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The Return to Oz

Ruminations on returning to theatrical moviegoing in New York City after the pandemic closed theaters for a year
Doug Dibbern
The Hare Krishna Tree in Tompkins Square Park
A few months ago, I went back to a movie theater for the first time in almost a year—my longest absence in decades, maybe even since I was just learning to walk. According to my records, back on March 10th, 2020, I had gone to the Metrograph down on the Lower East Side to see Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, an old favorite I hadn’t seen in more than twenty years. Over the days that followed, businesses and universities closed their doors, people stopped going to their offices, and by the end of the week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo had announced that the city was shutting down. Then, about 51 weeks later, the state finally allowed the city’s theaters to re-open, and on March 5, 2021, I made what I assumed would be my triumphant return to the movies. To celebrate this festive occasion, I wanted something mindlessly fun and big and spectacularly cinematic: the obvious choice was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet on 70mm over at the Village East. 
The experience, though, was surprisingly anti-climactic. Theaters were permitted at that point to seat only 25% of their capacity, so the space felt eerily cavernous, and since we were all wearing masks, somewhat like the gas masks the characters on screen were wearing in the opening sequence, I was overcome by an uncanny premonition that tear gas might start seeping through the vents above our heads just as was happening in the movie projected before me. I sank deeper into my seat. The movie was confusing me. Who were these characters and what were they doing? Why had Christopher Nolan recorded John David Washington and the other characters talking to each other while wearing oxygen masks so that—intentionally, it seemed—we in the audience were unable to understand the words that they were saying? If John David Washington was a CIA operative working with a pair of Ukrainians who were helping him disguise himself as a member of some elite Ukrainian para-military force fighting terrorists in an opera house so that he could find the contact who’d stored the time-travel technology thingie in his backpack, why did those initial Ukrainians later turn on him and try to kill him in the train yard? And why were those terrorists planting bombs with timers in the opera house that would kill everyone if they only were searching, presumably, for that same time-travel technology thingie in the backpack themselves? And who was that other black-clad figure disguising himself as a paramilitary member who shot a bullet backwards in time to save John David Washington and why had Christopher Nolan given that character lines of dialogue that he intentionally made it virtually impossible for us to hear? The film’s discombobulations only continued to unfurl from there. 
As with most of his movies, Nolan’s screenplay doesn’t depict characters whose emotional interactions propel the narrative forward; instead, his screenplay presents one character after another explaining to other mystified characters what has just happened or is about to happen as a way of Nolan explaining his convoluted plot to his equally mystified audience. But somehow the explanations here didn’t explain much of anything. About two-thirds of the way into the movie, I was squirming in my seat. I had to admit to myself that I didn’t want to be there. 
Were Nolan’s spatiotemporal disorientations an omen, I wondered? Did his time-travel convolutions augur badly for my moviegoing future? Or was it, rather, that they pointed backward in time, reminding me of some fundamental aspect of the moviegoing experience that the pandemic had made me conveniently forget: the fact, for example, that since movies are designed by cutting up spaces and re-ordering time, they have always instilled in their audience a sense of being lost, adrift, dislocated. But that dislocation, surprisingly, is exactly what we seek. My problem with Tenet, after all, wasn’t that the story was jumbled, but that its intentional confusions didn’t puzzle me in productive ways that would have enabled me to be an active participant in the movie’s meaning-making. We might say, in fact, that one of the primary reasons we go to the movies is because they allow us to master—more efficiently than any other art form—the spatial and temporal dislocations that it provides us with, healing over the wounds of similar dislocations that we’re unable to master in real life.
Going to the movies here in New York City, primarily at the revival houses, has been a fundamental part of my life and of my identity for almost a quarter-century now, so I suspected that being deprived of the cinema for an entire year would shed light on some essential qualities not just of the moviegoing experience but of my sense of self as well. And it did, but not necessarily in ways that I would have imagined. 
At the pandemic’s onset, I assumed that it would be the spectatorial experience itself that I’d miss most—how the larger-than-life image and the enveloping sound can submerge us into another world. I’d thought of my year without movie theaters primarily as an aesthetic deprivation because I’d had to live through a tepid simulacrum of the theatrical experience at home. But my return reminded me that the art of film had always played—surprisingly—only a partial role in the experience of moviegoing. No. The cinephile lifestyle, it became more obvious upon my return, has always been defined by non-filmic factors as well, by systems—or constraints—for organizing our schedules and travels that we set up of our own volition.
