First Person

Empty Theaters

Empty Theaters


In the past years I’ve often walked or bicycled alone to the small multiplex in my town, on weeknights. I like sitting by myself in movie theaters—I specify “by myself” to indicate my preference for going unaccompanied, as opposed to the wish that the theater be empty or nearly empty. In fact, on weeknights in this exceedingly sleepy college town, I do frequently find myself in auditoriums there with only three or four other ticket buyers. Usually these are retirees—our town is rich in retirement communities—and though I’m in my fifties, I’m in danger of being the youngest person in the theater. It’s easy to worry about the ability of the theater to survive, at this rate. I try not to.


The sensation of sitting alone in the theater is one I compulsively compare to going to a brain laundromat. I’m there to have my brain rinsed in the stream of images. I specify “compulsively” because I think of this comparison every time I go. Watching a big screen in the dark relaxes and restores me, and takes me out of the realm of criticism and language that too often overtakes my pleasure at the immersive flow of reading. Those personal “sites”—immersive reading, dreamy-attentive moviegoing—are primal for me, and sacred.


Long ago, I briefly served as the film critic for a popular website, and published four or five reviews in a short period. I enjoyed the free screenings, was proud (enough) of the early results. I cherished the “status” of working film critic—those being among the leading writer-heroes in my early fannish idealizations. But I didn’t enjoy the way thinking up a review in my head began to insert itself between me and the release of just letting the images and sounds flow through my brain in the dark. Also, it felt to me that there was so little to say about the average movie. I felt the risk of irritating postures setting themselves up in my head in order to justify the pretense of writing post mortems. It would be like “reviewing” forgettable parties, even ones you might have been glad to have attended. It made me think about how the sensibilities of the longer-instituted film critics, even some I loved, so often seemed to curdle after a few decades on the job. So I quit, in preference for my brain-rinsing pleasure.


Of course, the brain-laundromat theory is also cover for a willingness to see movies you’d never wish to write about and might not even be likely to recall, just because you like movies, much like attending unpromising parties just because you like parties (an appetite I’ve lost). I associate the valorization of the brain-rinse theory with my friend Lynne Tillman, with whom I recall describing it. Whether Lynne was the originator of the comparison or not, I’m unsure. It may have some antecedent, some common denominator, that I’ve forgotten.


Just now, Googling to try to discover whether “moviegoing” and “washing your brain” had any definite source I should properly cite, I could only discover innumerable cautions about washing your hands before, during, and after attending a public event. The advice is moot, since my town’s theater’s marquee currently reads “Check in with us at” I haven’t.


I’d been intending, on a particular week in early March, to see Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. Based on what I’d read it was a film I expected to enjoy, maybe not love; I wasn’t interested in trying to justify my curiosity to anyone else. Perfect solitary brain-rinse, in other words. At the start of that week classes were still scheduled on my campus. By Friday the students were being cleared out of the dorms and sent home to continue the semester online, if they could manage to. On Wednesday, the soonest I could have gotten out of the house and to the theater, doing so no longer seemed like a good idea. The following week the theater was shuttered. Like much of what sat on everyone’s calendars this year, my date with The Invisible Man now exists as a kind of ghost appointment. Unlike the canceled public lectures and seminar classes haunting my campus, or the weddings or funerals or concerts, etc., that haunt the communities that would have enacted them, this was an appointment solely between me and myself. Yet it required a public arena to be played in.


I’ve just finished teaching one of my favorite novels, Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. In Delany’s epic panorama of a post-collapse American city called “Bellona,” the marquee of an abandoned movie theater still features fragmentary movie titles:

ECK  N     W’S

S  R         OGS


T  E  G   TA      Y

Because I’ve long been able to interpret the second title as Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, each time I reread Dhalgren I imagine I should also be able to work out the other titles. No dice, though*.


In my own much more modest post-collapse novel, Amnesia Moon, in opening pages written when I was nineteen, a man with a strange nickname sets up his home in the projection booth of an abandoned small-town multiplex: “Chaos had spelled out his name in red plastic letters on the Multiplex sign, over and over again, where the names of the movies used to go. Now playing in Cinema One: C H a O s. Cinema Two: c H A O s. Cinema Three: C h A o S. And so on.”


