I went to my favorite movie theater last night. Was it a mistake?
I went to the Alamo Drafthouse last night. Their Lakeline location in Northwest Austin, the nearest one to my house, was pretty much the last place I went before COVID-19 shut down everything in March. My wife and I saw Emma, like life was normal. And then the virus overwhelmed the world.
The Alamo Lakeline sneaked open on Wednesday with a free screening of Bill and Ted Face the Music. The screening had filled by the time I opened my phone app. But I bought a ticket for Thursday night. I was the only person I knew who did.
The Alamo Drafthouse isn’t the quirky little countercultural entity it was when I moved to Austin nearly 20 years ago. It has locations in more than a dozen states, and has spent the pandemic era scrambling to stay alive while fending off accusations of sexual harassment at current locations, and also the continued fallout of a disastrous rape culture among entities that it once owned. It’s a large, troubled company, not a cute indie darling.
But it still offers a moviegoing experience that no other company can duplicate. Its half-hour preshow, tailored to individual movies, is 1000 times better and more relevant than the disastrous advertising blocks that other theaters offer. The decent pub food isn’t too expensive, and either are the tickets. There’s lots of beer on tap. They offer great revival programming and special features And they rigidly enforce a no talking or cell-phone-use rule. If you like movies, the Alamo is hard to beat, especially given the competition.
Austin definitely likes movies. But it’s remained pretty tightly buttoned-up in the time of COVID, especially compared with the rest of Texas. The city didn’t exactly embrace the Alamo’s reopening. Instead, people reacted as though the Drafthouse were an agent of death. The company might as well have been offering patrons a bar of soap and the promise of a Zyklon-B shower.
That pretty much mirrors the national reaction to the reopening of movie theaters. Though more than 1000 not-drive-in theaters were open throughout the summer, scraping by showing revival fare, documentaries, and indie horror flicks, people reacted to this reality with disgust. Movies right now operate in the same cultural plane that beaches did in the spring. People think they kill. And if you go to them, you’re an accessory to murder, or you’re committing suicide. Currently, 62 percent of all pre-pandemic screens are open for public culling.
Though theater operators in New York are begging Andrew Cuomo to let them reopen, like they’re allowed to do in 42 other states, Cuomo said last week:
“I am sure there is a whole group people who say, ‘I cannot live without going to the movies.’ But on a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. It is congregant. It is one ventilation system. You are seated there for a long period of time. Even if you are at 50% capacity with one or two seats between the two of you, this is a risk situation and … movie theaters are not that high on the list of essentials.”
Strangely enough, movie critics themselves are driving this attitude. When Disney refused to release a screener of New Mutants to critics, The Onion’s A.V. Club pronounced that they wouldn’t be reviewing the film: “We are, in fact, adopting the official policy of only reviewing films our writers can safely watch, whether in a socially distanced press screening or with a digital screener. And yes, that applies to all our writers, even those willing to take the risk for an assignment, because we’re not willing to monetize that risk, either.”
And much like a crusade for social justice has become the default stance for sportswriters who don’t work for Barstool, this is pretty much the baseline attitude for film critics. Witness this smug video from the YouTube film critic “Nando”:
While actual American reporters are risking their actual lives by plunging into fiery urban riots, film critics are painting themselves as heroes of the pandemic for not only refusing to go to the movies, but by encouraging their readers and viewers to skip the experience themselves. I’m sure they’re being cautious. Or maybe they’re just being pissy because they’ve lost their most-favored-nation status during the COVID era. Studios are gambling, maybe correctly, that people are so starved for new cinematic content that they’re going to bypass the smug, concern-trolling gatekeepers.
Going to see Tenet in theaters is not a “moral dilemma”, despite what Uproxx might say. It’s a fuckin’ movie. See it, or don’t. I would never tell one of my critics here at Book and Film Globe to go to a movie theater right now. Not at our rates, or at any rate. But if they want to venture out, I’m also not going to stop them. I’m not the COVID police. The AV Club won’t save one life during the pandemic, any more than they would have killed anyone because they published a review of the shitty New Mutants movie. Writing about movies is fun, but it’s not exactly first-responder duty.
Once More Into The Breach
So what was it like? A masked Alamo employee stood at the front door behind a lectern. She had a digital thermometer. She pointed it to my forehead. It didn’t work. She must have clicked on it a dozen times. I stood there and flinched like a guy facing a firing squad of malfunctioning rifles.
The lobby was empty of people, or any of the Alamo’s usual whimsical displays, though the large plaster statue of Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes was still standing, a remnant from the days before we damned it all to hell. The Alamo had marked my seat with a large orange ticket that read, in black script, “Welcome Back. And Now…On With The Show!” I also had a printout of the theater rules, including the words, “Welcome Back, Neal Pollack!” That’s far more than other theaters had done for me during the pandemic. But I’d visited those as a journalism experiment, not because I actually cared to be there. This was home base.
The printout informed me that my food and drink order was on the way. You have to order ahead of time online or on your phone app. I hadn’t ordered anything. As usual, I had a box of frozen Junior Mints in my pocket, or maybe I was just glad to see you. The order wouldn’t contain any plates or glasses. Then came the key moment:
“MASKS: For everyone’s safety, masks are required in public areas–basically, everywhere other than in your seat.”
In other words, everywhere except where it actually counted. And then, sure enough, a couple with significant comorbidities sat down next to me. The Alamo is putting a two seat “buffer” zone between every party, but that’s not really a lot, especially when the party closest to you removes their masks immediately upon sitting down and then keeps them off for the entire two hours.
The preshow rolled, mostly clips of an early-90s “Bill and Ted” Saturday morning cartoon, and clips of The Idiot Box, a weird show Alex Winter had on MTV in the same era. Then the movie showed. Stephen Garrett watched it on video-on-demand at home, and has reviewed it elsewhere on this most excellent site. But I agree with his assessment entirely. I tried to enjoy myself, but also felt a sweaty upper lip behind my N95 at the chicken-wing-chomping older couple seated maybe 12 feet to my right. While I would put myself at the far low end of the virus hysteria scale, it made me nervous, whether I needed to be nervous or not. And if it made me nervous, it’s going to make everyone nervous for a very long time.
When the movie was over, the Alamo instructed us to exit “by row” but there was no one on hand to supervise this activity, and people mostly sat frozen in their seats, not entirely sure what to do next. Finally, we all started to slink out nervously, walking past the masked employee with a tank of sanitizer strapped to his back, wielding a nozzle like an exterminator.
About an hour after I got home, the Alamo sent me an email asking me for my feedback. I had mostly positive comments, but I said they really need to think about their mask policy. People should have their masks on unless they are eating and drinking, at least for the time being. Just sitting down shouldn’t be an excuse to spew aerosol.
They asked when I was coming back, ranging from “this week” to “never.” Well, I already have a ticket to next Thursday’s early matinee screening of Tenet. It’s only showing in theaters. Our other critics either don’t have access to an open theater or just don’t feel ready yet. I don’t blame them. Twenty-four hours after going to the movies, I’m symptom-free. Check back with me in two weeks.
But I’m not going back to the movies next week just out of professional obligation. And I’m not doing it to encourage other people to make the same choice. Everyone needs to do what makes them feel safe and comfortable right now. I highly doubt anyone is waiting for my OK to buy a movie ticket anyway.
Instead, I’m doing it because I like going to the movies more than I like doing anything else other than playing pub quizzes. Live trivia isn’t available right now, but movies are, whether or not that’s right, and whether or not some critics think they should be. I’m doing it because I can.
And because I want to.