by Durga Chew-Bose
For whatever reason, I’ve always insisted on calling them “the movies.” Never indefinite — “I’m going to a movie” — but instead, a stipulated and familiar certainty: the movies. I do it, perhaps, as a nod to my childhood; to preserve my capacity for dupable wonder. Or possibly, to modify with the slightest article shift, the casual nature of going to a Cineplex, buying my ticket, a soda, some snacks maybe, riding the escalator, and invariably forgetting what theater I’m looking for — was it 9 or 6? I choose to observe these steps as more than just a series of small, unremarkable transactions.
More so, characterizing it as “the movies” conjures what I intensely crave, especially during summer’s incurable groan: a sense of ceremony. A custom. An aggrandized, non-liturgical and yet somehow pious dark space, where despite the indignity (or gross charm) of sticky floors, the company of a snoring stranger, or the weak boom of a mediocre blockbuster, I experience the humbling feeling of being an audience member. Of succumbing to the emotional tremors of moving pictures.
Summer in the city is relentless. The sun is undiscerning and the days feel bloated and condensed. The presumption is — and let’s be clear, summer is the most presumptive season — that being outside is compulsory because the weather tempts that side of us which is entirely coerced by rare commodities. A park with patches of shaded grass. The friend with a car and an afternoon destination. The bar with a backyard. A t-shirt at night. The private outdoor luxury of a balcony.
But seeking refuge from the heat is too, an amenity that typifies New York’s steamy, adhesive temperatures. A cool draft, however desired it might be, sometimes just won’t do. I need more. A freezer to dip my head into. The subzero ATM vestibule of a bank. The subway. A precariously quick-spinning ceiling fan.
In this way, there is no sentiment more fulfilling in the summer, particularly since everything and everyone appears a little maddened by the scorch, than making a deliberate choice. A voluntary action in involuntarily sweaty times affords me a stay from the sun and also provides the wakening warmth of emerging. Spend a few hours in a dark, icy cool theater and quickly, the impact of 80 degrees invites me back into the world in a better mood. The throng of people, everywhere? Not a problem. The blinding glint of pavement? I love it.
Because going to the movies still feels like playing hooky, or what I imagine playing hooky felt like: the unburdened act of avoiding my many orbits of responsibility. Of pretending that adulthood is no match for summer’s precedent, set years ago when we were kids and teenagers governed only by the autonomy of no-school, the distance our bikes could take us, an unlit park or basketball court at night, the weekend my crush returned from camp. Going to the movies is, I’ve often thought, the most public way to experience a secret. Or, the most secretive way to experience the public.
I’ve never understood bliss to be an emotion one wears to a barbecue or encounters while sipping warm beer at the beach, but instead a measure of prosperity I can only feel in its truest form, privately. With a book I inch through, delaying its last pages or in the company of a friend while she putters around her apartment reorganizing papers in piles, watering plants, and absently recounting a story from long before I knew her at all, much less as someone I would eventually love.
Summer movies, by virtue of their big gambit artifice, impart a similar sense of private bliss. I give into it. The more substantial the better. Surround sound that comes for me and threatens to forever doctor the rate of my heartbeat. That wallops and startles, and makes it impossible to discern between the dinosaurs before me and the rumbling inside of me. Just like that, the running tab of things I have to do, vanishes. The frequency of discipline and disquiet that skulks inside of me, slackens.
The moment the lights dim and the studio logos run, I encounter a mix of my past swimming up inside of me as well as the true pleasure I derive from anticipation. Disney’s Wish-Upon-A-Star, MGM’s roar, Universal’s unapology, its trumpet and sun-eclipsing planet Earth, Warner Bros’s mournfully nostalgic piano, the gilded back lot and whirl of superhero lettering, Paramount’s snow-peaked mountain, Columbia’s Torch Lady, and so on and so on. These logos move me. They petition from me how crucial it is to preserve a sense of the special.
There was a contest in elementary school where the prompt was, if I remember correctly, to draw or paint an activity that illustrated how our families spend time together. We had a week to complete our work on an 8-by-11 piece of construction paper. I still remember the fibre-like texture of the paper and how I was convinced I would win the contest. I went home that night and sharpened my Prismacolor set of pencil crayons and began to sketch with an industriousness singular to girls who were once praised, far too young, for being perfectionists.
