I remember the first time I went to a movie by myself. It was December 14, 2010 and it was an experiment; a social experiment.
Except this time I wasn’t analyzing how people interact or how I interact with other people, but quite the opposite. This time I was trying to uncover something much more important and much harder to diagnose: how I interact with myself. And hopefully, ultimately, who I am and what I want out of this life.
Believe me, I realize that’s a lot of pressure to put on one 2-hour matinee. Of course, this didn’t really occur to me at the time. So on with the story we go…
I drove myself to the theater with the nervous anticipation of a kid starting their first day at school. I kept reminding myself that I was doing this for myself, and nobody else. But I couldn’t help wonder what other people at the theater might think of me, or how pathetic I was sure it would look to them. But I bought my ticket for one with my head high and the confidence of this decision in my heart. I could feel their eyes on me as I calmly purchased a snack and made my way into Theater 4.
Or at least I thought it was Theater 4. I was so preoccupied with myself and how I appeared to others that I didn’t check the theater number very carefully before sauntering right in. So now I’m inside, and have walked far enough into the theater that the other people in their seats could now clearly see me. Now I don’t want to look lost or stupid by walking back out. So I hesitate for a mere second, and then decide to just gather myself and beeline for my assigned seat.
That’s the great thing about the San Francisco Kabuki AMC Theater. They’ve been letting you pick an assigned seat even way back in 2010. So even when the theater’s nearly empty and you have the complicated (albeit privileged) task of deciding where would be most comfortable to sit relative to the few others in the theater, you didn’t have to worry about any of that here. You’ve already been assigned. You already have your place. So you can walk confidently to that exact seat without thinking twice or questioning your identity. Just one of the many things that makes San Francisco one of my favorite US cities to visit, even when I’m by myself.
But I digress. Back to that December day at the Kabuki Theater…
I sat down in my usual favorite seat, my go-to sweet spot. You know, that exact middle seat in the first row of the back section. The row with no rows in front of it, only that sturdy metal railing waiting to hold up your feet for you and let you relax without the bother of some annoyingly antsy person in front of you.
Once I’d settled into my little center-seated oasis, the concern about the correctness of the theater returned. I had two choices. Own up to it or live with it. So I swallowed my pride and, turning to the pair of guys behind me (who were the only other people in the theater by the way), I asked as nonchalantly as I could,
“This is Theater 4 right?”
They smirk and reply,
“Yep, Theater 4. So if you’re here to see Love and Other Drugs, you’re in the right place.”
I thanked them, relieved, and turned back around to resume my privacy. The two guys continued with their interrupted conversation and I began to notice myself eavesdropping. I caught a few words I recognized and had a momentary urge to turn back around and join in with my two cents. But then I caught myself.
“I’m not here to practice interacting with other people,” I remembered.
To be honest (and a little cocky), I already know I’m pretty good at that. “No,” I thought, “I’m here to practice interacting with myself… while that self is in a particularly uncomfortable place for a self to be alone.”
So instead I sat still and tried to focus on myself. But what the hell does that really mean? I tried sitting silent, blocking out the ambient noise and conversation around me. And naturally, my thoughts started to wander. I started to think about my schedule. I thought about what I planned to do with the rest of my day after the movie. I thought about my Christmas shopping, and what errands I needed to run on my way down to the Peninsula the next day. All trivial things, you’ll notice, about what might happen in the future.
As usual, I was failing to let myself just be present, in the present, with myself. And that perceived failure started to upset me. So naturally, the next stage of frustration and self-doubt set in. And then the fidgeting started.
By the time my phone rang, I was going full-blown stir crazy, ants all up the pants and across my whole body, wondering when the hell this damn movie was ever going to start. But saved by the ring. It was Gayle. She was returning my call to talk about plans for the week. I picked up, but immediately warned her that the movie I was waiting on might start any second. So we agreed to hang up and just let her message me. Disappointed at the loss of my momentary distraction, I reluctantly returned to my former state of anxiety.
