Long before I dreamed of writing about pop culture, I was a fan of the movie date.
Beverly Cleary’s young adult novel “Fifteen” captured the ritual perfectly; after reading it as a child I dreamed about what it would be like to go to a movie and then get an ice cream soda afterward. In college, I went to Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the first time with a date, who delighted in walking me through the extravagant gate out front and watching me marvel at the baroque wallpaper and seemingly endless auditorium. I have a soft spot for “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s middling spy drama, because my husband and I saw it on our first date.
But if I really want to see a movie, there’s nothing better than sneaking off to the theater by myself, preferably in the middle of the day when the cinema’s likely to be pretty empty.
The problem with seeing a movie on a date is the movie becomes subordinate to the date. Rather than giving your full attention to what’s happening on-screen, maybe you’re wondering if you’re going to hold hands, or you’re feeling the weight of their arm across your shoulder. You’re sharing popcorn, or your fingers bump when you both reach for a Twizzler at the same time.
And even if you aren’t distracted by these little zaps of physical electricity, the way you process a movie on a date is inevitably shaped by the discussion to come. I like this, but will she like it? I hate this, but will he? How could anyone think that was romantic, or smart, or suspenseful, or satisfying? If I talk about the cinematography, is he going to think I’m pretentious? If I don’t talk about the cinematography, will she think I’m dumb? I wish I was at “Star Wars.” I wish he was someone who wanted to see “Star Wars.”
No, if you really want to get lost in a movie — and have an aesthetic experience that will be yours and yours alone — the only way to see a movie is by yourself.
One of the first experiences that convinced me of this was in 1994, when I went to see “Little Women” in the small Vermont town where my family was living at the time and cried so hard when Beth (Claire Danes) died that a neighbor called my mother to make sure I was all right. This year, I saw “Hell or High Water,” David Mackenzie and Taylor Sheridan’s magnificent neo-Western, by myself on a Friday afternoon. One of the reasons it’s stayed at the top of my private best-of list all year is that, though I wanted to talk to everyone I knew about it as soon as I left the theater, while I was watching the movie, I didn’t think about the world outside at all.
There’s something singularly decadent about the other pleasures of going to the movies by yourself. Not that anyone ought to feel shamed about enjoying an enormous tub of popcorn or a movie-sized soda on their own, but there’s a particular delight in not having to share your treats, or being observed while you eat them. If going to the movies alone is a chance not to pay attention to someone else’s reactions, it’s also a chance not to have someone else reacting to you, whether you’re laughing at a stupid but irresistible joke, or eating an entire box of Junior Mints during the movie’s first act.
So much of pop cultural consumption has become inescapably public, whether you’re staying up on Sunday nights to watch “Game of Thrones” so you can talk about it at work the next day or watching all the Oscar-nominated movies so you can participate in horse-race debates about the contenders or dismiss the whole thing as a racist, sexist sham.
To a certain extent, I think that’s great. After all, I make my living from the fact that people love to have vigorous public debates about pop culture. But part of what makes our conversations about art great, and what makes them so different from our debates about politics, is that our reactions to culture are highly personal and unpredictable.
The only way to have those truly private responses is to create space for ourselves to be alone with art. Going to the movies by yourself is an indulgence. But it’s also the best way to really see a film, and maybe even to catch a little glimpse of your inner self in your reaction to it.