The fantasy of Chaos’s residence in a projection booth originates with my college work-study job as a projectionist. At the college theater we’d show the same film five times in a weekend, trying to maximize the value of a rental of the 16 mm reels, often playing to a nearly empty room. There wasn’t any disincentive; so long as even a single student attended, I could collect the work-study hours. Some weekends I was the only projectionist. I saw Coppola’s The Conversation five times in two days, and Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum that way too. I sometimes napped, and once had sex, in the booth.


My friend Carter Scholz and I were once accidentally the cause of the playing of a film to an entirely empty theater, in Berkeley, in 1993. Carter and I were in the midst of writing a collaborative novella, titled Receding Horizon. The premise, which we regarded as highly original, was that Franz Kafka had survived tuberculosis and the Nazis, and had come to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter, eventually teaming up with Frank Capra. While we were halfway through this writing effort, incredibly, Peter Capaldi’s Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life was released. Even more incredibly, it was playing as a short attraction before the main feature at a local theater on Solano Avenue. Carter and I bought tickets to an afternoon show and crept out of Berkeley’s bright daylight into the dark of the Oaks, a gorgeous restored 1925 movie house in the “Streamline Moderne” style. The theater was empty apart from us. We watched Capaldi’s short (which was great, with Richard E. Grant as Kafka; nothing about it seemed to prohibit Carter and me from writing our story). Then we snuck out before the feature, which therefore played to an empty auditorium, as it wouldn’t have if we hadn’t purchased two tickets. I wish I could remember what that movie was—a washer in a laundromat running with no clothes in it.


I have one other comparable experience, when I went with my friend Amanda Davis to see Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, a historical fantasy about cannibals, at the Ziegfeld Theater, in Manhattan. The film had gotten poor reviews, but there was something intriguing about the descriptions. I persuaded Amanda to join me. The Ziegfeld, with 1,152 seats, was for a long time the largest single-screen theater in New York City. I’d never before and haven’t since seen it anything less than overflowing with bodies, but this day Amanda and I were completely and utterly alone there. I was sort of astounded they’d run the film for just the two of us, but they did. Amanda and I made a point, that day, of talking at full volume when we felt like talking. We found Ravenous sort of amazing, in a broken, crazy way, and I’ve always intended to see it again, but haven’t managed to.


Amanda died at thirty-two in a small-plane crash with members of her family, during a tour for her first novel. I’m sorry for the abrupt swerve into personal sorrow, which nothing can have prepared you for, but there it is. Amanda didn’t live to see the closing of the Ziegfeld (or for that matter the Oaks, though to that she’d have been oblivious), or to see our present moment of hand-washing instead of brain-rinsing. I often, thinking of departed friends, think of what historical junctures they’ve not lived to see. Amanda died in the mountains like the characters in Ravenous, if that isn’t too strange a comparison, and the circumstances of her death were both bizarre, for a writer, and weirdly typical of Amanda’s style of jubilant intrepitude. Like the movie she and I saw alone in the cavernous theater, it was neither heroic nor mock-heroic, just extreme and unforgettable. If it were a movie, it would have been hard to review.


Writers, despite my youthful projections, aren’t for the most part heroic, whether we die in the mountains or slog through decades of weekly film reviewing. We rescue nobody, and most of what we salvage is salvage out of our own brains—cheap, as they say, at half the price. We sit indoors and massage the alphabet and stare at small screens until we can’t stand it anymore, and then, if we’re me, we go downtown to Laemmle’s for a brain-rinse. I hope to do so again before too long.

* Before publication I circulated this piece to a couple of friends. One, the director Michael Almereyda, suggested a persuasive solution to Delany’s Wheel of Fortune puzzle. Michael thought the marquee might have read:





Of course, Peckinpah’s name would have to be misspelled for this answer to fit, but Delany is (by his own testimony) a dyslexic, whose texts need diligent copy editing. Since a copy editor wouldn’t have known that the name Peckinpah was being invoked by the fragment, there’d be no way to repair the phonetic spelling Delany had landed on in place of the correct one.

Illustration by Xia Gordon

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