After I booked my first COVID-19 vaccination appointment, I started to let myself look forward to exactly two things. These activities, while certainly not equivalent in importance, were the two most discrete things I had been missing since last March, when the pandemic struck New York. The first thing, of course, was being able to safely travel to see my parents and my sister. I bought a plane ticket to Seattle as soon as I knew the date I’d be inoculated; I practically levitated off the ground with happiness when I finalized the purchase, knowing that I wouldn’t cancel this trip out of safety concerns at the last minute like I had done twice before.
The second activity? Going to the movie theater, naturally. Movie theaters in the city reopened at reduced capacity in early March, after an entire year of closure for public safety. I wanted to wait until I was vaccinated before treating myself to a movie on the big screen, so I could revel in the experience without worry, guilt, or fear. And so, two weeks ago, the day before I left for Seattle, Keith and I went out to see a movie. We saw Riders of Justice. We both enjoyed it. But investing something that was once so regular for us with such a symbolic sense of special occasion—Things will finally feel a little normal again when I can go to the movies, I had thought to myself more than once—made the whole outing a bit overwhelming.
Going to the movies again undoubtedly filled me with joy. I had missed the immersive experience of sitting in the dark and totally losing myself in a film. I had missed hearing strangers’ audible reactions to sharp jokes and shocking acts of violence, and Riders of Justice provided plenty of both. I had missed complaining about the odd, small screens at the Angelika like the provincial New Yorker I aspire to become. Walking out of the theater, putting together my thoughts on the film so that Keith and I could chat about it on the way home, it did somehow feel like I’d taken a big step towards reassembling my life after spending a year in limbo. It was unspeakably sweet to fall back into a well-loved, old habit.
Simultaneously, going back to the movies at last also felt like no big deal—almost a letdown. It didn’t actually mark much at all. I hadn’t suddenly found my “new normal” and discovered a clear way forward out of one of the weirdest years I’ve ever lived through. It didn’t heal anything. This strange, double feeling of elation and deflation kept recurring over the next couple of weeks, as I did several formerly commonplace activities again for the first time since the pandemic started last spring.
It’s nice to feel like things are returning to normal (as sick as I am of that phrase and the underlying assumption that “normal” was good for everyone before the pandemic hit), and I’m eager to come out of my suspended state of semi-solitude. Seeing my family again, in person, replenished my spirit in ways I can’t fully articulate; for now, suffice it to say that there’s absolutely no replacement in the world for a hug. I love walking outside without a mask on because it means I can smile at all of the cute dogs I see when I’m out in the neighborhood. Going to a friend’s house for dinner, inside and unmasked, brought on a kind of giddiness. The cautious optimism prompted by the rising vaccination rate and dropping infection rate in the U.S. feels, pardon my French, fucking great.
I’m not sure that I’m entirely ready to return to “normal” life, though. I first suspected that the transition might be more difficult than I wanted to admit when I read the March 4th edition of Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study. The short piece was called “No I’m Not Ready,” and it resonated so deeply that I immediately had to re-read it. In the newsletter, Petersen confesses her personal feelings of hesitancy about jumping head-first into post-pandemic life. She writes about how it will be a long, complicated, and perhaps non-linear path for each of us to get back to “normal.” She writes:
Here’s where I remind you that we have endured nearly a year — a year! — of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma. … And you have had to make it survivable in some way. The brain and the body do not simply bounce back from sustained labor. Going to a bunch of weddings and getting toasted might be part of a strategy [to bounce back], but it is not the strategy.
Okay, wow. So, going out to the movies again might be part of a strategy, but it is not the strategy. Doing “normal” things again will help me feel normal in the short run, but it won’t help me process the grief, loss, and trauma of the last year. As much as I’d love to pretend last year didn’t happen (wouldn’t we all?), it looks like I’m going to have to face the last fourteen months.
I don’t have much of a desire to reflect for too long on the past year; I want to look forward, towards the good things presumably coming. I want to think about seeing In The Heights on the big screen and paying too much for movie theater popcorn, to keep it film-related. This post was supposed to be about the pleasure of returning to the movie theater, a little light-hearted and tossed-off missive from the front lines of the reopening. I wanted to look forward.
It turned out to be sort of ironic, then, that the film I chose for my first foray back to the cinema should be Riders of Justice. Anders Thomas Jensen’s dark comedy sells itself as a revenge flick, the sort of thing that would sit alongside Taken or any number of other slick actioners about a middle-aged man with special skills who avenges a wronged or murdered family member. The actual film is anything but that, however. Riders of Justice is, at its heart, a story about the necessity and difficulty of acknowledging the senseless nature of loss and trauma directly. It is, among other things, an exploration of the ways that people avoid dealing with their grief, to the detriment of their own mental health.*
RIDERS OF JUSTICE: Men will literally go on a murderous spree instead of going to therapy. (I really enjoyed it! Dark, violent, laugh-out-loud funny, and also a tender look at processing grief and dealing with repressed emotion.)
— Lovely Leah (@TheMingtacular) May 17, 2021
The losses I’ve sustained over the past year are surely an order of magnitude smaller than those endured by the characters in Riders of Justice. I’m not presuming to make a one-to-one comparison; we’re talking about thematic echoes here. But I found it slightly unsettling to be confronted with such a film when I have been so determined not to face my own grief over everything lost, collectively and personally, during the pandemic. Especially when going back to the movie theater was supposed to signify that I was moving on from all of that.
I feel like a whiner when I try to talk about it. I’ve been so fortunate, all things considered. I tell myself that the losses I suffered aren’t big enough, important enough, to merit grieving, for God’s sake. (I don’t apply this ridiculous standard to anyone else, of course, only to myself.) I push forward, forward, always forward. I focus on what I think I can control. Then I sit down to write a quick, breezy blog post about what was a mostly nice afternoon, and it turns into… this.
I’m trying to sit with my feelings rather than brush them away. I’m trying to heed the advice I read again and again: I’m trying to accept my own emotional responses and be forgiving towards myself when I can’t effortlessly “bounce back.” I’m going to publish this somewhat sad, rather uncertain, and decidedly unpolished version of what I probably could have turned into a pat anecdote about the euphoria of emerging from my pandemic cocoon. Yes, the euphoria is real, but so is the lingering gloom. Recognizing that gloom, and recognizing that simply doing “normal” activities again isn’t going to dispel it, is the only way I can think of right now to start truly recovering. I’m not hoping to make sense of it or fix it. All I can do is honor that strange double feeling and give it space, here and elsewhere.
Near the end of her essay, Petersen writes that figuring out post-pandemic life as we process our grief is “going to feel periodically awful in new ways, and it’s going to be a continuing struggle, but it’s also going to be amazing.” Yep. That’s pretty much exactly how I’ve felt for the past month. Going back to the movies was no exception.
*In his four-star review of the film for rogerebert.com, critic Matt Zoller Seitz sums it up like this: “‘Did a therapist write this?’ is not a sentence one expects to see in one’s notes on a movie where Mads Mikkelsen guns men down with an assault rifle.”
4 thoughts on “A girl walks into a movie theater…”
Cynthia Miley says:
That was quite a trip of emotions; yet, not sure if the roller coaster ride is over. As we inch back into normal, whatever that might be, shall we just enjoy the ride.
Thank you! 💕
Leah Carlson-Downie says:
I’m not sure the ride is over yet, either! Definitely trying to take it day by day.
This is one of my favorite things you’ve written. And that says a lot!
Leah Carlson-Downie says:
Thank you so much for reading, and thank you for the incredibly high praise! What a compliment from a dear friend and a fellow writer. I’m blushing.