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Missing that mad dash forward: a movie theater appreciation

Five writers share experiences and thoughts on the value of the cinema amid the pandemic. | By Jason Fuhrman, Edwanike Harbour, Hanna Kohn, Grant Phipps, and Steven Spoerl

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Throughout the past six months, cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike have been adapting on the fly and missing the public refuges that movie theaters provide for discovery— of a new director, actor, cinematographer, genre, or even tradition. The Marcus and AMC theater chains recently embarked on a dicey re-opening phase, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art tried a reduced-attendance version of its outdoor Rooftop Cinema series. But most of Madison’s important venues for thoughtfully curated, in-person theatrical exhibitions—including UW Cinematheque, WUD Film, and the Mills Folly Microcinema Series— wisely remain closed. In the interim, Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival have also experimented with some streaming offerings, some available free through email link and others available through distributors to raise proceeds for the eventual resuming of their programming.  

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At Tone Madison, we have been intermittently reviewing a rotating assortment of streaming options, as US studios began migrating their newly acquired titles to streaming and VOD services as well as select drive-ins. The gap between those methods of distribution is rather chasmic. And so, over the past month, five of us—Grant Phipps, Edwanike Harbour, Jason Fuhrman, Steven Spoerl, and Hanna Kohn—chose to retrace our viewing habits and how the absence of communal spaces for movies has promoted their relevance, from more cursory updates to personal reflections on the moviegoing experience.

They all arrive as sharp reminders of the influence of community spaces in our lives, from the DIY to ready-made alike.

Grant Phipps: COVID’s impact has been felt more significantly in arts/entertainment, as the pandemic began to shut everything down at the end of the second week of March. It’s overwhelming to consider every creative person who’s been furloughed, stranded, or simply without the ability to work or perform for the last half-year, but it’s also a vivid reminder of their role in our daily lives. We’re all enhanced by personal engagement with storytellers and artists. We can’t congregate to share in their events or talk about their work gleefully or critically. Instead we’re all separated and relegated to our homes to sift through our existing collections of physical media or the vast expanse of many streaming services. Some outdoor events popped up during the summer, like drive-in movies at The Bodgery (at the former Oscar Mayer property on the North Side), but there are even risks involved with those, especially as COVID cases have spiked.

It took me a bit of time to become more comfortable with the only option of sitting in my office room chair to view anything. I know some may not have that ability or privilege, too. In my interview with Kelley Conway in July, I admitted to generally watching things at home, because there was a significant period in my life when I was finding my way through cinema history on DVD (and VHS in some rare cases). But I also think about what could have been if I had greater access to repertory theaters or small independent theaters, like at UW Cinematheque, the once-per-week screenings at the old Sundance, or even on occasion at Marcus Theaters here. And that’s not even to speak of the other assorted screenings like Rooftop at MMoCA, Off The Wall at Arts + Lit Lab, and Underground Films in the last several years. With that kind of availability and community, I probably wouldn’t have naturally leaned towards associating movies with solitary activity by my late teens.

So, for me, the value in preserving movie theaters is preserving social spaces, or spaces to learn more about an art form—similar to DIY venues or multipurpose galleries. When you watch something at home, you’re more prone to interruption and typically less immersed in the experience. Seeing the large-scale shuttering of movie theaters after COVID would be akin to the disappearance of record stores. They are just as much a business as a community space. One of the biggest names in the film industry, Christopher Nolan, who chose to continually delay his summer blockbuster Tenet, has publicly celebrated their importance; and it’s why Nolan remained adamant about releasing Tenet for theatrical exhibition, because he knew it would preserve the experience he intended as director. (Although, maybe a separate piece could be written entirely on the erratic sound mixing, haha.) And I think he would’ve argued the same even if he were preparing a smaller-scale feature like Memento as he did 20 years ago.

