There is something about being sick that reminds me so much of experiencing a movie that matters to you.
The human body is, on the whole, such a remarkable piece of machinery that when even a small part is broken in some way, it tends to refocus your entire life for a period. When something as simple as a head cold comes along and fuzzes out your central console, your head, the entire world can be instantly become about nothing else but returning to basic functionality.
The most simple things in our lives are suddenly challenged. Since the cold that my 12-year-old manifested early last week from friends from school visited me on Wednesday night, it was a sniffle. By Thursday, it was exhaustion and a wet nose. Cancellations of 2 screenings. By Friday, I was too weak/dizzy to safely drive the kid to school. 2 interviews were cancelled. And another screening. Plus my wife was now experiencing the symptoms at her work. Would I be okay Saturday morning to see Strange World? No. The plot remains a mystery to me.
But what always strikes me when sick - which is pretty rare for me, less so my kid and partner - is the shift in focus. Every priority becomes about fixing the flaw. You don’t realize how much you rely on your left thumb until you have some issue with carpal tunnel-like symptoms for a few days. You never think about your feet until they hurt to the point of distraction. The classic notion is that you don’t see how many people have casts on until you have a cast on yourself.
I had a girlfriend in my early 20s who has Epstein-Barr or something with similar physical manifestations and I could not appreciate then the challenge of simply not feeling right all the time. It’s foundational.
I am amazed by people who overcome the distraction of a somehow “broken” body. A friend in the industry used to be found lying on the floor trying to make peace with her aching back most of the times I visited her office. She powered through it and was very effective, but some part of her significant brain had to be occupied with that pain for year after year.
I do think that, like so many things, it is easier to move forward if a physical problem is permanent. The resilience of humans is remarkable, as much as our frailty. Permanence means the ailment just IS. There are no choices. There are no fantasies about possible alternative outcomes. Humans, once they accept a hard reality, tend to adapt.
But back to why it reminds me of movies…
When a movie has your focus, in a theater, nothing else should matter for those hours.
I know that people, even adults, are absurdly addicted to their phones. I saw Babylon the other night in The Academy Theater and some guy in his 30s took out his phone at least 3 times. And not, “it buzzed and I checked it in a second.” He had it out for a minute or longer each time. Some woman in front of me tried to use her purse to shield the light from her phone as she texted away… but none of us really understand how the light off these things bounce around a mostly-full theater, between the seats, etc.
This was the first screening for the industry of a complex, challenging, engaging movie at the damned AMPAS theater. It’s not even about showing the movie and showing respect, so much as trashing the experience that you are there to have… something that you are unlikely to ever have again… of that movie, in that setting, the first time. (Do these people check their phones during sex?)
This is what we are losing when we lose theatrical exhibition. A movie in a theater is one of the few experiences you can have that demands focus on the work. And at its best, commands focus.
When people talk about movies as dreams, this is part of it. You don’t control your dreams directly. Your subconscious is speaking to you without your conscious getting in the way.
Yes, there are distractions in many movie theaters. There are people who check their phones. There are people who talk. You would be amazed (or not) at how many people self-distract during all kinds of screenings.
Unlike being sick, the pleasure of the movie experience is the narrowing of focus. To “lose yourself” in the tale.
Aside from bad distractions - like phones or talking or sticky floors - the communal experience is also a part of that focus. Whether it’s laughing or screaming together, crying openly or dabbing at your eyes to protect you tough self-image, gasping together, flinching together… you are strapped in for the ride and the world disappears until the lights come up.
Like being sick, you never quite know what itch is going to be scratched when the lights come down and you give into the “cure.” Will it make you feel better? Will it irritate you further? Some combination?
I have always talked about audiences not really knowing what a movie is to them until they actually see it. This allows for the magic and often, the required bad magic of marketing. But aside from what gets you into the room, a movie like The Fabelmans is whatever it is… and you bring your experience into the room. It is not a universal story, as families differ. With extremely rare exceptions, universality requires simplicity. That is a feature, not a bug. I’m not interesting in judging what you feel. I am interested in you feeling. I am interested in feeling… and thinking.
There are variations. Horror movies are often enhanced by a raucous crowd. One of the features of There’s Something About Mary was that there was such loud and long laughter, you really had to see the film a second time to hear all the jokes. I first saw Barbarian in a screening room and couldn’t wait to see it again with a full audience of “civilians.” And it was glorious, even knowing everything that was coming.
For me, the goal walking into a movie theater, of any size, is simply to be comfortable enough to focus only on the movie. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a soda or someone with me who occasionally distracts me (more ok in a bad movie). I don’t need absolute silence or nothing in my line of vision. I hate bright Exit signs in the corners next to the screen… but when the movie is engaging, they disappear. I am not a high priest of perfect cinema. When you see a movie in a beautiful space like the Music Box in Chicago or you’re in an IMAX, that space is part of the experience.
I want to start with a clean - as clean as a human can have - slate.
And right now, I want my head to stop filling with liquid and my throat not to hurt at all and food to feel like it’s filling my engine.
Almost there. And when I am there, I will be ready to go to the movies and give myself over to the wave of focus that brings me endless amounts of joy in my life.
I hope the same for you… without the part where you suffer through a cold.
There is no spoon.
Hugs! I know both feelings - the serious head cold and being totally wrapped up in a movie. Blancanieves and The Fall jump immediately to mind.