The Northpark Mall Theater. The Color of Money. 1986. I was getting ready to move again. Just thirty miles north this time, and mom and dad had arranged for a couple of kids from the new school to take me to the movies. Dad knew one of their parents through work. A football player and a cheerleader … and me, the kid who built miniature set designs out of shoe boxes in drama class and recited lines from All the President’s Men at random and set her alarm clock so she could phone in the answer to the morning quiz on the oldies station – you know, the kind when they play a two-second clip and you have to guess what it is.

“’Lotta Lovin’.’ Gene Vincent.”

“How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

“How’d you know that, kid?”

“I don’t know …. Did you know Gene Vincent died of an ulcer? An ulcer.”

Radio silence.

I won tickets to a gun show.

The movie outing was sort of like The Breakfast Club, the way we were all brought together – the football player, the cheerleader, and whatever I was – except it wasn’t for punishment, or at least not for me. In the back row I settled the popcorn bucket on my knees, and then a man in corduroy and a cardigan shuffled sideways into the row in front of us.

“Aw,” the cheerleader whispered, “do you think he’s all alone?”

“I’ll ask,” the football player said.

“No!” I interjected. You just didn’t talk to the people who sat through movies by themselves. You just didn’t. Like, you wouldn’t address that guy on a bus whittling a troll out of a bar of soap or the woman counting the flecks in the carpet at the library.

“Hey,” the football player draped himself over the seat in front of him to speak to the man with the cup on his knees, “are you waiting for someone?”

“Oh no,” the man said. “I always come to the movies by myself. That’s how I like it.” The man turned around and slurped at his straw, the football player withdrew his arms from over the seat back, and the cheerleader leaned to me. “That’s sad,” she said, “I never ever want to be that kook that goes to the movies by herself.”

* * *

The first rule of solo movie going is you don’t talk about solo movie going. Second rule, purchase your ticket at the automated kiosk to save you from having to say “one please” out loud. Third, sit ten rows back and third from the aisle. Although it does stand to reason that wherever you do choose to sit there will be someone filing nails, providing loud commentary, or raking the straw in and out of a cup lid joining you in your immediate vicinity because you have been cursed by the movie gods since Wrath of Kahn. Fourth, clear out at the first hint of the end credits, leaving behind for the sake of time anything you may have accumulated. There are people who get paid to clean this up, and when you take the time to do this for them these people get bored and begin to resent the big empty purposelessness of their jobs. Rule five, when you run into a student in the corridor do not catch their eye and smile out of friendly habit forcing them, in their realization that they have spotted their teacher alone at the theater, to frantically avert their gaze to the plastic wall sconces out of embarrassment for you which will lead to him or her frantically averting their gaze to the light switches in the classroom out of continued embarrassment for you … which will lead you say things like “hey, I thought I saw you at the theater when I was looking for my twenty friends who disappeared into the bathrooms or something cause I couldn’t find them anywhere” in an effort to restore the comfort level but will only make everything worse … which will lead to you awarding an “A” for a paper that begins: “My spell check dictionary defines ‘hope’ as ‘a feeling that something desirable is likely to happen’ and so my paper will talk about hope as a feeling.” Six, always go to the first showing on a Sunday so as to avoid students, co-workers, and that guy who examines your tampon box too closely when bagging your groceries. And if by chance someone does spot you on your way out rule seven dictates that you loudly exclaim, “Hey, where the hell did my twenty friends run off too?”

* * *

There was one day back when I’d finished my fall semester teaching at the college before my daughter had finished hers at preschool. As I drove away from dropping her off, I should have driven home like a real grown-up and cleaned the house for a Christmas party but the Cineplex suddenly jutting up from behind the highway overpass beckoned. I made a quick exit. Turned out there was an early showing of Peter Jackson’s King Kong if I could wait it out, about fifty minutes. I sat in my car with my feet on the dash, reading The Adventures of Cavalier and Klay. Then I bought my ticket. I was the only viewer besides the employee leaning against the wall.

