I went to the movies the other day.
That sounds so normal, doesn’t it? And in my pre-pandemic life, it was normal: As someone who reviewed movies as part of my job, I went to a movie theater at least a couple of times a week, and ate popcorn for dinner … well, I’m not going to tell you how often. Sometimes the movies were good and sometimes they were bad, but the routine was always the same: I turned off my phone, sat in the dark, scribbled notes and let myself — sometimes gloriously — disappear.
And then the pandemic came, and the movies stopped; for 15 months, I didn’t go. Let’s be clear: In the grand scheme of this nightmare year, not being able to go the movies was a pretty tiny thing. I’m enormously lucky to have a job, and a home in which I can comfortably stream movies and even make almost-movie-theater-quality popcorn. But sometimes it’s the tiny things in life that lift us up, and that we miss so much when they’re suddenly gone. I could never seem to disappear into a movie at home; something would always distract me — a question, a text, a suddenly friendly cat, a knock on the door. And even when I succeeded in shutting everything out, I was still looking at a screen where things were most definitely smaller than life.
But this was not a real problem, not compared with what so many people were dealing with, and after a while I vaguely started to think about movies in theaters the way I thought about college, or ballet class — something that I loved and missed, but that was gone. The quiet months went by, many of them. Spring came, my turn for vaccine shots arrived, and an invitation showed up in my inbox: Did I want to go to a socially distant press screening of a Big Summer Movie? I almost said no, out of habit, but then I realized that I did want to go, very much.
In the days before the screening, I wondered if maybe I was making too much of seeing in a movie in a theater. So many people I knew, or who wrote to me at work, seemed perfectly happy watching at home. And of course it’s safer at home, viruswise, and there’s nobody annoying who’s texting during the movie (well, I don’t know your life, maybe someone in your household does that), and it’s cheaper and easier and doesn’t require transportation and … no, I can’t justify going out to the movies. Except that it’s wonderful, and maybe that’s enough.
So there was a spring in my step on that Thursday in early May, as I entered an eerily quiet Pacific Place for the first time in 15 months. I walked through a deserted lobby (it was before the theater officially opened for the day; sadly, no warm-salt smell of popcorn) and found my aisle seat. I nodded to a few of my fellow masked moviegoers — there were fewer than 10 of us, spread out — and got out my notebook. The lights went down, the sconces dimmed, the enormous screen lit up. A breath I’d been holding for a very long time finally escaped.
I’ll be writing about the movie I saw soon enough, but it doesn’t matter what it was. (If you must know, it was a musical; how appropriate to end a drought with joyful song and dance.) What matters is that I forgot that I had a mask on. I forgot that it was 2021 and that worry had been my constant companion for a long time. I forgot what time it was, and what the weather was doing, and what I needed to get done before week’s end. In that aisle seat, I traveled somewhere and came back changed, just a bit. That’s what movies — in movie theaters — can do for us, if we give them space and time.
It’s going to take some time before a lot of us are comfortable at the movies, and I know that I was extraordinarily privileged to make my debut trip back with such a small crowd. But times will get better (I am, like so many of us who love musicals, a cockeyed optimist at heart), and maybe before too long we’ll all be gathering again at the multiplexes and the arthouses, laughing and crying and getting lost in a giant screen together.
I went to the movies the other day. It feels so good just to type that phrase. May it be true again soon, for all of us who missed it.