When I was a kid, the movie magic and the theater were the domain of my dad. He’d frequently pick us up, go to Thrifty’s for two candies each, and head to the theater for the latest movie. There’s an anecdote about my active imagination that my dad loves to tell. I’ll try to recreate it but remember that it’s far better when he tells the story.

There was a day we were at the movies and, as was our custom, before the movie started, my brother and I would run down the front of the house to explore that big space in front of the screen but before the seats. “Back in my day” you had to show up to the theater early to get a good seat, so we had plenty of time to kill before the previews started.

This time I came running back with my serious face and sat beside my dad leaving my little brother to explore on his own. My dad asked me what was wrong, and I replied that I was afraid of the monsters. My dad scoffed and reminded me that monsters were only in the movies. I turned my six-year-old face to my dad, wide-eyed and dismayed, “Dad! This IS the movies!”

You can’t argue with that. Movie magic comes with movie monsters!

As I grew up, movies with my dad became more and more rare. Teenagers don’t go to movies with their old parents! But I did keep going with my friends until well into my 20’s. As an adult, they fell out of favor. I’m not sure why. It may have simply been the expense of taking the whole family.

Over the past five years, I began to rediscover movie going and was reminded of how much I love the experience…only to have it whisked away by the “pandemic” but theaters are open again and this past weekend a friend asked if I wanted to go.

At first, I jumped at the chance, then I looked at the offerings and wasn’t impressed. There weren’t many movies to choose from and they all seemed lame. But it has been blazing hot this summer and sitting inside a cool, dark theater sounded so nice. We picked a comedy and decided to go on Saturday.

Then I started thinking. Would it be crowded early on a Saturday afternoon? I don’t want to be surrounded by people during normal times, and even more so now. Would there we weird ass restrictions that make me uncomfortable? I’d rather just stay home than jump through hoops so that everyone FEELS safe and really isn’t. Human behavior can make me crazy sometimes.

I decided I was being ridiculous, and it would be better to go out and experience the world, take notes, and make observations in person, than to stay at home and speculate.

I’m glad I did, because people are so damn weird and movie magic is real.

We purchased our tickets online about an hour before the movie started. It’s the kind of theater where you pick your specific seats when you purchase the ticket. I thought that was pretty cool BCB but now it’s even cooler. They can separate people before they get in the theater, put empty seats between groups, because we’re all too collectively dumb to do so for ourselves (insert eyeroll).

When we bought the tickets, we were the first to do so. That was weird. I assumed more people would be buying tickets just before the movie and the theater would be fairly full. I mean, it’s Saturday and over 100 degrees outside…again. I messed up my timing (again) and got to the theater five minutes before showtime to find the theater empty but for one other family, who had bought tickets for seats directly in front of us.

Think about that for a moment. Those people looked at the seat chart, saw that only two other seats in the whole theater were already taken, and selected the seats directly in front of those. Really?!

With the way they build theaters now, sightlines are not a problem. And maybe you’re not that worried about strangers breathing and eating and talking less than three feet above and behind you because you’re vaccinated. But what about personal space and privacy? I get it if the theater is full and those are the only seats available, but the whole theater was empty. Why would you CHOOSE to be that close to other people?

Humans are so strange. I sat down in those seats because I those are the assigned seats I bought, but within a couple minutes the previews started, no one else was coming, so we moved up a couple rows. I laughed in my head the whole time thinking about my Dad and how he always complains that people choose the seat directly in front of you no matter how empty the theater is. I couldn’t wait to tell him.

Movie magic strikes again!
Image from Wikipedia

As a side note, Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard is hilarious. I chose that movie purely by the title and the genre. I assumed it would be as stupid as the title, but it was inside and air-conditioned, so what the hell! I was pleasantly surprised, laughed the whole time, and loved every minute of it.

There was something else interesting that was thinking about while I was at the movies and for several hours after. Things are changing…duh…but not necessarily in a bad way.

I had stopped going to the movies mostly because the hassle of going, the cost, being among a large group of people that (from the story above) seem to have no sense of manners when it comes to movie etiquette. Screaming kids watching clearly inappropriate movies, sick people over my shoulder, talking people, etc. Why spend that much on a movie when I can sit a home and watch them on my big screen with a beer and chips? The ability to pause when I have to go to the bathroom? Yes, please!

Moving my watching time to earlier in the day, before 2pm, helped a tremendous amount. Why is it that no one goes to the movies at 11am or 1pm? We had been going on Christmas day for the latest release of Star Wars and walking into an empty theater for years. Walking out, we’d see a long line of people waiting for the late afternoon showings. Crazy.

I was bored with the selection of movies at one point. It seemed there were only action movies and coarse and crude comedies. I was so completely disappointed with first Hobbit movie, that I never went back to see the next one. There’s no dialog, no depth of meaning or character, just chase, chase, explode, and kill. It’s exhausting. And loud.

We chose to stay home to watch movies instead and I love the new streaming movies. There are so many new limited series shows based on books, history, etc. It’s awesome. Traditional movies have to be made to fit a niche: a time frame people can sit through in one stint and that a large swath of people will watch. A two-to-three-hour movie has to leave a lot of details out to get the story told. And it has to be made so that as many people as possible will watch to be profitable, so it’s catered the lowest common denominator.

It’s expensive for a theater to show a movie, so they need as many people there as possible. Streaming movies are cheaper to distribute, so they can be made for a smaller market. Limited series shows based on books or history, can be as long as they want. And now we have movies that cater to a very specific audience. It’s awesome.

But something is missing for me. Where’s the movie magic?

When The Force Awakens came out, something strange happened to me. This was the first movie I’d seen in a theater in years. When those yellow words started scrolling up the screen and the music began, I got a chill. I could feel the energy around me. And when the whole theater gasped in excitement to relive old memories and see the continuation of a story that we had all grown up with…it was movie magic. A collective memory, we were all connected emotionally. It felt…primal. I’m tearing up just writing about it.

The best part of that movie was the fact that we were all sitting there watching it together. Like watching your favorite band perform live or a live performance of a play, we are experiencing something together and for a moment we had a bond with our fellow humans. It was weird.

Right now, I’m reading “The Righteous Mind” and he’s talking about humans and how their evolved edge over all the other animals is their ability to work together, to trust each other (as in The Rational Optimist), and to bond into large groups of non-family. This is what has made us thrive and spread out over the world, to master our environment, and create technology that makes us fatter and happier than any other species. Call me crazy, but I think the movie magic is an extension of that.

I remember huge movie houses when I was a kid, packed full, shoulder to shoulder with little leg room, to watch a giant screen. The last movie I saw like that was Jurassic Park at the Cinedome in Anaheim. This movie was HUGE and was touted as having huge sound that had to be “experienced,” so we went there. It was amazing. You could feel those dinosaurs walking and hear them coming up behind you.

Those huge movie theaters are gone, I know, and that’s ok because their replacement is so much more intimate and comfortable. Smaller theaters, with comfortable recliners, tiered up so no one’s view is obstructed. Seats far enough apart that you don’t get kicked in the back by the long-legged dude or coughed on by the squirmy kids behind you. It’s fantastic.

But ticket sales had started to fall BCB, and I hope after being closed for over a year, they don’t continue that trend and theaters close forever.

There’s just something about the collective experience that I had forgotten was so special. The arrival, the popcorn, the finding of your seat. The lights dimming, the previews we watch and then look at each other for a thumbs up or down. The movie itself with the collective laughs, gasps, and painful silences. And then the end: the applause, the standing and stretching, walking from the theater laughing or crying, the looking to other patrons with the “Did you feel that?” look. It’s movie magic.