Maybe, just maybe, if I could build a time machine – say, out of egg beaters and duct tape and jumper cables or something – I’d travel back to Meadowlark Lane, 1977, and wait for the kid with the bowl cut to come dragging her flare-legged pants into the room. I’d take her by the shoulders and say, “Listen, kid, whatever you do, go to sleep when your parents take you to see Star Wars next week. Okay?” Because, really, that was the beginning of the end.

“Okay.” The little me would rake her sleeve against her nose and take a big sniffle of a breath in.

“Oh,” I’d say, “and when you meet someone named Ralph Fiennes, be the one to drink that gin and tonic.You’ll need it.”

“Ray?”

“Ralph.”

“Ra-ulph?”

“Ralph.”

“Okay.”

“And stop letting your mom talk to the hairstylist.That’s not the Farrah Fawcett.That’s the Friar Tuck.”

“Okay.”

Maybe this would work.Maybe this way movies wouldn’t become the complete referential framework of all my memory, movies encoding every day language and informing such long-held beliefs such as the certain fact that you can survive a tornado if you tie your ankle to a pipe but you can’t survive a drop into a manhole. But then again, it’s possible that I make this trip back in time and deliver my message but it still doesn’t work because what’s meant to be will be.

So, this is sort of the realization I came to as I sat watching King Kong by myself, the first of my solo movie ventures, that I was destined to be sitting here thinking about things like if Naomi Watts got to keep her dress and if she puts it on sometimes but it doesn’t look the same because in the movie they’d clipped it back and if it depresses her that the only time she’ll ever look like that again is in this moment in this movie. The other realization was that this was perfectly okay with me, I mean, not the thing about the dress but the thing about me being a movie nerd.

* * *

The first showing of Inglorious Basterds on a Sunday, I take my seat and look around. Old people. Every Tarantino movie I’ve ever gone to has been inexplicably full of old people who within minutes of the opening credits will leave gasping and clutching their chests. One elderly man tromps up the steps and sits right beside me. He works a big plastic grocery bag out of his jacket pocket like Mary Poppins pulling a floor lamp out of her suitcase. He tugs open a Ziploc that exhales the scent of garlic and boiled eggs and then mumbles things at the screen. I hold a finger under my nose. Curse you movie gods!

The opening scene is easily one of the best movie moments ever. The throw-back Morricone score colors the grandiose inspection of the French countryside, a vehicle churning up dust on the desolate road, and the father with a look in his eye that conveys he understands what’s going to happen next and then after that and then after that. Everything about the Nazi officer who enters this scene seems soothing – his manners, his small talk, his smile – which makes him all the more chilling. Colonel Hans Landa sits at the table drinking milk, complimenting the man on his daughters, bemoaning redundant bureaucracy, asking to smoke his pipe, inking his pen, in other words drawing this exchange out to excruciating lengths for the father sitting across from him with his hands on his knees until he finds himself pointing out the whereabouts of the Jewish refugees.The horror here lies not so much in the bullets as in the discourse that leads up to them.

This is what I’m thinking as I make my quick exit. Then the man with the reeking plastic bag stops me by standing in the way of the aisle and asks, “Aren’t you going to pick all your trash up?” I open my mouth to tell him about how there are people who get paid to do this, but then these very people are standing right there by the trashcan they’ve rolled in looking like they don’t really mind the big empty purposelessness of their jobs in the least. So I turn back. “Telling me to pick up my shit,” I mumble to myself, leaning to reach a candy box, scowling, and when I look up, still hunched and grumbling, I see a couple moving out of the row just in front of me, sidestepping really, really fast and trying not to make eye contact.

A version of this story first appeared at Monkeybicycle.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

43 responses to “Admit One”

  1. Nicely done. I, too, am a lone moviegoer. I’d like to think I learned a lot from movies as well, like that it’s fairly simple to perform a tracheotomy if absolutely necessary.

    It’s really very difficult to find someone that I can really stand seeing a movie with. It’s almost like dating. I try out new people, see different movies, but there are far too many talkers and grunters and loud eaters that inevitably destroy my movie experience. My friend, Brian, is the perfect movie companion, but he’s the only person I trust with any non-solo movie excursion. Otherwise, alone is the way to go. Good work.

