I go to the movies alone. Though after decades of filmgoing, the experience can now seem rather deflating. The number of trailers has expanded to take up a mini-festival's worth of time; antiseptic cineplexes have supplanted luxurious movie palaces and earnest local houses alike; and pre-film commercials have reared their strident head. The price of Twizzlers has inflated faster than the cost of health care, and every company who's had a hand in a film now seems to merit its own ostentatious logo before the opening credits. By the time the movie actually starts, I'm exhausted.
And yet I go. The thrill is diminished, not gone. A sense of promise remains -- the transfixing spectacle of flickering lights and the anticipation of a kind of sorcery, a literally and figuratively larger than life Dream commanding awe and wonder. Attending a film alone only amplifies the transaction taking place, the tunnel vision connecting the fictitious and the real.
But I want to talk about a time when the routine of going alone turned dark. Or rather, a time before I understood the nature of my relationship to the movies. As a young man, I suffered from a particular vulnerability to the Dream induced by moving pictures, and I sought it out whenever I could. I'd inherited the yearning from my father, who'd been afflicted to such a degree that eventually his sole frame of reference for people he encountered in real life became the Hollywood types he'd absorbed into his worldview. Unable to distinguish three-dimensional individuals from the flattened formsfound in films, he relied on those talking shadows sent by the central casting office of his mind as a way to experience the world. He might mentally superimpose upon a policeman in the street the buffoonish persona of the character actor Edgar Kennedy. In an Irishman, no matter how adulterated an accent, he could only hearBarry Fitzgerald. Italian waiters were Chico Marx. And should someone look like a Sheldon Leonard or a John Carradine, knowing suspicion was the only appropriate response.
Luke Butler, The End VII, 2012; courtesyof the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery
The phenomenon was more symptom than cause, I suspect, but let's say at the very least the movies helped exaggerate a serious emotional flaw. But back then, I did not recognize obsessive, solo moviegoing as a potential spiritual hazard. I must have cut a strange figure -- you don't see a lot of young people slouching in the dark alone at a retro house. But the craving for the Dream was something I preferred to satisfy in private. If accompanied by friends or lovers, they only served as the beards for my deep attachment to the action on screen. Social obligation could prove a distraction, and sitting next to someone might imperil the purity of the Dream. There is no accounting for individual perception, and an inconvenient laugh overheard during a moment of cinematic pathos might weaken my communion with what was happening on the screen.
While I did not carry the particular pathology my father had contracted from watching too many movies, the Dream did manifest itself in another harmful way, as the mistaken belief that pictures might actually offer something in a way to live. Watching Casablanca, for example, instilled in me the strong urge to defeat Nazis, swill bourbon, and sleep with Ingrid Bergman. When the fulfillment of those desires quickly dwindled to picking a fight with my mother, drinking Budweiser, and buying a Playboy, the lesson was notlearned. Because the Dream remained private, only the attitude mattered, and the discrepancy between aspirations and application could be ignored.
In periods of stress during my twenties, I went to the movies alone every day, starting with what was appealing and working my way through what remained. I went to the movies alone instead of looking for a job. I went to the movies alone instead of attending a party. I went to the movies alone when I broke up with my girlfriend. I went to the movies alone after departing early from social events. I went to the movies for relief, as a time out from life, as a way to replace the throb of rumination with the Dream.
Luke Butler, The End X, 2013; courtesyof the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery
I had company. During the day, the few attendees at the theater mostly sat solo, scattered islands in a sea of unoccupied seats. Onto them I projected my own shame at once again turning a sunny day into time spent in the dark. Scanning the audience before the dormant screen came to life, I saw the introverted and the dreary, the rumpled and the restless, all looking as louche as patrons at a porn theater. Was that palpable sense of mutual failure emanating from the auditorium's scattered nodes of humanity only in my head? What defect of character had impelled us, in the middle of the day, to seek out a fantasy, like children turning to an imaginary friend? Even as we had relegated ourselves to mere receptors, sitting immobile in interior dimness, others operated in the open air, exercising individual acts of agency under the bright sun. Going places, doing things. But we, sunken in our seats, quietly tossing stale, expensive popcorn into our mouths, furtively sucking Coca-Cola through a straw -- have any humans ever looked so forlorn? "Lie to me" was our collective silent demand. Lie to me, but do it well.
As with any indulgence in addiction, going to the movies alone often left me depressed. Despite my best efforts to prolong the Dream, its dissipation proved inevitable. Self-recrimination followed: Once again, I had breathed someone else's imagination. Once again, I had allowed an exaggerated representation of experience to stand in for the real thing. What flaw in the brain allowed for such confounding? For the willingness to let the real world give way to make-believe? My emotions excited by projected light in the dark -- I might as well bay at the moon.
These doubts grew, until I felt my going to the movies alone tantamount to a toddler sucking on her thumb: comforting yet of dubious utility, a distasteful habit that delayed the next developmental stage. The tipping point occurred when I stole a few hours during a work day to see the movie Crazy People, a Dudley Moore vehicle that New York Times critic Vincent Canby called, "a humorless satire of the advertising world." I suppose, as members of Alcoholics Anonymous like to say, that is when I bottomed out. And I did something I'd never done before: I left before the film ended. While the movie wasn't the worst I'd ever seen (or even the worst Dudley Moore movie I'd ever seen) the diminishing returns of the Dream had finally hit a point where the payoff couldn't remotely justify the time and money spent; where the profound objective of going solo -- vicarious escape to the point of self-abandonment -- no longer could be achieved in a movie theater.
Luke Butler, The End XII, 2013; courtesyof the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery
That was not the end of my excursions, but it was the beginning of moviegoing wisdom. I don't know "What is Cinema," but I do know what it isn't: a substitute for living. And as I became more comfortable with my own life, and invested in that of my wife's and my daughter's, I became less interested in wallowing in the fictitious existences of those populating a fabricated world.
As my five-year-old daughter has grown, we have carefully monitored her exposure to visual media. After watching a movie or TV show, she is frequently cranky. She finds it difficult and unpleasant to extricate herself from the grasping allure of the Dream, preferring to remain spellbound by the wonderful illusion than to return to the relative dullness of dinner and a bath.
I completely understand.
I still love the movies. But I am careful around them.
And these days I like to go with someone else.