On Fridays, my local video store had a deal on Classics. A two-for-one thing that spared my brother and I, and mostly our parents, any arguments. One for him, one for me. He loved The Great Escape. The Guns of Navarone. War movies. I was partial to Audrey Hepburn. Our parents always insisted we rent The Marx Brothers. Some of my earliest memories of rolling around laughing, of physically reacting to comedy, I associate with A Night At the Opera or Duck Soup. I can’t be certain that I understood the jokes or if what I was interpreting as funny was meant to be funny, but I remember with such clarity the way my mother’s head would roll back as she laughed or how my father would clap with sweet recognition, re-experiencing a scene he first saw two decades ago in Calcutta. My brother too, his big gummy grin widening each time Harpo waddled on screen.
In all likelihood, I took my laughing cues from my family. As the youngest, it only seemed natural especially since these Friday night movies stood out as the rare occasion when my parents weren’t fighting. It was important to laugh when they laughed, to try as I might in my miniature mind and prolong a marriage that was already, for what it’s worth, over.
Scrupulously, I drew our basement. I mixed two shades of beige to match our carpet and felt the burn of pencil crayon between my fingers the faster I colored. I was careful to capture my father’s beard exactly how he trimmed it and dressed my mother in lilac because it was her favorite, or perhaps with the cruel impulse daughters occasionally possess, I’d spotted a mother I admired wearing lilac and wished my mother wore it too. I drew my brother and I on the floor, lying on our tummies, our chins cupped between our hands. Smiling.
Then, at the very end, I took an eraser and delicately smudged a pyramid of light emanating from our television and onto our faces. This detail, I was sure, would clinch first place.
A boy who painted his family sailing somewhere in Ontario won the contest. The runner-up was my friend who drew a scene from her lake cottage. There was a kite. A barbecue. A shaggy dog. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done a good job, my teacher assured me, but that she’d wished I had drawn my family and I outdoors. The beach was suggested. Or a picnic in the park.
But what I knew was this. We were happy watching Hepburn hug Peck on the back of his Vespa in Rome, or follow Steve McQueen as he jumped fences on his motorcycle, or giggle, as a family, whenever Groucho quipped. These moments, the movies, were how we spent time together.
Nowadays, I still enjoy peering around me midway through a screening. The blue light flickering and reflecting off of strangers’ smiles or rounding with sinister effect the shape of their eyes. Each person’s face becomes the moon. A theater filled with moons: halves and crescents, some full. I think back to how carefully I smudged the TV’s glow on my family’s faces in our basement, where less than a year after coloring that picture, my parents separated.
My father moved into an apartment not far from us. Once he was more settled, we began ferrying between both homes one week at a time. Always on Friday evenings; before or after dinner.
As summer descended, sweltering with little let-up, I spent whole afternoons in our cool, dark basement, at what was now called “Mom’s.” As if pressed to trick continuity into my life, I started compulsively watching movies. Sometimes the same ones over and over until the tapes became too hot, the images warped and the sound slowed. I’d persuaded myself that the only way to arrange time and essentially, postpone how differently things felt upstairs, was to devise a pattern of uninterrupted escape: Hitchcock, Bogart, Cary Grant. Hitchcock, Bogart, Cary Grant.
It seems obvious now, but I couldn’t reconcile with the keenness that comes with summer. How everyone was out and on their way somewhere, riffling through corner store freezers for pink popsicles, or enjoying the new swings they’d installed in the park. I wasn’t having any of it. I chose instead to live out my feelings through film, by pleading with Grace Kelly to not answer the phone — Turn around! I’d scream. There’s a man hiding behind the curtain! Or, enjoy with great enchantment Peter O’Toole’s slapstick charm in How To Steal A Million. His blue eyes, I remember thinking, were pure fiction: they were movie-blue.
Going to the movies means securing a momentary fissure in time where I might cede to improbable bank heists, shit-out-of-luck-heroes, to the very concept of a hero, to the winsome appeal of first love, star-crossed love, or an unlikely yet pleasing ensemble cast, a disappointing sequel, rapid-fire buddy comedy banter, to the obstinate gloom of a boxing movie, a bummer car chase or a sensational one too, to the congratulatory thrill I procure from identifying voices in animated films.
When I exit the theater I feel smug with power having just stalled time. At least that’s the lie I tell myself, because in my own misshapen idea of it, I have successfully suspended summer’s most common emotion: longing. What it comes down to — despite having sat motionless for two or so hours — is being possessed by energy that I can only describe as kinetic.
Durga Chew-Bose is a writer living in Brooklyn.