In 1975, the French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote that his favorite part of going to the movies was leaving. But then Barthes was never locked out of cinema by a global pandemic. I’m a film professor, which means I spend a lot of time watching movies at home, even under ordinary circumstances. In my most recent book, “The Stuff of Spectatorship,” I investigate the ways we watch movies now, especially at home, but I also love cinema: The darkness, seclusion and surround sound create an immersive experience I can never replicate in my living room. And then, of course, there’s the popcorn. That may have been what I missed most.
Watching movies at home for the past 15 months, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder Barthes’ observation that part of what’s so great about moviegoing is traveling to a different space to get a fresh perspective on everyday life. I couldn’t wait to see films with strangers again, since often that fresh perspective comes from overhearing their reactions. I wanted to share movies with a community again, since community was precisely what I yearned for during the pandemic. I was also excited to see how theaters would respond to the political upheavals of the past year, particularly how they’d reimagine their communities in the wake of nationwide anti-racist activism.
I never expected the peculiar dissatisfactions of going back to the cinema, though.
When I started contemplating a return to the theater last month, only corporate multiplexes like Regal and AMC were open, and most of their screens were devoted to “Cruella” and “A Quiet Place Part II” — a prequel and a sequel, respectively. I chose the latter, since its predecessor made such exhilarating use of theatrical surround sound. I bought my ticket and my popcorn — which smelled as intoxicating as ever — and settled in. There were fewer people in the theater than there were when I saw “A Quiet Place” in 2018, but that’s fairly normal for sequels (which often make less at the box office than their progenitors).
Before the movie could begin, however, I had to sit through the trailers, which were just a little too familiar. From “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” and “Top Gun: Maverick” to “F9” and “Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” every trailer advertised a sequel to another (pre-covid) film. The future of moviegoing will be revisiting the past, it seems, especially since art cinemas have been slower to reopen and genuinely inventive content is still mostly being routed to streaming platforms. That’s no coincidence: Exhibitors — theater owners and operators — believe that audiences are more likely to return for familiar characters, stories and stars. So they’re selling cinema on the promise of familiarity, as a never-never land where nothing has really changed and there’s no global catastrophe to reckon with — except for the fictional ones on screen, of course.
Exhibitors aren’t looking to change, it seems, and so cinema doesn’t reflect the ways that we all changed during the last year and a half. Movie theaters are pretty much as they were before — same chairs, concessions and crummy soundproofing — with some minor differences: more hygiene theater, fewer employees, (theoretically) better ventilation. Consequently, moviegoing post-covid feels like “Cinema 2: Same Movie, Same Theater,” as stale as yesterday’s popcorn.
It’s no surprise, though, that theaters are embracing sequels or that going to the cinema itself now feels like a sequel, no matter what you see. If exhibitors conceded that there had been a rupture, that their business might be outmoded, they would have to sell nostalgia instead of familiarity. Nostalgia feels bittersweet because it recognizes that the longed-for past is, in fact, past. Familiarity, on the other hand, comforts with continuity and proximity. As the film scholar Carolyn Jess-Cooke notes, “Sequels are designed to keep audiences coming back to cinema theaters, to re-experience the film across a host of tie-ins, and generally make cinema-going a habit.” Sequels keep the story going to keep moviegoing going: They’re built on the premise that audiences can just pick up where they left off and not worry about anything that happened in between.
But after all we’ve been through, “the same but different” isn’t enough. A lot has changed in the world since cinemas closed in March 2020, from the global uprisings for racial justice to the insurrection at the Capitol to ongoing pandemics of disease, trauma and grief. Meanwhile, the theaters have tried not to change; it’s almost like they’ve been hibernating, waiting for viewers to “get back to normal” so they could proceed with business as usual. Theater owners don’t want their customers thinking about the pandemic anymore — or about the airborne contagion that continues to circulate among potential moviegoers.
Correspondingly, we have heard nothing about theater owners reconsidering their histories of racial profiling, citizen-surveillance campaigns or systematic withdrawal from African American and Latino neighborhoods (even though Latino viewers make up a disproportionate share of frequent moviegoers). On my trips back early this summer, I didn’t see any outreach to suggest that exhibitors wanted to diversify — which may be why the audiences felt even Whiter and more homogenous than they did pre-covid. Instead, they’re trying to pick up where they left off, hoping that familiar will be good enough to turn a profit, that viewers won’t ask for more, just more of the same. That’s too bad, because the best sequels are almost always those that reevaluate or recontextualize the original film instead of simply recycling it, as too many do.
The movies themselves can help us imagine a better future for cinema, however. Since its early years, Hollywood has routinely remade or rebooted its past successes, sometimes with a critical edge. Movie theaters might do the same. While Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights” has rightly been criticized for its exclusion of darker-skinned Afro-Latino actors, it does confront the racialized history of Hollywood musicals, particularly the geometrically choreographed dance sequences innovated by Busby Berkeley in the 1930s. Berkeley used hundreds of White dancers to create breathtaking, kaleidoscopic spectacles. “In the Heights” choreographer Christopher Scott and cinematographer Alice Brooks adapt Berkeley’s signature style for the film’s biggest production numbers but relieve his aesthetic of its white supremacy with performers of color and mash-ups of popular dances. In the process, they celebrate the very people Berkeley’s films were designed to exclude. Cinemas might do likewise, by partnering with and listening to the communities they’ve neglected and abused. Instead of selling viewers a sequel, they could rewrite the experience of cinemagoing.
Now that would be worth the price of admission.