But these cinephile strictures, in retrospect, bore an odd resemblance to the real-world restrictions we’d all had to endure over the preceding twelve months, which, in turn, bore an uncanny resemblance to other proscriptions we’d already lived with before the onset of the virus. Live a year without going to a job; live a year where you socialize with only a handful of friends; live a year without touching another human body; live a year inside a festering resentment; live a year without experiencing the artform that moves you most. Which of these, could anyone tell, had been imposed upon us from the outside? And which had we already invented ourselves? External constraints or internal inhibitions? And what, after all, was the difference?
Red River / Gentleman Prefer Blondes
The pandemic year made me feel like we were all artists struggling in response to a set of newly imposed—and extremely arbitrary—aesthetic conventions. Like an old Hollywood director of westerns suddenly tasked with a musical or an Oulipo poet required to include the name of a river in every line, many of us found ourselves taking on new voices and experimenting with new personae. Constraints like these, after all, were not so bad. Genre conventions transformed the rough-hewn Howard Hawks of Red River into the naughtily fabulous auteur of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, re-oriented Martin Scorsese’s typical obsessions with violence and toxic masculinity into the astute analysis of the surfaces of gentility in The Age of Innocence, and transformed the poetry of John Ashbery, known for its perplexing, French-inflected semantic misdirections, into the Whitmanesque, riverine grandeur of a poem like “Into the Dusk-Charged Air.” Arbitrary formal constraints, in life as in art, it turns out, can be surprisingly liberating, inspiring us to adopt new modes of thinking and behaving in the world.
My return reminded me that one of the defining tensions of moviegoing has always been its intrinsic interconnectedness between constraints and freedom, between submission and empowerment. Going to movies in the theaters is an act of continuous submission. You submit your own will to the aesthetics of the filmmakers, of course, but also to the layout and acoustics of each particular theater, to the theories and whims of the programmers in the city where you happen to live (if you’re lucky to live in such a city), and to the market dynamics of the capitalist system, steered by the vicissitudes of studio heads and the eccentric visions of the various distribution companies that happen to be keeping their heads above water at any given moment. You can choose what to see, but only from among the curated menu that this multilayered power dynamic has offered up for you.
Movie-watching at home, on the other hand, can often feel like you’re indulging yourself in a bubble bath of cinematic plenitude, all freedom and virtually no submission. If you have access to some sort of international cinephile file-sharing collective, as many of us do these days, you can watch just about anything you want. These days, if you’re overcome by a sudden hankering for communist-era Polish Westerns, the melodramas of Emilio Fernandez, or Marxist-Brechtian erotica from Japan, it’s not too difficult to fulfill your desires by watching them on your laptop. Total freedom, total power. But indulging in your liberty merely enables you to continue the path you’ve been treading for years, merely reinforces your existing aesthetic and ideological principles. Submitting yourself to the will of others, on the other hand, forces you to challenge your beliefs, to reimagine yourself anew. It’s submission that is empowering and freedom that is disempowering; freedom can be restrictive; constraints can be transformative.
Even on that first day, when I was getting ready for Tenet, I was surprised that I’d forgotten all the required logistical steps—the necessary spatial and temporal constraints—it takes to go see a movie. I had to study Google Maps, remind myself the exact corner where the theater had stood for decades, plan out my subway route, estimate how much time it’d take me to get there, then plan the rest of my morning and afternoon so that I could leave home precisely at 2:40pm so that I could arrive at the theater a comfortable fifteen minutes before the movie began. In the end, it turned out to be a 4-hour excursion—as it always had been, apparently—one fourth of my entire waking day doing nothing productive—an oddly clock-like style of drifting, crossing vast space, but mostly underground, so that I could sit alone in a darkened theater, immobile and passive, barely even thinking—as if the whole point of going to the movies all along had been not to see a movie but to delimit one’s actual life by flattening space and disappearing time.
But reimagining the temporal organization of my day also forced me to reimagine my spatial bearings as well. One day that first week back, I calculated my timing incorrectly and arrived at the theater in the East Village an hour before showtime. What was there to do, but wander? So I did. And soon I found myself in Alphabet City, some of my old stomping grounds back in the day, but a neighborhood, I realized, where I hadn’t set foot for over a year. And sure enough, the neighborhood had changed. Or it presented itself differently. Or maybe it was that my memory had reconfigured that space. The sidewalks in those early days of the re-opening still had a sleepy ghost-town quality about them. People were walking slower than they used to, gesturing less emphatically, murmuring in softer tones. The air felt viscous. Even the dogs seemed smaller, scroungier, more timid.
