No Movie Is Worth Dying For

I think I’m supposed to wax philosophical about the magic of the cinema experience. As a spiritual movie dork I’m probably supposed to compare it to church, saying that the communal experience hits something primal in us, brings us together in worshipful awe, opens us up to experiences that cannot be replicated at home, on a phone, even sitting in a car at a drive-in.

All of that is true – the cinema is one of the most transcendent experiences you can have. Sitting in the big, dark auditoriums of movie theaters I’ve been transformed and transported. I’ve felt the barriers of understanding melt away in waves of empathy and connection. I’ve been consumed by the light and the sound, and reborn in celluloid glory. 

Is that fancy enough? Was that flowery enough? Does it establish that I’m a real movie guy, that going to the movies is a very holy and special experience for me? If so, good, because maybe that will help emphasize what I want to say next:

Movies are not an essential service and you shouldn’t be going to them. At least not if you live in the United States of America. If you’re living in a nation that isn’t absolutely broken and fucked, godspeed. Enjoy New Mutants. But Yanks… don’t even think of it.

Cinemas across America are open or are ramping up towards re-opening, with a Russell Crowe movie and the endlessly delayed New Mutants leading the charge, and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet waiting in the wings to step over corpses on its way to IMAX screens. Meanwhile COVID-19 continues to burn through this country, and we’re headed towards 200,000 dead.

The idea that movie theaters are re-opening – that people will be sitting inside boxes together for hours in an environment where they’re encouraged to unmask and eat (this is especially true of dine-in movie theaters that serve full meals) – is mind blowing to me. It is clearly and manifestly unsafe. This is just, on its face, a bad idea during a pandemic. It’s such a bad idea that of course it’s happening in 2020. 

There are economic arguments for this, and they’re all bad but unavoidable. In a better country we’d have a government that was looking out for industries like cinemas, but we don’t. But there’s a corollary argument that seems to be warming up, that we need to go back to the movies because we need to save the cinema experience. 

The economics of the movies has been… not favorable for some time. The blockbusters, they do okay, but it’s been a struggle for everybody else. If you’re not a movie likely to include a cameo by Stan Lee, you’re experiencing an uphill battle. The face of the industry has changed, and the pressures of home video and a shortening theatrical window are being felt as mid-level movies become an endangered species. There has been a lot of fear about what will become of the traditional theatrical experience, which has been getting degraded since the heyday of double features with cartoons and newsreels. 

And that was before COVID. Once the pandemic hit things started to look really hairy, and there was this moment when it looked like AMC might go under that we all held our breaths. What is going to come stumbling out of the wreckage when it’s all said and done, especially as the Paramount Decree crumbles and studios begin slavering for their own exhibition chains? 

So there’s this feeling that we, as movie lovers, need to save theaters. We have to do what we can to make sure this thing that we all care about, that has been so central to us and our lives and our identities, continues to exist next year and the year after. We have to be there, soldiers of cinema, ready to do our part to keep the projectors running. 

You can almost see the allure of this. Yes, I want to do what I can! Yes, going to see Tenet isn’t just a thing I want to do, it’s me striking a blow for the future of the movies themselves! The movies have always been there for me, so now it’s time for me to be there for the movies. 

There’s this great documentary called Cinemania (2002), and it’s about a handful of truly obsessed movie fans in New York City. They go to like two or three rep screenings a day, they plan out their weeks based on the Angelika and Lincoln Center calendars, and they’re profoundly lonely and disconnected people. This is the flip side of the movie experience – it can drive us apart from others, even as it opens us to the wider world of human emotion and experience. It’s funny that way – we can get addicted to the feeling of connection that comes when the lights are down, and absolutely lose that as soon as we walk out onto the street. 

I’ve been thinking about Cinemania and those lonely weirdos as I’ve considered the re-opening of theaters. Is it it possible to be so in love with the movies that you miss the point of them, of the larger experience? The whole thing is about communication and connection with your fellow humans, about opening up your spirit to experiencing life and the world through other people’s eyes, to sharing the visceral excitement of the sound and the image. Especially the theatrical cinematic experience – it’s about sitting in the room with other people and feeling their energy syncing up with yours and pulsing in time with the images onscreen. 

One of the most worn out Roger Ebert quotes is “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” and it’s a beautiful sentiment. But if it’s true then shouldn’t our response to re-opening of theaters be to stay away? To remove ourselves from virus vectors, to pull ourselves out of a chain of transmission? To show empathy for others – not to avoid the movies because going might make us sick, but worse because we might get others killed?

There is no movie worth dying or killing for, and that’s a lesson I’ve learned at the movies. I want the theatrical experience to survive and thrive, but not at the expense of someone’s mom or grandmother… or my own girlfriend, who is immunocompromised because of her cancer treatment. The idea of being a link in the continuum of infection because I just had to go see New Mutants is too much to bear. 

I’m not going to judge you if you go to the movies in the United States. That’s your choice, and as of this writing you’re free to make it. Everybody does their own math about this stuff. But I will tell you that 2020 represents the biggest gap between visits to the movies for me since… the 1980s?… and it doesn’t look like that gap is closing any time soon. If this small sacrifice can make a difference, I’m glad. It’s what the hero in a movie would do.

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