By Devika Girish in the May-June 2020 Issue
There’s a bit of trivia about the exhibition of pornographic movies in India that I’ve always found fascinating. Producing and distributing pornography is illegal in the country, and for decades, before sex became streamable on smartphones, short reels of hardcore porn were made illicitly and supplied to small cinema halls, where they were spliced randomly (often in the projection booth itself) into censor-approved feature films. Scholar Amit S. Rai describes encountering these “bits reels” in the midst of a movie screening in Mumbai in 2000, and watching it along with the audience. “Cannot forget that I saw a police officer in full uniform in the balcony seats, leaving the show with everyone else,” he adds.
Most of us, I imagine, have had the experience of squirming in our seats while watching a tad-too-arousing scene with friends or acquaintances or strangers (I vividly remember watching Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl on an ambivalent first date). But I find the picture painted by these accounts from India distinctly amusing: a mass of viewers in the public—even policed—realm of the theater, lit by the screen and separated from one another by inches, enjoying an indulgence as taboo and (literally) forbidden as porn. It feels preposterous, but it’s also an image that epitomizes the communal moviegoing experience: the thrilling transgression of both social and private space; the feeling of being acknowledged—and perhaps even watched—while watching. This tension lies, of course, at the very origins of cinema as a mass art. “The relation of a pair of eyes to the image was, quite literally, brought out into public view,” writes the film scholar Judith Mayne, describing the cultural transition from early instruments of individual voyeurism, like peep shows and kinetoscopes, to movie theaters.
These thoughts came to my mind recently during a group watch of Magic Mike XXL (2015) with some girlfriends about a week into the COVID-19 quarantine. A couple months before, I had begun with these friends a semi-regular ritual of gathering in one of our apartments and watching trashy, erotic thrillers. We decided to attempt to continue this program as best as we could during our self-isolation, using the combination of a streaming service and FaceTime. “3… 2… 1… go!” we counted down and tried to hit “play” on our laptops in sync, conspiring to share our reactions on video chat while watching the film together. But technical issues—the bane of any attempt to socialize virtually—soon scaled our ambition down to texting.
For those unfamiliar with the glories of Magic Mike XXL (a recurring entry, might I add, in the best-of-decade lists solicited from critics all over the world for the January-February 2020 issue of Film Comment): a flimsy story about the members of the stripper troupe seen in 2012’s Magic Mike reuniting to compete in a national “stripper convention” sets the stage for a string of neon-lit spectacles in which shiny-chested, thong-clad men undress to sultry R&B tunes. The movie’s subjugation of narrative to pure sensory display made it the perfect balm for my friends’ and my pandemic anxiety (and an appropriately interruptible film to watch while texting), and our messages produced a joyous and expectedly thirsty commentary on Channing Tatum’s thrusting abilities. And yet, watching some of its most sensuous scenes alone in my living room, I couldn’t help but notice how the privacy of the setting had defanged the excitement I’d felt when I’d seen the film in the theater. At home, it was just one (and a decidedly tame) option among the many titillations I could find on my screens; in the theater, the film’s overt appeals to female desire had seemed enough of a novelty to be embarrassing—to produce that particular, guilt-tinged thrill of experiencing pleasure in the company of others.
What do we really mean when we talk about watching films “together”? I’ve pondered this question at length in the last few weeks, ever since the coronavirus crisis forced us all indoors, extinguished our social lives, and shut down movie theaters across the world. I’ve mourned the loss of a contemporary film culture—of festivals, new releases, premieres, Q&As, the entire world-within-a-world of movies—but I’m also well-equipped, like most cinephiles who’ve come of age in the era of home video, to sustain my cinephilia within domestic confines. Many of us who grew up outside of metropolises, especially, owe our movie obsession to hours spent holed up inside, working our way through either piles of rented discs or, like me, folders of illicitly downloaded titles, gathered from magazines and internet forums, intangible networks defined by their own paradox of collective solitude. I’ve cherished big-screen moviegoing as it’s become more available to me, but my most memorable experiences have been—even when shared with others—ultimately solitary in nature. I remember the first time I ever lived in New York, a summer during which I would watch films by myself in theaters and then ride the subway, marveling at both the movies and the city, and the wonderful aloneness I would feel in both. “What I love about New York,” I’d say to people, “is you can cry on the subway and no one will blink an eye.” The same could be said about the movies, as Roland Barthes articulated eloquently: “It is in this urban dark that the body’s freedom is generated.”
