By Matt Gordon
For years I worked in an office that was a stone’s throw away from a movie theater. Now, let me be clear, this was no large stone one would be throwing. No, no. Imagine a stone that is the exact size, texture, and weight specifications as, say, a baseball, and hurl that sucker from outside my office and you would get very near a theater that is tucked back against a robust wood-line. Of course, you could do away with all the tomfoolery of locating proper stones and hurling said stones and just, you know, walk over to the theater. It isn’t as fun, but it also won’t get you arrested.
But the point I want so desperately to make is this: I was proximate to a theater. Many a day I arrived at work, or left work, or went to or from lunch, and found myself staring longingly at that majestic portal—the theater—and its promise of cold air, large unhealthy quantities of “food,” and sweet, risk-free escapism. In my mind’s eye, I’d sneak over, maybe pausing to throw some stones or other projectiles back toward the office in jubilant defiance, before having my world lit up by a darkened room.
I’ve felt this pull often and I’m not alone. I mean, there is a reason why the movie industry keeps spending millions on making movies, even post-pandemic. Yes, we humans feel the allure of escape into bank heists and relationships and lives that, frankly put, are more daring and dynamic than our own. Then, quick as shaking off a dream, we scuttle back to work until our next dalliance into distraction. When one really considers this common ritual of modernity, the farcicality of it all is the real show. Let’s spend a few moments going through it, shall we?
First, a person has the desire to go see a movie. This in itself is odd. Other animals, at least that I can perceive, have very little escapist tendency. Sure, some animals engage in play, but at least there are clear-cut benefits to this sort of thing. Wolves, for instance, play at chase. This serves them later when they chase their prey. So they don’t really escape their reality but engage in mind-stimulating activity that better prepares them for it. Much like children negotiating rules for a recess game—it is trivial escape that teaches them the skills of argumentation and compromise. This is quite different than the sedentary escapism of watching a movie. Fire burn and cauldron bubble—some spell-like desire bubbles forth, does it not? A desire to laugh, to cry, to think, alone and in the dark. So we grab our coat and hat, and off to the theater we go.
Most of us don’t office so near a theater, so we take some form of automobile to the movies. We strategize on where we should park. If it is a late afternoon show, it is wise to note the retreating sun and park near a light. One of the most enchanted of all things is when one goes to a movie on a winter day only to come out to a growing layer of snow. The flakes are magical and the closest thing to whimsy this side of Hollywood. But it is best to prepare for such and park on the downslope when winter weather threatens. What is no part whimsical is missing the previews, so when one is late to the theater, the strategy is simple: park as close as possible as quickly as possible. Whatever the circumstances, we park and then enter.
But we don’t go right in, for before us looms authority. He dons a maroon vest, is acne-pocked, and will be a junior in high school next fall. Yes, there before us stands a personage who has absolutely zero power over me in any other realm of life. But in this setting, in that vest, he is law. He is John Wayne. He is Gandalf with rebellious call, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS.” At least not without the proper exchange. Oh yes, in another absurdity of the movie-going experience, we must make a trade of paper with this high school demigod. And we cannot offer up just any paper. It must be green-dyed and have certain inscriptions—no need to inspect it; he knows it just by feel. We can also choose to give him plastic from our pocket or purse, but, again, it has to be a certain type and size of plastic. Hand him a milk jug and he will scoff, his eyes of judgment ablaze.
Once the exchange is made, our plastic scanned through a little robot on his desk or our paper handed over to his freckled hands, we are given a tiny piece of paper of our own—a mini map, of sorts, informing us where to go next in the labyrinth of leisure. But difficult as our map was to come by—trading, in essence, our valuable time and the paper we were given for the use of that time to benefit some overlord or another—we don’t go straight for the prize. No, that would be foolhardy. We, as humans, need enhancements. And we have decided collectively—there was likely some council vote on it at some point in some place—that the best enhancements are those that subtly kill us. In theater parlance, these are called “snacks.” Again we exchange our lives for these things—an hour for a bucket of popcorn alone!—for edibles (questionable label) that will, by the eating of them, cause us to die sooner than we would from abstaining. I know this is killing me. You know this is killing you. But when a second teenager asks the age-old question, “Extra butter?” We are powerless.
