Why the Movie Theater Isn't Going Anywhere

One writer's ode to gathering with strangers in a large dark room.

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Like most smartphone owners, I've got a different tone for each type of alert. For email, it's the standard Apple ding; with texts, it's the classic tri-tone; and, for incoming calls, I saved the pièce de résistance: Birdman's "Been About Money" (specifically: "Lookin' out the window of a heli-chopta over city lights / Makin' it rain, makin' it snow"). Not an hour goes by without some mad assortment of these sounds pinging away, making my average afternoon part manic soundscape, part Portlandia sketch.

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Each year, come Oscar season, I like to make sure I'm up to speed on the nominated films, and luckily for us modern citizens, most of them are already available for home viewing. I recently scanned the dozen or so streaming outlets to which I have access and found Mad Max: Fury Road, which I'd missed in the theater despite the enthusiastic ravings of critics and friends alike. I don't own a 3-D TV, so I had to settle for old-fashioned, 2-D renderings of Max, Furiosa, and Immortan Joe's many and varied adventures. There they were, on the run from the War Boys—bombs exploding all around them, their enemies acrobatically swooping in like members of an Apocalypse Now-themed Cirque du Soleil show gone rogue—when I heard Birdman's timeless refrain.

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The pizza had arrived. I paid the delivery guy, opened the box, and found the pizza had already gone cold. It was time to preheat the oven—and I was no longer hurtling down Fury Road. Or any road at all. Director George Miller and his crew had crafted the film's intricate, post-apocalyptic desert world over the course of a grueling six-month shoot that took them from Namibia to the Australian desert in conditions so bad as to be considered life-threatening; I had been unable to sit still for two hours. Well-deserving Best Picture nominee Spotlight suffered a similar fate, needing to be broken up over the course of two separate evenings due to a spontaneous—and ill-advised—late-night start time. Yes, I'm sure it's extremely suspenseful, but Nutty, my idiosyncratic pit bull mix, wasn't about to walk herself.

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One Best Picture nominee that I did manage to catch in theaters, The Revenant, was a jaw-dropping visual affair that benefited greatly from projection on a massive screen. Here was a film that found its core meaning in its sweeping vistas of the American West, and hauntingly gorgeous renderings of uninhabited wilderness. And though The Hateful Eight was ultimately a flawed movie, its theatrical rollout was a wonderful homage to the moviegoing of yesteryear: shot and projected in 70mm, it was unveiled in theaters in the old Roadshow style, complete with a musical overture, intermission, and souvenir programs. Then there was the year's biggest movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a stirring, joyous nostalgia trip unquestionably enhanced by the 3-D Imax experience. One of my other favorite cinematic experiences this year was as old-fashioned as they come these days: seeing Tomorrowland as part of a double feature at a drive-in theater in rural Michigan, taking in Clooney's timeless charm through the windshield, and tuning into the audio on my rental car's radio. My visits to the theater over the past year deepened my understanding of the films I saw because the cinema is a space designed specifically for surrender; I fully gave myself over to these artists and digested their creations whole, uninterrupted, and with hot, overpriced popcorn. 

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Not long after Netflix began offering movies for streaming in 2007, people began to forecast the end of the movie theater—and yet, ticket sales were up over 9% last year. What is it about the movie theater that remains so alluring? J.J. Abrams, director of the latest Stars Wars installment, has summarized it well. "What's a bigger mystery box than a movie theater?" he's asked. "You go to the theater, you're just so excited to see anything—the moment the lights go down is often the best part." That's the moment! The movie house goes dark, and, for a moment, life is distilled to pure potential. When you really think about it, it's astonishing that—in an age when the average person doesn't think twice about sharing any piece of information, no matter how personal—these structural homages to the power of mystery still exist.

"You go to the theater, you're just so excited to see anything—the moment the lights go down is often the best part."

Film can be escapism at its most glorious, but it's also the medium with perhaps the highest empathy quotient of all. I hold that a considerable amount of personal growth can occur over the course of two hours in a silent, darkened room—so long as one is willing to set aside the trappings of identity: Turn off your phone, cut off your ties to the real world, forget who you were when you walked in. You may emerge a different person. As visionary Swiss architect Peter Zumthor one said, "There is this basic human need to do shelter in the broadest sense of the word, whether it's a movie theater or a simple log cabin in the mountains." Zumthor maintains that architecture, at its heart, is meant "to provide a space for human beings." The same could be said of filmmaking: to provide a psychic space in which people can try to get a better understanding of one another. If all goes as it should at tonight's Oscars, the films and filmmakers honored will be the ones who made that their priority, and who did it the best.

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