[Editor’s Note: I will be posting a review of the new Christopher Nolan film Tenet in the next few days. So as to allow that review to focus on the actual movie as much as possible, I have opted to put my thoughts about the process of seeing the movie in these troubling times in the below essay separate from the review.]
On March 11 2020, at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic someone asked me if I would be afraid to go to movie theaters while the virus was out there. I responded by saying “I for one have no intention of slowing down my theater visits and look forward to there being smaller crowds of assholes with cell phones.” The stupidity of that statement haunts me. Firstly it haunts me because of the dumb assumption that theaters would even be open in the forseeable future and secondly it haunts me because of the cavalier attitude I was having toward the situation and social distancing. Two days after I said that I saw the (terrible) horror film The Hunt in theaters not knowing that it would be the last movie I’d see on the big screen for months and the AMC staff was already trying to employ some social distancing protocols and had begun wearing gloves and masks. I also had tickets for a rep screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre lined up but I never made it to that. The night of that screening my governor announced that he was shutting down restaurants, bars, and movie theaters and though the order wasn’t going to go into effect until the next day it was something of a wake-up call to me and I decided to stay home and from there I joined with the national lockdown.
In the months that followed I took (and still take) lockdown very seriously. I’ve taken great efforts to avoid going to the grocery store more than once a week, I’ve avoided in person meetings with most people including close friends and family, my hair is the longest it’s ever been, and when I manage to get out of the house to go for walks I’m careful to maintain distance from the people who walk by even if it means stepping off the sidewalk and onto lawns and into the street. I realize that I’ve been able to maintain my level of social distance in part because I’m privileged to have a job I can now do from home, but still most of these things can be done by anyone who cares to take the effort. Meanwhile I’ve watched with absolute disgust as the crises has gone on and on and on largely because of the greed, selfishness, stupidity, and general lack of discipline by my fellow Americans. I of course have nothing but contempt at the deranged lack of leadership on the part of Donald Trump and by local officials across the country who cave right in when people whine about businesses being closed down and having to comply with mask ordinances. I also have minimal sympathy for political organizers who delude themselves into thinking they aren’t spreading a deadly disease when they encourage people to pack themselves together in protests, with or without masks. And perhaps most of all I’m disgusted by everyday people who willfully ignore the multitude of guidance they’ve gotten not to take unneeded risks meeting in groups indoors but who just march into bars, restaurants, and hair salons the second their spineless leaders allow them to despite rising cases and deaths.
Now, as I proceeded to watch people keep this epidemic going by doing stupid things there was always something nagging at me saying “would you be as willing to throw stones if things I actually enjoyed were being dangled in front of me.” Bars and restaurants were never a huge part of my life and giving them up was not hard, and while it was killing me not to be able to go to movie theaters they weren’t really available to me even if I wanted to march out to them so I hadn’t exactly put my principles to the test and the release of Tenet was going to be quite the test. Pretty much from the beginning of the pandemic Warner Brothers was lining up that film to be the movie that welcomed people back to theaters but I’m pretty sure when they made that bet they were expecting America to respond to the pandemic responsibly like other countries around the world and for it to have been much more contained by that point. I don’t exactly blame them for going forward with the release. All things being equal, I do wish they had just moved the release out to 2021 like so many other movies did so I could (hopefully) see the movie without all this baggage but I don’t blame them for releasing it. The rest of the world is more ready to open up and can do so safely and their movie theaters shouldn’t remain shut just because America doesn’t have its shit together, and I can at least on some level sympathize with the fact that domestic theaters need some kind of lifeline in order to have a future.
Much of the last few months there’s been a push pull in my conscience between wanting theaters to be preserved and also believing they shouldn’t be allowed to open. It’s annoyed me when movies like The King of Staten Island and Mulan opt for expensive VOD release over delay, firstly because it makes watching them more expensive and secondly because it’s one less potential source of revenue for theaters when they come back but I do think these lame VOD releases are preferable to rushing theater openings when it’s not safe. Ideally I don’t think theaters should even be legally allowed to open right now and I don’t support my Governor’s decision to allow such re-opening. And beyond the obvious dangers of re-opening the act of going to see a movie in a COVID-19 environment did not sound like any fun. I consider mask wearing to be an important act in blunting the pandemic and do it without complaint, but I also completely hate it. Getting all those water vapors trapped around my mouth is unpleasant and I also wear glasses that get completely fogged up whenever I try to breathe while wearing these masks. I can barely tolerate masks for the twenty minutes it takes to go grocery shopping and seeing an entire feature length film in one sounded both unpleasant and also potentially unfair to the film I would have trouble focusing on while dealing with one.