  2. Matt says:

    Wow. I’ve been going solo to the movie all wrong for years now! I ask for “one, please” at the ticket booth without shame, pack up what little trash I generate (I usually just smuggle in a reusable water bottle and some dried fruit or a fancy bit of candy, so there isn’t much), and feel no embarrasment at those rare times I run into someone I know (rare because, these days, I go almost exclusively to independant and foreign films, usually early-morning matinees), and have no problem being that jerk who tells the old couple behind him, chatting their way through The Girl Who Played With Fire (somehow, being foreign & subtitled means that it’s OK to talk over it) that it’s too bad in their long years of living their never learned proper etiquette and respect for others inside the movie theater.

    I’ve been doing it all wrong!

    Now I feel inadequate.

  3. Richard Cox says:

    Funny post. I love your defense, mainly because I love going to the movies by myself. The first time or two I was fairly self-conscious about it, but then I realized around here the best time to go is Monday – Thursday at the nine or ten o’clock showings. Most of the time I’m alone in the theater or share it with maybe five other people. And honestly, going to a movie with someone else sometimes muddles the experience…especially if it’s a date with someone you don’t know all that well.

    I do pick up all my trash. I hate leaving things behind. I never thought about the existential angst of the theater employee, though I wonder if they get enough work cleaning up the sticky soda spills?

    I’m with you on the opening scene of Inglorious. The tension is amazing. Christoph Waltz is brilliant. And what is it with all the offended old folks at Tarantino films? I’ve noticed the same thing! Hahaha.

    • Matt says:

      I must be the only person in the country who wasn’t head-over-heels for Inglorious Basterds. I liked it okay, but I just thought the individual chapters worked better than the movie as a whole did, and the Basterds themselves were the least interesting part.

      Waltz, however, was amazing in that performance. Stole every scene he was in. As did the actress who played the theater owner.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      @Richard, “muddles the experience,” true, true. I have this obnoxious desire for people who see a movie with me, if I’m really enjoying it, to enjoy it as well — and if they obviously don’t (say, they’re checking their watches and sighing all the way through) it ruins the whole experience. I blame myself. No one should *have* to love what I love. I know this. So, really, it’s for their benefit that I must go on my own. 😉

      @Matt, you know, Inglorious was not as it was advertised (nor titled) to be, and I was completely thankful for that. Unlike you I loved the whole thing, but like you I especially loved Waltz’s and Laurent’s story lines. If it was only about the Basterds, meh, I would have been disappointed. And that whole scene w/ Laurent in the red dress w/ the Bowie tune? I could watch that over and over.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    I’m not a big solo movie-goer. I think I was put off when I was a teenager and went to see ‘The Accused’ by myself.

    As for Tarantino, I just cannot abide him. I have seen all his films, in the hope of ‘getting’ him, but apart from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ his work just leaves me cold.

    I love the image of you exclaiming ‘Hey! Where the hell did my twenty friends run off to?’ That’s cute!

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      My dear friend Mags and I have this debate about Tarantino all the time. She absolutely hates his work. I love it. She doesn’t understand how anyone could love it. I don’t understand how anyone could hate it. We just regard each other coolly in these moments, like someone examining alien specimens. And then we order drinks and forget about it.

      Wait, didn’t you also think Clive Owen was detestable? Quick, we need to find some common cinematic ground here! I love your writing too much to just let you drift away over Owen and Tarantino! 😉

      • Zara Potts says:

        That’s okay.. you can have Tarantino and the detestable Clive Owen! Just make sure you hide them in the cupboard when I come to visit!!

        Poor Clive Owen. He’s never done anything to me and yet he makes my skin crawl.

        But wait! We have Ralph Fiennes! We can share him!

    • Gloria says:

      Jesus…you saw The Accused by yourself? That would scar me, too. I saw it while staying the night at a friend’s house when I was 12. Her parents, me, her, her brother. Popcorn. That was it’s own special hell.

