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Throughout my life, going to the movies has been a constant. Sometimes the experience is mere entertainment, sometimes a more critical pursuit. Sometimes a trip to the cinema provides a social outlet, a night out with friends, but I’ve always enjoyed solitary moviegoing as well, a brief respite from the difficult world outside the theater.
So a raging pandemic that turned moviegoing into one of the supposedly more dangerous activities really cramped my style.
I gave up going to the movies in early March 2020 and stayed out of theaters until September, at which point I made a possibly ill-advised and anxiety-inducing foray into Lawrence’s Southwind 12 to see Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” Even though the theater was largely empty, the experience still felt off. Clearly this was an activity that had frightened most people away. It turned out that watching what was meant to be a huge blockbuster in a big multiplex auditorium with only a handful of people in the room, furtively pulling down masks to munch popcorn, was a fairly joyless exercise.
I decided not to return until I was fully vaxxed. Southwind 12 made that decision easier by closing its doors entirely in October (it reopened in early May).
Fast forward to today and I’m a fully vaxxed man. Although there still is a lot of debate on what is safe and what is not, I’ve decided to return, at least occasionally, to my favorite pastime. Liberty Hall, Lawrence’s beloved downtown arthouse, actually kept plugging along with socially distanced screenings throughout most of the pandemic, but my own first trip back was a couple of Fridays ago, for an afternoon matinee outing with a friend to see “The Truffle Hunters,” a hugely enjoyable new documentary about a group of Italian men and their dogs foraging for truffles.
Although I had taken advantage of Liberty Hall’s “curbside concessions” numerous times over the last year, there is nothing like settling into a movie with a hot bag of buttered popcorn and a soda. With only a few other people at the matinee in the large theater, we had plenty of room and my friend and I agreed it was a comfortable experience to be back at Liberty after a long time away. (Note: Masks are required until seated at Liberty Hall, under the current county mandate.)
This past weekend I decided to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon in Liberty Hall’s little theater to see “Together Together,” a new comedy/drama with Ed Helms and Patti Harrison about the interesting dynamic that emerges between a single man and the surrogate mother of his future child.
There were more people in this screening than the previous week, although probably no more than 15. I won’t deny I felt a little anxiety at first about being in a small room of strangers who were laughing – a behavior that, like singing, had been made suddenly dangerous by the pandemic. How cruel, a disease that turns our most pleasurable behaviors into dangers.
Soon enough, however, I began to relax, telling myself that I am vaccinated, and that (quite likely) the kind of audience going to see arthouse fare on a Sunday afternoon in Lawrence is very likely to be vaxxed as well. I reminded myself that this laughter was part of the experience that I crave most in the cinema, whether I’m solo or with friends: a shared communal experience.
I’m not trying to persuade everyone to rush back to the movies. People are slowly re-entering society on their own terms, and I fully respect that. Personally, I’ve yet to eat indoors at a restaurant since being vaccinated.
However, I do hope that, as people re-emerge, they feel safe (enough) and content with their former activities to experience the same kind of enjoyment and fulfillment as in the pre-COVID era. I may stick with matinees and small audiences for now, but I’m looking forward to a few more movies this summer.
—LarryvilleLife is the name of a semi-anonymous long-running local cultural commentary Twitter account managed by a lapsed KU academic currently dabbling in social media and freelance work. You probably know him in real life. Follow @larryvillelife on Twitter.