Sara Foss

Back to the movies

In April, the movie theater beckoned to me. Of course, the movie theater has always beckoned to me, ever since I was a child growing up in a town without a movie theater. Back then, trips to the movies were rare – I spent more time reading reviews and listing the films I wanted to see than going to the theater, which was about 30 minutes away.

In adulthood, I made up for lost time.I went to the movies whenever I felt like it, usually once a week, sometimes twice. It was a habit I loved – and it came to an abrupt end after the birth of my son. One of my hopes for 2020 was to spend more time at the movies – a goal scuttled by the pandemic, which shuttered theaters indefinitely. Instead of spending more time at the movies, I never went at all.

So when theaters began reopening, the pull was strong. “I want to go to the movies,” I told my husband. “You should wait until you’re fully vaccinated,” he said. If not for this timely intervention, I might have run off to the movies weeks ago. I finally went on Saturday, to a matinee screening of “Nomadland,” which won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, at Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatres.

It was an experience as uneventful as it was wonderful – a simple, beloved activity, suddenly restored in all its glory. The comforting, familiar darkness of the cinema made it easy to relax and immerse myself in the words and images on screen, to become so swept up in the story unfolding before me that I forgot the outside world, if only for a moment.

There were some noticeable changes. Theaters are still at 33% capacity and seating is assigned, to ensure patrons are spread out. Masks are required, although I removed mine while eating popcorn. There weren’t a lot of people there – four adults, all seated at least 10 feet behind me – but I’ve grown accustomed to mostly empty theaters in my many years of moviegoing, and the sparse numbers seemed preferable to a large crowd.

The big questions are whether it’s safe to go to the movies in the time of COVID and why anyone would bother, given the dizzying array of streaming options at our fingertips. Why see “Nomadland” at the theater when you can rent it on Amazon Prime and watch it from the comfort of your couch?

I’ll address safety first. If you’re fully vaccinated, as I am, going to the movies is fairly safe, especially if you observe the physical distancing requirements that remain in place. Also encouraging: Zeynep Tufekci, the sociologist whose essays about COVID-19 have been essential reading, couldn’t find any cases of the virus linked to movie theaters anywhere in the world. This doesn’t mean the virus can’t spread in theaters, or that it hasn’t – but it suggests that moviegoing is a low-risk activity, perhaps because talking is kept to a minimum.

As for whether going to the movies is worthwhile, that’s up to the individual to decide. I’ve been very pleased with my home viewing options during the pandemic, but I’ve still missed the theater. It provides a level of escapism and image-quality that simply can’t be matched by my TV, and a distraction-free environment that is pretty much the opposite of my daily, interruption-filled existence. Given all the upheaval, stress and trauma of the past year, I can certainly understand if people are reluctant to return to the movie theater. But for me, it was a thrill to go back. 

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