This is not gonna be just another “going to the movies by yourself is underrated” hot take. It’s all too easy to catch a glance of that sentiment whizzing around, splashed in Ariel bold on the front page on any number of film connoisseur sites. That’s not to say there isn’t a benefit to watching films alone. There is, just as there are very definitive reasons to watch with others. But I believe what is far more interesting than telling you who you should or should not watch the new Marvel movie with is looking at our personal connection as humans to the movies. What makes us want to watch films with others and what makes us yearn for the isolation of an empty seat?
I never used to go to movies alone. To be fair, this was in large part because I lacked free access to money or a car for the better part of my childhood. My dad was stunned at even the notion; the idea of going to the theater alone was as nonsensical to him as the idea of me becoming a Republican. Even when I had the means to do so in later years, a pained expression of disappointment spread over his flabbergasted face when I told him of my introverted plans (though I’m sure there are worse taboo failings for a father to be disappointed about). This view was not solely self-contained to him, however, and instead reflected a widely-held belief in American society: going to the cinema is a social excursion. And so that’s what I believed without a hint doubt or apprehension. Looking for something to do on a lazy Saturday afternoon? Go watch a movie with the family. Cousins in town and nothing to do? Go watch a movie. Looking for an excuse to chill with some friends? You know the rest.
It was habit. No. It still is habit. Because even when I gained a car and money, even when I got MoviePass last year, I would tell myself over and over that I would go alone. That if I had free time I had a cultural obligation to my soul to see these movies.
And I would almost never go.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it when I did. The crackling fire on screen would twirl puffs of hallucinogenic smoke around me, enveloping me, melting away the outside world to draw me into a personal confrontation with the reality they created specifically for me. The first film I managed to compulsively see alone was the disaster at sea flick “Adrift” (starring Shailene Woodley). It was by no means perfect, but the orgasmic beauty of an infinite, painted ocean joined with the breathless fear and passion in the boiling pot of our protagonist’s life shredded me. I struggled to keep the Pacific Ocean itself from seeping from my narrowing eyes through most of the final act. And yet, when I walked out, the world still strutted along completely oblivious to my trauma. It was personal like reading a book, yet with the visceral imagery that only a movie can provide. There was no need to build carefully articulated talking points or views to discuss with my companions, nor was there the shared experience that undercut the direct emotions of the picture. I was alone. Free to soar through golden clouds of hope and bob up and down in the oozing tar of a vast ocean of despair. I’m not a religious person, but that kind of connection was spiritual — like a man gazing up at the intricate majesty of Vatican sculpted beauty. And it would not have been the same with others.
And yet I still remain hesitant to do this; frozen restraints gripping me in place whenever I think of eloping by my lonesome to a theater. I believe, beyond social convention, there is a reason for this. A reason that explains the very point of film as a medium.
To be a spectacle.
As artistic and transcendent as a film can be, there’s a reason it’s not a book. There is a reason movies play on the big screen. A reason their release is endowed with such cultural reverence and a reason why the people who create these pictures treated as gods. Film is first and foremost a spectacle for the masses. A great novel can be enthralling and poetic, but it can only really be personal. It can’t be read with others, and the market is so overflooded that rarely do they have the same widespread cultural touch (at least when they are originally made). As a social and now international species, we crave this sense of connectedness. In fact, even in the old days, famous authors would go on book-reading tours to give crowds of people a taste of this relatability that pours out of every crevice of society today. The advent of movies, however, created this feeling in an easily manufactured and distributed product.
The blinding aura of neon italics demanded the attention of the masses for Christ’s sake, not wandering art enthusiasts. The greatest show on earth.
And you know what, something in that sentiment actually speaks to me.
We watch movies with other people to revel together in the splendor of an incredible show. We don’t want to watch it alone because the point of it is to be bigger than a simple personal experience. So even though we sit in silence at a theater, a silence that can be as ear-piercing as it can be awkward, the emotional ties created from witnessing something bigger than ourselves, something made for the masses, build something more than the muted sum of its parts. Movies are loud, brash roller coaster rides, what fun is there in screaming alone?
Of course, that doesn’t mean all movies need to be seen with other people. There is something to be said for the personal holiness of a singular viewing experience, and oftentimes not being able to talk killed the social aspect that movies can really only play into. That’s why, as great as it was to have an excuse to hang out, on some of those fading summer nights I wish we could have just found another way. But that shared carnival of light, in the right conditions, can both allow for this necessary dialogue between humans while at the same time give them the shared experience that’s so damn magical. I made sure to note last time that I’m not a talker at movies and I try to remain true to this, but being able to watch and crack comments when watching a movie is one of the most enjoyable experiences imaginable.
I’m not all that great at meeting new people. I’m not altogether terrible at it; I’m capable of meaningful conversations and when I do form a bond with someone I often create deeply held friendships. But I sometimes don’t know entirely who I am, especially on the outside, when I first begin talking to people and this can lead to rather basic and forgetful q-and-a sessions. I suppose that’s part of growing up and will change with time, but in the meantime, it creates a nagging problem that I need to get past. In my first few months here one of the repeated bonding hangouts that is noticeably common is streaming movies together.
This has been a godsend for me.
By using the countless entertaining and personal moments from a film as a springboard, I can find pieces of my beliefs, my experiences, and myself, and connect with others. For example, “regretfully” instead of studying, I have consistently binged the first 2 seasons of Game of Thrones with new people, using it both as an enjoyable time to talk and as an undeniable shared connection. Likewise the first friend group I made originated around all of us seeing Crazy Rich Asians together. And even beyond college, I spent some of the inarguably best moments of my life and dicking around with friends while watching god-knows-what movie on tv.
So, after that overlong, rambling stream-of-conscious what in the hell is the answer to the original question: “What’s the point of watching movies with friends”? Like any good question, there is no one clear answer. No neat-and-tidy thesis statement to take away with you. Watching movies with friends can be pointless. A lazy, unimaginative mannerism of a repetitive society, where we replace genuine human connection with simply sitting next to each other as we overdose on filtered mass media garbage. And therefore it can be so much better to just watch movies alone like I fought to do so many times. But it can also be something greater. A mesmerizing emotional quilt of shared connections and talkative comradery. Something that has built the backbone for so much in my life.
It can be all of these things and it can be none of them. But in the end, alone or with friends, there are worse ways to spend your time than watching a movie.