Theater Rabenhof, Wien 2019

I didn’t go to a single movie theater in 2020. Not one.

Partially, this is one of the costs of being a college student with no car and no theaters next to campus, but more so a fact of January and February 2020 being terrifically and terrifyingly busy months. Also the cost of being a college student.

I did have actual plans in March of 2020 to catch showings of “The Invisible Man” and one of the last showings of “1917” — both of which, I’m afraid to say, I still haven’t seen. This means the last film I saw in a theater was Todd Phillips’s slightly disappointing rendition of “Joker”. In 2019.

Everytime I try to measure how time has passed over the last couple of months, I still can’t quite grasp that we’re going on a full year of living in a global pandemic. What started off as “15 days to slow the spread” has lasted much longer than we all anticipated, changing a way of life for all of humanity. Though now with more people getting vaccinated than testing positive for COVID-19 in the United States, we’re hopefully reaching the end of this strange era in human history.

An era of stigmatization against being social, gathering with friends, or checking in with the passing stranger. Stigmatization, in some sense, against being human.

In many ways, the question ahead of us is, how do we once again learn to be human? To revert back to the sociality of the pre-COVID era. I argue movie theaters are the solution. Well, more so an important part of the archetype of our solution.

Movie-going was not always just about the size of the screen or the loudness of the action. It was about being in a movie sanctum, dark as night, and surrounded by people you’ve never met and would never meet again. You shared a film together, a story.

I believe going to one’s local movie theater acts as a form of group entertainment or communal bonding. The reactions of the crowd serve as a form of communication between these strangers that both elevated the film and one’s experience at the theater. A group of dark, unknown faces coming from different upbringings and different experiences all of a sudden now united in emotion.

All in frozen fear when the axe smashes through the door and Nicholson yells, “Here’s Johnny!” All with heart’s pounding as Indiana runs from the accelerating boulder as it also rushes towards us in the theater. All gasping for air when Norman Bates’s mother is revealed to be not quite the woman she once was.

Despite the no-talking policy, a cinema is still immensely social. It’s meant to be.

If we are to revert back to the social creatures we are, it’s not just personal connections that will be important, it’s society level connection. This, to me, is where the theater comes in.

Cinema is simply the most recent iteration of the great theme of group entertainment. It is a type of bonding that is present in the campfire conversation, the public political or philosophical speech, the Greek amphitheater, and later English theater, the concerto, and later concert. These forms of communication have been a central part of the story of humanity.

The issue is that not everyone can afford to go to the opera, speeches are often limited in capacity, and the symphony is nearly exclusively reserved for the bourgeois. 

The cinema, therefore, is, in some sense, the great equalizer to a form of modern group storytelling. It’s scalable and the price of admission is much more affordable. In the post-COVID era, access to the movies, increased by both the price of a ticket as well as by the typical presence of multiple theater locations in a region, will serve as the medium where most of this societal-based bonding will take place. The practice ground, as it were, where we can learn to slowly shift back to a pre-COVID world.

The truth is we’re creatures of habit and habitat, and over the last year we’ve been adapting to the circumstances of this pandemic. But we cannot allow these new ways of being to become permanent. 

We must revert back to a pre-COVID idea of sociality. A time when fright does not overcome oneself when a stranger is within six feet. A time when we say “bless you” when someone covers their sneeze instead of retreating away. A time when being in the presence of our fellow man did not trigger such anxiety. 

It’s not going to be easy. Our survival instincts have trained us to become strange and lonely people, but we still can hope that we develop again into the people we once were.

Maybe we’ll start by heading to our local theaters once the pandemic is controlled. Grab a popcorn and rootbeer, look up among the larger than life screen with fellow strangers, and realize that the thrills present in these films are actually calls to adventure reaching out to you and me.

Ryan James Solis of El Paso is a junior at Harvard College on a gap year from studying history and economics. He is a Gates, Jack Kent Cooke, and Coca-Cola scholar.