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This is not an essay about watching movies  — this is an essay about going to the movies, about its likeness to ceremony, about how it makes me feel quite a bit less lonely. About how it saves my weekends. About why sometimes, (and I never know when that sometimes is going to be) being alone in public is comforting.

For the past three weekends, I’ve spent a Friday or a Saturday or both at the Michigan Theater and State Theatre. The stretch began with the hotly anticipated, box-office hit “Dune” in a packed showing room at the Michigan Theater. The following weekend it was a quieter, charmed “The French Dispatch” in their largest auditorium, and a rowdy “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” seen (for the first time) from the upper mezzanine the same night. “Dune” again the next weekend in the Michigan Theater. The night after, a chilling “Last Night in Soho” from the cozy, elevated rows of the State Theatre. An anniversary showing of “Blade Runner” is slated for this coming weekend.

It’s not like I had outright planned to spend my October and November weekends this way. It just sort of happened, as these things often do. I saw “Dune” and realized what I had missed so much about a communal viewing experience, and so I went again. And again. And again. 

I’m enjoying this stint, as I tend to indulge in things for weeks at a time, only to abandon it once the novelty wears off. Next month I may be fervently knitting scarves that won’t see their ends, tossed in baskets with the needles still clinging to the last row I attempted. But I will have occupied myself for the month of December. 

Like my pocket-sized copy of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” that protects against preventable boredom, going to the movies ensures a thing to do, it is something to put in your calendar. You can use it as a crutch. You can say, hey, I’m sorry. But I’ve got plans with red velvet seats, Bill Murray and incurable back pain tonight. And you can’t reach me. It’ll be dark and I’ll be happy. Or maybe not happy, but convinced of the possibility. 

I take care to treat moviegoing as a ceremony, one I should smarten up for: eyeliner, coiffed hair, heeled loafers. A scarf? Let’s put on some Etta James and dance a little (to my playlist called “Songs to Secretly Dance To”)

Like when getting ready for the party is more fun than the party itself, going to the movies represents everything that surrounds the experience — it’s not actually about the movie, though I suppose it could be — it isn’t usually for me (even though “Dune” was actually quite good). And it’s never about the party.

It’s about if the butter has journeyed through to the bottom of the popcorn bowl, or the blessed moment the lights dim, finally introducing the sanctuary of silence. Sticky floors. A glorified night to myself. A place where you are commanded to turn off your phone and where nobody can reach you. It is a wonderfully liminal space where you feel transported, not totally out of reality, but somewhere perched on its border. 

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Who is going to get offended when I say that going to the movies feels more religious than church? But how could you deny the parallels of a showing at the Michigan Theater: veritable gold banisters winding up to the second floor, the organ playing that precedes each movie. Gold leaf molding on the ceiling — a truly divine display. Enforced quiet. People congregating under the bright marquee. I pay more respect to going to the movies than I ever did going to church — and that should tell you all you need to know about my Catholic upbringing. 

At the movies, I am alone but surrounded by people who are also alone. It is comforting. At parties, I am only surrounded by people who are better at pretending that they are not also alone. Or people — and I write this with jealousy — who are actually not alone at all. 

I feel less lonely going to the movies for obvious reasons, but also for less obvious ones. The presence of other people without the responsibility of having to interact with them is a nice thing. You’re all connected by a desire, however fleeting, to see this movie. To eat popcorn loudly. To laugh at the right time. To suck the air out of the room by collectively gasping at a jump-scare. 

Durga Chew-Bose in her essay “Summer Pictures” puts it this way: “Going to the movies is the most public way to experience a secret. Or, the most secretive way to experience the public.”

When going to the movies, I am seeking out pleasure and entertainment. But I am also avoiding confrontation — I never like to interrogate why being home alone on a weekend night so disturbs me, but I imagine that much of this conception has to do with the social mores of college and conflicting ideas about solitude. Alas, it’s so much easier to watch Anya Taylor-Joy dance to “Downtown” with the smugness of having escaped than it is to admit what we are escaping from in the first place.  

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This past summer, a “moviehouse” was built on the western end of my hometown’s main drag. Its construction was followed by a minimalist bakery, a tapas restaurant, and a “unique urban market.” All of these establishments were constructed within the same year, which has given this street a sort of faux-modernity. Like the youngest child of five that wasn’t planned, this street’s end is late and too young to understand much. 

So it’s unsurprising that this “moviehouse” situated among the other, concurrently-built businesses is similarly vapid. I mean hell, this place has a second-floor restaurant and heated massage seats. And, if you don’t want to eat in the “dinner house,” staff will deliver your meal to your seat during the movie. These attempts at revising the moviegoing experience are admirable but ultimately futile, as the charm of movie theaters has always been its inconvenience. The unpleasant poke of an armrest in your ribs while leaning to the side of your seat. The bloated price of a box of Skittles. Cramped showing rooms. Little specifics that generate sentimentality, what we will call in a few decades nostalgia. The Michigan Theater and State Theatre have embraced these traditions, and do so beautifully. This new moviehouse in my hometown has not. 

The IMAX on Carpenter Road in Ypsilanti, Mich., has seen similar comparisons — it used to go by the name of the Showcase Multiplex, and it was in 2008 that Daily Arts writer Jeffrey Bloomer described what is missing from these chain theaters, the ones unlike the Michigan and State: “Anyone who has attended a movie at the Showcase multiplex has experienced a theater with limitless technology and a primly modern decor but with no atmosphere and no soul.” How right he is.

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I’m sure that by now one could gather where I stand on the whole “streaming services versus movie theater experience” spectrum — staunchly with the latter. I prefer going to the movies over streaming for reasons that mostly have to do with control: at home, I can pause and respond to texts and pause and go to the bathroom and pause just to change into different pants. It’s convenient, yes, but it does away with the strict sanctum of being at the theater. 

Roughly a year ago, when “Dune” director Denis Villeneuve learned of HBO’s intent to release the movie on their streaming service at the same time as in theaters, he penned a scathing essay in Variety criticizing the decision. Villeneuve argued, “Streaming services are a positive and powerful addition to the movie and TV ecosystems. But I want the audience to understand that streaming alone can’t sustain the film industry as we knew it before COVID. Streaming can produce great content, but not movies of ‘Dune’s’ scope and scale.”

He continued:

“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says. Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.” Who could argue with that last sentence? Or with his perfect use of the word dilettante? Like when watching “Last Night in Soho” and the buoyant and redemptive “You’re My World (Il Mio Mondo)” convinces you of love, going to the movies is the perfect way of keeping loneliness at bay. Of romanticizing the public. Of keeping secrets.

Statement Columnist Taylor Schott can be reached at taschott@umich.edu.