The very best of all theaters are ones that allow you to doctor your own popcorn. The teenager just gives you the barrel of popcorn and you plop it on a dolly and wheel it over to a little death laboratory of salts and seasonings, complete with a little butter pumpjack. It’s like I’m pumping up a bicycle tire during some kind of crucial bicycle race for my life or something—you know the winner-take-all-loser-dies sort of bike races I’m talking about, yes? I just pump and pump and pump like a madman, and the butter flies and oozes and drips into the popcorn and eventually flies and oozes and drips into the very chambers of my fat American heart. It is the loveliest of ways to die.
I’ll throw in some Sour Patch Kids too for good measure. (By the way, what candy is odder? Gummy bears make sense to me, as do gummy worms. But eating little sugary children conjures an untoward picture of gleeful cannibalism I’m not sure what to do with? So I just eat them and let my dentist do the worrying.) With my snack wagon in tow, I approach a third high school student, this one is always the most pimpled and least mannerly. He’ll take my tiny map, attained from the first high schooler, look over my snacks, bartered for with the second high schooler, and then, with teenage angst worthy of, well, a film, rip my piece of paper in two and declare, “Screen seven on the left.”
I exit the light I was made for and enter the darkness. I assess the room. Where are the talking pre-teens? Where are the senior citizens with potentially malfunctioning hearing aides? Where is the handsy couple? Where are the tall people? All of this information, collected and processed in seconds, helps to inform my feet where to waddle across the sticky floor. Often a rail seat is desirable, one just behind a foot perch that won’t be ruined by late-comers or challenged by a flashlight-wielding employee.
Finally we have gone through these paces to arrive in this moment—a chance to seize upon that which has long been desired. An opportunity to watch wonder and magic and truth unfurl, all prancing wildly upon an enormous screen and amplified by gigantic speakers. A chance to . . . drumroll, please . . . watch other people pretend to do and be things.
That is what it is, right? A movie is just a human watching other humans play pretend. The bank robbery? It isn’t real. Not real guns nor a real bank. No real consequences. My wife and I, self-described “lovers,” will pay about $97 to watch two people pretend to love each other for about 97 minutes! It is absurd.
I recall when I started the job across from the movie theater that they had this Academy Awards Challenge. Patrons were encouraged to guess the Oscar winners for each category and turn in their answers for a shot to win fabulous prizes. I printed off a form, filled it out, taped it to a stone and threw it over to the theater. Resulted in fair bit of damage, actually. No, in truth I walked it over, and a few weeks later I was informed that I had guessed every winner correctly and had won free movie tickets for one year. It was beyond absurd that year, seeing dozens of terrible and very good movies.
I think what I took from all those visits to the theater that year was mostly heart disease. Along with a realization of a thing my soul already knew. I desire an escape from this world because I am made for another. It feels good and right to leave because it is, in part, the admission of a deeper truth and the short-term appeasement of an eternal longing. I enjoy my work and like my friends. My family is great. Yet still I feel a tug, a faint whisper of awareness that I am a stranger here, a temporary guest, a pilgrim, a wanderer. I yearn for more. I go to movies because I want to be part of something bigger. But I also go to movies because the biggest something I can be part of has a constant, calling voice reminding me of a home my heart misses and my head is trying to find. While I never find what I’m looking for at the movies, the lesson is in the recurring desire to go forth. To find the beyond. To enter a greater, more compelling story. Even with a very bad film, I can return changed.
Recently I was invited to an awards show party. Everyone was going to dress up in order to watch other grown-ups on television be given little trophies for being the best at pretending. Some cat was going to win “Best Supporting Actor” which means he is the best at supporting the pretendings of the primary pretenders. And we are supposed to get all jazzed up about this and guess who is going to win and argue and fuss about who is wearing what (or is it who is wearing whom?). This clearly has to be one of the dumbest ways any generation ever has spent a Sunday night. The utter nonsensicality of the movie experience was made more lucid by this invite. I thought and thought about what it all meant—for me, for my soul, and for others. And what I was left with was a simple burning question: Extra butter? I donned my hat and cat, and off I went.