Slow Takes: We Come to This Place for Magic

Feature image by Ana Rocio Garcia Franco via Getty Images

We come to this place for magic…

I don’t remember the year, but I know I had to look in a newspaper.

I’d always loved movies — more than your average child — but that year I’d adopted the history of cinema as my own personal project. I watched classics on TCM, begged my parents to buy me cheap DVDs from Target, and watched TV edits of more adult films on cable. Then I discovered the Aero.

The LA Times Calendar section had a list of “revival screenings” in the city. That weekend, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was playing a Hitchcock double feature: Rope and Lifeboat. I asked my dad to drive the hour without traffic — there’s always traffic — and he said yes.

It was an enthralling experience. To see classic movies on a big screen, to be in the city surrounded by other movie lovers. Two weeks later, we were already back to see Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.

I got a membership to the American Cinematheque and frequented their theatres the Aero and the Egyptian as often as I could convince my parents to make the drive from the suburbs. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chimes at Midnight, a Jane Campion double feature.

I always loved movies, but this was when I really fell in love.

We come to AMC movie theaters to laugh, to cry, to care. Because we need that, all of us…

Since my birthday is on Christmas Eve, it never really felt like mine. I didn’t care. Spending the day with extended family who had married into Christianity was worth it to never have to go to school. I liked having my birthday amid everyone’s festivities.

But in high school, I started a birthday tradition that was entirely my own. I drove into the city with my two best friends and went to the now closed Arclight Theatre in Hollywood. We got three tickets to three movies with breaks for lunch, dinner, and a trip to Amoeba Music, my favorite video and record store. The first year the movies were 127 Hours, Somewhere, and Rabbit Hole.

There was a moment in Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s underrated and vibey father-daughter drama, where I felt some of the deepest happiness I’d ever felt. It wasn’t the movie that was so special — it was the moment.

High school was a tough time for me. Two years earlier, I didn’t know these friends. I didn’t really have friends at all. I certainly couldn’t have imagined finding people who would have wanted to celebrate my birthday doing the thing I most wanted to do.

Sitting in that theatre, in between these friends, I felt loved.

That indescribable feeling we get when the lights begin to dim and we go somewhere we’ve never been before…

When I moved to New York for college, revival theatres became even more accessible. There were so many of them! Within walking distance! No more convincing my parents — or friends — to spend three hours in the car. Now the only challenge was convincing the 18-year-olds in my dorm to watch movies that were in black and white or not in English or — gasp! — both.

A few weeks in, I decided to go to the Film Forum to see Les Diaboliques, a French horror movie from the 50s with lesbian undertones I wouldn’t pick up on. I asked all my new friends on my floor and, to my surprise, my crush was the one who said yes.

We sat in the uncomfortable old Film Forum seats watching a great movie, and I realized all my dreams had come true. I was in New York City! Watching an old movie! With a girl! After, we walked through Washington Square Park like the leads of a romcom.

It didn’t matter that our impromptu date got cut short by her ex-girlfriend back home getting upset she was out with a boy. It was a perfect night. Bisexual chaos on-screen and off.

Not just entertained, but somehow reborn together…

Things didn’t work out with my dorm crush, but they did with the crush from my scholarship seminar. She became my first real relationship and then, as it goes, my first real breakup.

But not before we saw a lot of movies in theatres together, and not before I followed her to Europe. Our scholarship incentivized us to study abroad and with her major she’d be gone an entire year. And since she was a grade above, I’d be back in New York that whole time. We broke up beforehand like mature adults and then quickly got back together like the scared kids we actually were.

I requested to move my study abroad up a year so we could at least spend one of those semesters traveling together. Thankfully, I stuck with my plan to go to Paris instead of following her to Florence, because a week after arriving, she broke up with me via text message.

I chose Paris for the same reason, I started sitting in the front rows of movie theatres — the French New Wave. This film movement had inspired me so much as a teen, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps as much as possible.

Heartbroken and alone, I did what those filmmakers I admired had done half a century earlier. I went to the Cinémathèque Français. Since I’d gone abroad a year early, I wasn’t there with any friends. And I wasn’t ready to make new ones yet. I wanted a romantic French depression.

