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Column: Vaccinated and back at the movies, together

Two people sit on the floor
Ed Helms and Patti Harrison appear in ‘Together Together,’ which turns out to make for a wonderful first post-vaccine theatrical experience.
(Tiffany Roohani/Bleecker Street)

My husband and I went to the movies last weekend. I can’t remember the last time we did that.

Pre-pandemic, this was something people would often say either as an expression of delight over a proposed plan — “Yes, let’s; I can’t remember the last time we went to the movies” — or, sometimes for couples, as an accusation: “What kind of relationship is this? I can’t even remember the last time we went to the movies.”

Either way, it was usually an expression of “it’s been too long” rather than “I honestly cannot remember.”

But I honestly cannot. I go to a lot of movies, sometimes alone for work but often with one or all of my children. I love the movie experience so much that I don’t even care if the actual film disappoints. Good or bad, it will have wrenched me from daily life and my own overcrowded head, ushered me in through the soothing popcorn-scented murmur of the lobby, burrowed me deep into darkness and returned me, dazzled in one way or another, to sidewalk and car with a thousand new thoughts.

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Even if those thoughts run along the lines of “how on earth does [fill in the blank] still get to make movies?” I am almost always refreshed.

My husband is a bit more picky. After two decades of taking children to movies he would otherwise have never seen in a million years (“Brother Bear” comes to mind), Richard is really only interested in the genre once known as “art house.” And while he will sit, rapt, through a live theater performance so awful that half the audience bolts at intermission, he would rather skip a movie entirely if there’s the slightest chance he will not like it.

He must be convinced that a superhero movie is somehow more than a superhero movie (which is how we got him to see “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman”) and will not see a horror film unless it is subtitled. He definitely hard-passed on “The Turning,” which may have been the last non-festival film I saw in a theater.

I recently found, in my coat pocket, tickets to “Bombshell,” which the whole family saw at the Cinepolis Luxury Cinema as a holiday treat. (Did I ever think a ticket stub for “Bombshell” would make me weep? No I did not, but neither did I imagine “The Turning” would be my last commercial theatrical experience for 14 months.) Probably “Parasite” was our last date-night movie, but honestly, I’m just guessing.

This made selecting the film to see on our fully-vaxed return both thrilling and daunting. If “The Turning” was my last, I definitely wanted my “first” to be a good one, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on any movie. Especially since there haven’t been any big openings yet aside from “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which we would not be seeing under any circumstances.

We wanted to go to the Laemmle in Pasadena, the site of so many date-nights past, which narrowed the options to 11. Would we be judged by the first movie we saw after the great pandemic? What if our choice wasn’t cool enough? More important, what if we picked one we didn’t like? What if all, as so many theater owners fear, these months of total control, in which we could simply switch to another movie if the one we were watching failed to captivate, had ruined us for the theatrical experience?

We could have played it safe with “Nomadland,” “Minari” or “The Father” but we had already seen them (in my case, twice) and, as a former TV critic, I just don’t buy the “you need to see it in a theater” argument, even when Frances McDormand makes it. (Sorry, Fran! I still love you!)

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In the end we chose “Together Together” because the title seemed apt, and who doesn’t like Ed Helms and Patti Harrison?

After staring at my genuine movie theater ticket (well, bar code) with the kind of anticipatory thrill I have historically felt only in airports at the start of a vacation, I wanted to leave for the Laemmle instantly, never mind that it was three hours before showtime. We compromised and got there a half-hour early.

Even with all the jittery joy, it was strange how familiar it all felt — the search for parking, the discussion about whether to duck into Vroman’s first (before I reminded Richard we have never spent less than 30 minutes in a bookstore), the buttery bright smell of that movie theater popcorn.

Yes, there were arrows and social-distancing marks on the floor, an incredibly thorough guide to hand-washing on the bathroom mirror and masks on every employee, patron and even every character in the movie posters on the walls.

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But otherwise everything else was exactly the same. The patterned carpet, the old-fashioned theater seats, the hushed but ringing silence of a theater before the lights go down and the trailers begin. We were two of perhaps a dozen audience members, most of an early vaccine-eligible demographic, and we huddled together in highly distanced groups, removing our masks to eat or drink and then putting them back on again.

Then the lights went down and for two hours it was as if the pandemic did not exist, had never occurred. “Together Together” was sweet and smart and funny enough, but even if I had hated it, I was at the movies. A haven from heartbreak, anxiety and bad weather of all sorts, a place of necessary solitude, romantic anticipation, friendly bonding and familial celebration.

After a year of crowded isolation, there were no interruptions from kids needing something; no ambient distraction courtesy of nearby leaf-blower or power tool; no hitting pause to check and see if the meatloaf was done yet. Having committed to it, the experience was literally out of my hands. I couldn’t use this time to also sort laundry or check my emails or do the dishes; couldn’t carry this screen from one room to another to see what the dogs were barking at this time or balance it on the counter while I did the dishes.

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I was at the movies and for two glorious hours all I could do was watch and listen and be.

That and fidget in my seat pretty much constantly. About an hour in, I wondered when the Laemmle’s seats had gotten so uncomfortable before realizing it was me. With the exception of my recent in-flight viewing of the Oscars, I am no longer accustomed to watching two hours of anything in a stationary and upright position. Instead, I drape, and slump, and lean or, when watching on a personal screen, go horizontal. (I feel like the post-pandemic workspace is going to require a lot of personal couches.)

But remaining upright is something I am more than willing to relearn if I can do it in communal glory, if once again I can sit with my fellow humans in venues that demand mutual respect of space as well as air. I can’t wait to find my seat on a subway, at a concert, in a theater. I long to improve my posture and abs with the bleacher seating workout so beloved by parents of basketball players.

But it may take some practice, which is yet another reason to go back to the movies: Restore your powers of concentration and improve your posture while watching film and eating popcorn! It will feel like you never left, and with any luck, we will never have to leave again.

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“Together Together,” I swear I will never forget.


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