One year, four months, and twelve days. That’s how long it’s been since I last went to the movies. It has been an agonizing wait for those of us who have longed for the flicker of a film projector on canvas. To smell the rich buttery aroma of the theater popcorn, and to converse among the congress of like-minded movie lovers who gather to partake in the ritual of celluloid communion. For the last five-hundred days we have subsisted on the meager offerings of streaming conglomerates and the haven of our own specialized collections, and while the convenience and comfort they provide are their own form of sanctuary, they are not a replacement for the pleasure domes supplicated in our cinematic hearts. Movies were made for the big screen. The Lumière Brothers invented their cinématographe to both capture and project film, consecrating the medium to be one of congregation; an artform for the masses, intended for appreciation on a communal scale. The last time I partook in our sacred tradition was late February of 2020, on that peculiar and fickle day that only comes once every four years. I didn’t care much for the movie I saw then, but it didn’t seem to matter at the time. There were a host of other appealing shows just on the horizon and the imminent closure of every theater did not yet seem like a foregone conclusion. Little did I know how long it would actually be before I would once again sit in the pews of my favorite institution.
For more than a hundred years, going to the movies has been a cornerstone of American recreation and culture. For almost the entirety of 2020, every theater in the country was closed. It simply wasn’t safe enough to gather in such large groups. Even after many multiplexes began to open their doors late in the year, the time was yet nigh to return. The many mandates and restrictions still lingering imposed a necessary dilution of the experience that would fail to capture the magic of the theater which we so desperately craved. But perhaps more than that, there just weren’t any good movies playing yet. Repertory theaters were the ones to frequently showcase the classics made with the collective experience in mind, but their limited manpower and stretched finances demanded further delay. The chain theaters were still an option, but every worthwhile film was still being held until a more viable release could be attained. Only the right movie under the right circumstances would feel like the rite and return we’d all been waiting for. I waited longer than I had initially desired to, my preferred cathedral not yet having opened and still some time away from showing something truly worthwhile. Instead, salvation would be found in a smaller arthouse theater I had overlooked until now. They were screening Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) as part of their Noir Nights series — a film I already treasured for its style, storytelling, and filmic bravura, and one I now relished seeing on the big screen. I never knew the old Kiggins Theater, with its 1930s allure, its glamour and easy charm. When I stepped onto its hallowed grounds, I approached as a stranger. But much to my auspicious delight, I was greeted as an old friend.
“Welcome back,” she said, beaming with an approachable smile. “You’re our first guests tonight.” Bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the inviting atmosphere of this historic locale, I neglected to realize just how early I had entered. Though my anticipation to return surely aided in a premature arrival, in hindsight I’m certain it had more to do with my misreading of the film’s start time. So there I was, an entire hour early and the first person through the doors. I took a moment to soak in my surroundings — the classical architecture of the lobby, the buttery smell of freshly made popcorn, and the exuberant faces of the employees at the counter, just as happy to be back at the theater as I was — before purchasing my concessions and finding my seat for the night. I couldn’t believe I was back. It was about then I realized how long I would be seated before the show would actually begin. So, what better way to amend my preemptive blunder than by touring my present sanctum? I trekked upstairs where they had a bar and made pleasant conversation with the man behind the counter. He told me about the history of the building, its legacy and recent renovations, and how it’s been operating for the past year and a half. I talked with everybody working there while we waited for more people to arrive, and every one of them appeared absolutely delighted. One was a younger man just recently employed, but an ardent attendee of the theater and a great proponent of its catalogue. Another was an apparent veteran of the venue, knowledgeable about the types of projectors they had available and how the business is usually run. This was the kind of social interaction I’d been missing for the past year, an intercourse between strangers over a shared enthusiasm for our religion of choice. I could not be more at peace, I thought to myself, as I returned to my seat and waited for the lights to come down. Peace I may have achieved, but there was still Nirvana waiting in the wings. And while transcendence has historically been accompanied by the harp, my deliverance was wrought by a different, more jovial set of strings.
Such a smile never stretched across my face as did the one which beamed at the sound of Anton Karas’ famous zither theme. Illuminated up there on the towering canvas was that peculiar instrument, strumming away while the names of Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick emblazoned themselves across its melodious visage. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, the rekindled jubilation I’d been longing for the past sixteen months. My heart rang out in uproarious applause, and the silence of those around me only seemed to echo my exaltation. It’s a completely different experience, watching a film in a theater. The art is the same, but your reaction is drastically affected by the environment around you. You see more detail on the larger screen. Your eyes have ample time to scan the entire frame, picking up on peculiar details hidden within the background. Do they change the context of what you’re watching? Not always, but it paints a larger portrait of a scene and you feel a greater depth of immersion because of it. The enrapturing wrap of the canvas is only one piece of the immersive puzzle, though, as a screen of any size is little more than an eggshell wall without the confining cover of blackness there to eradicate any and all distractions — both the external and those from within.
