Midway through the 1982 screen musical “Annie,” the characters stop and do something that’s incidental to the plot but essential to their pleasure: They go to the movies. It’s the 1930s, and hard times are sending audiences to the pictures in droves, though few can afford to go in such style as Annie and Daddy Warbucks, chauffeured by town car to Radio City Music Hall. Before the curtains part on “Camille,” a splendid weepie starring Greta Garbo at her finest, they’re treated to a proper billionaire’s welcome, first from a receiving line of ushers and then a chorus of Rockettes: “Let’s go to the movies / Let’s go see the stars,” they sing. “Red lights holler, deep Depression / What do we care? Movies are there!”
Indeed they are. And it’s wonderful to have them back, more than a year after the pandemic’s spread led to theater shutdowns nationwide. For those of us fortunate enough to make a living writing about the movies, it was as if the best office in the world had closed indefinitely. For anyone who simply loves going to the movies, it was as though a bright light had been snuffed out. Newfangled streaming services and antiquarian DVD libraries kept a lot of us sane without being in any way a meaningful substitute.
Now theaters have reopened, and months after being fully COVID-vaccinated, I’ve started going back to them — tentatively at first, but soon with growing confidence and a joy that has yet to subside. I started off slow, with a couple of press screenings held in nearly empty theaters and with tight safety precautions in place. A few weeks ago I bit the bullet and headed to my local Pasadena arthouse, the Laemmle Playhouse 7, to catch the scintillating, newly restored 1969 French thriller “La Piscine.” (By delightful coincidence, I ran into a friend. We recognized each other even with our masks on.)
And as I write these words, I’ve just managed to score a coveted ticket to see Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” at the recently reopened New Beverly Cinema, where it will have three showings next weekend. I may walk out of the theater humming Kander and Ebb, but on the way I’ll probably be singing along with the Rockettes: “Let’s go to the movies … ”
My affection for “Annie” has dipped over the years but I’m still fond of that interlude: Seeing it for the first time as a wide-eyed child myself, I couldn’t help but share in Annie’s kid-in-a-candy-store exuberance. It invested the act of moviegoing with a sense of extravagance that couldn’t have felt further removed from the Anaheim Hills strip-mall multiplexes where I spent much of my youth. For me, the closest thing to Radio City-style magnificence was in the movie palaces that once dominated downtown Los Angeles — most of which had long since closed by the time I was old enough to visit L.A., let alone call it home.
Still, moviegoing in this city has often afforded its own bonuses, a few friendly perks to remind you that you’re there to experience something special. You may not be greeted by the Rockettes, but you could still count on a snappy intro at the ArcLight Hollywood, with a promise to ensure top-notch picture and sound quality. You could look forward to Rob Richards’ live organ music at Hollywood Boulevard’s El Capitan and rich, scholarly appraisals of classics and undersung gems at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood or REDCAT downtown.
Those pleasures have been suspended, some permanently. ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres have made their closures permanent, to the devastation of local moviegoers. Repertory theaters are still slowly figuring out their reopening plans. The last time I was at the El Capitan, for an early mid-May screening of “Cruella,” the organ was nowhere in sight. I trust it’ll be back, along with so much that we used to take for granted at the movies — a sense of easygoing communion and delirious abandon as we surrender our impatience, our anxiety and, yes, even sometimes our critical reservations to bask in the images on the screen before us.
I’ve learned a lot from going to the movies over the years — about life, about art and the space where the two collide — and most of what I’ve learned is deeply rooted in my memories of specific moviegoing experiences. Allow me to share a few of those lessons, and also to ponder how some of them might change in a post-pandemic era of moviegoing. I know you have your own memories, and I invite you to share them with me. As we return to theaters, weary, wary and hopeful, it’s more important to cling to them than ever.
1. If you haven’t seen certain movies on the big screen, you haven’t seen them.
It seems fitting to start with the picture that tops most best-of-all-time lists (even if “Vertigo” dethroned it years ago in the decennial Sight & Sound critics’ poll). I was a kid when I first rented “Citizen Kane” from my public library, eager to see what I’d been told represented the apex of the motion picture medium. What I saw — a fuzzy VHS copy of a movie that talked fast and moved faster — was disappointing, even mystifying. It would be a few years before I watched Orson Welles’ masterpiece again, this time in a proper theater, and found it as hypnotic and revelatory an experience as it was always meant to be. My age and readiness mattered, of course, but seeing the movie as it was made to be seen mattered more.
