When I was younger I thought I could feel less lonely if I consciously chose an interest that was widely popular. In middle school I was having a hard time finding other kids interested in Harry Turtledove novels and the Franco-Prussian War, so I set out to establish an interest already in vogue with my classmates.
This plan seemed like a safe a bet—everybody likes movies. And for a time, it worked quite well. A large part of why movies are the default for first dates is because it counts as spending time together, but you don’t actually have to start and maintain a conversation. Then after the show, you have an obvious conversation topic. The same goes for dysfunctional families and their affinity for any kind of shared viewing experience. If there is just one TV show or genre that everyone can agree on, an hour or so of unity and tranquility can be achieved while everyone silently participates in one thing. When you’re in middle school, trying to figure out how to stop being a complete child and manage adolescence, quite a few social engagements have that uneasy feeling of a first date or a family on edge. Movies serve as a handy “free parking” spot throughout all of this chaos.
But over time, most every appreciation sharpens into an interest and is then honed into a specialized obsession. There are sports aficionados who want to tell you about specific plays in the 1976 Super Bowl. There are gearheads that insist on explaining the details of Pontiac V8 engines to people who drive Corollas. I’ve even met feminists eager to tell registered Republicans about every intricacy of the 1980s “porn wars.” So it goes. And so it went for me and film. When I was 13, it was easy to find guys interested in watching Quentin Tarantino’s latest. When I was 16, and wanted to see Moon, it was a harder sell. By the age of 19, I had gotten my hands on some VHS tapes of Lina Wertmüller movies never released on DVD. Boy was it tough to find anyone to watch those with me. Inside of just a few years, my interest in film evolved from a social outreach tool to a burning, and very niche, obsession. I do not mean to denigrate my cinephile ways—at least not entirely. Film has brought a richness to my life that I will appreciate to the day I die. But the irony of having first dived into movies as an avenue to a greater social life and ending up just developing another often-unshareable interest is, well, depressing.
All of this fully sank in on the cusp of adulthood. Until then, while I had been willing to watch a movie by myself at home, I had been firm about never going to a movie theater alone. Something about doing that always struck me as a sure sign that you were a loser or a loner, or some other social type I never wanted to identify with. I finally caved shortly after leaving college. Don Jon was playing at my local theater and I figured that since it was about a porn addict, there was a certain appropriateness in seeing it alone. Watching it with a girl could get awkward, regardless of our relationship status, and watching it with a male friend might not prove comfortable either. It was pretty good, all in all. I remember that it was pouring rain when I walked out, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. There was a strange serenity to the whole thing.
Not long after that, I found myself working in politics in Washington DC. There I discovered all sorts of excellent retro and hip movie theaters. I also discovered that although normal people aren’t terribly interested in movies outside the box office hits, politicos in the Beltway are even less interested in them. So, having broken the dam a few months prior with Don Jon, I started going to movie theaters alone regularly.
In particular, I loved the American Film Institute’s (AFI) theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. They showed classics and cult films all the time—even on week days, and I began going there with voracious regularity. On some level, I felt honored to be able to see so many incredible movies on the big screen: Taxi Driver, Eraserhead, and Pierrot Le Fou, to name just a few. The trouble was, I had a hell of a time finding anyone who would go see them with me. In fact, all three of those movies were watched solo.
There was even a strange period of about two years where I had a girlfriend I lived with, and I still went to the movies alone all the time. She just wasn’t that interested in movies, and would often opt for staying in instead of going out to AFI with me. That, I assure you, is a very lonely feeling. Not that it’s really her fault. Most people don’t care much for weird and/or old movies on a big screen a half hour drive from home. Perhaps more importantly, I also was not always as careful in what I took her to as I should have been. For instance, They Live, in hindsight, is not a great date movie; and The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñel’s deeply unsettling surrealist classic, was probably not great fodder for a Thursday night. And that is a sure sign of obsession: when your interest has so overwhelmed you that you develop myopia. All the same, when you can’t convince your own live-in girlfriend to go out for dinner and movie on your dime, you feel like something must be wrong with you.
