Alone in the Dark of the Matinee

Going to the movies is considered a social activity by most; Kevin Nguyen prefers going alone.

We’re conditioned to think that going to the movies by yourself is strange and pathetic, like preparing a big meal for one or riding a tandem bike alone. But when my roommate Jordan was on vacation in Honolulu, doing whatever it is that pasty white people can do in Hawaii without getting sunburned, I quickly found myself catching up on films I’d been meaning to see. I watched Inglourious Basterds (which I adored) and (500) Days of Summer (which I loathed), and I believe the movie-viewing experience was far better because I was alone.

David Sedaris has an essay about how he spent most of his time in Paris watching movies. I know using Sedaris to justify any habit is akin to repeating an argument from Larry David, but it’s hard not to empathize with his reasoning: the French are bored.

“Fortunately, going to the movies [in Paris] seems to suddenly qualify as an intellectual accomplishment, on par with reading a book or devoting time to serious thought,” he writes. “It’s not that the movies have gotten any more strenuous, it’s just that a lot of people are as lazy as I am, and together we’ve agreed to lower the bar.”

But when Sedaris says he’s just being lazy, I think he’s being self-effacing, even facetious. Sure, I was bored when I paid to see Brad Pitt scalp Nazis, but that’s not why I enjoyed it more alone. What Sedaris is really highlighting is the difference in between how Americans and the French think of movies, or at least the movie theater.

In America, the cineplex is a social space. We go to the movies with friends because that’s just what you do. Dinner and a movie remains the staple first-date activity, even though it’s neither romantic nor inspired. Eating at a nice restaurant makes sense, but watching a film offers nothing but a distracted viewing while both you and your date contemplate how well the whole night is going. You might lean over and make a comment every once and a while, but there’s only a 30% chance they’ll even hear it and an even slimmer chance that it’s worth hearing. Conversely, we’re afraid of watching movies alone. Maybe it’s embarrassing because it looks like you’ve been stood up: I’ll admit that, in high school, I saw Love Actually twice in theaters by myself for that very reason — the trauma of which has kept me from going to the movies by myself since then.

The French see things differently; while I’m sure they also do dinner and a movie, there’s a good chance they spend more time eating than watching the film. Sedaris confesses, “I’ve never considered myself an across-the-board apologist for the French, but there’s a lot to be said for an entire population that never, under any circumstances, talks during the picture.” And I think this cultural difference is huge. The French are at the theater to watch the movie, not to hang out.

In high school, my friend Craig worked at an AMC Theatre in Framingham, Massachusetts. What was special about this cinema was that it had one Premium theater with a full restaurant and bar, and the idea was that you could have dinner and a movie in the same place. I’ve been there a few times, mostly because Craig got me in for free. The food is mediocre but familiar, there’s unlimited popcorn and soda, and the seats are a little comfier than the ones in the regular theater. If seeing a movie at a normal theater is like driving Camry, then the Premium theater is like driving whatever the Lexus equivalent is called.

In the end, the amenities may be different but it’s basically the same vehicle, and the concept never really took off because people don’t really care for a luxury version of the movies. The Premium theater does just fine, but it’s never that busy and only sells out when the regular shows are too. AMC had plans to introduce Premium across the country, but it’s never grown past the one in Framingham and one other in Yorktown, Illinois. The Premium theater misses the point of going to the movies altogether.

Watching a film at the theater is not better merely because of the screen size, the surround sound system, or the Milk Duds. When I’m watching a DVD at home, I certainly don’t wish it was bigger or louder. Instead, I believe in the relationship we have to the movie theater. It doesn’t matter so much as how many seats are in the room, but the fact that you’re there. Films are made to be shown in movie theaters, not on a laptop or an airplane television or, as David Lynch would say, “a fucking telephone.”

I realize I’ve spent most of this essay explaining why movie theaters don’t work well as a social place, but haven’t really gone into why it’s better alone. The truth is that I’m not really sure. As humans, I think we like solitary experiences. We don’t like being by ourselves and bored — that’s loneliness — but we do like doing things alone.

Jonathan Lethem, in discussing his childhood obsession with Star Wars (he saw it 21 times in the theater), professes a spiritual quality to the experience. He says, “I still go to the movies alone, all the time. It’s as near as I come in my life to any reverent or worshipful or meditational practice.”

Sure, there are certain films that are best enjoyed with others, like anything ironically bad, movies with Bill Murray, or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (if being assaulted by “shit happening” for two and half hours counts as a movie). But for most films, if you can separate the idea of going out to the movie theater as a means of socializing or entertainment, you’ll find yourself enjoying the theater a lot more. There’s something satisfying about leaving the house to be by yourself.

If you avoid Love Actually.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.