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What we gain from going to the movies

What we gain from going to the movies

This is an edition of The Wonder Reader, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a set of stories to spark your curiosity and fill you with delight. Sign up here to get it every Saturday morning.

In 1980, the film critic Roger Ebert attended a conference filled with discussion about “new home video entertainment centers.” When he left, he was disturbed. He laid out his concerns about the future of movie-going in an eerily prescient Atlantic article—and, in the process, offered a great description of that unique yet universal experience:

I have a simple idea of what it means to go to the movies. You buy your ticket and take a seat in a large dark room with hundreds of strangers. You slide down in your seat and make yourself comfortable. On the screen in front of you, the movie image appears—enormous and overwhelming. If the movie is a good one, you allow yourself to be absorbed in its fantasy, and its dreams become part of your memories.

Watching movies on TV, without a crowd, is just not the same, Ebert argued: “A lot of the fun of seeing a movie such as Jaws or Star Wars comes, for me, from the massed emotion of the theater audience. When the shark attacks, we all levitate three inches above our seats, and come down screaming and laughing.”

Ebert could not predict the technological advances in at-home entertainment nor the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic would alter movie-going, perhaps forever. But the magic he describes is not from a bygone era. As evidenced most recently by “Barbeinheimer,” people still show up to the theater seeking this communal experience. Today’s newsletter is dedicated not to movies themselves, but to the act of going to see them together.

On Movie-Going

Movies Are Best Before Noon

By Jeff Oloizia

In praise of starting the day with enjoyable things

The Nearly Extinct Movie Tradition Filmmakers Should Bring Back

By Adrienne Bernhard

For theatergoers, the all-but-obsolete musical overture is a bridge between real life and the world they’re about to enter. (From 2018)

Why People Faint at the Theater

By Christine Ro

How a distressing movie or play can trigger a body to pass out (From 2017)

Still Curious?

Other Diversions


Reading Ebert’s 1980 article, I couldn’t help but think about Nicole Kidman’s AMC-theaters ad, which is somewhat silly but also surprisingly affecting (at least for this earnest movie-goer). “We come to this place for magic,” she says, after walking through the rain in stilettos and arriving at a movie theater—“to laugh, to cry, to care. Because we need that, all of us.” Last year, in Buzzfeed News, David Mack explored how the Kidman ad has turned into something of a “camp cultural phenomenon.”

— Isabel

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