Have you ever sat in the pitch black night staring at the magnetic blaze of an illuminating fire? Have you ever noticed how the world outside its perimeter of light completely melts away, and your attention is consumed entirely by its captivating dance? What is the theater if not its own vacant night, ignited by the luminescent glow of a projector, casting its minuet more onto our minds than upon any terrestrial surface. The unadorned space of the theater — a box in which a throng and a light are the only entities permitted — is designed to engender this state of hypnosis. In the hyper-attentive world of our modern age it is far too easy to take for granted the necessity of this isolation. To break away from our vastly interconnected world in order to sustain a singular and unadulterated experience, informed by nothing else than that which is presented to us directly. Try as you might, it is not an experience easily replicated. When you settle down to watch a movie at home you may put away your phone, you may turn down the lights, and you may even quiet every appliance within your vicinity so that no sound may penetrate your concentration. But you are not truly enthralled. Look at the room you’re in. What else do you see? A table? A chair? Decor on the walls? Is there a sliver of light peeking in from under a door, or possibly between the curtains? Even if there’s nothing else there, your vision is sharp enough that the darkness cannot completely shroud every corner of your modestly sized space. Only a temple as grand as a theater can cast enough shadow to completely immerse you within the world of the screen. Its mesmerism is all-consuming, and almost entirely without equal. But it is not solely a solitary sensation. For although we cherish these halls as places of worship, they are just as much a space for communion.
That was the greatest thing missing about this past year of home viewing: the social experience. My conclave of like-minded internet enthusiasts and the few conterminous individuals within my orbit were invaluable in maintaining a sense of interaction and exchange over the course of the sustained cinematic winter. Time spent watching movies on the couch with a couple of close friends, or engaging in rapturous online discussions on a weekly basis have been their own form of sanctuary. But for all their intimacy and emotional foundation, they remain largely an insular experience. Movies are different when viewed with an audience. The reaction and engagement of the people around you can’t help but inform your experience. The good movies get better when everyone is so obviously enraptured, and the bad movies get even worse as everyone breathes the same air of discontent. One of the most amazing things you’ll learn sitting in an attentive audience is just how funny movies can be. You don’t even have to see a comedy to hear it: even the most dramatic of films has its moments of humorous relief. In the case of The Third Man the most hilarious part was neither Joseph Cotten’s drunken belligerence or even Orson Welles’ famous quips. The audience were always in uproar whenever the Austrian landlady burst into a scene, haranguing the English police as they came around in her shrill German tongue. Everyone loved her, despite not understanding a single word she was speaking. I had never thought of her presence as a particularly comical one up until now; it was tragic if anything. The beleaguered state of this woman’s world, still resting among the rubble of the war, and still the province of dictatorial rule, only now ostensibly in the name of freedom, seemed but another melancholic underpinning of the film’s stark image of a wartorn Vienna. But the people still laughed. They marveled at her feisty resistance to the overreach of the British police. And they were right to laugh, because it is presented in a rather humorous way. I just never knew how funny it was until I was there, laughing alongside them as this little old woman was cussing each and every English officer up and down as they tried to go about their investigative business.
If you’ve never seen the final shot of The Third Man, just know that it’s a compositional work of art which both perfectly concludes the film’s events and relationships while also standing on its own as a singular work of expression and finality. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen, after sharing in the mesmerizing and captivating experience of the theater in a mass of enamored moviegoers, know that the emotional crest of the movie’s conclusion is only half effective without it. As I sat in my seat, straining not to melt into the floor, a tear welled in my eye. The dam did not budge, but I was still overcome with euphoria. I practically floated out of the room when I was finally urged to take to the aisle. I took the time again to thank everyone who first embraced my return when I stumbled in before they were ready. The young man who just started two weeks prior asked me about the film, and I regaled him with effusive details regarding Carol Reed’s emphatic direction and the beguiling narrative strung by Graham Greene. I spoke again with the theater’s curator, the woman who first beckoned me in with ecstatic reception. She was enthralled with my enthusiastic praise, as I rhapsodically enumerated about the theater and the experience and my elation towards the reprieve of returning to the theaters. She thanked me with equal consideration, invited me to join them for the next showing that following Friday, and saw me out the door as the last person to leave. Just as my early arrival was not prearranged, I had not intended to outlast everyone else in my departure. Part of me just didn’t want to leave. It had been so long since I had appreciated all the wonderment and community the theater could offer. I forged new bonds and resurrected those which had been in stasis for a full five hundred days. It was difficult to imagine leaving after waiting so long to get back in. But I must say, the long pause I took standing outside the theater, breathing in the fresh summer air, and reflecting on the incomparable ecstasy of the entire evening, was as good as any of the singular moments that comprised the whole affair.
When the lights first came down I was surprised to see an old trailer playing before the film. The Big Sleep (1946), Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the famous Raymond Chandler novel, was to be the next entry in the theater’s Noir Nights series. It was novel, I thought, to advertise an upcoming screening by showcasing its original trailer. It helped solidify for me how these films were crafted specifically for the theater, and how I was now witnessing an analogous experience to the audiences of the 1940s when they sat in perhaps this exact same theater excitedly looking forward to their next singular cinematic discovery. I think I’ll return very soon for that showing — that is, if by some miracle I’m not enticed to return even sooner than that.
It’s good to be back.