I was kicked out of a theater the other day.
I’d settled in to review Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel somewhere in downtown Denver. It wasn’t a private screening for reviewers, but that was no biggie: I’ve reviewed lots of movies without the benefit of a formal screening—including movies at that very theater. I always take great care not to bother anyone with my little light-up pen. I go to the earliest screenings possible and sit as far away from everyone else as I can. I cover up my penlight with a sheet of paper to minimize any hint of illumination. I’d imagine that you’d have to be as light sensitive as the kids in The Others to even notice it.
Which might explain why the manager who caught me was so pale. Despite much pleading, and despite the fact that no one had complained or even (as far as I could tell) noticed my pen, the manager refused to budge on his no-light policy—even in the case of super-courteous but dutiful note-taking movie reviewers. (He was kind enough to give me a refund, though.)
I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for me. It’d be fruitless—like Kim Kardashian arguing that rhinestone and spandex makers should give her a special discount. “You brought a light into a movie theater?!” you’d gasp. And if I didn’t know how eensy-weensy my light was, I’d be right there with you. I’m appalled when I see people text in movie theaters. I get irritated when I hear people whisper asides to each other. And parents who bring their six-month-olds to the movies? That should be a felony.
The theater is hallowed ground, in a way. And I think for many people, it’s the only sacred space they know.
I don’t want to be flip or sacrilegious about this: Obviously, the theater is not a church. We do not worship there, not in any traditional sense.
But in our increasingly secular society, fewer people go to church anymore. They have little regard for the rites and hymns of worship and little time for God. And yet I think that we all have an innate need to connect with something greater than ourselves—something that puts us in touch with the transcendent. Nature may be the best such conduit. But the movies, with its emphasis on transcendent storytelling, may be next in line. There, in a darkened theater, we encounter things literally larger than life: People, ideas, emotions. Movies tap into our emotions like worship can do and challenge our intellect like a good conversation or sermon. We file into this sacred space with a certain sense of reverence and anticipation. We come hoping, and expecting, to be moved—just as believers who go to church do.
And it’s a very ritualized environment, where we’re expected to act and react a certain way—most unique . When we go to a football game, we can sit on our hands or dance in the aisles. When we stand on the top of a 14er, we might be expected to do most anything: Hold up our hands in triumph, sit on our haunches in contemplation, or ask around for some oxygen. But in a movie theater, most of us follow predictable rituals, and we’re expected to behave with uniform respect, even reverence.
A few weeks ago, I suggested that the characters in Gravity found themselves in a “thin place,” a place closer to God. But a few folks who watched Gravity might’ve also found themselves in sort of a thin place, too: They encountered something special there while watching. I think it might’ve potentially brought them closer, in a way, to God (at least if they were in their thinking along the same lines that I was).
Going to the movies is, and should be, a special experience. And I think that, sometimes, it can lead us to places even more special: These stories can influence thought, trigger emotion and bring voice to something deep in our core. It is not a religion, of course, and it cannot replace faith. But maybe sometimes, in that quiet, dark space, we may encounter something truly special—a thought, or feeling—that points us somehow to the Author of us all.
Sometimes, there is another light besides that in the projector. Sometimes, another light shines in our movies—one way bigger than any ol’ penlight, that’s for sure.