The apparent closing of the River Oaks Theatre is personally devastating to me because of my long history with the place as projectionist and cast director of Rocky Horror, where I met my wife. That said, it’s also the latest in a long line of theater closings that is not likely to stop. Alamo Drafthouse declared bankruptcy and shut down its famous Sixth Street location in Austin. AMC finally closed down the giant Googleplex on Dunvale. Regal is just gone entirely.
I’m really worried that the moviegoing experience will die as a mainstream pastime, making home viewing the norm even for event films. I also think it might make us all watch movies like reactionary conservatives.
One of the things that I have been doing over the past year to save my sanity is watching scenes from Avengers: Endgame with audience reactions. Hearing people absolutely lose their minds when Sam Wilson/Falcon tells Steve Rogers/Captain America “on your left” and heralds the return of all the dead superheroes puts tears in my eyes. It is this group moment of shared joy that comes through even on crappy cell phone microphones. People are united in a way we rarely are anymore in this powerful artistic moment.
The cinema experience is one of community. It’s looking at a stranger next to you during Us and when the Untethered start their dark work and confirming that yeah, things are about to get metal. It’s being surrounded by children who already have the chorus of “Into the Unknown” memorized and are unapologetically singing along with Queen Elsa at the top of their precious lungs. For places like River Oaks and Alamo, it’s often a pilgrimage with the like-minded to see the forgotten and the strange, watching your own enthusiasm for art reflected in the eyes of the people around you.
Where does that go when we are watching entirely at home? It turns the experience inward. With no crowd around us to share their own energy, a movie becomes a conversation between itself and the hangups of the person watching it.
You know who likes it that way? Reactionary alt-right shouty men who illegally download stuff like Captain Marvel so they can tear it apart for its anti-man agenda. That’s much harder to do when you’re sitting in an auditorium full of women and girls crying as Carol Danvers comes into her power and strikes back against those that would have hamstrung her for their own ends. I’ve watched the difference on Twitter from reactionaries. They have a more difficult time tearing things apart when they see how much those films mean to other people around them.
Yes, the left does it as well. God knows I’ve watched Lindsay Ellis ruin a lot of movies. However, the left is generally not engaged with taking apart every major cultural event to prove that cultural Marxists (or whatever the new codeword is for gays and Jews is) are trying to sneak in the end of white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. They tend to celebrate moving forward rather than actively trying to drag us backwards.
How easy would it be for a parent to watch movies like Frozen II at home and drip poisonous nonsense about how there couldn’t be any people of color in Arendelle into their child’s ear, pausing the movie so that they can interrupt the flow with their bigotry? You can’t do that at the movies when a legion of kids are experience stories they might never have been exposed to before. You just have to shut up and watch it, too.
Going to the movies with other people forces you to at least consider the way they might see things. You can hear their gasps, feel their reactions, and see their faces when they leave. We’re a social species, and that’s going to make you question yourself far more than reading mean comments on Twitter ever will. As movies actively incorporate more diverse narratives, it means a greater swath of humanity is all together seeing them. It puts us together in a way nothing else does.
I love watching movies at home, and for a year I’ve had no choice. It’s just not the same, though. Home movie watching refocuses everything into our own individualism and point of view, and rigid adherence to those things is already killing us.