Act I — 12:08 pm
Like visiting a museum gallery on a weekday morning or a cemetery in the off-season, only those most loyal, most spurred with sudden agitation cut through the garbage-pimpled alleyways, past hungry crowds collecting around cafe doors and impatient dogs waiting outside grocery stories, to surrender their afternoons to the entire length of a matinee film. These individuals are not drawn in by the glow of a marquee as they weave among bodies at the end of the workday, not tempted by a simple agenda for their date night, nor the graphics of a subway advertisement. The choice to go is always impulsive. An intervention in mundane life reckless enough to verge on shameful. They have no phone calls to make, no appointments to keep. They ask for a ticket in a soft voice usually reserved for church. They duck into the air-conditioned movie theater lobby without being missed by the world. In pairs or alone, they never know what time the movie is actually scheduled to begin (or care). To enter the movie theater is to enter into a place emptied of time.
Act II — 12:35 pm
Movie theater lobbies are not designed to contain early visitors. The lights are kept dimmed like half-closed eyelids. A movie theater lobby in the afternoon is a stage prepared for a dress rehearsal. Only part of the staff is needed to keep this leviathan of boxed candy and buttered smells in operation. Disinterested ushers glance up from the illumination of their screens long enough to fold the perforated tickets and assemble confections with a mechanical choreography. When they think no one sees, they slouch against the counter, studying this particular breed of moviegoers with an anthropologist’s acumen.
The poet Sandra Simonds once described entering the theater as “one door opens another, / in the labyrinthine pitch to preserve / order, the expulsion from Eden, the dark / soda up her clear plastic straw… / …inside this mechanized paradise, / where reality meets the sound of gardens / growing past their makers’ dreams, / growing strange and outrageous.” Inside, the silhouettes of kids playing hooky, retired couples looking for something to break the monotony of their day, patrons still raw from heartbreak, and the lonely ones who are content with their loneliness, all of us become islands in the dark. Cushioned in freshly cleaned velvet, there is very little regard for etiquette. We become small tyrants. Everyone has a row to themselves. Those who sit too close are met with glares hard enough to relocate themselves. Backpacks and purses take up seats with the same arrogance of a small dog in a packed subway car.
Critic Chris Randle writes that “one ticket buys the ability to be privately public.” The best and worst of ourselves announce themselves in that darkness: a giggle during a particularly gruesome death scene, unabashed bawling during a profession of love, the softest of moans from the couple kissing in the back row. We, too, are part of this afternoon’s feature.
In an early episode of Mad Men, Don Draper polishes off another drink and, without warning, he cancels the rest of his meetings. The camera cuts and we find ourselves inside the theater with him. There are maybe two other people in the rows behind him. The light from the projector beams like a halo behind his head, deliberately transcendent. In this moment, he has no one to answer to, no deadlines, no meetings. He takes another drag from his cigarette, already almost down to the butt. We have no idea how long he’s been here. We never really see what he’s seeing. That’s not the point. We study his face, his island-ness utterly at home in the theater’s confines, watch the sensual pleasure of his looking take over the machine of thoughts looping in his head.
Later, Don would argue that he goes to the movies in search of inspiration but we, watching him in our state of procrastination from the comfort of a computer screen, know that’s not true. He wants to climb into the skin of someone else’s life just like the rest of us. He wants to waste time. In a time when every hour of our lives is scrutinized for efficiency, productivity, our choices become commodified through advertisements on every screen and surface we pass, the choice to waste one’s time feels like a luxury. During a bathroom break just long enough for you to miss a critical moment in the plot, you might stare at yourself in the mirror as you wash your hands, studying your own expression for a sense of sinfulness, waiting for a voice in your head to tell you to go back to work that never comes. Instead, you take that meandering walk back to the theater, sink into the cushion of your seat, and glance around at the spectators deep in the interiors of their own minds before biting down on another handful of stale popcorn.
Act III — 2:35 pm
When the credits roll, the rustle of gathered jackets and the clack of the plastic broom and dustpan startle the remaining sleepers from their seats. For two hours, we forgot all about the sun. Attentive eyes, adjusted to the darkness, take their time to collect their bags and emptied wrappers. The bodies filtering out of the theater manage to be both surprisingly refreshed and sticky with heaviness. In his confessional essay on the pleasures of leaving a movie theater, Roland Barthes writes that he is “a little dazed, wrapped up in himself….he’s sleepy, that’s what he’s thinking, his body has become something sopitive, soft limp, and he feels a little disjointed, even…irresponsible. In other words, obviously, he’s coming out of hypnosis.” They begin to pool into the hotel lobby, reluctantly eyeing the light on the other side of the exit with the repulsion of a sleeper abruptly thrown out of their unfinished dream. A new shift begins at the concession stand. The ushers are strangers all over again.
The occupants of the lobby begin to loiter, testing the limits of the theater’s cost of admission. Some exaggerate scrolling through their phones to check missed messages and emails. One of them places an excessively long call to a loved one to tell them they are on their way home now. Conversations are clumsy, tedious undertakings to resume, as though one has forgotten what it is like to speak in the unscriptedness of reality. There is very little discussion of the film’s contents. There is mostly eyeing of the glare of sunlight on the other side of that door.
A movie theater in the middle of the city in the middle of the afternoon is a peculiar place. It is a place oftentimes ignored by those walking across the street under the light of day. It is compressed between restaurants and corner stores, threatened by the menacing necks of skyscrapers. It might be here one month, boarded up and demolished the next. Yet its loyalists, when confronted with their eventual exit, linger with great reluctance. A movie theater in the middle of the city in the middle of the afternoon becomes a brief home for the discards of our society. Those who not only feel discarded by the outside world, but those who want to discard themselves, even for just a handful of hours, by disappearing into the dark of a theater and left forgotten. There are no wooden grates through which confessions are uttered, no salvation, no absolution of one’s sins. Perhaps this indulgence accomplishes something better.
The glare of the afternoon light has that same shrill pain as a childhood vaccination. Loud exhales are emitted from exertion against the doors and the relieving discovery that the humidity subsided while they were inside. Many obscure their faces with outstretched palms or don sunglasses for anonymity. Some begin to make their way back to their apartments with slow, careless strides. Some debate their next course of actions with hands tightly clasped to each other. Some re-island themselves with a tangle of headphones. One or two might pause to light cigarettes or bum from a friend prepared with a full pack. Perhaps two strangers, suddenly aware of the islands they occupied for the last two hours, will begin to strike up a conversation about what they just witnessed. Perhaps they will discover that they both need to take the same train home, that they live in the same neighborhood only a few blocks away from each other. In just a few hours, twilight will spill its ink over the tops of their heads. In just a few hours, the lights of the theater will begin to dim again.
Originally written in 2019.