Brothers: the Matinee Effect.

Only a handful of people wandered into the eleven a.m. showing of Brothers this morning. The interesting thing was that just about everyone in the audience was there alone. That’s when it hit me: how long have people been going to the movies alone? The whole scene has that same palpable awkwardness of being in a crowded elevator or a silent subway car. We’re all just passing through. There is no socializing, except for the occasional gaze or an accidental brush of a hand against someone else’s shoulder. That might be just fine in the typical theater setting. Still, I’m not exactly sure that Brothers is the film you should test your movie-going independence with. It’s bloody, tragic – and sadder still – there is zero sex. You will panic. You will cry. Furthermore, if you’re anything like me, you will curl up into a little ball and repeat, “Someone’s going to die.” And you will be correct.

Cut to today: people are piling in, one by one. In the middle of a room full of perfectly-spaced seats, before the previews begin (when they’re still playing those monotonous advertisements for dentists, realtors, and in-theater birthday parties) I come to this conclusion: you’re more likely to try and sit far away from other people in a crowded theater, while in an empty theater, it’s different – you tend to sit nearer to strangers, possibly as close as you can get without seeming like a creep. It’s a hard balance to strike. I don’t believe it’s a conscious effort either, which is part of what makes it so interesting to watch. It’s a human circus.

It’s not even noon and the guy two rows in front of me is chowing down on an eight-dollar bag of popcorn. The elderly woman to his left, just one row in front of me, spends so long adjusting her glasses that I begin to wonder if she can even see the screen. I paint this picture where he’s just been dumped and her grandchildren have just gone back home after a long visit. I’m about to assess the man three rows in front of us, middle-aged and fairly good-looking, when a woman comes in late to join him. I start wondering if they’re a couple – though it’s clear that they are – simply because on a scale of 1 to 10, she’s a 5 and he’s an 8. It’s a cruel thought, but it’s the kind of thing we all notice without really considering. But I consider it. There is something about the complete picture that gets my brain working overtime to concoct these sordid little stories.

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Okay, so I’ve never been to a movie alone. I suspect that there might even be a science to it. Maybe it depends on the time of day, what the weather is like outside, and certainly whether or not you chose to go it alone. This morning, in cold, sleepy Manhattan, it’s apparent that everyone in the theater is looking to be alone, albeit in public. Cinema has changed; watching a film has gone from being a communal event to something more personal. It’s a way to be on your own without having to sacrifice human contact.

So what’s the real upside to being alone at a movie? Consider these points: no more fighting for the armrest (“But I want it”), no more spoiling the plot (“I hate this part”), and definitely none of that laughing/crying past an acceptable point (two minutes after the funny/sad scene has passed). But here’s where it gets dicey (spoiler alert): Tobey Maguire brutally murders his fellow soldier at one point. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of cinematic gold that requires at least one hand to hold. The entire movie is one big, aesthetically pleasing, slow motion car crash. The story itself will turn your stomach, break your spirit, and leave you hoping against hope. Keeping that in mind, think twice before going alone to this particular family reunion.