They were playing Jaqcues Tati’s Playtime and while my French wasn’t very good, I still went. I’d seen it before, and its physical comedy transcends language.

Sitting in that theatre, far away from my ex, farther away from my home, I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Dazzling images on a huge silver screen… Sound that I can feel…

Back in New York, I learned about an incredible new service called MoviePass. This was before the untenable days of ten dollars a month, but even forty dollars was a deal.

My school was in the village, surrounded by theatres. There was always something playing and now that it was free, I’d duck into a movie just because it was cold or hot or I had a couple hours to kill between classes.

I didn’t have to question if something was worth the NYC ticket price. I could just live at the movies.

I made so many discoveries that way — movies I knew nothing about that left an impact on my life. One of these films was Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker which I saw in a mostly empty weekday matinee at the IFC Center. I was taken with its singular, bombastic style, with its nesting doll of genres.

I reached out to Mona to express my admiration for her film. I did this a lot in college because I had no connections and didn’t know any other way to make them except cold emails. Unlike those other attempts, this one got a reply. Not only a reply, but Mona watched one of my shorts, gave me notes, and met me for coffee.

It was the rare career encouragement I received at that point in my life. All because I happened upon a free movie in the middle of the day.

Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this…

A movie theatre was the first reason I left my apartment after the 2016 election.

My day job at the time was at a company that filmed legal depositions. Sometimes this took me around the country, but often it was more managerial from home. This week, thankfully, it was from home.

The Thursday after the election, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman was playing at Metrograph with Dunye in attendance. Even though I still thought I was a cis straight boy, I wanted to see this movie. I got on the train from Queens into Manhattan, my own sullen face joining those around me. I got a burger at a nearby diner and cried into the bun for the world and our future.

The movie changed my life. It became my north star half a year later when I came out as trans. Dunye’s commitment to creating her own history became my own. Even though our lesbian experiences are separated by race, age, location, and transness, no artist has shown me possibility quite like Dunye.

And that night, I felt something like hope. Dunye talked about how bad things were, how bad things had been, how good things could get, how hard it would be.

She didn’t have answers, but she did have a movie. And, for a couple hours, that was enough.

Our heroes feel like the best parts of us…

A year later, I knew I was a woman. I’d come out to everyone except my day job, I’d been wearing makeup and feminine clothing for six months, and I’d just started on hormones.

That night, my parents were in town to see the play I’d spent the past months directing. It was the first time I’d be seeing my mom since I’d come out to her over the phone. I spent the morning at the Angelika Film Center watching Lady Bird, a story of mothers and daughters.

I cried and cried and cried, the new hormones letting me feel all my feelings. The tenderness, the fear of disappointment, the commitment to still being yourself.

This experience steeled me for the rest of the day. The compassion of the film became my own compassion for my parents, for the time they would need to adjust.

Movie theatres are one of the few spaces we have to disconnect and focus on one thing. The big screen replaces the little screens. A moment reserved to slow down, to process. A meditation.

Like The Watermelon Woman, Lady Bird wasn’t my story — but in that theatre, in the dark, it felt like mine. It helped me hold onto a strength trans people are so often forced to show. It held me like I needed to be held.

And stories feel perfect and powerful…

The last time I went to a movie theatre before the pandemic, I took myself on a solo date to see Birds of Prey at the Los Feliz 3, a theatre that has since been purchased by the same American Cinematheque that changed my life all those years ago.

Throughout that first year of the pandemic, not being able to go to movie theatres hurt. Of course, I was too concerned with all the death and isolation to notice, but upon reflection the lack was immense. Attempts to bring back the drive-in were cute, but they just weren’t the same.

Last year, the movies came back. In the Heights was released on June 10, 2021. AMC was still checking vaccine cards and placing buffer seats between customers. My friend B recruited as many people as she could and we basically bought out the screening.

I kept my mask on, but it still felt like a triumphant return. I can nitpick details about this adaptation of one of my favorite musicals, but that night all I cared about was seeing a big musical on the big screen, surrounded by friends.

By the time AMC released their now famous Nicole Kidman ad a few months later, this return was marred with compromise. Vaccine and mask mandates had been lifted, variants had arrived. Every screening, like so many things in life, became about managing risk, weighing options.

