In Praise of an Afternoon at the Movies
Alone in a Quiet Theater, I Wait to Lose Myself
4:30 is my favorite time to go to the movies, and I’ve found I’m not alone in this. At 4:30 I can slip into a theater with a bottle of water. No line. Little chance it will sell out; that a tall man will, well into previews, station himself in front of me. Nothing odd about seeing a movie alone at 4:30. On Saturday night at 8:00, it’s hard not to feel too visible, pathetic. Have the urge to wear a sign: I have many friends. I am loved; drape a coat on the seat beside me until the lights go out—like Miss Lonelyhearts in Rear Window, setting a wine glass for an imaginary companion. At 4:30 I can sink back in the dark, in the company of strangers, many of whom are also alone, sip my water, and wait for those enormous figures to move across the screen. Wait to lose myself.
By 4:30 I have, for better or worse, done my day’s writing. Nothing to feel guilty about. I can give myself over to pleasure, to the danger of feeling. When I emerge two hours later, transformed, senses heightened (paper is more paper after you’ve heard movie paper, cilantro more its sweaty green self), it won’t even be time for dinner. The whole night’s ahead. As I leave the theater the day itself has transformed. Even if the sun’s still out, it’s evening sun. During the liminal 4:30 screening, we pass over the threshold from afternoon to evening distracted, in movie time.
When I enter a 4:30 movie, I’m aware that a lot of people are still at work. There’s an aura of playing hooky, of the sexy cinq à sept hours of illicit love affairs I first discovered in dark theaters. Here are two of my quintessential movie experiences:
I sneak out of school, take the ferry to Manhattan for a double feature of Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy at Carnegie Hall Cinema. At intermission, with all the drama of a 16-year-old, I proclaim (to myself) the first movie too intense, too profound, for me to submit to another film. I wander the city with Laurentian intensity and, on the ferry crossing back, tell a man my name is Gudrun. I have been transformed. (Around this time I insist we name our new family dog “Gudrun” but lose out 5 to 1 to the more popular “Cindy.” To be fair, Cindy, a beagle mutt, looked even less like a Gudrun than I did.)
A few years later, in part because of movies, I’m living in Manhattan. I cut out of my dull job and head to the Thalia on 96th and Broadway for Jules and Jim. There I learn from Jeanne Moreau how to be (I thought) mysterious, how to smoke, entice, “be French.” I remember the shock of catching a glimpse of my short dark self in a store window on the way downtown—looking nothing like Truffaut’s blond and enigmatic Catherine.
“I wanted to watch. I needed to stop watching myself. Stop being surveilled. I needed to be alone, invisible.”
I want to mention—as I’m surprised by it—the number of people who assume I mean 4:30 am; who explain that when they wake up and can’t fall back to sleep, they watch an old movie on TV, comforted by imagining themselves companioned by legions of sleepless across the city. These, too, I realize, are transitional hours. By the time the credits roll the world is waking. The insomniacs have survived the night. People are dressing, leaving for work. It’s OK to be awake.
The title of my new poetry collection, 4:30 Movie, originally referred to a weekday TV show. If you grew up in the 70s, every afternoon on Channel 7 (at least in New York), The 4:30 Movie—with its upbeat theme and revolving cameraman logo—began. It’s Steve McQueen week on The 4:30 Movie, the announcer intoned during commercial breaks. Tomorrow: The Great Escape!
Second only to books, movies have been my great escape. When my family moved from the gritty, diverse, visually exciting Flatbush, to the placid insularity of Staten Island, where, hard to believe now, Italian-Americans were “foreign,” I began to crave a larger world. Each Sunday I scrutinized the upcoming week’s offerings with the devotion, the eager attention with which I’d later mark up poems.
Ours was an anxious home, overseen by an anxious, depressed mother. The oldest of four, I was under continual surveillance. I’m watching you, my mother would warn. Watch yourself. Watch out. You’d better watch it. Watch what you’re doing. Watch where you’re going. Watch watch watch. Then: Don’t stare! she’d say. It’s not polite to stare. Don’t look at me like that. I was curious. I wanted to watch. I needed to stop watching myself. Stop being surveilled. I needed to be alone, invisible. To lose myself in order to imagine myself. With my mother’s focus elsewhere, I could stare and stare. Watch the way people dressed for a ball, sipped wine, walked across the Moors, escaped prison, or, like Steve McQueen, died trying.
This, too, was an in-between time. After school, before dinner and homework, before my father came home. It was a sibling time. In our living room, dark as a church with its dense fiberglass drapes through which not an iota of light passed, The 4:30 Movie was the site and sustenance of my fantasy life. As my siblings faded, became strangers around me, cocooned (my sister’s word) perhaps, in their own desires, I cloaked myself in whatever movie was on—Wuthering Heights, The Boy With Green Hair, Picnic, The Blob—then carried the characters and plots with me to the dinner table, through homework time, and into my bed, telling and retelling, revising and re-crafting the scenes. This was my safety, my escape hatch. I think it’s how I learned to write. How I imagined the kind of life I would have.