My meanderings eventually become more focused, stoked by my curiosity. I was walking through the present, but my mind kept circling back to the past. Didn’t I used to go out drinking there on the second floor back when it was Mars Bar? Wasn’t that the storefront where the Pioneer Theater used to be? Had this art bookstore always been here? Didn’t that restaurant across the street used to be a bar, differently configured, almost completely unrecognizable now, where I once got into an ugly fight about nothing with an ex-boyfriend? 
My drifting kept pulling me eastward—not by accident, it seemed—until I found myself in Tompkins Square Park. I’d forgotten how many times I’d gone there and just stared off into space, letting my mind roam. I’d forgotten how much I loved it there; and I loved it, I remembered then, because the park is filled with American Elms, once one of the most common street trees in America, but which are now quite rare, because they’ve been decimated over the decades by Dutch Elm disease. But anyone who lays eyes on an American Elm can immediately see why it’s so many people’s favorite and mine: its long, wavering branches give it a sense of poetic nobility, always reminding me of meandering rivers, the serpentine curves of calculus, or a modern dancer’s undulating arms caught in a moment of time. There aren’t that many places where you can find stands of American Elms in the city anymore—two of my favorite spots are the Poet’s Walk in Central Park and right there in Tompkins Square Park where I’d found myself—seemingly by chance. 
But it wasn’t a coincidence that I’d found myself there. Trees as poetic as these offer spiritual sustenance. It’s no coincidence, I reminded myself, that it was there at the base of the American Elm at the very center of the park—perhaps the most grandiloquent of all the park’s trees—where A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his followers, including Allen Ginsberg, held the first meeting in the U.S. of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness back in 1966. Taking a seat there, I found myself daydreaming, picturing Allen Ginsberg in his full-bearded chubby hippy phase, deep within the mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, HareHare. I’d never had any interest in Hare Krishnas, of course, but on that day, I felt uncharacteristically open to experience, which was also, perhaps, not a coincidence. Bhaktivedanta himself, after all, had made a distinction between spiritual experience and doctrine:  he’d described the mantra not as a means of communicating an idea that you could believe in or not, but as a method for reviving the transcendental consciousness of the original energy of life itself. 
Sitting there in the park, where I’d found myself only because I’d made plans to go see a movie, I thought once again how much moviegoing has also been—maybe even primarily been—a means of making meaning out of the infinite chaos of life. It’s a means of arranging, making sense of, and reining in the incessant accumulation of meaningless hours. Organizing a schedule is a tactic for articulating values, transforming the directionless flow of time into a coherent narrative of identity. And since time and space are one, arranging a calendar is also a means of imbuing meaning into one’s physical environment, transforming the infinite sprawl of the physical into locations, settings, and positions, points and lines, curves and grids, infusing the void with significance. Clocks and maps are ideologies. Cinephilia is an obsessive love of the movies, but it’s also a spatiotemporal logistics of the self.
During the pandemic, my aesthetic constraints were pretty clear, but it took me a while longer to look past the collective narratives about confinement that we’d been telling each other to understand the real-life constraints that had actually been troubling me; and I was able to locate both my constraints and my troubles, eventually, not in any mental category where I would have expected, but on the spectrum of the senses. 
Social isolation, it seemed, had made me especially aware of the sense of touch. I live alone, and at some point in the middle of the summer, I realized that I’d gone months without touching another human being in any capacity. I’d never been aware how omnipresent touch had always been back in what a friend and I had begun referring to as “The Before Time”: the casual, one-armed half-hug with friends when we met or said goodbye, gentle fist-bumps that punctuated a silent joke, the random pat on the back from a colleague at the office that I never would have even noticed back in the day. Sometimes, especially late at night, I found myself making up for this new tactile deprivation as I never would have before: massaging my own feet, scratching my calves till I could see dried skin flaking up into a chalky squall, brushing my fingers—curiously and intently—a hair’s breadth above the hairs of my forearm, exploring the palpable qualities of my body’s periphery—not in a sensual way, but merely to remind myself that I did, in fact, exist on the material plane, trying to reignite the corporeal aspect of my identity that the world’s arbitrary games of constraint-making had stolen from me. 