More on my home cinema experiences can be found in the latest Sustainer-only interview with John McCracken. Existing Tone Madison Sustainers can find it in their inboxes now, and if anyone signs up this week, we’ll make sure you receive it.

Edwanike Harbour: The last new release I saw in the theater was The Invisible Man. Interestingly enough, prior to that, I snuck in a second viewing of Parasite at Marcus Point; and I’m starting to wonder if I should have been more discerning in that choice? I loved Parasite to be sure, but had I known then I was not going to be in a theater for minimally five straight months I would have picked a new screening, at least.

Being in quarantine has definitely forced me to be much more flexible about my streaming choices. There are certain things I wouldn’t normally have considered like Simon Killer (2012), as it turns out Antonio Campos is my favorite new director. The Devil All the Time (2020) is being released this week, and I am highly anticipating seeing Robert Pattinson in this film.

There’s been more misses than hits, but I’m adjusting. I watched The Notebook (2004), for example, after avoiding it for years. Let’s just say I have a strong preference for the director’s father.

While I’ve enjoyed my mini-festivals at home, the immersive theater experience will always have a profound significance in my life. I can only remain optimistic that we will have the shared communal space again, as it cannot be properly recreated at home.

Jason Fuhrman: The cinema remains one of the few sacred physical spaces in contemporary urban society, along with museums and buildings for public religious worship. For me, it has always been a sanctuary, a refuge from the pressures, anxieties, and frenetic rhythms of modern life. But rather than an escape from reality, seeing a movie in a theater enables the viewer to venture deeper into reality. And assuming that everyone in the audience observes proper moviegoing etiquette, a theater is one of the only public places insulated from the influence of smartphones and other such distractions. Personally, I find the experience of seeing a film in a theater to be extremely therapeutic since it involves suspending the barrage of audiovisual stimuli that assaults our senses night and day. With the huge screen, the surround sound, and the almost total darkness, a movie theater offers a singularly immersive environment that can be a portal to countless parallel universes.

Seeing movies with other people can also be particularly powerful at times. There’s just something about the collective energy of a group of people all sitting together in the dark at a specific time and place while silently focusing on a four-dimensional work of art. It really feels like a secular temple or a technologically advanced form of communal meditation. Needless to say, the absence of movie theaters has left a great void in my life. In a fragmented, dehumanizing society that withholds any hope of transcendence, communal spaces for watching films and connecting with others seem more vital than ever. 

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The last film I saw in a theater was Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. I had a strong feeling that I should not hesitate to see it on the big screen while I had the chance. Sure enough, the very next day [in March], the AMC Dine-in Madison 6 (formerly known as Sundance) closed indefinitely. I remember thinking at the time that if this turns out to be the last movie I ever watch in a theater, then I certainly made the right choice. While the experience was somewhat bittersweet, it was an exquisite film and I savored every moment of it. What a breathtaking, painterly piece of pure cinema! I couldn’t have picked a more perfect final film.

Knowing that movie theaters would most likely be closed for the foreseeable future, I splurged and bought a bunch of films for my home collection. A friend gave me an old flatscreen TV and I hooked it up to my DVD player and stereo in my living room. It’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s just not the same. Frankly, I haven’t been watching many movies at home. I’m also an essential worker, so I haven’t actually been in quarantine like a lot of people. Of course I still enjoy watching films at home occasionally, but honestly it doesn’t even come close to emulating the environment of a movie theater.   

There have been so many transcendent cinematic experiences over the years, but seeing Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) earlier this year at UW Cinematheque certainly stands at my peak. An uncompromising, indescribably beautiful, bleak, black-and-white post-apocalyptic art film that runs seven and a half hours long, it is truly the cinephile’s equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. In a way, I think that film prepared me for the stark reality we are all facing now.

I don’t want to adopt a defeatist attitude, and I think preserving the cinematic experience in the future will require a lot of creative solutions and adaptation. At the same time, I am trying to overcome my attachment to theaters and willing to accept the fact that cinema, as we know it, might just be a thing of the past. I am infinitely grateful for all of the amazing films I’ve watched on the big screen and I certainly hope movie theaters will be able to exist as they once did someday.

