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Why I Miss Movie Theaters, and Why Nothing Can Replace Them (Column)

The age of enforced home viewing just points to the primal movie excitement you can't get at home.

Empty movie theater
Juice/REX/Shutterstock

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much I miss movie theaters. I don’t just mean that I miss watching eye-zapping sensory-overload spectacles on the big screen. I don’t just mean that I miss watching vibrant life-size dramas that, by virtue of being on the big screen, become a kind of spectacle, one that’s larger-than-life in its intimacy.

I mean that I miss the experience of going out to a movie, of giving yourself over to it, of getting lost in it, of being taken away from this world. Warning: Don’t try this at home. Or, at least, not if you want it to work as well as it does in the cavernous dark.

Everything is relative, and in the moment we’re all caught inside now, a trip to the grocery store can suddenly seem as exciting as “Star Wars.” Who doesn’t, these days, long to get out of the house?

Going out to the movies, of course, has always occupied a special and reverent place in our culture (and in my own life). Yet it has actually become corny and déclassé and borderline behind-the-curve to speak of it that way. People talk about how much they relish a specific film (blockbuster, indie, art, diversion, whatever), and the wide-eyed aesthetic of taking it in on the big screen is certainly part of that. But I’m speaking of something different: the primal experience of being in a movie theater. One of the reasons I became a critic is that, to me, sitting in the dark watching a movie is a holy experience, even when the film itself isn’t up to snuff.

In a different age, in an America far, far away, people talked about “going out to the movies,” and the film that was playing was often a matter of secondary concern. I think that’s still often true, but these days few would elect to put it that way, since it might lower one’s status as a supreme individual who spends every waking moment exercising the divine right of consumer choice. “I choose to see this movie, therefore I am.” (A person of aggressively defined taste.)

And, God forbid, if I were to say something like “I still love the movie-theater experience” (which I do), the culture is now cued to look at me as if I’ve taken leave of my senses. Because that simple statement contradicts the new dogma, which is this:

Home viewing rocks. Movie theaters suck.

At home, I’ve got comfort and privacy, a large screen with crystal visual clarity and splendid sound, the bounteous buffet (at the click of a remote or a touch pad) of more movies and shows than I could ever hope to watch, not to mention the chilled cocktail of my choice. With the explosion of subscription services, the available content has grown exponentially, and if that pesky 90-day theatrical window would only get shattered (Go, Netflix! Knight of the crusade against the dreaded window!), the movie theater as we know it would essentially move right into my home. What could be bad about that?

As for the movie theater itself, we all know what that’s become. It’s a noisy, synthetic environment full of people who won’t stop talking and interfacing with their phones. Before the feature starts, I’m assaulted with ads and a cavalcade of trailers for depressingly cruddy-looking films that drags on for close to half an hour. And as if the tickets weren’t pricey enough, the concession counter is so expensive (“Would you like to upgrade to a large soda?” Why not, since it costs only 70 cents more than the $8.30 I’m already paying) that for a family of four, going out to the movies can top 100 bucks. What, really, is the point?

Or so says the new dogma. Whenever I hear people list the 12 Commandments of Gripe about the contemporary movie-theater experience, I get it (I really do). But I also wonder, in a way, what they’re comparing it to. The glory days of the 1980s? That was the first age of the multiplex, and though we didn’t have cell phones or ads before the trailers, I can testify that the experience wasn’t all that different. Audiences had already lost any sense of decorous quietude. (That went out with the rise of MTV and the WWF.) The floors were sticky, the trailers dragged on (though not quite as much as they do now), and the Sno-Caps that came in a box the size of a YA paperback were still overpriced. More to the point, the original multiplexes were already blue-and-magenta pasteboard-and-fiberglass travesties of the movie palaces of old. If those palaces are what you have nostalgic yearning for, they were on their way out 40 years ago.

I became a critic in the 1980s, the age of plastic theaters and the plastic high-concept movies that played in them, and I knew that those environments were a royal come-down from the grand motion-picture-going ideal, yet I relished them just the same, because they were my theaters, the place where I cultivated my own romance of moviegoing.

And that romance, I’m here to say, is about something that has not gone away: the ability to get lost in the shadows, to sink into a movie theater as if it were a temple, a cave, a womb, a big dark space that conferred, just by being there, the magic of invisibility.

The genius of “Netflix and chill” — an outdated double entendre but still a relevant phrase — was its implication that serial television was now the sexy comfort food, the new erotic lava lamp. But also that the subliminal reason home was becoming the mythologically dominant entertainment sphere is that going out of your house had become, in some ineffable way, anxiety-provoking. Not “Mad Max” scary, but an experience that carried a subterranean inner tremor. The arrival of Netflix basically said to us: Who needs it? Stay inside! Chill the terror! Home, said the new myth, was now the place of sublimely enveloping entertainment.

But now that we’re all trapped at home, I’m wondering if the mystique of the home theater is actually set to lose a bit of its luster. The best description I ever encountered of the difference between movies and television was delivered by Gene Siskel, who during an episode of “At the Movies” evoked that difference with a simple tilt of his head. To look at a TV screen, he tilted his head slightly downward; to look at a movie screen, he tilted it up. His point was that in each case, the controlling spirit was on top: that at home, when you’re watching something on television, the controlling spirit is you, whereas in a movie theater the controlling spirit is the movie itself.

This, of course, was in a different era, when TV sets were smaller, not mounted on the wall, and the stuff we were watching on them wasn’t one-quarter as good. Yet I still take his point. At home, we’re the masters of our domain. We seek out movie theaters because they’re the domains we’re not the masters of. When I became a film junkie at 17, the movie theater was my safe space, and the soothing cathartic excitement of the theater experience was every bit as important as the films I was discovering. Pauline Kael caught that feeling in the title of one of her books: “When the Lights Go Down.” When the lights go down in a theater (I’d say the contempo equivalent is: when the trailers end), you feel serene but adrenalized, suffused with the elation of possibility.

That’s still true for me, and it’s a feeling I’ve taken into the megaplex era, to the point that even the supposed annoyances of the theater experience — the sterile lobbies, the cell phones (a complaint I’ve personally found to be greatly exaggerated) — are part of what melt away in the dark. The one new development that actually irks me is reserved seating. At times it’s perfect, but at other times I find it interferes with the indolent spontaneity of going to the movies that I associate with the ‘70s — the wandering in, the sitting wherever you want, the freedom of it.

I go to the movies for a great many reasons, first and foremost to experience fantastic films. One essential reason I go to the movies, though, is to escape. And that sometimes means…escaping my home. But it’s all to get to a different place that I call home. A place where it’s dark and safe and anonymous, but where that safety affords me the privilege of luxuriating in something adventurous or even dangerous. A place where I’m inside myself, but also out there in the universe.