But I also became aware that the sense of touch is constituted, surprisingly, by the absence of touch as well. The memory of touch played itself out as an undercurrent throughout the most intense early days of isolation: my mind kept circling back to a few choice memories: pressing my mother’s ever-smaller frame into my chest, my palm on a friend’s left shoulder blade as her chest heaved, the thin line of almost translucent blonde hair shimmering with sunlight like a Renaissance nimbus just above the navel of a man I knew—once and only briefly—many summers ago in Berlin. Those were memories of sensations, but also of a type of knowledge about my place in a network of human connections. Sensations, I came to see over those months alone, are not merely physical phenomena; they are equally mnemonic and epistemological: touch lives on in our awareness and our knowing; it lives on in the ebb and surge of memory, both in the present’s proclamations of itself and in history’s echoes.
Living alone during the pandemic also made me nostalgic for the physical qualities beyond mere touch that make up the intimate aspects of any relationship—the nebulous shape of the body’s scents expanding like a vapor between two people curious about each other, the sonic vibrations of speech or laughter that course through a room of friends from one body to the next, the smiles of recognition that manifest themselves, unbidden, when we make eye contact, since our facial expressions do not exist in a vacuum, but form themselves beyond our conscious control, in response to others, because our faces are not, as the Japanese philosopher Sakabe Megumi points out, emblems of our individuality but are instead mediums of “reversibility and reciprocity,” not windows to a soul, but mirrors of those around us, surfaces that reflect and respond to other surfaces, the visible signs of a community’s mutual dependence.
But ruminating on the absence of touch as a real-world deprivation reminded me of a similar tactile absence in the movies. I sometimes think of film as the ultimate art form because it’s so multi-sensorial, an audiovisual superabundance in contradistinction to literature’s meager scattering of words; but, in fact, the movies only provide us with sight and sound; they’re incapable of giving us the senses of touch, taste, or smell. We might say, then, that just as moviegoing is defined by its tensions between constraints and freedom, submission and empowerment, the cinema as an art form is similarly defined by this very tension between sensual plenitude and sensual deprivation.
Despite its aesthetic profusion, the movie theater has always been a space whose primary goal is to dispossess us of our sensual connections with those around us. We choose to sit in the dark. We choose to stop talking to each other. We choose to stop listening to each other. We try our best to keep at least one seat between us and the nearest stranger. In a sold-out show, the slightest brush of an unknown neighbor’s elbow can ignite a shocked intake of breath. The movies’ multisensorial aesthetics can only come to fruition through the necessary elimination of the multisensorial communion that makes actual life ultimately bearable.
It’s been more than three months now since my triumphant return to see Tenet. But the anti-climactic sensations of that day, I’m afraid, have kept sinking in. I’ve been going to the revival houses a couple of times a week, but not as much as I used to do, not like the person I used to be. I’m finishing this essay sitting in my office, in the middle of the afternoon, and I’ve been avoiding my writing by perusing the movie listings now and then. In an hour or two, I could go see a rare Czechoslovakian film from the 1940s at Film Forum. It seems earnest and important. It seems exactly like what any serious moviegoer should be going to see. Or I could just go out and wander. Head east, maybe. Maybe end up at Tompkins Square Park again, sit beneath the Hare Krishna Tree, surrounded by other people. 
The last time I sat there, I brought lunch: the scrambled egg and pork belly sandwich from the place across the street had a smoky, umami velvetiness. I could hear the breeze rustling the leaves overhead; I could feel the breeze tousling my hair, caressing my cheeks. The air was fragrant with summer flowers. A quartet of young women in ripped jeans and prismatic hair sat down on my right and gossiped with each other about the hot girls they’d been flirting with through Tinder, and one of them nodded my way when she recognized me eavesdropping, a reflexive smile spreading across my face. I could feel their laughter like I could feel the breeze. Moments later, a guy wearing gigantic navy-blue bell-bottoms and a navy-blue fishing hat pushed down just above his bug-eyed glasses pushed a shopping cart our way, carrying nothing but one gigantic speaker blaring forth an extended loop of excruciating screeching guitar feedback. He stopped beneath the Hare Krishna Tree reverently, then noticed me out of the corner of his eye noticing him out of the corner of mine. We made eye contact, shared a brief, knowing smile. He could tell that I appreciated his music, and he appreciated my appreciation in turn. My connection with him and with the four hip dykes was ephemeral, perhaps a bit chimerical; I understood them less than I understood even a minor character in any fictional feature. And yet we were all clinging—in our shared, momentary glances and our shared, momentary affection—to the hope that through this cacophonous electric howl we were attempting together to revive once again the transcendent consciousness of life’s original energy, an energy one can only come into contact with, I’ve begun to suspect, only with actual human beings out in the real world.


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