sparse crowd are all ghosts to one another, trailed by a murmuring soundtrack, melancholic and indelible.
Yet part of me loves meeting these unknowable visitors, just as I love darting inside a theater midsummer, pretending for two hours that the sun and its demands no longer exist. The mood of the room inducts you to its conspiracy. I would never shush that father and daughter softly discussing what’s onscreen, even the plastic-bag crinklers, because they’ve granted me license, too. When each stranger fades to a half-presence in the darkness, you’re alone with your feelings yet unable to hide them, a reflective exhibitionist. At Manhattan’s long-gone Bleecker Street Cinema, the house cat Breathless would often escape the office and claw its way up the screen, encouraged by cheers.
Whatever antisocial stigma remains attached to solo moviegoing is slowly dissolving. The porn theaters have all closed, and “grindhouse” is an aesthetic sensibility. Hanging around lobbies has lost its lurid or malevolent connotations, though it’s still seen as faintly sad, something to be avoided if possible.
In my old neighborhood, I used to walk past the Metro, Toronto’s last adult cinema. For years, a sign outside promised the shaded decadence of the French Riviera, though at some point the fountain where a golden bird roosted stopped flowing. I liked the implication that masturbation could be that baroque, that impractical. It’s almost charming. Reading Alan Hollinghurst’s novel “The Swimming-Pool Library,” I’m always moved by his narrator’s reference to one patron at a gay porn theater, “a spry little chap of 65 or so who, like a schoolgirl taken to a romantic picture, sat entranced by the movies and worked his way through a bag of boiled sweets as the action unfolded.” By the end, I heard, homeless people and night-shift workers just visited the Metro to nap. It seemed a virtuous afterlife: the world’s most opulent flophouse. Now they’ve turned the place into a climbing gym.
Before leaving Toronto, I went on a date to a Derek Jarman retrospective — we couldn’t make it to the same movie, so the idea was to see two different ones and then talk about them later. Mine was “Wittgenstein.” Jarman shot it while going blind, stricken by AIDS, and he worked with the costume designer Sandy Powell to devise a palette of petal-bright colors, set against black curtains. Most of the seats were untaken. As I watched Tilda Swinton as Lady Ottoline Morrell, so floridly poised, that dark backdrop disappeared into the surrounding void. It was just the two of us there, her feathered outfit moving with the riotous torpor of jungles.Continue reading the main story