I was just about to sink back into its familiar depths when the big screen sprang to life and the movie previews begin. I could hardly contain my sigh of relief and happily nestled down into my seat with my popcorn on my lap and my feet comfortably perched on that trusty railing, ready and waiting for the movie to begin.
The movie was good, but typical. The usual arc of a decent romantic drama. Boy meets Girl. Boy is a messed up commitment-phobe. But wait, so is Girl! So Boy and Girl start getting it on. But then, of course, strings start to attach themselves and Boy falls for Girl. Girl is wary and doesn’t let herself fall. Until Boy starts to doubt. Then Girl finally gives in, just as Boy is getting scared. Girl reacts to seeing Boy get scared and breaks it off in tears.
Now we reach the point in the plot where it is socially acceptable for audience members to cry. Time passes and Boy realizes what he’s lost. So Boy chases after Girl, tracks her down and confesses his undying love—at which point you can bet every woman in the audience is pumping the water works. Then it all ends happily and neatly just as we all expect it to, despite how much we may complain about how archaically unoriginal it all is.
The credits rolled and, as you‘ve guessed by now, I was in tears.
Of course, I cried when Jake Gyllenhaal set his pale blue eyes deep into Anne Hathaway’s chocolate brown ones and declared that he needed her. But that was about as deep as it got. I’d come out of my movie trance without any deeper understanding of my life beyond the usual, “Oh why can’t that be me?” thought. And admittedly, I was a bit disappointed.
But what did I expect? I usually go to the movies — people usually go to the movies — as an escape from daily life. Not as a means to dig deeper into it. So why did I think this experience would be any different?
I sat through all of the credits, as I always do, and tried to catch glimpses of the names scrolling by, scanning for anything remotely familiar or meaningful. I listened to the song playing with the credits and heard Regina Spektor sing out,
“I never loved nobody fully / Always one foot on the ground.”
This made me smile to myself, feeling a bit of my story told in those few lines for that brief moment. But brief it was nonetheless. When the credits finished, I dried my eyes, packed up my trash, and trudged out of the theater. I was calm, but the disappointment still lingered. Now, on top of the usual depression triggered by watching an unrealistically-happily-ending romantic movie, I also had the addition of something worse — the heavy conclusion that my experiment had failed.
I got to the bottom of the staircase and decided to pop into the bathroom for a quick pee and face check before leaving the building. This only ended up making me feel worse, thanks to the confirmation that the zits on my face had somehow gotten noticeably redder during the span of the movie.
Can I digress for another second to say how ridiculous that whole thing is?! Depression and stress are proven to worsen the appearance of acne. Then the presence of the acne causes even more depression and stress. It’s such an unnecessarily vicious cycle.
Anyway, I’m coming out of the bathroom and I remembered that I should get my parking pass validated before I leave. So I pulled out the little pink slip and headed over to the ticket counter. There was only one woman working just then and she was clearly in no hurry whatsoever. So I got to stand there patiently waiting while the couple in front of me puzzled excessively over which seats they should select to maximize their movie-going experience. (Maybe there is a downside to assigned seats after all.)
I waited and waited, trying my best not to find it all just so incredibly annoying, when I looked to my right. There on the edge of the counter was the damn ticket validation stamp machine, positioned all nice and friendly right there so you can do it yourself without having to wait in line. What a brilliant idea! I waited all this time, only to find out tha — well it really doesn’t matter now. I sashayed my ass up to that counter, stuck in my ticket, and stamped my own validation.
Then it hit me. I just validated myself!
I went through this whole damn experiment, sat through 2 hours of adorably routine romantic fiction, and gained absolutely nothing new or insightful out of it… until I did that.
All it was for, all I really wanted out of this experience was simply that; some self-validation. I went to a movie by myself. No, scratch that. I went to a movie for myself. And in the end, I found self-validation.
And I wore that smug self-satisfied smile on my pimple-ridden face the whole drive home.