      I feel about David Lynch the way you feel about Tarantino. Lynch films leave me feeling icky and violated and they’re not even all that interesting to me.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Oh yeah.. that would have been uncomfortable!! Ack!

        That’s so funny you say that about David Lynch. He’s my favourite. I just love his stuff. Maybe there’s something to that – those who don’t like Tarantino love Lynch and vice versa?

        • Gloria says:

          That’s really interesting, actually. I would like to take an informal poll to vet this idea. You might be right, now that I think about it.

        • Cynthia Hawkins says:

          You must be onto something, Zara! I really, really do not like Lynch’s work, try as I might.

        • Zara Potts says:

          That is so funny! I can’t imagine not liking David Lynch. I just adores everything he does.

          I’m pretty sure that this might be the problem. Anyone who loves Lynch is unable to appreciate Tarantino and vice versa.

          Unless.. there’s someone out there who loves both?

        • Gloria says:

          Seriously. We need to take a poll. How do we make this happen?

        • Becky says:

          I don’t care too much for either, though I have not seen as much Lynch as Tarantino and therefore have had fewer chances to love and/or hate him.

  5. Art Edwards says:

    That movie guy needs a pop in the chops.

    Wonderful, as always.

    Art

  6. Joe Daly says:

    The other realization was that this was perfectly okay with me

    That summed it all up for me, so nicely. When you’re comfortable in your own skin, for a year or a couple hours, there’s a great freedom to it. Like you, for years I never considered going to a movie alone. I mean, what would people (strangers) think? Plus the whole spear into the side of my self-esteem thing…

    Then one day I saw that “The Filth and the Fury” was playing at the little theater up the street from me in Chicago. For one more day. I wasn’t working at the time, so I threw on a coat, walked up to the theater by myself, sat in the middle, and enjoyed the ever loving hell out of the whole experience. By the way- I was the only one in the theater for the whole movie.

    A couple weeks later, I saw “The Blair Witch Project” by myself, and since then, I do it all the time. Funny the little nudges we sometimes need to allow us to enjoy these little pleasures.

  7. Becky Palapala says:

    Confession: I hate going to the movie theater.

    It’s dirty, loud, there is too much humanity (especially teenagers. I fucking hate teenagers), and popcorn + Cherry Coke (which I continue to buy, in tandem, despite all previous experiences) gives me gut rot.

    Plus, I walk out of movie feeling stoned as fuck. I don’t know what that feeling is called, but I can’t stand it.

    I go on occasion if there is a movie I or my husband REALLY wants to see, but I don’t really enjoy it.

    I would never and have never gone to a movie by myself.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like movies. I just hate the theater.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Okay, you are clearly going to the wrong theater at the wrong times. If you’re ever in San Antonio, I will take you. It will be clean and teen-free. And you will love it. Damn it.

      Actually, I don’t know what we could do about the stoned feeling, though …

      Your “humanity” comment also just reminded me … I went to a movie theater in London once (dirty, loud, teens), and there was a couple having sex right there in the next row. Ick. I mean, not being prudish about the sex but the idea of what people do in the theater seats that I may sit in later. Some things I just don’t want to know!

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Fucking sick!

        See? That is the kind of unwelcome distraction movie theaters offer.

        Other human beings, all sitting together in the dark, doing godknowswhat, at best all open-mouthed chewing their gut-rotting concession concoctions, probably someone fucking or texting or whatever…

        Eww.

        I’m always the lady calling the ushers on teenagers. I’m that person. And I used to WORK in a movie theater.

        Then again, maybe that is at the heart of my problem. But even before that, I would immediately break up with any guy who took me to a movie on a first date.

        • Matt says:

          Calling the ushers? That’s nothing. I’ve climbed over seat rows to get in the faces of people talking on their cell phones during a movie.

          “I did not pay $10.50 to listen to you gossip, asshole!”

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I spun around and screamed, “Shut the fuck up!” but that’s about it.

  8. Marni Grossman says:

    Going to the movies alone is one of life’s little-known pleasures, isn’t it? You never have to worry about whether your date hated the movie or whether you’re eating your popcorn too loud etc. You can see what you want, when you want, exactly as you want it.

