In the new year, we will mark the 60th anniversary of a novel that explores the social and psychological aspects of one man’s relationship to cinema. Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer tells the story of New Orleans stock-broker Binx Bolling. Aimless and isolated, he comes to rely on the grand arcs of the narratives playing out on cinema screens as his escape. For Binx, movies are a refuge existing outside of his daily gains and losses on the stock market, and his longings for his beautiful young secretary, Sharon Kincaid.
The novel is hardly a celebration of the cinematic experience — Binx feels more connected to the characters on screen than to his own friends and family — but the anniversary nonetheless marks a fitting time to reflect on the kind of escape that COVID-19 has rendered largely impossible. Theaters already were facing a challenge from streaming services that turn every living room into a box office. COVID has pushed them further into the fringe of American life. What is their future?
At this point in time, it’s unclear how efficiently vaccines will roll out and whether anything like the cultural life we’ve known will return in 2021. It is ironic to observe The Moviegoer’s anniversary at a time when the experience alluded to in its title is as alien to many of us as the protagonist is alienated.
Warner Bros.’ deal to stream its 2021 offerings on HBO Max as they’re released in theaters could only accelerate cinemas’ irrelevance. In October, Cineworld, owner of the Regal Theaters chain, announced the temporary closing of its U.S. and U.K. movie houses. The biggest chain in the U.S., AMC Theaters, recently sounded the alarm about pending insolvency with so many of its theaters closed in New York, L.A., and other major cities, and with cinemas elsewhere operating at strictly limited capacity.
Although New York governor Andrew Cuomo grudgingly gave the green light in October for the reopening of theaters in some New York counties, and Cineworld subsequently announced the reopening of eleven theaters in upstate towns, cinemas remain closed in New York City. Those that do reopen can host audiences of up to 25 percent of their full capacity, with assigned seating, social distancing, and masks required.
It’s hard to imagine Binx Bolling finding any escape in this environment.
Then and Now
It’s fitting that the legendary actor William Holden appears in an early scene of The Moviegoer and becomes the object of the lead character’s speculations. Some of us may recall the exchange that Holden has with Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. On realizing the former silent-film star’s identity, he exclaims, “You’re Norma Desmond. Used to be in pictures, used to be big.” To which she famously replies, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
One marvels at the many levels on which this statement is true today. Without doubt, the market is big indeed — the number of people with an appetite for the cinematic experience is many times what it was in 1950 — but the pictures have, quite literally, gotten small, as the closure of cinemas has forced us to watch them on computer screens and tiny phones.
“Certainly, the experience of consecrating a time and place out of the house for a couple of hours of absorption in a virtual world — an experience even the fanciest home theater cannot match, since the household always risks erupting — is a special one. Elements of it include the invisible audience of others in real time, the large screen, the comfortable seats, even the popcorn, but I think consecrated space and time is the most important,” says John Peters, a professor of film and media studies at Yale University.
Of course, the theater chains did not make their decision in a void. The studios have not exactly encouraged them to stay open, and the decision of some such as Warner Bros. and Disney to pursue streaming options is a blow to traditional moviegoing unimaginable in past eras.
“Cinema’s conversion to digital is key here, since this allows the kind of platform mobility that has enabled the studios to explore streaming options. Obviously, this wasn’t an option in, say, the Depression, when cinema only existed as a celluloid medium and was thus dependent on theatrical exhibition,” says Robert J. King, a professor at Columbia University and the author of a number of books on film and mass culture.
“It’s as though the major studios, having used 3D to encourage the exhibition sector to convert to digital, thereby also forced the theaters to unwittingly commit to their own potential redundancy,” King adds.
Even if the closings of theaters are only the latest and most dramatic chapter in a history of cinemas’ primacy being challenged, first with the arrival of televisions and then VCRs and DVD and Blu-Ray players in every home, Peters hopes for a post-pandemic revival of cinema.
In agreement with Peters is Trevor Mowchun, a professor of film and media studies at the University of Florida. He holds up Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as the perfect example of a film whose traditional viewing, in a theater, illustrates the uniqueness of the cinematic experience.
“The film is conceived and designed to be ‘larger’ than the viewer in every sense. It is designed to transport the viewer into uncharted regions of exterior, interior, and transcendental space, and thus alter our consciousness of time,” Mowchun says, adding that he doesn’t see the film surviving on a cell phone. “How about a computer screen? The viewer is no longer dwarfed by the film, and he or she may not feel much awe before an object like the monolith in 2001.”
2001 is just one example. Watching films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or more recent films such as Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity or Sam Mendes’s 1917, not to mention any number of forthcoming releases, on a tiny screen, in a format interchangeable with countless other forms of visual data that do not even aspire to be art, the wonder is gone.
What Walker Percy Saw
So here we are, “big” as ever with all our emotional needs and neuroses at this time of crisis and hardship. The catharsis at the movie theater, however, is effectively gone.
For Percy, viewing a film could be dislocating for the individual precisely because it created a mass experience that was essentially the same for millions of people across the country. Binx feels this sense of dislocation, and attempts to ground himself by noting the physical, particular aspects of going to the movies.
“If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville,” Binx muses. He recalls how, while watching Montgomery Clift beat up John Wayne during a scene in the 1948 Howard Hawks Western, Red River, he became curious about the seat in which he watched this happen, and the scope of his curiosity broadened to include the lady in the ticket booth. Marking his seat with his thumbnail, he engaged in speculation. “Where, I wondered, will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now?”
Binx goes on to recall how, when visiting the Midwest ten years before, he had a three-hour layover in Cincinnati. This afforded time to go and watch Joseph Cotton in Holiday at a local playhouse, The Altamont. Before the movie started, Binx had time to chat with the ticket seller, one Clara James, who mentioned that she had seven grandkids in Cincinnati. “We still exchange Christmas cards. Mrs. James is the only person I know in the entire state of Ohio,” Binx reflects. He then goes on to describe at some length his interactions with his lonely landlady, Mrs. Schexnaydre, and implicitly contrasts the pettiness of her own pastime — watching TV quiz shows, and coming to feel as if she knows the contestants personally — with the more resonant pleasures Binx finds in his moviegoing.
It is not just the libertarians among us who might question government-imposed lockdowns and the cinema closures undertaken in keeping with the zeitgeist. As we approach the 60th anniversary of The Moviegoer, reflect on Walker Percy’s achievement and on the place the cinema has in the American consciousness — the prospect of escape, from a state of social isolation and agitation, might elicit a familiar longing.