Why We Go to the Movies: Film and Community

Posted: October 16, 2014 by Blaine Grimes in Uncategorized
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I recently had the opportunity to attend a special event at a local movie theater—a Back to the Future Quote-Along. Since I wrote on Back to the Future not too long ago here at Reel Thinking, that’s not what I want to do with this post.[1] Instead, I want to focus on the event itself (the quote-along), drawing out some observations about cinema’s ability to create a sort of community and, thus, a communal viewing experience.

My wife and I, along with a couple of friends, packed into a crowded theater on a Saturday night, eager to watch—for the umpteenth time—Robert Zemeckis’ time-travel classic. On our way in, we were instructed to stop by a booth and get props for the screening (see picture). We each grabbed a glow stick, a scratch-and-sniff card, a “save the clock tower” flyer, and a miniature skateboard. Before the movie started, an emcee made his way to the front of the theater to explain the rules of the game. “This is an interactive experience,” he told us; “wave your glow sticks when the DeLorean hits 88 miles per hour.” Holding up the clock tower flyer as an example, he instructed us to do likewise every time Marty was asked to give money to save the clock tower. The scratch-and-sniff cards should be ceremonially scratched and sniffed at appropriate times throughout the films; smells will correspond to what is shown on screen. When Marty rides around town on his skateboard, we could perform tricks with our miniaturized versions. Then, having explained the proper use of the props, our host told us how the quoting would work. At various times, words would appear on the screen, karaoke style, telling us when to quote and what to say. “Don’t you dare say the lines early and ruin the experience for every one else,” he warned, “and enjoy the Back to the Future!” The show began, amid scattered cheers throughout the crowd.

It was one of the most lively times of movie-watching I’ve ever experienced. Laughter was abundant. We waived our glow sticks with fervor, and jovially exclaimed, “Great Scott!” along with Dr. Emmet Brown; clock tower flyers were hoisted in the air. The scratch-and-sniff cards provided us with some pleasant (and some unpleasant) smells to enhance our viewing experience. We cheered when George McFly finally stands up to Biff, delivering the knockout blow. We quoted, and quoted, and quoted. Sometimes we even quoted things that didn’t appear on the screen in karaoke text. It was undeniably geeky … and a lot of fun.

A few days after the fact, I thought about the event and was struck by a lingering, persistent question: Why? Why did a room full of people pay to go see a movie they can buy—or rent for even less money? I own the entire trilogy on Blu-ray and can quote the entire first movie in the comfort of my living room; so why was I excited to go see it in theaters? Why did a bunch of allegedly sane adults wave glowing sticks in the air to cheer on a car in a Hollywood movie? Well, I think the answer can be encapsulated in a single word: community. [2]

In short, we all packed into that crowded theater that night because we really, really like Back to the Future, and we wanted to see it with others who feel the same way. We wanted the community experience that the quote-along promised to provide. We were—if only for two short hours—a part of a vibrant and enthusiastic community. Every quote spoken, every glow stick raised served as a reminder that we were part of something bigger than ourselves, while simultaneously uniting us around a shared goal—the desire to (dare I say) fellowship with others in watching, a testimony to our common humanity. This language is hopefully familiar to Christian readers, for we are united in the crucified and resurrected God-man. United as a church, we proclaim our Lord’s death in the taking of the sacraments. And in His amazing and mysterious world, something as simple as a night at the movies can remind us that we were created for relationship.

  1. I will, however, talk about the movie as if you have seen it. If you haven’t, you truly must see it soon.  ↩
  2. In truth, there is a multiplicity of ways in which we can approach this question. I am not saying that the need for community is the only reason that people go to special events like quote-alongs. I maintain, however, that the claims presented herein are applicable—on some level—to the majority of spectators.  ↩
  1. Alice Brown says:

    I meant to comment on your commentary on Frozen and never got around to it. I observed that the most popular songs from Frozen were sung in solitary or future betrayal and solitude. We do need community, even if it is a bit contrived.

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