Finally July and August came and went and the film’s final release date was set to be August 26th in international markets and September 3rd for the United States with extensive “Early Access” showings beginning August 31st. It was finally time for me to decide what I was going to do. In many ways skipping the movie altogether during this theatrical run just didn’t seem like a real option to me given how much keeping up with current cinema is a passion of mine and something that’s almost tied to my very identity. The fear of missing out was particularly palpable in the case of a Christopher Nolan film like this as I would need to be out of the loop while the whole world of film discourse dissected the film without me. Additionally a certain feeling of karmic justice occurred to me: I’d been on my best behavior through this whole pandemic while other dipshits did all sorts of dumb stuff to help spread this disease. If everyone else can party it up and take all these risks why can’t I be entitled to cheat just once? That’s not an attitude that can withstand strict scrutiny. The truth of the matter is that breaking social distancing guidelines is always a roll of the dice, much as other irresponsible behavior like drunk driving is a roll of the dice. You could do it fifty times and if you’re lucky never get snake eyes, but you could also get snake eyes on your first roll and no amount of past good behavior really changes that. On the other hand, just living during these times is going to force you to take some risks and this may well have needed to be one of them for me.
And so, the day tickets went on sale I went ahead and reserved a ticket for the very first preview show in a Dolby Cinema Auditorium on August 31st. Reserving such a ticket and actually going were two separate decisions however and from the moment I bought the ticket I knew I would need to keep on thinking about whether I was going to go through with the plan. Around the same time as this images were coming out from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a truly horrific gathering in which a bunch of defiant assholes gathered in South Dakota without wearing any masks or adhering to basic social distancing. That this was allowed to happen allowed to happen is disgraceful and the local officials that didn’t prevent it almost certainly have blood on their hands… but there was a certain guilt that came over me for feeling that way about those people while still having tickets to a not so safe gathering of my own. When I took another look at the theater website I realized that the screening I had tickets to had actually sold out. Granted it only “sold out” at 40% capacity, but still that meant a great deal of the theater I was preparing to enter would have people in it and even if they were theoretically going to be wearing masks that didn’t seem ideal and the type of person who would attend such a thing likely wasn’t going to make for the most risk averse crowd. I didn’t want to be part of such a crowd so I finally balked, decided not to go to that screening, and requested a refund.
From there the plan was still to go to the movie but not until I felt somewhat sure I’d be seeing it in a fairly empty theater. That was not made easier by this “Early Access” screenings that Warner Brothers cooked up for the film, which I think is some kind of scheme to allow them to report a week’s worth of box office along with the opening weekend numbers. The whole thing seems to be forcing the theaters to only have three or so showings of the movie a day which is stupid because it forces more people to gather in single auditoriums when the safer thing to do would be to have it basically playing on every screen and spread people out some more. I was busy with work stuff for a lot of the following week (I’m never quite sure when my day job will have me staying late on a given day) but I kept tabs on the screenings and how many people had tickets to given shows (one of the benefits of assigned seating) and a lot of the showings seemed disturbingly crowded. Finally on Thursday the 3rd, the supposed real release date of the film, a lot more showings got added and while the Dolby and “Lie-Max” screenings at my local multiplex were still more filled than I was comfortable with there was a 5:30 showing that appeared to only have four people showing up, all located in a group toward the front of the theater. I decided the time to strike was now. Seeing that there were still only four tickets old half an hour before the start time I bought a ticket in the top row (pretty far away from them) and drove out there.
I had worried that the screening would fill out in the last half hour but I think I only saw one or two people show up outside of that original family. So I was located about as far as I could be from another human in the screening but I was still plenty being risked here. I don’t know how well the air is actually circulating out with these MERV-13 air filters the theater is touting so there could well have been airborn COVID lingering in the theater. Additionally I had no idea who had been sitting in my seat prior to this and there could well have been fomites all over the armrests for all I knew. I was careful to use my T-shirt to get my tickets from the automated machine when I arrived and was pleased that the ticket taker was now just looking at my ticket as I walked in rather than physically tearing it, and as I exited I was careful to push the door open with my foot rather than touch the doorknob. All told I think I saw this movie about as safely as I possibly could have considering the situation but all the warmth and coziness I normally associate with movie theaters was gone and the notion of a theater being a distraction-free environment were certainly diminished by having to adjust my mask a bunch to make sure my glasses didn’t fog up. The constant dread of mortality and plague spreading probably didn’t help either.
Ultimately I think I saw this thing as safely as possible, but as this rambling essay suggests I had to deal with a whole lot of nonsense and anxiety to do it and that’s not an experience I want to replicate too many times. I’m certainly not going through it all again to satisfy whatever morbid curiosity I might have about New Mutants, I’m not doing it to check out that Unhinged thing, I’m not doing it to see re-releases of movies I can watch on Blu-ray even if I might have viewed that as a great opportunity otherwise. In fact there’s not a single thing on the September schedule that jumps out as something I’d even consider going through all that again over. Wonder Woman 1984 is scheduled for October 2, that might spark some consideration, as will some other titles later in the year like Black Widow, No Time to Die, and Dune but none of those are sure things for me and at the moment I’m hoping they all just get pushed out. I’m sure there are “normies” for whom only going out to the theaters for major blockbusters like that isn’t out of the ordinary but this is coming from someone who would normally be going out to theaters at least once a week on average so if I’m not pumped to see some movies I’m not sure who will be and I’m sorry to say I hope it isn’t many.