In her defense, said ex-girlfriend is far from the only person who didn’t want to be dragged along to the movies. I was part of a Marxian reading group out there, and one time I did my best to convince the members to go out and see Spartacus with me. It seemed like a safe bet: the movie is about a slave revolt inside an empire, and the screenplay was by a blacklisted writer. Alas, when the day came, not one of the dozens of millennials in the group came—just one of the few baby boomers. Maybe it makes sense that this happened. People my age (millennials) don’t seem to like going to movie theaters much, and Spartacus is a bit longer than three hours. Regardless, inviting more than 50 people to a movie and seeing only one show up is crushing. As the lights dimmed I remember feeling like such a loser and wishing I had never invited a soul. Another time, I managed to get a whole group of people together to go watch Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Unfortunately, the vast majority got so stoned before the show that only a few managed to follow the plot.
The aversion so many people have to going to movie theaters is something I doubt I will ever understand. Many claim that it is a simple matter of cost, but that is impossible. Movies are not cheap, granted, but going to bars is much more expensive, and just about everybody does that. Theater tickets range from ten to eighteen dollars. Twenty-somethings can knock down the price a bit by flashing their old student IDs, and everyone can easily bring in their own candy and soda—it’s not an airport, the staff doesn’t search your bag. Meanwhile, in big cities such as New York and DC, beers at hip and happening places often run at seven dollars minimum. The cheapest cocktails tend to be around fourteen dollars. Plus tips, plus whatever food you get once you’re drunk, and then the Uber or taxi ride home. Tons of people, tons of people in not great financial situations, go to bars every weekend and spend at least three times as much money as they would have at a movie theater. Yet over and over again people tell me it’s simply too costly to go and catch a movie. Then they get trashed at an overpriced watering hole, strike out, and then watch garbage on Netflix the next day as they nurse their expensive hangovers. This is not an exaggeration. There were plenty of folks in DC who I regularly invited to the movies for over two years who never once went—and every last one of them loved the bar scene out there and had a Netflix account, and people do the same thing everywhere else I’ve lived too.
There have been many times when after I have watched an incredible film in the format it was meant to be seen, I walk out of the theater asking myself, “why does nobody else do this?” At AFI, the only other people in the theater, nine times out of ten, were affluent retirees, which really tanked any prior illusion I had held about meeting and befriending other cinephiles at a show. The same goes for the Trylon, the great retro theater in Minneapolis. Sometimes it feels like a jackhammer in my head: why does nobody else do this, why does nobody else do this, why does nobody else do this, why does nobody else do this? Is it me? Are these movies actually all bad? How can it be possible that I can’t find anyone to watch this with me, and how is it possible that only three other people were in the theater with me? This was often the case even at screenings of incredibly good films, including (but not limited to): The Bride Wore Black, Nocturnal Animals, and Kika. I still wish I hadn’t had to see them alone; to my own detriment, I think I’ll always wish that.
I have had some divine movie-going experiences with good company. In DC I managed to get a buddy to come along with me to a midnight showing of Evil Dead 2. We had both forgotten just how funny it is, and just about died laughing. On my thirteenth birthday, my older sister treated me to Domino at the Mall of America, and we both thought it was awesome. A longtime girlfriend and I saw We Need to Talk About Kevin and were both floored by its brilliant intensity. After the show we went and got coffee and just talked in repetitive circles about what we’d just witnessed because it was impossible to think about anything else. Years later in DC, the same thing happened with another girlfriend when we saw the original Cape Fear together. As is often the case, these memories of the good compound the experience of the bad. More concretely: I think I could have had just as good time as those listed above, had I only managed to bring someone along with me when I went to see Shane.
The most curious thing about going to the movies alone is that very occasionally, it goes well. Every now and again, it is just what the doctor ordered. Years ago my girlfriend and I got into a huge fight, so to avoid her I went to see April and the Extraordinary World alone—I certainly did not want to see it with her. The movie was great, what I wish American children’s films were like: creative, artistic, and the right kind of cute. There was no toilet humor, it was light on clichés, and it never begged for laughs. I felt a lot better after watching it, better about everything, really. About a year later, when that relationship was on its way out the door, I went and caught McCabe and Mrs. Miller on my own. It was so sad, so good, and so perfect on the big screen. It kept me company in a way I cannot describe very well, but nothing else would have done as good a job.
That’s the way it goes. If you’re a film buff, you end up going stag to the movies far more frequently than you’d like. But every so often, that’s the ticket.