Steven Spoerl: A soft hiss erupts behind my ears, whirring into motion before settling into a steady hum, barely discernible. Beneath me, a plush cushion shifts as my weight settles. Lights from the house dim further, bringing a soft respite to an environment that’s explicitly designed to direct the eyes forward. In tandem with this motion, beams of concentrated light find their mark, escaping a machine I would be lost without as it projects a world I can become lost within. I give myself over to a type of journey that has always provided a home. I adjust with the settings and find solace in the definitive machinations of the theater. 

Throughout my life, I have embraced the experience of the movie theater to a great extent but, in recent times, have found my life leading to places that necessitated a measure of neglect. Scheduling became difficult and both professional and personal circumstances demanded my attention be placed elsewhere. So, in January 2018, I bought a small projector. If I couldn’t be in an environment that I loved, I was going to do my best to create that experience for myself. In no time, my partner and I settled into voracious viewing routines. Burning through shows and films has, appropriately, left the bulb in that projector a little burned as well. Now the images that flicker against our bedroom wall are slightly warped and discolored but they feel that much more alive and lived-in as a result.

Looking at those images now, whether it be our 83rd run through Adventure Time or a film that finally hits streaming after a well-received festival run, I can’t help but wonder if others are finding peace in this practice of soft recreation. I hope so. There’s a palpable comfort to be found in darkening a room and handing your attention over to a story. Still, there’s a lingering feeling of incompletion; theaters and, more importantly the theater experience, can never be fully replaced. In that sense, the pandemic seems to be cruelly underscoring the importance of one of the theater’s most fundamental functions: providing a space for a shared communal act. 

When I’m at home with my partner, I have virtually no chance of experiencing the willful raucousness of a Grindhouse midnight premiere in a well-kept Stevens Point campus theater that was transformed into something resembling a grimy punk basement in less than three hours. I have no opportunity to experience something that’s reflective of the collective, arbitrary cheers that poured out from Madison’s AMC 6 when Michael Stuhlbarg’s professor alluded to UW-Madison in The Shape Of Water. I have no prayer of being in a pool of confused onlookers, like the ones I witnessed in Wausau as a frustrated young man on a first date stood up and loudly announced “worst 5 bucks I ever spent!” before abandoning his would-be date 25 minutes into It Follows

I can forget about the chances of being in a situation where I’m marveling at a peculiar young man, likely around 10, who interrupts a film where he’s clearly out of place, just like the one who wandered into a screening of Doubt at the Rivoli in La Crosse, seated himself at a table of elderly women 40 minutes into the film, offered a confident “Hello!” before he brought out a full lunch, devoured it quickly and wordlessly, quickly stood up and exited with a “Well, bye!” In this setting, I will no longer have the opportunity to nod in stunned agreement with someone like the older woman who offered up a long, drawn-out “Jeeeeesus” under her breath, several seats down, as The Florida Project cut to black at Milwaukee’s Downer Theatre. 

I will only have myself and my partner. And while that alone is worth cherishing, we both still have moments where we miss being part of a larger makeshift collective.

We have things we stand to gain by exiting the routines and niceties of the theater and we have things that are painful to lose. A bag of popcorn and a soda are no longer a prospect that exceed the cost of a ticket, in the case of the former. Much more difficult is the case of the latter, because some of what the theater offers is irreplaceable. While I have tried, repeatedly, to find a way to ease the burden of those losses, it’s proved impossible when adhering to a structure that places an emphasis on providing communal and personal safety by an explicit means of removal. When that sense of a larger community is breached and withdrawn, the viewing experience, in a bitter irony, becomes less personal, even as it becomes hyper-personalized. 

