“Scipio used to say that he was never less idle than when he had nothing to do
and never less lonely than when he was alone.” — Cicero, De Officiis (translated)
I’ve never considered going to the movies by myself, nor have I ever dared to do so, in nearly 31 years of life. You’d think growing up an only child, as I largely did, would make me more comfortable in solitary situations, but not really. I mean, I have no problem spending time alone in my apartment when my wife is busy with other things, or stopping for a cup of coffee by my lonesome while I’m running errands, but seeing a movie in a theater always registered to me as a social experience meant to be shared with a friend or a date (or both; I’ve been on many a “man date”). But when I first hatched the idea for this article — a hit piece on those desperate, enigmatic souls who attend the cinema sans ami with regularity — I arrived at the notion that I had no ground on which to stand if I too didn’t endure the awkward experience of going to the movies by myself.
So I did.
I pitched the idea to the Editor-in-Chief and the Managing Editor of this site (for which I am the Creative Director) on a Thursday, with the intention of seeing a movie the next night. Why a Friday night? Going to see a movie alone probably isn’t all that bad on a Sunday morning, when you still have the entire day ahead of you. But going to the movies on a late Friday evening says to people (many of whom are probably there with their significant others or friends), “this is all I have planned for the night…this, and chasing a bottle of painkillers with a handle of Jack and calling it ‘a wrap’ on life.”
As for which movie I’d see, I chose the record-breaking war film American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper as the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, regarded as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. I figured I would try to save face by shrouding my lonely affair in an overtly masculine, jingoistic Clint Eastwood-directed kill fest, not realizing that attending an overtly masculine, jingoistic Clint Eastwood-directed kill fest alone on a Friday night sends its own alarming message of emotional instability: “Yes, one ticket for the movie with all the guns, please.”
The AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street was the closest theater to the office, so I snagged a ticket on Fandango for a 6:30 p.m. showing. On my short but rage-filled walk down a crowded 8th Avenue at rush hour, I realized that no one really goes to the movies “alone” in New York City, especially in the devil’s taint that is Times Square. There to greet me outside the theater were caricature artists, pashmina vendors, and pushy wannabe rappers selling their mixtapes, as well as some errant crackhead-vagrants that managed to slip past the decades-long joint Disney-NYPD dragnet responsible for transforming Times Square from a den of iniquity in the early ‘90s to an equally grating neon circus of fast food chains and basic girl clothing stores.
Things were calmer inside the lobby. I swiped my credit card at one of the self-serve kiosks and retrieved my ticket, then started up one of the many window-adjacent escalators moviegoers must scale to access the theaters on the higher floors. Upon reaching the second or third level, a friendly employee took my ticket, ripped it along its perforated edge, and handed it back to me while tersely announcing, “Auditorium 18. Ten more flights.” Before I embarked on the second leg of my trip, I stopped at the concession stand for some buttered popcorn and a soda, like a mountaineer refreshing his supplies at the base of Everest, only instead of altitude sickness that so many brave climbers must face, I was putting myself at risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. More escalators brought me higher and higher up — 42nd Street now visible far below me through the windows — until I finally reached Auditorium 18.
I shuffled into the theater with a few other strangers, and was surprised to see how many people were already seated despite the movie being out for several weeks. I was hoping that, if I was going to have to see a movie alone, at least I’d be able to spread my shit out. That hope was dashed when the row I had picked quickly began filling up. It was still empty enough for me to create some separation by placing my coat and bag on the seat next to me, as I saw others around me doing. As more people filed in, I hoped they’d assume my things were actually my friend’s belongings so they wouldn’t ask to sit next to me. I was rehearsing what I’d say over and over in my head: “This seat? No, sorry. I assure you I’m saving it for someone and am not here alone on a Friday night seeing a war film that’s in its eighth week of release. [nervous laugh] I hear the dude Bradley Cooper plays killed, like, 200 Iraqis. Crazy, right? America! What a country!” Mercifully, it never came to this.
I began to settle in as inane advertisements and “first looks” at TV shows I’ll probably never watch danced on the screen — you know, the bullshit before you even get to the trailers. It was normally during this time that I’d engage in conversation with whomever I’d come to the movie with, but in lieu of that option, I passed the time by scrolling through Twitter in between bites of popcorn. I shuddered to think what people did in this situation before the advent of the smartphone. Did people bring a book? Did they crochet? Did they just sit there silently staring into the bright abyss of the screen, guessing at the word jumbles and high-fiving neighbors after successfully unscrambling Good Will Hunting? Not even tweets from The Onion and Instagrams from The Fat Jew could stave off my social discomfort as I waited impatiently for the lights to dim and the movie to start.
And with that, I had an epiphany — one that led me to question my entire attitude about the solo moviegoing experience. There really is nothing awkward about seeing a movie alone. Rather, it’s the lead-up to the movie — being seen eating from a large bag of popcorn that’s clearly meant for two people; the bored, solitary fidgeting in your seat as Maria Menounos takes you behind-the-scenes of some terrible network police procedural — that is truly uncomfortable (and only slightly, at that). After all, watching a movie in a theater is, by design, meant to be a physically passive experience. It’s not like you’re supposed to carry on a conversation with your friend once the movie has started (unless you’re an asshole). Truth be told, my trip to the movies alone really wasn’t all that awkward.
Or so I thought.
Not 15 minutes into the film, I started to hear some very distinct, wet slurping noises. It persisted for the next few seconds, and when I turned my head to investigate I saw the heterosexual couple to my right in the midst of a hardcore make out session. Their appearances suggested they were in their mid twenties, possibly early thirties, but their clumsy, impassioned, and very public PDA would have made even the most sexually inexperienced high school freshman recoil. It’s not that I’m a prude; I’m not. It’s just that designing for an over-the-pants handjob during a movie in which the protagonist shoots a little Iraqi boy through the fucking heart as he’s about to hurl an anti-tank charge at a convoy of Marines (which actually did not happen in real life) seems a bit, I don’t know, classless. That is, unless gory, morally-ambiguous battlefield violence turns you on, in which case, check out Platoon. It’s super fucking hot.
To make matters worse, toward the end of the film when Chris Kyle kills his antithesis, an insurgent sniper called “Mustafa” (another factually-dubious plot point), the audience erupted in applause — the same pointless charade as when airline passengers applaud a safe landing. But whereas celebratory clapping aboard a plane is rooted in the reality of a safely executed flight, the audience’s reaction to the climax of the film was based on a lie. According to his own memoir (on which the movie is “based”), Chris Kyle had no hand in killing the enemy sniper, making the audience’s enthusiasm particularly embarrassing for everyone involved. Though it wasn’t for the reasons I expected, my movie night did deliver on the awkwardness after all.
As the credits began to roll, I slipped out of the theater and made my descent back down the labyrinth of escalators to the icy city street. In celebration of overcoming my fear of the solo cinema experience, I decided to do something I had absolutely no hesitation tackling alone: housing all the tacos I could stuff into my fat face at a Mexican joint on 9th Avenue. In fact, eating is one of life’s activities that I actually prefer to do alone. When you eat with friends, sometimes they want you to share your food.