At the time of this essay’s start, life is unstable and uncertain.
Half One Over four million people have been diagnosed with a novel and serious virus; that number is still growing. The response has been a series of contradictions. The world has been brought to a standstill as it frantically works on testing, treating, surviving. Time is running out quickly even as every second in isolation feels longer than the last. We all need to stay distant, we all need to work together.
Such a resonant disruption to life has forced our society to answer many questions that it had been ignoring. What is the value of “unskilled” labor? Which workers are truly essential for a community to go on? Whose life is saved when resources are scarce? It has also raised questions few had ever thought to ask. How often do I touch my face? How long can I go without human touch? Are sports still fun without a live crowd in the background? Is live music still meaningful without an audience? In the age of Netflix and widescreen TVs, what’s the point of a movie theater anyway?
In the fall of 2016, I moved to Minneapolis with a close friend. I knew some people around the city and was even friendly with some of my new housemates, but for all intents and purposes, I felt myself to be in a community of only two people. Just a few weeks after unloading the last cardboard box out of my car, I drove to a movie theater that I heard was playing Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I walked past strangers chatting in a dark hall. I bought my ticket from a stranger who patiently waited for me to find cash, lost deep in my bag. Another stranger grabbed me water, scooped my popcorn, and buttered it with a smile. I asked a stranger perched at the front of the booth if the movie was 35mm. It was. I sat in the back row, overtopping a dozen more strangers softly talking, adjusting their coats. And then the lights went down. Quiet darkness enveloped us all.
Two hours later I walked out, surrounded by people I could no longer call strangers. We had gone through something together. I could now turn to anyone in the hallway and have footing to get to know them. And I did. People who had seen it half a dozen times talked about the moments they had still remembered, what surprised them this time, and the scenes they cherished. They listened to my thoughts in turn, and when I told them it was my first viewing, they reminisced about where and when they had first watched it. I doubt anyone remembered my name, but how could any of the people still be strangers? In a world continually growing more solitary, we all had a shared experience. Even just the fact we had sought out this film and this place meant we already had a common interest: something upon which we could start to build community. On my way out, I gave the projectionist my contact information, in case someday they needed more volunteers. The wait list was six months deep, but I didn’t care. I left that night with the first inkling that I might someday be at home in this new city.
Within a year, I became a volunteer at the Trylon. Within two, my original friend moved away, but I could weather the storm because I felt myself fully integrated into my new communities, including the Tylon. Between volunteering and seeing movies on my own, I can always count on new conversations about art and life and history and the merits of licorice. I have friends to bounce ideas off of, friends to show me new interpretations of old stories, and friends to challenge my ways of understanding. Every week I know I can have a communal experience. Every trip to the Trylon expands or strengthens my feeling of community.
Today, everything is on hold. No one knows exactly when we will return to the gathering places of life. We may have access to a seemingly limitless library of titles to watch at our convenience, but the movies as an experience exist only in our memories and hopes for the future. In the meantime, I’ll continue to watch things, but I’ll miss the bonds created in the flickering dark of the Trylon. And I know some Monday not far off, I’ll be back behind the counter welcoming in people as strangers and saying goodnight to them as new members of this community we share.
Edited by Michelle Baroody