Searching for solitude: My year without movie theaters

Cutting Room Floor

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I didn’t have any friends freshman year. 

This is a phrase that’s become central to my personal mythology. It started out as a small joke I made when describing my college experience, but when I said it out loud, I uncovered the startling truth behind the humor. 

I admit — it’s not strictly true, at least not in a superficial sense. I did participate in extracurriculars, and I would hang out at the sanctioned events, but there were few people I felt comfortable spending time with outside of official activities. I did have friends from high school, but as we quickly dug out our own corners of the campus, time together grew rarer and rarer. 

So I spent most nights and weekends alone. It wasn’t by choice, but I look back on that time with great fondness. Marilynne Robinson once said that loneliness can be joyful — that there’s a sort of rigor, a clarity to it. She also said that many lonely people fail to see this because they spend too much time worrying about being lonely.

Over winter break that year, my family, in search of things to do, went to see a few films that were getting Oscar buzz. I had never heard of any of them — does anyone remember “Lady Bird” or “Call Me By Your Name?” I liked what I saw, but I loved being privy to the Oscars discourse. So I resolved to watch every film that was nominated for Best Picture that year (the 2018 Academy Awards lineup has, in my opinion, yet to be outclassed).

When I returned to Berkeley after break, I scoured the Bay Area for theaters that were playing the nominees. This was the halcyon age of MoviePass, when $10 per month bought you unlimited theater tickets. I traveled far and wide searching for the theaters who were re-releasing the Oscars contenders, going to such lengths as taking BART to Westfield Mall San Francisco Centre to catch a 4 p.m. weekday screening of “Darkest Hour” (which was, in retrospect, not worth the effort). 

But I didn’t stop with the Best Picture nominees. MoviePass had given me what I had been searching for all year: a way to pass the time alone. So I started going to screenings whenever I had free time: between classes; on Friday nights; on Sunday afternoons. I had yet to create a habit of keeping up with new releases, so I surrendered to the marquee outside Shattuck Cinemas — whatever they had that looked remotely interesting, I would see. 

It was in these screening rooms that I stumbled across that elusive clarity Robinson talks about. When you’re forced to put away your phone for two hours and focus on strangers inhabiting a different world, the fear that life might be slipping through your fingers fades into the background. That fear, which loomed over me for too long, was replaced by the fascinating people I met and the gorgeous places I visited. When my mind churned over Agnes Varda’s tortured relationship with Jean Luc Godard or the surprisingly beautiful architectural landscape in Columbus, Ohio, I was never truly alone. The misery of loneliness transformed before my eyes into the serene joy of solitude.

I do have friends now, but I still prefer to go to the theater alone. It connects me to what I love most about movies: the potential for reflection, the emotional journey and the ability to laugh in the dark like I’m the only one in the theater — and oftentimes I am. Maybe the fine citizens of Berkeley weren’t interested in a romantic comedy with Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In many ways, movie-going defined my inner life as a college student. So when the pandemic took theaters away for my final year and a half, I was crushed. I still am. The last time I went to the theaters was almost exactly a year ago, when I went to San Francisco for the one-night-only screening of “Portrait of a Lady On Fire” — an impeccable finale to my collegiate moviegoing career, if I do say so myself. 

2020 was set to be chock-full of exciting films that were pushed to 2021, but many more excellent new selections were released onto streaming platforms. And though I did my best to replicate the theatrical environment when watching them, it was never the same — because actually seeing a new movie is only part of the experience. Like all of us, the pandemic has caused me an immense amount of pain this past year, but the real twist of the knife is that it’s also taken away my most dependable coping mechanism. 

But this year, I won’t take my sacred sojourns for granted. I’m going to devour anything and everything the good projectionists on Shattuck can throw at me, and I’m not just talking “Dune” or “The French Dispatch.” I’ll take your Croods, your Trolls and your Fast & Furiouses. Look for me there — I’ll be sitting, alone, in the middle of the center row, eagerly awaiting my life to resume.

Matthew DuMont is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].