Intimacy Denied: Reopening theaters during a pandemic

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 1:02pm

–

Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

The vigorous string melody halted, and the film came to an abrupt end. Dazed, my friend Haoyu and I sat silently in the darkness of State Theatre without moving an inch of our bodies. When we heard the sound of clapping from below us, we subconsciously clapped along too. A warm yellow light slowly re-illuminated the theater. While people started getting up and preparing to leave, Haoyu and I were still glued to our seats, reluctant to let go of the beauty we just collectively experienced. 

“That was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, wasn’t it?” A blonde woman sitting to my right asked her partner. “I wonder which one.”

“Summer,” I replied to her in a quiet and nasally voice, still wiping the tears from my cheeks and cleaning my glasses.

We had just finished watching “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a French historical romantic film that I couldn’t wait to see ever since its initial release in the United States. While walking back from State Theatre to East Quad, through the Diag and the stage set up for the Bernie Sanders rally, Haoyu and I talked nonstop about the film: Its absence of background music and male characters, its exquisite focus on facial expressions and the queer female love. The experience felt like a pilgrimage, where we exposed our most vulnerable inner selves in a dark room of strangers. Our lonely hearts, hardened by worldly affairs like the tense political climate, depressing job prospects and pressure from family, opened up and were graced again by passion and love. Before we parted, Haoyu and I promised each other to attend more local film screenings together in the future.

Neither of us knew that it would be the last time we saw each other for six months. In less than one week, on March 13, the University had advised students to return home  as soon as possible. Two days before, the Big Ten had then canceled the remainder of its winter season, all study abroad programs had been suspended until April 21, and the spring commencement had been canceled. I had to pack up all of my belongings and say goodbye to all of my friends within the span of two days, flying back to Toronto before the borders closed. Haoyu, struggling to find a plane ticket back home to China, moved into her friend’s house near Ann Arbor.

After 14 days of quarantine back in Toronto, I regained control of my own room and made it my sanctuary. Behind my shut bedroom door, I took refuge in cinema, as it provided me with a sense of comfort and detachment from the atrocities outside my room. Sometimes at a friend’s house, though most of the time alone, I wandered through my Netflix recommendations. From Hirokazu Kore-eda’s direction in heartwarming family dramas to Ghibli animations to Billy Wilder’s black and white classics. These films, whether sad or bittersweet, acted as my shield from the outside world’s worsening xenophobia, racism and violence, allowing me to escape from reality and to the safe haven of cinema.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed all the films I watched on my own, the “bedroom theater” experience was still unequal to the in-person ones I had in Michigan. Throughout the entire summer, I was looking forward to when things returned to normal and theaters would open again without masks required upon entry. A drive-in movie simply would not suffice. Though the leather seats and air conditioning are able to provide the viewers with a false sense of comfort, the cold hard metal separates us from the rest of the audience, rendering a supposedly collective experience an isolated one. 

There is something about a crowded, dark room and the tiny, red seats that foster something personal yet surreal. I have always found consuming good art a very demanding process because it requires me to exhaust my emotional energy to truly understand and empathize with the artist or artist’s characters. Therefore, to expose myself in such a vulnerable state and undergo such a process is both intimate and valuable to my viewing experience.

To me, the audience in the theater are time travelers who happened to stumble upon the same time machine. Our bodies get sucked into the black hole of cinema as our souls distort and mesh with each other. By the time the credits roll and light refills the room, we leave and return to our ordinary lives, but we carry with us a shared sentiment and love unique to the stories we witnessed together.

I remember when my friend Sarah and I went to a “Parasite” screening together, excited for the Korean film’s debut in Ann Arbor. As the film’s climax approached, we looked at each other with our mouths opened in a silent scream and clutched each other’s hands tightly like little kids tucked under the same blanket. I remember how the entire theater held their breath as (spoiler alert) Mister Kim picked up the knife from the lawn and stabbed it through Mr. Park’s chest. 

The deafening silence was nowhere near awkward or uncomfortable, but rather an embodiment of how a room of strangers can be united through an immersive experience in art without verbal interaction. In this case, the audience communicated through their silence. It was our collective affirmation in the film’s shrewd yet harsh portrayal of our society — a silent echo of our common humanity.

***

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that theaters, bowling alleys and other performance venues will be able to reopen on Oct. 9, I was shocked. While I am delighted that theaters will be back in business and welcome movie fanatics back to their venues, I still hold a sense of skepticism about the policy’s feasibility.

Though the theaters will only be allowed at 20% capacity, the local Ann Arbor theaters are still narrow spaces with possibly inadequate air circulation, especially since smaller theaters have less funding to upgrade their buildings. Many questions come to mind: Will people’s temperatures be taken upon entry and concessions be allowed during the film? Will I be able to enjoy the films the same way I did before the pandemic? 

The most important element of attending a film in person is not the moving pictures playing on the big screen, but rather the memories I make with my friends and the collective experience that I share with the other viewers. The effectiveness of the public health precautions largely depend on the viewers’ choice to follow them, but with the University of Michigan’s drastic increase of weekly COVID-19 cases, I must regretfully admit that I feel unsafe in our community. 

Every so often, I daydream about the next time I will have an intimate experience at a movie theater, just like when I went to see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” I picture the lights dimming, the pictures pulling me in like a warm blanket, gently wrapping around me, gradually lulling the audience while we embark on a journey to the mystic dreamland of cinema. Yet now, as the pandemic rages and our country hurts, this daydream feels far away; the blanket remains threadbare and tattered, and I will not be tucking myself in for a long time to come.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.