The Joy Menu #65: Movies
That was the drug, I think. That liminality, that escape, that floating, etherial disconnection — or re-connection. I wonder: how many lives did he live this way through film?
In Mexico City, I find myself alone. I’ve just turned 40, and the city rumbles on without a flicker of care (which is, in part, why I’m here).
My Airbnb is so small I’m uncomfortable spending too much time in it. It’s a room on a roof. A tiny house on top of a not-so-tiny house.
Feet from my bed, a small roof lawn is constantly being sprinkled. It manages to be both open-air and entirely lacking any view — also, it’s where the toilet is. Past this, at the bottom of a rickety cast iron staircase, two ratty dogs sleep fitfully, begging for love with their seeping eyes.
After long days at the keyboard, pajama-clad and unwashed, I head into the neighborhoods to walk — intending to have coffee and tacos and sit quietly by myself to read the French novel I (incongruously) brought with me.
Yet, instead, every evening, I end up walking past a movie theater, and then, inadvertently, or absentmindedly, checking the times, watching a preview on my phone, buying a Coke (sin azúcar), and then heading in.
The first night, I see an Irish movie.
The accents are thick and I remember a time, in Spain, when I was barely twenty, and traveling with a girl I had just broken up with: we saw a Scottish movie and for minutes couldn’t understand what language it was in — the disconnect between the Spanish we were unable to understand and the accents that it hit us like bacteria our brains couldn’t digest left us gape-mouthed and frustrated. (I wondered, then, if that’s how my own grandfather sounded when he arrived in St Louis, at 6, from Newcastle). Those same fatigued brains, so convinced we were hearing German, had also run out of shampoo and traveled for the last two weeks of the trip with dirty hair.
The next night, I see a Mexican movie.
It’s a rom-com road-trip film, but has very little of what I’d recognize as “rom.” The road-tripping is interesting; it suggests that all of Mexico looks, in effect, like California. Which is how I felt in Cape Town, when I went to visit my sister there, driving from Muizenberg around the Cape of Good Hope. “Is this not Laguna?” we said to each other. And, “No wonder Dad liked California so much.” It’s also how I felt in Spain, traveling with unwashed hair, driving my travel partner crazy naming each piece of vegetation: “We have that, too.”
The third night I see a Spanish movie.
It’s a movie about making a movie, which means it’s about acting, faking, storytelling, and the insecurities of artistry — themes I know well. At one point I sneak my phone out to take a photo of the lead; she looks so much like my ex-wife (the same small face, framed with an explosion of curls, the same pinched mouth, cheekbones carved from cedar; an accent equally furious and staccato); she was from Southern Spain and often remarked on the similarities between her home and the Western US landscape where we’d ended up.
On the last night, I wander out of the theater and into the dark, crossing in front of taxis, walking back to what already feels like “my” side of town. Through darkened parks and quiet side streets, I’m unable to adjust entirely to what life I am living, to what reality I inhabit, to exactly which plot line I’m living in right then — film or vacation or memory or migration.
And I think about my father.
Who loved more than anything an evening (or day or night) at the movies; who, if given three days off, would make a list of the eight movies he wanted to see and would make an earnest attempt to see them all. Who would cross them off one-by-one on the little strip of paper he kept by the front door (next to his wallet and phone) — an act completed, a to-do done.
To call him a film buff would have been an error. Though he loved movies, loved films, loved theaters, loved stories, actors, scripts, soundtracks — loved it all. He never much wanted to talk about what he saw; an arithmetic of reaction, critical consumption, discussion of what-when-how, those were never his drive.
Rather, he wanted to go to the movies, he wanted to see the film, he wanted to wander into that other world, feel his heart rate slow as he entered a plot line not his own, immersed himself in the other as if into a warm body of water, and then head home lost in that special half-dazed blur, that other-place, that imaginative no-space I found myself wandering through on those darkened Mexico City streets days after turning 40.
That was the drug, I think. That liminality, that escape, that floating, etherial disconnection — or re-connection. Holding each thread, braided from our own life and into those others; lives we’ve lived, and imagined, and witnessed, and felt to be true.
I wonder: how many lives did he live this way?
Or was it just one long life blurred by so many films seen — on the big screen and not?
As I walk, the temperature of the air around me drops, taxis slow alongside and then speed up, the traffic lights flick red and then green and then red.
I feel the cold air of the theater (“did you bring a sweatshirt?”), a protein bar in my pocket (so many diets); hear the smack of the deck of pre-paid tickets he bought in bulk and would shuffle like a poker dealer before we left the house, the gurgle of the giant diet coke he’d drink in 30 seconds; see him choose the aisle seat — always the aisle seat, mid-way or far toward the back (so far back!), staying seated through the end of the credits no matter what; make the trip with him to pee upon exit (always, even if you don’t have to go); feel the calm anticipation of the film about to begin, the soft sigh upon exit: “that was a good one, huh.”
Have I inherited his love of this ritual — or do I take part in it now to reenter his world, the way I once joined him in it, connected with him, connected to him, accompanying him to whatever film he wanted to see?
Where is the line between a learned ritual and a shared passion?
How often still, when the film credits roll across the screen, do I think: Dad would have loved this one. Or, leaving, have I grabbed for my phone: I need to ask Dad if he’s seen it.
Dad, add this one to your list. Don’t miss it. Did you see it? What did you think?
He always wanted to see another — later that day, the same day, or the next.
Onward toward creative joy,
"I’m unable to adjust entirely to what life I am living, to what reality I inhabit, to exactly which plot line I’m living in right then — film or vacation or memory or migration."
"Where is the line between a learned ritual and a shared passion?"