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?”
“How’d you know that, kid?”
“I don’t know …. Did you know Gene Vincent died of an ulcer? An ulcer.”
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.”
“And stop letting your mom talk to the hairstylist.That’s not the Farrah Fawcett.That’s the Friar Tuck.”
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.