Quote of the day: Not Alone in the Theater


If you were a fan of the various incarnations of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s movie review shows, then you’ll probably enjoy Matt Singer’s book about them, Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel and Ebert Changed Movie Forever (Putman 2023). 

I recently read the book and was struck by something Singer said about film viewing, “Watching movies, especially as a working critic or journalist can feel like a very solitary act. But as Siskel and Ebert proved, film is best enjoyed and most appreciated with someone to talk about the experience. Everywhere I have studied or written about movies, I have found wonderful communities of friends and colleagues whose companionship have made the movies seem like something bigger than mere strips of celluloid or masses of data on hard drives.”

The importance of a film community continues to be proven here at Ricochet with Andrew Miller’s Moving Pictures Club (a successor to Vince Guerra’s Movie Fight Club). I remembered  this post I wrote for a blog way back in 2008 (you might notice the historical details).

Eighteen of us at my church, a majority under the age of sixteen, joined together last Sunday to watch the story of William WIlberforce’s struggle to end the English slave trade as portrayed in the film Amazing Grace. Initially, the screen image was pretty dark until Dave jiggled the cable to the projection unit, and then there was light. Popcorn was passed and spilled. We laughed together. Some grew misty-eyed. All applauded at the film’s end.

And I sat there pondering, “Why do I enjoy watching movies with others more than watching movies alone?

In ways, viewing movies should be a solitary experience; ideally there shouldn’t be discussion during a film or interaction that takes the focus off the screen (exceptions to this policy will be mentioned later). So why is moviegoing a social experience? And another question: Will movie “going” survive the home theater?

As home screens get bigger and more highly defined, and sound systems get louder and crisper, while Blockbuster and Netflix bring movies straight to the home via mail or downloading, one wonders why anyone would “go” to the movies anymore. (There was an excellent Goofy cartoon attached to the screening of National Treasure II. The cartoon was better than the feature film.) Why not cocoon at home and enjoy the movie you want to see at the time of your own choosing? There’s certainly a lot of appeal to the idea compared to theater experiences featuring rude cell phone users, sticky floors, projectors with bad bulbs and sound bleeding in from the theaters on the other sides of the walls.

There still is something to be said for watching films in a crowd. Comedies seem funnier with others laughing with you. Some critics don’t like to review comedies alone because the solo experience isn’t the same as the experience in a crowd. Many people won’t laugh alone, but will with others.

Even the drive-in experience used to have a sense of community. Though all were in their own metal compartments, at times, everyone joined together to let their feelings be known. When there were technical difficulties, horns would join in unison to make the projectionist aware of their discontent. When I lived in Santa Cruz County, there was a drive-in theater, and on warm nights, people would bring lawn chairs to sit on the ground or in the back of their pickup trucks. (As the great film critic Joe Bob Briggs says, “The drive-in will never die.”)

I said before that ideally, conversation does not take place during a movie. We don’t want to hear teens gossiping behind us about who’s hooking up with whom or someone in front of us asking for explanations of the previous half-hour’s plot points. We especially don’t want to hear someone referring to future plot points. (“I think this is where they shoot the dog. No, that happens later. This is where they find the treasure.”)

But there are other ways people interact with what’s going on the screen. In recent years, movie singalongs have cropped up. The Sound of Music has been a favorite for this – the lyrics appear at the bottom of the screen and the audience is encouraged to sing along.

A television show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, wherein bad films were shown, with a man and his robot pals silhouetted at the bottom of the screen offering funny, mocking remarks throughout the film. (Really, this is the only way to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.) At some special screenings of bad films, audience are encouraged to join in the mocking.

At some inner-city theaters, audiences have always been quite vocal in expressing their feelings. Audiences warn on-screen teenagers not to go out in the dark alone and encourage heroes along in their fist fights and gun battles. This talk-back viewing is obviously related to the talk-back in African American churches where people encourage the preachers with Amens and Hallelujahs.

One of the great things about the joint viewing experience is that when a film is good, there’s a shared exhilaration. Something in human nature makes us want to share the things we enjoy and admire. This is part of the excitement in a ball game or a concert; joining others in the admiration of athletes and actors, musicians, and speakers we admire. People applaud at the end of a movie, fully aware the filmmakers won’t hear it – they just need to express their appreciation.

There is something about this desire to enjoy things together, in community, that relates to the act of worship. As believers, there is a time and place for worship in solitude. We should take time to pray, read Scripture, and even sing hymns when we’re alone. Some people say they never go to church because they prefer to worship God “out in nature in my own way,” but real worship leads us to worship with others.

As David said in Psalm 34, “O magnify the Lord with me, let us exalt His name together.” Worship can not only be a solitary act. We are not made that way. We are not made to keep things to ourselves. And the best thing we have is God. “To know God and enjoy Him forever,” as the Westminster Confession affirms, is what we are made to do and be. And it’s so much better with others.

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There are 3 comments.

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  1. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp

    One for The Collection—2024 Edition. Thanks, Scrubb.

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn

    I sometimes miss watching movies in a theater (in spite of some yakkers who think they’re in their living room). But my husband has a chronic cough and refuses to disturb the experience of others. Thanks for the memories, Eustace. At least my husband and I can enjoy the movies on the small screen, together.

    • #2
  3. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney

    A brilliant, perfect book title.

    • #3
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