Richard Roeper’s new Chicago Sun-Times article about going to the movies during a pandemic made me feel nostalgically emotional. I read it with as much interest as I would read a science-fiction novel, as Roeper details the strange yet oddly comforting experience he had of attending a 70mm presentation of Christopher Nolan‘s “Interstellar” at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre. The theater is now open for limited-capacity, socially distanced screenings (you can read the full article here). It was Roeper’s first time going inside a movie theater for a film screening in four months, and even with patrons spaced far apart, he still found the sorely missed mode of escapism “safe and communal.”
After initially being fearful of venturing back out to a movie theater, I have to admit I have begun to daydream about what it would feel like to sit in those all-encompassing chairs, watching the images glide by on the big screen, with a sound system so clear you can understand every word. I am a proponent of communal artistic experiences whether at the movies, at the opera, at local theaters or on Broadway. But I am also a firm believer in health and safety, and until we have either an effective vaccine for COVID-19, or more effective treatments, I have no plans to return to the movie theater. That doesn’t stop the daydreams however. What will it feel like when I return? Richard’s article answered those questions for me.
“Studios want movie theaters to reopen,” Roeper writes, “Lord knows movie theaters want to reopen. Millions of movie fans want every theater in the country open again. But we want to be safe. Personally, I felt 100% fine watching a movie in the controlled and smart environment at Music Box, the only indoor movie theater now operating in Chicago, but if you told me tomorrow the nation’s cinemas were going to throw their doors open and allow full capacity, I’d say: Great, I hope the studios keep sending me links so I can review movies from home. We’re not there yet. Christopher Nolan is never going to allow ‘Tenet’ to open on home video, but that August 12 release date, even with restrictions placed on per-theater capacity, seems … optimistic.”
“For now, the moviegoing experience is this,” he continues. “There are about 50 people spaced about the 750-seat theater, which has entire aisles blocked off. A graphic on the screen advises patrons to leave four empty seats between parties and says, ‘Masks are required at all times while in the building but may be removed once seated in the auditorium if eating or drinking.’ Before the main event, a manager welcomes us, notes films coming to the theater… and asks that we leave our seats down when we exit the theater so staffers know where to do concentrated cleaning before the next showing. […] The house lights dim and the movie begins. For nearly three hours, we’re immersed in the onscreen adventure. We’re quiet and spaced far apart from one another, yet it’s a collective viewing experience, one that cannot be duplicated at home.”
I have embedded a video of the Music Box’s 90th anniversary celebration. Watching it makes me yearn for the “old days.”
Reading Roeper’s poignant recollections, I couldn’t help thinking back on all the great moviegoing experiences I’ve had over the decades, not only at our annual Ebertfest Film Festival at the Virginia Theater in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, but at weekly press screenings often held at venues in Chicago such as the AMC River East 21, the Showplace ICON, the Navy Pier IMAX, and perhaps most beloved of all, Steve Krause’s intimate projection room on Lake Street. That’s the room where I sat alongside Roger watching countless absorbing films prior to their U.S. release, while Gene Siskel, and later Richard Roeper, sat at the opposite end of the row, keeping their thoughts to themselves until that week’s episode of “Siskel & Ebert” or “Ebert & Roeper.”
However, all is not lost! Though the majority of major theatrical releases are still on hold as most theaters remained closed around the country, there are still plenty of new films being released on television and various streaming platforms to keep our critics busy reviewing at RogerEbert.com. Several recent films have earned four stars, including “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “House of Hummingbird,” “Da 5 Bloods” and “The Vast of Night.” They may appear on platforms as diverse as PBS, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vimeo and more. And some have the advantage of including live Q&A panels with the filmmakers on Zoom after special screenings. The Chicago Film International Film Festival premiered “Selah and the Spades” as a special screening on Amazon Prime with an interview of the director Tayarisha Poe.
The manner in which we watch movies now primarily at home can bring greater ease in discovering the smaller independent films that may not have the budgets to normally compete with larger films. These are also the types of films Roger loved to champion. There is an egalitarian quality about watching these films at home. You can provide your own food. Wear whatever you want to wear and “come as you are.” Watch them at the time you decide rather than at the time the theater decides. And if you become sleepy, you can give it another try the next day. So there is a silver lining to home viewing as well.
Even the studios and theaters have been participating in these Virtual Cinema Events. Magnolia Pictures had a successful run of what they called “A Few of our Favorite Docs” including “Life Itself,” about my late husband Roger; “RBG” about the highly esteemed and very much alive Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; as well as “Blackfish” and “Hail Satan.” Universal Studios got into a big dust-up with the movie theaters by previewing “Trolls The World Tour,” on premium VOD. Its video on demand tour was so successful that some worried it would spell the end of movie theaters. But I don’t think so. Just as “Talkies” didn’t end the movies, and television didn’t end radio (or audibles or podcasts as they are now called), home VOD won’t end movie theaters.
Outdoor drive-in theaters across the country have been providing moviegoers with another communal option by screening releases both new and nostalgic, such as “The Wizard of Oz.” I eagerly devour the experiences of the critics who go to the drive-in. I want to know such things as do they still have the big speakers that you hang on your windows? (No, you tune in through your cellphone or car radio.) Can you buy popcorn and other eats? (Yes, and they are carefully packaged and handled.) Can you get as many people in the car or SUV as you can comfortably tolerate. (Yes, just limit it to your intimate family or friends in your non-CORONA bubble). What about the loo? (They have “nice” porta-potties with someone there to clean and disinfect them after every use.) And I hear if you go to outdoor music events you can sit on top on the roof of your car! Wow! On days when you have been stuck inside all day, that sounds like fun. As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
In closing, I’d like to share the final paragraphs of Roeper’s article, in which he quotes a moving line from “Interstellar” that proves to be quite resonant…
“’Interstellar’ is a complex and sometimes dizzying film that embraces science but also indulges in mind-bending science fiction,” he writes. “It’s also shamelessly romantic at times, most notably when Anne Hathaway’s Brand admits to her fellow space explorer Cooper that yes, she wants their ship to chart a particular course because it would lead them to an astronaut she’s in love with, who embarked on an exploratory mission some 10 years earlier. Coop says they have to listen to the science when making such a huge decision. Brand responds: ‘The tiniest possibility of seeing [him] excites me. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Love isn’t something we invented, it’s observable, it’s powerful. It has to mean something. … I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it.'”
“Call that corny if you will, but I kinda loved that speech,” Roeper admits. “We DO have to listen to the science — it’s a matter of life and death — but as we’re fighting an invisible enemy, there’s room believing in other things we can’t see. Things like love. Maybe a little bit more now than ever.”