In Defense of Seeing Movies Alone

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Sitting solitary though a summer blockbuster has its perils. But that's OK.

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Photo by Chris Luckhardt

The summer movie season hit full mast less than a week ago, when millions of viewers took to the theaters for the highest-grossing Memorial Day weekend box office ever. I was one of those viewers. Something separated me from the rest, though. Along with most everyone, I love movies for what they have to offer: Namely, the chance to watch awesome stuff, like good-looking people blowing things up. But as I scanned the crowd in my theater, I noticed that I was alone--in that I'd come alone.

There I was: Between empty seats, eavesdropping on nearby teen chatter, chewing on my Red Vines, mentally participating in the on-screen trivia while intermittently answering, "No, this seat isn't taken. Go right ahead." The lights finally, graciously dimmed.

Some would find this embarrassing. I don't.

I go to the movies by myself. It's not from lack of friends (though I was never a threat to win Homecoming Court), and it's not because I am a House M.D.-level misanthrope. I just occasionally enjoy a night to myself and don't need the comfort of an acquaintance while starting at a giant projected screen in silence. This habit, I always knew, was uncommon, but I thought nothing of it—until one day, a few years back, when I told a friend that I went by myself to see The Devil Wears Prada. He called me, rather unsparingly, "a pathetic loser." He wasn't talking about my taste in movies.

It got me thinking: In today's highly individualized zeitgeist why is the loner—the isolated movie watcher, in particular—synonymous with "pathetic" and "loser"? If, say, you were in a theater and saw someone flanked by empty chairs, would you feel pity? Condescension? Would you nudge your companion to join in teasing?

Okay, you might not go that far. But you might just think, "I would never watch a movie alone."

Why?

Other enterprises are immune to the stigma. It's well within social norms to work out at the gym alone. The same is true with buying groceries, shopping at the mall or even watching cinema's cheaper, less-attractive sibling: television.

But not the movies.

I have yet to come across a satisfying answer as to why. The problem, I assume, lies in a self-consciousness ingrained by habit and ubiquitous reminders of "social standards." It sucks being alone when you're surrounded by a mass of people who all know each other. Ever gone to a party where you didn't know anyone? Yeah, me neither. Because that would be terrible. You appear unpopular and feel like an outcast, like a nerd who just transferred to a new school, where even the nerds won't talk to you.

The summer movie, in particular, is unruly for the loner because it attracts a certain audience. I know the crowd in, say, Transformers 3 will be different from the one when I saw The King's Speech, whose theater was half-filled with middle-aged couples, grandparents and other single parties like me. In other words, the crowd was sedate and un-hip, the type that frequents estate sales and the Hoover Dam. But it was also a decidedly less-harrowing experience for a loner. Everyone acts the same at these wintertime Oscar-buzz movies: reserved, quiet, almost embarrassed to make noise.

The summer blockbuster crowd is rowdier. Screenings of The Hangover 2, Super 8, and Captain America are likely to be filled with a motley crew of action junkies, crying kids and rambunctious teenyboppers with nowhere else to legally enjoy the night. Mob mentality emboldens them. They text. They chat. They provide unsolicited commentary or, like when I saw Cyrus last summer, drunkenly sing along to the soundtrack and ask aloud, "Hey, is that the chick from My Cousin Vinny?" They're more inclined to do this because it's the summer, the movie they are watching is blaring with the sounds of explosions and sex, and they're with a large, equally loud group. And it all serves to highlight that you, the loner, are alone.

The movie loner, therefore, must constantly defend from distractions and judgment, living with the suspicion that people are talking about"the guy over there who's by himself." So we fidget and play with our smartphones—anything to look busy and forget our self-consciousness.

The mocking even becomes physical sometimes, like when I watched Funny People and was suddenly bombarded by airborne hard candy from three snickering teens dressed like Ali G wannabes and sporting shit-eating grins. I have a feeling I wouldn't have been bothered if I was with a large group. They wanted to pick on the loner.

This is strange, because movies (unlike parties or high school) aren't inherently social. Theaters, in fact, are set up to be the opposite. Last I checked, there aren't any circular couches at the local AMC. Also missing are the water coolers where patrons can talk about politics or last night's game. Theaters even tell you to shut up before the movie. The seats are side-by-side forward-facing, and partitioned by armrests; the love seat is a relatively modern addition, and to their advocates I say: Find a more private place to neck and stop distracting us from the movie! Who makes out during movies anymore, anyways?

I must admit, though, company isn't always bad. Usually it's a luxury, but at other times, having friends around can fundamentally change the way you experience a movie. Take horror movies and comedies, for example. Communal terror adds an element of fun to what would otherwise be, in isolation, unadulterated fear. And comedies arguably are enhanced when viewed in a group setting, according to the "laughter engenders more laughter" school of thought.

But the contrarian could assert that genuine comedy shines through even without the accessory of ambient laughter. How else would you explain the extinction of laugh tracks in modern— and still hilarious—sitcoms like 30 Rock, The Office and Community? I could be sequestered in a windowless cell and Jack Donaghy would still have my pants dotted with laugh-induced pee trickles.

Funny is funny, alone or otherwise. Same with horror. And, in the end, that's how it is with all movies.

By now you're probably thinking I'm the unluckiest moviegoer in the world, or that I have some sign on the back of my head that says PICK ON ME. But most trips to the theater happen without a hitch. The unjust, unfortunate moments have been rare.

Before I came to grips with being a loner, I would often second-guess myself, asking, "Am I a weirdo?" But then I realized what we all know, on some level: that movies don't require interaction, that sitting unaccompanied in a theater is a sign of aplomb and not low social standing, and that it just doesn't make sense to feel like a loser for going alone.

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Chris Le is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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