We are next to nothing without a larger community and even the smallest of interactions with that element provides an additional dimension that can shade our perception of our experiences. Without that factor, we’re deprived of an opportunity for a very specific type of growth that’s critical to our understanding of not just the world but of ourselves. Sometimes the theater’s not about the film but the people who willingly give themselves to the film. Sometimes it is, simply, about the theater. 

When my partner and I stumbled out of a showing of Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs at Silver Cinemas’ Market Square Theatre, neither of us knew that we wouldn’t be returning to a theater for what will now be well over two years. Fittingly, for the venue (which remains an appropriately modest and fairly underrated sanctuary for film lovers), it was a quiet night and a thin crowd. Everyone who was there was glued to the screen, silently evolving their opinion on crucial aspects of the film up until the house lights ushered everyone back out to the lobby to talk about the finer points of cultural representation, appropriation, and exploitation. The two of us turned the conversation over a moment and left to get a pizza. Had we known that it’d be our last chance to take in the surroundings of the theater, we may have stayed until management kicked us out. 

Both of our lives have shifted immeasurably since that screening and while we both try to honor the theater setting on our own, it’s clearly missed. Our version of homage has proven capable at recapturing a portion of the essence buried at the root of the theatergoing experience but it’s still missing the component that turned every previous outing into a religious experience. We put our faith in the lumens and they illuminated the world around us, which is a world that’s been altered past the point of recognition over the course of 2020. Maybe one day, we’ll get a semblance of that world back. Until that point, we’ll keep throwing ourselves into whatever we’re watching, finding comfort in each other’s company, and keeping our eyes peeled for what will be a long-overdue return. 

Hanna Kohn: Watching movies at home is choppy at best. When I get settled in, I stand up again. I always need more water or a beer or a snack. And they are all right there in my kitchen and no one will be silently judging me as I stand up and walk over to grab them. The pause button exists on my remote so I press it a lot. I pause, I go to the bathroom, I see my nails in the bathroom light and they look rough, I grab a nail file, press play and start filing away. I pause, grab the laundry from the dryer, come back upstairs, press play and start to fold it. When I’m feeling especially dangerous, I won’t pause at all and I’ll pick up my face-down phone and see that no one is trying to contact me (why would they be?) and so I’ll check my Instagram for 10 minutes and pretend like I can read the subtitles while endlessly scrolling and then have to rewind but I go back too far and feel frustrated. 

The movie theatre offers boundaries for my movie watching experience, that’s something I like to have. I love that there is no pause and there is no rewind, only a mad dash forward. I miss running to the front doors of Point Cinema from my car parked on the street across from Vera’s weird, illuminated bridal carriage and making it to a rigid movie start-time buffered generously by 15 or more minutes of coming attractions. I get goosebumps just thinking about ripping open the candy that I brought with me in my purse and passing it to my friend. I love that my phone absolutely has to be turned off while watching a movie at the theatre because otherwise I might be “that guy” from the cheesy pre-movie skits and I refuse to ruin someone else’s experience like that. Mostly I love how dark it gets in a movie theatre. That huge room dimmed down, buzzing with sound and moving images. In the theatre you can be swallowed up by a movie, something that I have yet to achieve in my living room. 

For now, I am trying to watch movies with others in the best way that I can in order to form some semblance of boundaries. I have watched several movies on Discord with friends and I like how that feels. I tend to stay more focused and clued-in than I would watching by my lonesome. I pepper the comment section on the Discord chat with funny things or just say whatever I’m feeling about what’s happening in the movie aloud and it is fun to have someone respond back. My tower of movies to watch next to my TV is tall and I’m still trying to find the attention span to watch all of those flicks. I feel sad that I can’t drag a friend to check out Cinematheque’s Halloween horror specials with me or go to Flix Brewhouse to have a milkshake and laugh with my cohort at some ridiculous new movie. I sincerely miss my dear Madison movie theatres, and I really hope that one day soon it will be safe to be nestled in their seats again.

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