I’d only been living in Texas for about a week when I decided to take advantage of a free night and check out The Devil’s Candy. I’d heard a little bit of buzz in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, mostly that it was pretty metal – a sentiment entirely lost upon my bluegrass-loving ass – and that Ethan Embry was a bit of a revelation as the doting parent-turned-medium in the movie. Needless to say, I was fully in awe of The Devil’s Candy from beginning to end, and as the final credits rolled and I sat back with a smile on my face, a single idea bounced around my head: thank God I saw that one by myself.
Over the years, I’ve met plenty of people who seem genuinely surprised that I enjoy seeing movies by myself. I’m not surprised. Movies begin life as a communal activity for most of us. We sat next to our parents during our first movie theater experience, and as we got older, the local multiplex became the perfect location to bring together a group of friends or go on that first awkward date. No matter how obsessed we are with the cinema, movie theaters represented a call-to-action for shared social activities. We talk to our friends and family about upcoming releases and make plans to see high-profile movies in their opening weekend for fear of missing out on the conversation. Thus, despite the very reserved experience of sitting silently in the dark, nothing about the moviegoing experience is antisocial. Movies were meant to be shared. So when someone looks at me with a puzzled expression on their face and says they’ve never been to the movies by themselves – I’m looking at you, in-laws – I completely understand where they’re coming from.
My own preferences changed when I moved to New York City. Many of the reasons for this were practical: as an aspiring/emerging film critic with a day job, I rarely made it to press screenings and never found a group of cinephiles to call my own. I also found myself in a city that seemed to wholeheartedly embrace solo trips to the movie theater. Every time I would visit the Museum of the Moving Image or the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, I would look back and see scores of individuals watching the movie by themselves. Mostly, though, I just found myself enjoying it. I liked the flexibility that comes without having to make plans. So much of social moviegoing is choosing convenience over quality; you choose the movie theater equidistant between all parties involved or the movie that happens to be starting at just the right time instead of letting your instincts kick in as they please. Depending on my mood the exact moment I got off work, I could stay uptown and watch a bad action movie at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 or bolt downtown for an art film at Metrograph.
As a result, some of my favorite movie theater experiences have been undertaken entirely by myself. That MoMA screening of Bone Tomahawk where I spent more time watching the badass elderly ladies next to me power through the cannibalism scenes? Solo. The screening of Band of Robbers where I won a signed movie poster from the cast because I was the only audience member who knew Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens? Solo. The AMC screening of Calvary where I spent 20 minutes on the phone with my girlfriend trying to process all the weird emotions the movie made me feel? Solo. All of these were movies that I would’ve gotten around to eventually – and possibly might even have seen in theaters – but each was a gamble I was willing to take, mostly because if I were wrong, the only time I’d wasted was my own. And these three remain some of my favorite moviegoing anecdotes to date.
Perhaps my favorite thing about watching movies by myself, however, is the lack of pressure to form an immediate opinion. Much to the annoyance of my friends and family members, I’m not particularly good at articulating how I feel about a movie until I’ve had a little time to think it over. Even then, I might not truly know how I feel until I start trying to write things down. Pauline Kael once described her writing process – and I’m paraphrasing pretty heavily here – as essential to the development of her opinion: she wouldn’t know how she truly felt about a movie until her words hit the page. I’m prone to that same sort of self-discovery. Sometimes it’s because I don’t want to commit to an opinion until I’m certain it’ll hold up under intense scrutiny; other times it’s because I can’t pin down my vague feelings of slight-dislike or slight-like for a movie I just watched. Whatever the reason, those extra minutes I spend to myself after watching a movie – on the subway, in the car, along the street – give me time to bounce ideas around in my head before trying an opinion on for size. And when you come across a movie you truly love, like The Devil’s Candy? Sometimes it’s just nice to sit and bask in it for a little bit without having to dig any deeper.
So the next time a movie catches your eye and you can’t find anyone to go see it with you, try something you may find a little uncomfortable at first: go by yourself. Walk into the theater, purchase a single ticket, and don’t give a second thought to the somewhat judgmental expression you saw in the box office cashier’s eye. You may find that, when you strip away all the noise of the theatrical experience and keep things between you and the flick, you actually may appreciate blocking out a little bit of the noise.