The formal ingenuity that made “Citizen Kane” such a pioneering technological feat is too often spoken of in terms of its surface trickery rather than its immersive power. Welles doesn’t just fool the eye with his dazzling technique; he brings you deep into Charles Foster Kane’s public and private worlds, engulfing you in the shadows of Xanadu and sweeping you up in the chatter and bustle of a Manhattan newsroom. For all its intricately criss-crossing timelines, Welles’ filmmaking pulls you into a kind of dream state. Gregg Toland’s images, with their lustrous interplay of light and shadow, don’t merely tell or decorate the story; they are the story.
Seen on a TV screen, “Kane” is still one of the medium’s great crackling entertainments. Seen in a theater, it exerts an almost physical weight, a gravity that pulls your gaze to the screen and seals it there. And it doesn’t really yield its depths until it’s first been appreciated — imbibed, savored, consumed — as a visual object. Not every movie works this way, or needs a big screen to cast its spell. But the most transporting ones always will.
2. A movie worth seeing is worth seeing all the way through, with eyes wide open.
From the sublime (“Kane”) to the ridiculous, or maybe the sublimely ridiculous: In 2004, I found myself in a theater — not by choice — to see the romantic comedy “50 First Dates.” As a burgeoning non-fan of Adam Sandler (“Punch-Drunk Love” having been the exception that proved the rule), I fully expected to hate it — and I did, for about 10 minutes. Then Drew Barrymore showed up, and the entire movie seemed to reshape itself, as though energized by her incandescence. The adolescent meanness and vulgarity receded. Sandler deepened in Barrymore’s presence, and she became slyer and spikier in his. Their love story was utterly disarming in its sweetness. A shot of a tumbling pineapple halfway through almost brought me, embarrassingly, to tears; by the end, I was practically swimming in them.
No one, of course, needs to watch “50 First Dates” in a theater to enjoy it; it holds up just fine on the small screen. But if I’d stumbled on it for the first time on Hulu, I might well have shut it off after five minutes. I wouldn’t have stuck with it — much less fallen for it — if I hadn’t seen it in a theater, where my only choices were to walk out or give it my full if begrudging attention. To go to the movies, whether you go in a mood of excitement, reluctance or dread, is to invest your time, embark on a journey and surrender some measure of power and control. It means putting the ball in the movie’s court — and giving the movie the best possible chance to make a case for itself.
Will we keep letting the movies make that case? Or will we allow our increasingly fragmented viewing habits, our preference for convenience over commitment, to set the industry’s agenda? With the pandemic still raging and theaters still reopening, it may be too soon to tell, though early box office successes like “A Quiet Place Part II” and opening disappointments like “In the Heights” have already set forth competing industry narratives of encouragement and alarm. I hope for the best and fear the worst.
3. There are few experiences more cathartic, or humbling, than seeing a great horror movie with a crowd.
Horror movies were among the first to welcome me back to theaters, or at least limited-capacity press screenings, namely the pretty good “A Quiet Place Part II” and the pretty forgettable “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” But I don’t think the movies will feel really and truly back until I’ve had an experience comparable to the one I had in 2003, when the Japanese thriller “Audition” arrived in L.A. theaters.
At the time I was a senior at USC and incredibly squeamish about horror movies (I’m only slightly less so now). But the must-see excitement around Takashi Miike’s latest work, which had generated much acclaim and notoriety on the festival circuit, was enough to temper my dread with excitement. Once I heard that “Audition” would be playing at Flagship Theatres, a squeaky-chaired, sticky-floored movie mecca located just off campus, I headed to a midnight show with a few brave friends I’d arm-twisted into coming along.
What makes “Audition” so diabolically effective is that for roughly its first hour, it plays like a sedate, melancholy family drama about a lonely widower seeking a new wife. Sounds innocent, right? Not exactly. As Miike’s movie pursued this deceptively gentle premise to its chilling nightmare-logic conclusion, my companions and I sank deeper and deeper into our seats (“I hate you,” one of them kept hissing at me), peering at the screen through our fingers. At a certain point — around the time the acupuncture needles came out, or maybe it was the piano wire — a guy seated a few rows away stood up and stumbled toward the exit, wailing, “I can’t take this anymore, man!” I chuckled. I sympathized. And while I’m still not entirely sure how, I stayed.
4. Being a good moviegoer sometimes means risking a little conflict.
I’ve written before about the necessity and occasional danger of asking your screening companions to put their phones away. Confrontation has its risks; choosing your battles is important. But so is reminding (and in some cases, informing) others that continually lit-up screens and ringing phones pose a very real distraction to those around them.
