Some time ago, my girlfriend and I saw Finding Neverland, Marc Forster's movie about J. M. Barrie and the Peter Pan creation myth, a catechism for adults on the virtues of childhood. Near us, in the audience, was a pair of boys, alone together and making mischief, mostly by laughing too loudly. First, they laughed when it was called for, then when it absolutely wasn't. Also, they were developing a repertoire of farting sounds. They were of the age when that sort of thing is especially funny, and, at first, the audience found them amusing. Then, increasingly, annoying. Finally a guy behind us got up and prowled over to them, crouched menacingly and said, "If you don't quiet down, I'll have you thrown out of the theatre. Do we understand each other?"
It did the trick. I think the rest of us were grateful, and we had to hand it to the guy for taking action. But it was complicated. The age when that sort of thing is especially funny isn't far from the age of the characters in Finding Neverland that the protagonist derived his cherished inspiration from. Just as I'd had it with these rascals in the audience-who'd gone from an apparent protest against emotional coercion to the emotional coercion of demanding attention-it occurred to me that wanting them to shut up might mean the whole point of Finding Neverland was wasted on me. And then, this self-appointed, shushing constable had the nerve to use a movieish line like "Do we understand each other?" without really meaning it, while the very thing being interrupted asked that same question, of all adults and all children, with more respect.
Movies can overturn your judgements, hollow you out, and expose your worst flaws to a roomful of strangers. Or they can vindicate you.
Movies can overturn your judgements, hollow you out, and expose your worst flaws to a roomful of strangers. Or they can vindicate you. They can support some argument for how to be alive that you hadn't even known you'd been trying to make. Part of what's still surprising and exciting about movies, in a time when so much else isn't, is our incessant crusade for authentic ways to be united by them, to give and receive them. We have some idea now of how they manipulate us, but much to learn about how they play in to our manipulation of ourselves and each other.
Naturally, then, sharing the movies can be a clumsy affair. Inevitably, we intrude on each other's experience of them, and defend our own with primal ferocity. It's intimate, sometimes dangerously so. I remember no details from the first R-rated sex scenes I witnessed with my parents right next to me in the theatre. But, as I do recall, I wouldn't dare catch their eyes, and so was compelled to stare straight ahead at the action on screen (tame though it surely was), which only made things worse. Without my parents there, my face might not have flushed with embarrassment, but I might not, quite possibly, have been above fake laughter or flatulence either. It was like that with all the early epiphanies I had at the movies, all awkward and half-forgotten but also indelible, on account of being public and private at once. I think it works best, unless it's The Rocky Horror Picture Show or something, when, as an audience, we informally agree to a kind of decorum; for each other's sakes, we keep the deepest resonance to ourselves.
Cinema is lousy for socialization, but how we deny it! Some people try movies just to get hip to them, the way they try drugs or ethnic restaurants. The peer pressure can be enormous. If I haven't had a particular movie experience, craven shut-in that I am, I try not to let on. Maybe I read up on it. Eventually I rent, clandestinely, suppressing the shame I swear is encouraged by that know-it-all behind the video-store cash register, let alone by my know-it-all friends. Gamely, I watch from the safety of home. If it's not doing it for me, I probably fake it a little. Maybe because the continuum of recommendations, of word of mouth, is so fertile for heartbreak. When someone you like doesn't like one of your favourites, it can feel like a profound betrayal and leave you shouting, "Who the hell ARE you?!"
But the consummation of Fellini is another matter, a treasure, whether you like the movie or not. I know I'm petty and predatory for saying so, but I wanted to be the one who gave it to her.
Worse is the delicate matter of canonical-movie virginity. Last year, my girlfriend saw La Dolce Vita for the first time. For some presumably logistical reason, she didn't go with me, which was unfortunate. She did happen to go with her ex, which was devastating. It's a peculiar irony that we had by then managed some real intimate conversations, without jealousy, about our sentimental screen favourites, our movie-star crushes, and even about our former lovers. But the consummation of Fellini is another matter, a treasure, whether you like the movie or not. I know I'm petty and predatory for saying so, but I wanted to be the one who gave it to her.
Yes, to take loved ones for their first time to a movie you adore can be generous or brutalizing. I must ask myself: am I sharing or testing? Easier, we hope, are the new releases, unencumbered by history's judgement, unseen by both parties, available for mutual discovery.
When Finding Neverland ended, with me and most of the audience in tears (the boys had left), my girlfriend was impassive, her face as stony as Buster Keaton's. That's been common in our movie time together, enough to panic me with the idea that going to the movies just isn't as good, or as easy, when it's with me. I let out a breath, and dabbed my eyes on her shoulder. Later, she called that gesture too much, thought it an overdone display of sensitivity. It bugged her, she said. Aghast, I wanted to ask not "Who the hell ARE you?!" but "All right, what have you done with her, you heartless, body-snatching monster?"
I am too sensitive. An experienced spectator should understand that the uninflected visage can mean anything, and will quite naturally take its meaning from whatever you project onto it. That's one of cinema's earliest lessons, too easily forgotten. Maybe, hopefully, her repose was a gesture of unlimited possibility.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.