I saw “Pacific Rim” the other day, and so did the rest of the audience in the theater I was in. Nothing new there. But there’s a difference between watching a movie and viewing it, and it’s a big one.
Much debate has occurred over the distracted nature of our modern society. In a movie theater, this normally looks like people texting or talking during a movie. But what I witnessed the crowd in that theater doing the other day went beyond that.
Several people in the theater didn’t just look distracted; they looked like they were actively struggling to sit still for a couple of hours. I don’t imagine it was the movie’s fault; it was great, and there was quite a bit of applause when the credits rolled. But not everyone in the theater saw the same movie I did. A man sitting in my row kept staring at his phone as if expecting an important message. He got up and left the theater three times during the movie, but he always came back.
The theater used to be a place of escapism, a place where we could forget our troubles for a few hours and become immersed in the magic of cinema. In our connected culture, that way of thinking is going the way of the drive-in theater. At home, people can pause a Netflix movie to run a quick errand, or they can stop the movie entirely if they don’t like it, with nary a penny wasted. Why waste valuable time and money sitting in a sticky dark cave?
But what about the really good movies? The ones that make us think, feel, dream, the ones that challenge us or maybe remind us of important truths we knew all along? Are these worlds not worth getting lost in? That is where the theater comes in. Complete immersion cannot occur when sitting on the couch.
But it has never been just the location that makes the theater special. It’s the mindset behind the eager theatergoer; the one who is willing to pay sometimes-exorbitant amounts of money because they want to escape the cares of their everyday lives for a few hours. They want to escape into the magic of movies. At least, that’s how it used to be.
Now, its seems, people have more important things to do. I imagine my row-mate, sitting at a Friday morning screening, really wanted to see “Pacific Rim.” But showing up to the theater isn’t enough. He clearly had more important things to take care of that day. And that’s great. But why did he have to come to the theater to realize that?
If I can’t put my life on hold for a few hours to see a movie, I just won’t go. It’s that simple. I love the movies too much to treat them as a sideshow to my self-importance. We all bring baggage with us into the theater; it’s exactly that baggage that we’re trying to escape from, after all. But I’ve gone to the theater before with too much going on in my life, too many stresses and anxieties, and I’ve been miserable even while watching great movies. I would not allow myself to get lost.
If the movies are going to continue to provide escapism from the routine of our everyday lives, we must allow ourselves to escape. If they are going to transport us, we must allow ourselves to be transported. Otherwise, we might as well just go home.