Over the years I’ve politely asked countless moviegoers to put their phones away, most of whom have quickly done so. I once asked an ill-mannered magazine editor to quit texting his way through Gaspar Noé’s “Climax” and got a torrent of expletives in return (plus a few post-screening insults for the road). I’ve told people to stop taking photos and even videos during a Cannes Film Festival screening of “Force Majeure,” an AMC Atlantic Times Square showing of the documentary “Amy” and a Laemmle Glendale showing of “Mandy.” (Someone really wanted a freeze-frame of Nicolas Cage screaming on the toilet in his underwear — and to be fair, who could blame her?)
Is there any reason to hope that the post-pandemic generation of moviegoers will be a more considerate one? The reluctance of so many Americans to wear face coverings for the sake of public health doesn’t bode well, and if we’re going to have to start admonishing moviegoers for flouting mask requirements and using their phones, even I might be tempted to throw in the towel. I’m reminded that one of the more emphatic lessons of “Climax” is that “Life is a collective impossibility,” a maxim akin to Sartre’s pronouncement that “Hell is other people.” Moviegoing, for all its pleasures, has too often confirmed these cynical truths.
5. After a quarrel, the movies are a great way to cool down.
Speaking of conflict: Once, after being caught in the middle of an ugly argument between friends, I took one of them aside and, rather than trying to talk about it — neither of us wanted to — we headed straight to the movies. It was early 2002, and we wound up seeing “A Beautiful Mind.” I didn’t much care for it, for pretty much the same reasons so many critics didn’t care for “A Beautiful Mind”: Whether as biography or drama, it felt too airbrushed and sanitized, too calculated by half. Nonetheless, in ways I’ve never fully acknowledged, I was grateful for its existence that night — for its gently nostalgic glow, for its precision-honed Hollywood uplift, for Russell Crowe’s elegant mumbles and darting eyes. We weren’t looking for art; we were looking for distraction, for comfort — and we found it.
6. A movie makes a great date — or even an almost-but-not-quite date.
This one seems obvious to the point of cliché, though my own experience involved a less-than-obvious choice of movie. In November 2006, the American Cinematheque hosted a theatrical run for “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Thom Andersen’s great, ornery essay film on everything the movies have gotten wrong about the city most closely identified with their making. It was a rare opportunity to see it and I asked my best friend, who had a particular enthusiasm for the history and architecture of the city, if she wanted to join me. That I’d fallen in love with said best friend some time earlier was a not-inconsiderable factor.
And so off we went to the Egyptian Theatre, to spend three hours wrapped up in Andersen’s stimulating, voluminous arguments about Hollywood’s distortions and misrepresentations of L.A. — sorry, Los Angeles — and another hour or so talking about them on the drive home. Except we didn’t really talk about the movie; we talked about us, the future, when we might see each other next. “Los Angeles Plays Itself” may not be a conventional date or even almost-date movie, but it’s one I always look back on as a weirdly auspicious beginning. (Reader, I married her.)
7. The most memorable moviegoing experiences will always carry an element of the impractical.
If moviegoing is destined to become an ever more counterintuitive pastime, I can take some consolation in the fact that some of my happiest times at the movies were counterintuitive to begin with. Movie love can encourage a kind of mania in its adherents, a willingness to turn a night’s entertainment into an event or even an endurance sport. That’s true of cinephiles making a daylong pilgrimage to see Béla Tarr’s 7½-hour “Sátantángo” on the big screen, as I did two years ago, or fantasy enthusiasts lining up with friends at midnight for the first showing of a new “Lord of the Rings” movie, as I faithfully did at Universal CityWalk for three years straight.
But I don’t think I’ve ever had a more uniquely wondrous experience at the movies than I did in the fall of 2014, when the Miami Beach Cinematheque kindly hosted me as a guest for its Speaking in Cinema series. It was, among other things, a marvelous introduction to a community of critics, programmers and movie buffs, and after the main event and afterparty were over, a bunch of us stayed behind for the after-afterparty: an impromptu private screening of Tsai Ming-liang’s new movie “Stray Dogs.”
For a group of seasoned festivalgoers, there was nothing so odd or extreme about a midnight show of a glacially paced, visually stunning art film from one of Taiwan’s finest directors. How, then, to explain the element of daring in the air that night, the collective sense of “Screw sleep, let’s do this” excitement? I think it’s that as we settled into our seats, chugged our espressos and surrendered to Tsai’s bleak, glorious vision, we knew we were doing something only a small, self-selecting group of people would probably ever consider doing. If that sounds exclusive or elitist, hell, maybe it is. Moviegoing can be one of the great communal experiences; it can also be something intensely specific and personal, an experience whose pleasures are savored by a privileged few. That night was a test of our dedication and an affirmation of our love — for this medium we call cinema and the dark, cavernous spaces where it still lives.