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Jim McDermottNovember 16, 2022
Photo from Unsplash.

Ever since my dad retired about 15 years ago, he and my mom have spent every Tuesday evening going to the movies. It always made me happy to hear them talk about it. It was clear they had reached a point where they had the time to just take life in and enjoy it.

Then the pandemic happened. Obviously, they couldn’t go to the movies during it. But they also haven’t been to a single movie since.

They’re clearly not the only ones. As of today, the U.S. box office for 2022 is down $3.3 billion from 2019 and $4 billion from 2018. With juggernauts like last weekend’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and the Oscar season speeding our way, that difference will certainly decrease. But the fact is, people are just not coming back to the movies.

The question could be asked, why should they? While most places do not require masks any more, Covid certainly isn’t “over.” Why spend two hours sitting around people who might have the virus—or having to wear a mask yourself—when you can eventually see everything from the comfort of your own home?

It makes me wonder whether there aren’t benefits to the moviegoing experience that we have forgotten over these last three years.

Also, was it really so great going to the movies in the first place? You spend $20 per ticket in some places, and maybe buy some kind of snack or a meal before or after, all to see a movie that in the end you might not even like, while sitting around people who may spend the movie checking their phone or talking like you’re not even there.

But then I think of moments from movies that have really touched me, like the light playing upon the blue chandelier in Kieślowski’s “Bleu,” Tracy Letts suddenly singing “It Must Be Love” to Debra Winger in “The Lovers,” or the sudden realization that Bruce Willis’s character in “The Sixth Sense” is already dead. Most of those memorable moments came not from big blockbusters but smaller, more intimate films. And all of them happened in a movie theater.

It makes me wonder whether there aren’t benefits to the moviegoing experience that we have forgotten over these last three years, things that are important for us individually and as a society.

1. Going to the movies gives us a positive experience of community.

Last week, I wrote about how much I was enjoying the Powerball drama. The bigger that jackpot became, the more of us got involved with it, either by buying tickets or just by talking about it.

From a Catholic perspective, we might say watching a movie with strangers gives us a taste of the kingdom of God that Jesus was always insisting was in our midst.

Movies are like the Powerball lottery but with the added benefit of us actually getting to be with the other people who are having that experience. There is just something intrinsically satisfying about sharing the roller coaster ride of a movie with a room filled with strangers. Without having to do any work or agree to any principles beyond common courtesy, we get to be a part of something bigger than just us, and we discover that that is a good thing.

From a Catholic perspective, we might say watching a movie with strangers gives us a taste of the kingdom of God that Jesus was always insisting was in our midst. At the movies, we experience the joyful, nourishing beneficence that is a part of our life as members of a community, no matter how we might find ourselves in other ways divided.

They say it is impossible to stay angry with someone if you have dinner with them. I think it is equally true that it’s impossible to demonize someone you just spent two hours laughing and crying with. Without even knowing it, we’ve shared too much.

2. It deepens our humanity.

Whether it’s a comedy, a drama or a sci-fi superhero Western, a good movie calls us to a deeper appreciation of what it is to be human. Of course, that’s not unique to cinema; all art attempts something similar. It is something that does not require a crowd to accomplish, either.

Being in a group of people who are witnessing something so personal and appreciating it somehow makes it more precious.

But there is something powerful about being in a group where that is happening. Just as the screams or hilarious comments of strangers make real-life roller coasters so much more fun, the experience of watching a film with other people opens up our own experience of it. Their laughter invites our own; their tears free us to cry or to let the story affect us more deeply.

I think this is even more true when it comes to smaller movies. I can go see “Black Panther” in an empty theater all by myself and still eat up every moment of it. But when it comes to more intimate films, character pieces like “CODA” or “Juno,” somehow it is the experience of watching it with others that makes it so impactful. Being in a group of people who are witnessing something so personal and appreciating it somehow makes it more precious.

When we share in the experience of watching a movie together, we carry each other along to a deeper place. We become part of the means of one another’s experience of wonder, catharsis and self-reflection.

3. It teaches us to trust and surrender.

One of the greatest things about getting to watch movies at home is that you get to control all the aspects of that experience. You can have the lights exactly as you want them; sit or sprawl in whatever chair or posture that you want; eat any food, even super smelly stuff that would repulse others. More important, you can stop the movie at any time and for any reason.

They show us that there is more out there in the world to be experienced than we might realize from the comfort—but also the insulation—of our homes.

But the downside to being able to have everything on our own terms is that we never have to give ourselves over to the movie itself. We are never forced to be fully immersed in the world of the story. That is a key aspect of the theatergoing experience; we leave our homes and go into a dark space where others are present, and in doing so, we take our hands off the wheel, as it were. Rather than modulating every aspect of the theatergoing experience ourselves, we agree to trust in the theater, the storytellers and those around us.

Most of the time, the results are pretty great. We’re transported away for a while. We feel and see things. Even if a film itself ends up disappointing in some way, still, by going, we open ourselves up to the possibility of being surprised, and we are usually rewarded.

Those kinds of positive experiences of surrender are important. They teach us that it can be O.K. not to be in control; in fact, it can be unexpectedly kind of wonderful. And they show us that there is more out there in the world to be experienced than we might realize from the comfort—but also the insulation—of our homes.

Every movie is like a pilgrimage. It invites us into a journey with the promise of some holy destination. But as any actual pilgrim to a place they consider holy will tell you, so much of the gift is what happens along the way, the people you meet, the things you experience and share. At some point, trying to do that from home is like looking at the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave and thinking they are reality. They may still be entertaining or meaningful. But if we would just walk outside, so much more awaits.

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