    Such a wonderful, breezy read.

  9. Uche Ogbuji says:

    I sort of understand that solo moviegoing is considered a loser move, but the very idea baffles me. Why would going into a dark room where you’re supposed to be quiet and pay attention to the screen, and not other people, be a plural compulsion? I guess unless you ran out of dosh for a motel, and it happens to be the most convenient place to have sex, as in the London anecdote.

    I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies with anyone, nor the last time I wanted to. When spending time with others, I prefer the augmentation of sunshine.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Exactly! It’s ridiculous. I don’t see how it became thought of as such a social event — unless perhaps you take into consideration Dana’s comment below that it’s nice to have someone to analyze with afterward.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Maybe in that case what’s needed is a movie club. Sort of like a book club, but for movies. In a given weeks folks go see the movie, and then regroup in someone’s salon for tea and homemade analysis.

  10. Dana says:

    I have never been to a movie by myself, but I have always wanted to. The only problem I can imagine is going to the bathroom, missing a pivotal scene and not having anyone I can frantically ask “what just happened?”. Well, and plus, I like to pick apart a movie after I’ve seen it. It’s nice to have someone to talk about the cinematography or the haunting music played over the third scene.

    I always pick up my trash – I figure the theater workers will have plenty of work to do gathering the popcorn that missed my mouth that now resides as a sort of throw rug under my seat.

    One day I will be solo in a movie theater, and if it happens to be Tarantino I promise not to shuffle out in horror.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      I recently saw Inception first by myself and then a second time with a group of friends. Afterward, we spent a good hour picking it apart over dinner and drinks. On one hand, it was a bit of a relief to be able to theorize w/ someone about it (because it’s just that kind of movie), but on the other none of them loved it like I did (see my comment for Richard above). So, I just can’t decide which viewing scenario produced the best outcome. Hmmm ….

      An elderly person vomited, as they shuffled up the aisle, into a popcorn bucket during the syringe scene in the showing of Pulp Fiction I’d gone to. Ick. But I’m glad you’ll be willing to tough it out!

  11. This piece reminds me that in my old age of 41, I didn’t start seeing movies by myself until around ten years ago. That was only one, actually. Really I didn’t start until less than a year ago. Now I don’t mind it. It was a personal hurdle I had to cross.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      I have yet to cross the hurdle to eating at a restaurant by myself, however! Maybe I should just spend a day defying social norms. Standing the wrong way in elevators and such …

      • Restaurants are easy. The secret: always have a book or a newspaper to read. For me, now it’s my iPhone. I read the whole time. Then, I don’t feel alone. I used to study in restaurants all the time. Still do now and then, or write. I just bring my laptop.

        Movies were tough for me. I still get weirded out a little. But I can do it.

  12. Simon Smithson says:

    Ha!

    Awesome.

    ““Ray?”

    “Ralph.”

    “Ra-ulph?”

    “Ralph.”

    “Okay.”

    Heh.

    There’s an episode of Smith and Jones where they play newsreaders doing a story on Fiennes, and while Jones goes on with the story, Smith just sits there, silently trying to sound out ‘Ralph’.

    One of my dreams is to be in a theatre all by myself. I don’t know why. And the problem is old people. They’ll stooge you every time. Because you think, hey, I can sneak in, no one else will be around… except old people.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      That’s because old people are thinking the same thing. Which means … we think like old people.

  13. I think we must work on the same writing schedule.

  14. angela says:

    really enjoyed this! love the conversation you had with your old self, and the Breakfast Club-esque situation you were put into.

    the last movie i saw by myself was The Departed. it was on a Superbowl Sunday, and i was so glad to be walking home, stuffed full of popcorn and with a renewed crush on Leo DiCaprio, rather than in bar somewhere, drinking gross beer and watching boring football.

    • Cynthia Hawkins says:

      Thanks Angela! Ha, Superbowl Sunday is my big going-to-the-movies day. Hardly anyone is at the theater that afternoon. It’s fantastic!

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