December 8, 2022


Health Is a Human Right

Movie theaters and Covid-19: Why this film buff won’t return to a multiplex if there is no vaccine

And I have been more than OK: What’s the problem with going through a few more loops in my life of, say, “Chinatown,” “Beat the Devil,” “Repo Man” or “The Godfather: Part II”?

Or, for that matter, downloading such first-run movies as “Da 5 Bloods,” “First Cow,” “Emma,” “Shirley,” “Crip Camp” and so many other award-worthy made-for-TV series such as “I Know This Much Is True,” “Unorthodox” and the so-far-remarkable “Lovecraft Country.”

As I say: That’s more than OK.

This is what I’m talking about: Back in 1989, the New York writer Phillip Lopate published an essay looking back almost 30 years earlier to what he recalled as a “heroic age of moviegoing.”

It was the hinge of the 1960s when landmark films by such foreign directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and others were arriving fresh on America’s doorstep to ignite in the imaginations of young film lovers bold and stirring possibilities for the art form.

At the same time, there was similar excitement for those same film lovers in rediscovering the hidden glories of vintage Hollywood movies made by such myriad directors as Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, John Ford, William Wellman and Alfred Hitchcock.

It was all the same to Lopate, at the time a Brooklyn high school student and budding film buff, who set off in determined, near-quixotic pursuit of obscure, undervalued or challenging movies in small theaters and repertory houses all over Manhattan.

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“Whether the film had been glorious or dull barely mattered, so long as I could cross it off my list. The development of a taste of any sort requires plodding through the overrated as well as uncovering the sublime. If the movie had been genuinely great, I would leave the screening place inspired and pleasantly conscious of my isolation and wander the streets for a while before taking the subway home.

“I came to love the way the gray city streets looked after a movie, the cinematic blush they seemed to wear. When the film had been a disappointment — well then, all the more was it a joy to get back the true world, with its variety and uncanny compositions.”

It’s a long way from 1959 and for that matter, 1989, when Lopate wrote that essay, and 1999, which I remember as one of the very best years for going to big dark rooms with big white screens. “The Matrix” came out that year and so did “All About My Mother,” “The Iron Giant,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Magnolia,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Fight Club,” “Toy Story 2,” “Election,” “The Insider,” “Office Space,” “Galaxy Quest,” “Three Kings” — even ones I didn’t like as much like “Eyes Wide Shut,” “American Beauty,” “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.” You get the idea. Pretty good year, no?

Lopate’s kind of romanticism and most of the intimate movie houses that nurtured it now seem as out of reach to contemporary minds as rotary phones and rabbit-eared TV antennae.

But I’m still the kind of fool for film who at odd hours of the day likes running off by myself to dark rooms that smell like buttered popcorn just to see movies that don’t get the kind of noisy hype as a superhero tentpole extravaganza.

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I’m not the only one, either. There are several of us who yearn for low-budget gems that follow us home to give us something new to dream about. It doesn’t matter to us whether the movie talks, or, depending on the mood we’re in, makes much sense.

“The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie,” said Binx Bolling, the New Orleans stockbroker and title character of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel, “The Moviegoer.”

“Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives. … What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway of The Third Man.”

Understand? The thing about moviegoers like Binx — and me — is that social distancing in a movie theater isn’t a problem: It’s the whole point.

So, you’d think movie lovers like me would be over the moon over the prospect of movie theaters reopening after months of Covid-19-related inactivity.


Let’s think this through.

One hears that the seating arrangements even in multiplexes will keep viewers farther apart from each other. Screened-off areas, tightly controlled movements … It all sounds … familiar.

Even before the pandemic, it was hard to find any multiscreen complex in New York City and elsewhere that didn’t require you to reserve your seat, or seats, in case you brought dates, spouses, children, friends and others. At first it was a hassle, but if audiences wanted to see “Black Panther” or “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi” badly enough, it was an adjustment they were willing to make.

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And I wanted to see them badly, too. As hopelessly romantic about arcane and vintage cinema as I am. I know life isn’t all Godard revivals and indie documentaries. But as with everybody else these days, I can get those more easily on streaming networks than in a theater. I can make my own popcorn and find my own seat without stumbling.

As quiet as it’s kept, theaters were in trouble before Covid-19 placed them on lockdown. Back when I was a full-time film reviewer in this century’s first decade, my peers and I would notice that another movie exhibitor had gone out of business — and not just one of those aforementioned repertory houses, but a once-prosperous first-run commercial theater complex.

News came this past week of the permanent closure of The Landmark at 57 West in Manhattan, an eight-theater movie complex with luxury seating that offered such “prestige” product as Netflix’s “Roma” and “Marriage Story” to its Upper West Side clientele.

Two years before, the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, which likewise offered diverse and critically acclaimed fare to movie lovers a few blocks north, shut its doors for good.

The same almost happened to the beloved Paris Theater near the Plaza Hotel at 58th Street near Fifth Avenue before it was saved and purchased by … Netflix, which has proven so far to be just as romantic about the old movie theater experience of discovery as cine geeks like me.

But the Paris has been closed since March like other bigger theater complexes. Will I go if it opens again? Maybe, if for no other reason than curiosity as to how a Covid-era movie theater experience will work.


Let’s put it this way: Few living Americans are bigger movie geeks than Spike Lee — and he’s on record saying that if there is no vaccine or cure for the coronavirus, he’s not going to a movie house. Any movie house. Anywhere. At all.

I guess I’m with him because, fundamentally as a movie buff, he’s with me. And one has to wonder after all this shakes out, whenever or however it does, whether the movies need the moviegoing experience to survive and thrive as an art form.

On the one hand, I hate forsaking what was once a beautiful dream life. One the other, there are many ways to dream moviegoing and many ways to love Fellini. Or “Wonder Woman 1984.”

Gene Seymour is a cultural critic who writes frequently for CNN Opinion.

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