After six months, I went back to the movies for ‘Tenet’
IF YOU GO …
* ‘Tenet’ is playing daily at the Isis Theatre at 4:20, 6:30 and 7:45 p.m.
* Book online at metrotheatres.com or on the Metropolitan Theaters app.
* Masks are required except when eating or drinking.
‘YOUR PRIVATE SCREENING’
Still skittish about going to a public movie theater? The Isis recently announced its Your Private Screening program, through which you can book a screening of a new release movie with up to 20 friends. Prices range from $130 to $160 total.
You can also pre-order concessions to be delivered to your seats.
Booking available at metrotheatres.com
I went back to the movies.
Mask on, nerves a little jangly, ticket booked online, I walked into the recently reopened Isis Theatre in Aspen for a 7:45 p.m. “Tenet” screening on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend for my first movie theater experience of the coronavirus pandemic.
Like most Americans, I hadn’t been to a movie in a theater for six months. That’s the longest I’ve gone without going to the movies in my conscious life. Since March, when theaters began closing due to COVID-19 and movies began bouncing release dates to 2021, Christopher Nolan’s time-bending thriller – its plot shrouded in mystery – has been hailed as the event film that would reopen theaters.
Slated to open in July, then setting and resetting its release date several times, it’s been the center of the conversation around movies and Hollywood’s coronavirus reckoning. While “Hamilton” and “Palm Springs” and “Da 5 Bloods” have sated us on streaming and VOD, and begun ushering in early a possibly theater-less future, Christopher Nolan has insisted on a theatrical-only release.
Going to the movies is important to me. Before the pandemic, I was a defender of the theatrical experience and its rituals – big screen, dark theater, no talking, surrounded by strangers. But I’d also been going back and forth, since the announcement that cinemas here would reopen in late August, about whether and when I’d go back into a theater with COVID-19 still spreading. I wondered whether it is responsible to go to a movie theater. And beyond that, I asked myself whether it’s responsible to write about going, thereby encouraging others to go into what some experts say is an unsafe and unwise setting during the pandemic.
The Isis digital tickets themselves spell it out: “An inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present. COVID-19 is a contagious disease that can lead to severe illness and death. … By visiting Metropolitan Theatres, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.”
I’ve been risk-averse over the past six months. I’ve followed the public health advisories and rules and opted not to partake in many aspects of public life even as they’ve reopened in Colorado. I have not been to a barber. I haven’t eaten inside a restaurant or been in a bar. Haven’t been to the gym or ridden a bus. I may not do any of those things until the pandemic is over.
But I have flown on planes to see family, because doing so was essential to me. I did attend crowded Black Lives Matter protests this summer. And I did go back to the movies for “Tenet” because, I’m realizing, that’s sort of essential, too, to me.
A wave of joy and comfort hit me when the lights went down and the movie started. But it was laced with anxiety about contracting or spreading the virus (my wife’s helpful shorthand for this is “FFT,” short for “f-ing first time” and the nerves that accompany doing anything new since our spring quarantine). The thin crowd in the theater made me feel safe, but also a bit foolish. There were so few people in the theater that I couldn’t help but think about whether I was doing something reckless, wondering why nobody else was there.
When I arrived at the Isis on Saturday night, a staffer was spraying down and sanitizing the propped-open main entrance on Hopkins Ave. I had reserved a seat and bought a ticket online, finding that they are available in every other row with groups spaced three seats apart. Instead of a paper ticket, you get a digital one and a QR code you present when you arrive (my QR actually didn’t work, but the confirmation number did) and present it to a ticket taker behind a Plexiglas shield, who is wearing a mask and gloves.
I had booked an aisle seat, thinking it would automatically space me out a little more from others. But I needn’t have worried. There were just five groups of people in the theater – two larger groups of six and eight and three couples – spread far apart in the largest of the three Isis theaters. All wore masks as they arrived, but many took them off during the movie (or at least they had them off when I looked around). There were no temperature checks at the entrance, as there were at Jazz Aspen and Theatre Aspen events this summer, and there was nobody policing mask-wearing in the theater. But if you abide by the “wash your hands,” “wear a mask” and “keep your distance” school of coronavirus defense, you’d feel safe and responsible at the Isis.
The previews were a reminder of how disrupted and decimated the movie-going experience has been in our summer without blockbusters.
Previews included the new “Fast and Furious” movie with no release date included (it was supposed to open in May), Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters” reboot promising to hit theaters “summer 2020” (it did not). The “Wonder Woman: 1984” trailer was in there, too – it’s due for an Oct. 2 release, the next major theatrical roll-out to follow the month of “Tenet.”
These previews were a reminder of the immense burden on Nolan’s film, now charged with bringing Americans back in to theaters, saving both the industry and the artform. If it fails, well, maybe we’ll be watching everything at home forever and the epic scale of a film like “Tenet” will be a relic of the pre-covid past… one of the primitive things we won’t revive like shaking hands or blowing out candles on a cake.
The previews also included an ad for events and private screenings at the theater, which is actually a tantalizing, surprisingly affordable new development for the theater-going experience (see sidebar).
As for “Tenet” itself, does it live up to the expectations of saving movies and theaters? Of course not. And I don’t even want to address the bad faith question some have posed: Are you willing to die to see it?
It’s as rewarding a big screen experience as you’ll have, though it’s an imperfect film hampered by Nolan’s convoluted plotting – more confusing than his “Inception,” with even more jargon-y pseudo-science than his “Interstellar” – but elevated by the breathtaking effects and performances by a James Bond-ish John David Washington and a swaggering Robert Pattinson.
By the end, I think I understood why Nolan wanted people to see this film on the big screen, and why the industry at large has staked its future on “Tenet.” Because it so emphatically demands it be experienced on big screen (Nolan prefers 70 mm IMAX).
It’s an ideal movie to reintroduce yourself to the theater. Yes, in part, that’s because it is filled with the big and bold set pieces that are among Nolan’s signatures – there’s a catamaran race, a gun battle in Siberia, a plane crash, car chases, heists and fistfights – but moreso because “Tenet” insists upon controlling the viewer, overpowering the audience. “Tenet” is something that happens to you, as a film should be.
For some long stretches, I didn’t know what was going on or how the time travel stuff was working. At home, I’d have been reaching for a remote control to rewind and rewatch a scene to try to grasp the precepts of “inverted time” that are the centerpiece of the movie. I’d also probably have turned on the subtitles at home, as the dialogue is often indecipherable – crucial lines are delivered by characters in oxygen masks, making the words as muffled as Bane’s in “The Dark Knight Rises” – and overpowered by the propulsive Ludwig Göransson score.
In the theater, of course you can’t pause or control anything. You are in thrall to the film, to the filmmakers, to this story rushing by projected on this massive screen. You have to let it wash over you. You have no agency here. You might have forgotten that feeling – I apparently had – after six months of watching at home. It is the heart of the theatrical experience. And it’s the thing I so missed about going to the movies. I’ll go back. And maybe on second viewing, I’ll be able to explain what happened in “Tenet.”
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