You know what sucks? Going to the movies alone. Doing any social activity alone is awkward enough–have you ever been at a table by yourself in a food court?–but the movies especially suck, especially for me. Being a critic means you see a lot of things in a movie, but you never catch them all because you’re always only watching from your point of view. I can easily get lost in a movie if there are no distractions–talking in the theater indeed earns you a place in a very special hell. But the absence of distractions can itself be a distraction, paradoxically.
The thing about movies is that it’s a communal art form. The same is true of television, but to a much lesser extent. Movies are perhaps the last art form based around getting hundreds of people in the same room to experience something together. There’s music and theater, sure, but those are prohibitively expensive options at the best of times. There are laws being put into place to get ticket prices down on concerts. Or at least, I heard rumours of such. Movies are perhaps the only cheap communal art form, being only twelve dollars a ticket on average. That’s a one shot, one viewing fee to see a movie. And being there alone means you really only get half the experience.
My ideal viewing environment for any movie is a wide release opening night at a high end theater, middle seat of the middle row, in line with the projector and a packed house around me. I also like to have Ailish on my right hand side, or some substitute I’m there with. Someone who watches a lot of movies, thinks about movies when they’re alone and knows what I mean when I talk about cinematography or the orange-and-tealerizer. I prefer them to be female, but watching Moon with Dan was still a magical experience and Iron Man 2 with Chad was… well, it was Iron Man 2, it’s not that good. But it was a perfectly serviceable movie experience and would have been with anyone. Pardon me for being straight, but I tend to prefer to be accompanied by women in general.
The important part about having a large group of anonymous people surrounding you when you watch a movie is that they give you the mass emotional response that you can’t get alone. The crucial part of having someone next to you whom you know very well is that they give you the emotional response that you could never get. Seeing Tangled, I was impressed and entertained, but Ailish was taken in as though it was the best thing on Earth. Her entire review on exiting the theater was “14 stars.” She’s closer to the target audience I am, and the difference between our feelings watching the movie informed my review. Seeing Up for the first time, I remember Mel and me being reduced to tears on about five occasions.
You can feel the emotional response of a theater as much as you can feel the emotional response of a party or a room you’re in. Have you ever been at a dinner table when someone says something incredibly gauche and everyone draws in their breath at the same time and falls silent? The same thing happens at the movies. With a big enough crowd, it’s like a surround sound system for your feelings. The laughter that comes with watching comedies on the big screen is only the most obvious part of all of this. At quiet, sad moments, you can feel a collective hush come over the crowd. You’ll notice next time you’re watching a scary movie that it gets very, very quiet when jumpscares are around the corner.
This is why empty theaters suck something fierce. You can sit there, being by yourself all you want. You have no one around you making noise. There are no grannies trying to open hard candies while you’re watching Toy Story 3. But there is also no feeling, no emotion, no mood in the air. Movies are conductors of feelings, as per Quentin Tarantino, so without a symphony, what good is a conductor? You end up trying to conduct a soloist, which some directors make their specialty. The best at that you’re likely to find is David Fincher or Christopher Nolan, whose films play to such a specific audience in such a specific mindset that if you’re out of that group or mentality, it’s hard to care.
I saw Black Swan alone just last night and might actually be seeing True Grit or The King’s Speech alone some time this weekend, and seeing a movie alone keeps being a cruddy experience even after exiting the theater. When I come out of a movie, the first thing I like to do is talk about it. Being a critic, it helps me get my bearings on whether or not I liked it or why other people would like it if they weren’t me. Coming out of Black Swan, I have never been more aware of my own perspective. Pizza crunched far too loud, my hands were in my face, I felt nothing but completely isolated from everything around me due to this massive amount of stuff to say in my head that was slowly leaking down my back. I tried to call or text people to talk about it, but everyone I could talk to either didn’t like it (and their cell phone didn’t work) or hadn’t seen it yet and wanted to.
Not having anyone to talk to afterwards about a movie does prevent a wikifriends scenario where your social circle’s opinion influences yours, but it also means you don’t get a chance to solidify your perspective through expression. My review of Black Swan is unfocused, aimless, drifting. Even this article itself is the same way. It’s hard to be sure of what you think when you’re the only one you’re talking to about it, which is really why going to the movies alone just plain sucks.