But I still managed to go to the movies. A mostly empty matinee showing of Zola at a mall in Kentucky near where I was working for the summer. An early press screening of The Matrix: Resurrections that required a Covid test. A midday double feature of C’mon C’mon and Drive My Car — two great movies in mostly empty theatres, a whole day at the AMC Sunset.

Before each film, the ad played. While it’s easy to laugh at the commercial — and even easier to parody it — Kidman was right when she explained its popularity with a simple: “It’s so true.” Kidman is one of our great remaining movie stars. She’s otherworldly in a way few people remain. She is the movies. She understands the movies. She understands that no matter the changing landscape movie theatres will always be the movies.

Since I was a kid, movie theatres have been my refuge, my classroom, my church. Whether an AMC, the Aero, or the Cinémathèque Française, the cinema is where I’ve gone to look outward, to look inward, to affirm myself, and to be challenged.

We have not even begun to reckon with all we’ve lost, the collective trauma of the past few years, the trauma that continues. There will be many important spaces to do this healing. Movie theatres will be one of mine. Especially when my masks come off, when a theatre being crowded feels exciting rather than stressful, when the community of the cinema returns with the same intensity as what’s on-screen.

It’s not just the stories that feel perfect and powerful — it’s the experiences.

Because here… They are.


Slow Takes is a series of “belated” reviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.


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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew Burnett has written 330 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I used to love going to the movies. We went 4-5 nights a week and spent hours on Saturday sneaking from one film to the next. We were terrible – we snuck in snacks, drinks, bought one ticket to one movie and watched three. Only at the big chains though, at the art house theaters we bought tickets for every show we saw. Those were the days.

    I lost the move for mingling with strangers. On their phones. Chatting. Texting. Doing anything but watching a movie I’m so desperate to get lost in, so I stopped going. Instead, we did what we could to emulate the movie experience at home. A 90” wall-mounted TV. Speakers in our walls and ceilings. Complete darkness in the movie room. The smell of popcorn. The comfort of our couch. The pause button for breaks and talking. It doesn’t replace the movies but it’s close.

  2. Love, love, love the way you summon up the full-sensory experience of nostalgia and novelty and deep belonging – it feels sacred. When I was studying psychoanalytic film theory I laughed at the description of the movie screen as the breast, the curtains the blouse being pulled back. And, yet.

  3. Drew, this piece is so beautiful. Thank you so much for your slow takes column, I love it so much!! My favorite type of essay on this site is the first-person like interwoven story on a theme essay and this one is truly chef kiss. I just got into movies/going back to seeing things in theaters in a big way this year and feel so much of what you’ve captured here. I also love love love how you’ve paired this with that iconic Nicole Kidman AMC monologue, truly perfect. Very tongue-in-cheek but also incredibly earnest. Ugh! Beautiful!!!!!

  4. This was such a lovely piece. Thank you! The details really hit for me, as someone who finds solace in movie theaters no matter where I happen to be in the world. First impulse when I’m lost or spiritually malnourished. I had a similar experience at the Cinémathèque Française. My solo adventure in Paris hadn’t turned out to be as glittering an experience as I thought it would be. In this gloom, I went to see The Last Metro, not able to understand the language but a magical experience nonetheless. And then later was able to enjoy the film, which did not have all the same plot points and emotional waves I had imagined on my first viewing. So, in a sense, my viewing in Paris was a singular film just for me that day. May we always have these sanctuaries 💜

  5. Thank you for another beautifully written piece! I really enjoy your writing. My husbian and i used to drop off our kids with Baba and Grampa in Washington Heights and go to dinner and a movie at Lincoln Center movie theater, which is now gone. It was such an experience, going down the escalator into the subterranean space. The decor was groovy and the food was actually meal-like, with sandwiches and if I recall correctly, bagels and lox. Then we would line up and go in and the chatter was fun in the line. No spoilers! It felt like a community of sorts. Lots of older people and mostly Jewish and just very New York. Now we watch everything at home but I really hope to create a new habit of seeing amazing movies in an intimate old theater.

    On another note, this piece convinced me that I am registering for your film class. What was the start date again?

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