If the moviegoing experience is defined by the illusion of being alone alongside others, couldn’t we summon the illusion of togetherness while alone at home? The many social networking apps that have emerged in recent years around movie culture (and surged in popularity with the spread of the coronavirus) offer precisely this: the possibility of recouping aspects of collective moviegoing in phantom-like ways. Many festivals and repertory theaters have begun to utilize Zoom and YouTube to supplement their virtual screenings with video Q&As. But other apps get even more granular. Google Chrome extensions like Netflix Party and TwoSeven enable users of specific streaming services to sync their viewing with others (eliminating the countdown approach my friends and I employed with Magic Mike XXL). Twitch, Facebook Live, Vimeo, and others offer a platform for live broadcasts and premieres. Plex is a software that allows people to stream the films stored locally in their friends’ hard drives. And the screen-sharing features of Zoom, Kast, and Skype get even closer: they let you hear and see your friends alongside the movie you’re all watching.
As more and more watch parties popped up in recent weeks, I decided to sample a selection of these methods and embark on a scientific experiment. What if, like hackers trying to reverse engineer code, we homebound cinephiles could patch together a shadow of the moviegoing experience within our personal screens? I began by targeting the most immediate casualty of self-isolation and its brake on social life: our sense of time. Spent indoors without the structure of commutes, dinners, and errands, days now blend into one another, as do the media we relentlessly consume: everything dissolves into the logic of television, or perhaps the internet, an atemporal stream of information, crisis, and entertainment, consumed distractedly as we attend to domestic matters or try to stave off panic. What I miss most in this time, I’ve realized, is moviegoing as a ritual I organize my life around: movies as events, not whims, that I attend with friends and strangers, our respective lives and schedules intersecting briefly for two shared hours.
To try to recover this aspect of my lifestyle, I “attended” a couple of scheduled watch parties in the first week of my quarantine. I hit play exactly at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday to watch and live-tweet Moonstruck (1987) with the global followers of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Later, I tuned into a Netflix Party organized by Ashley Clark of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to watch Locke (2013), a ridiculously somber chamber (well, chassis) drama starring Tom Hardy. Both of these experiences were emblematic of the joys of internet movie culture and community—discovering a beloved classic, or sharing in someone else’s enthusiasm for a film. And on both platforms, a conversational sidebar—Twitter in the case of Moonstruck, and an inbuilt chat function on Netflix Party—offered us the ability to react to scenes and moments together, underlining the simultaneity of our viewing.
For some, interruptions might be blasphemous to the cinematic experience, but my movie upbringing rid me of these purist notions. I grew up watching the Bollywood blockbusters of Karan Johar and Yash Chopra in cinemas filled with uproarious audiences who hooted, cheered, sang, and danced along, and stepped out for popcorn during the intermission, these interjections never puncturing the spell of the movie or its stars. Even in more decorous contexts, there is great joy in feeling the outbursts of emotion—the screams, shudders, laughs, sighs, sniffles—of our fellow viewers, which blend into our memories of the film. (Sometimes for the worse: The Hateful Eight will forever be colored in my mind by the raucous laughs of the adolescent men in the audience each time Jennifer Jason Leigh was hit or called a bitch.) These reactions, though, are special because they’re unselfconscious: moments in which we instinctively and sometimes unintentionally reveal ourselves to others.
With live-tweeting and Netflix Party, however, there’s the pressure to perform one’s reactions for the benefit of the chat room audience, who are watching your comments as much as the film. That tension contorts the vulnerable reactivity of the theatrical experience into something far more strained and effortful. You’re forced to instantly memorialize your feelings by committing them to text, often for posterity. They become an extension of your life on the internet: an addition to your Twitter profile; another performance of your carefully managed online avatar; another cannibalization of your inner life for content. Cheering at Cher and Nicolas Cage’s torrid embrace in Moonstruck or hooting at the latter’s sweaty-backed introduction doesn’t quite compare to the time I spent searching for GIFs of these scenes, and then drafting a tweet that I hoped struck the right balance between clever and genuine. And my amazement at the ludicrousness of Locke—it’s about a man who, in the course of a one-and-a-half-hour drive to the hospital for the birth of a child conceived during a one-night stand, tries to pacify his enraged wife on the phone, remotely supervises a crucial “concrete pour” with work colleagues, and delivers furious soliloquies to his long-dead abusive father—was diluted by my lackluster attempt to channel it into some humor. I confess I was mostly stone-faced with stress as I typed into the Netflix Party sidebar variations of “OMG,” “hahaha,” and “I still can’t believe THIS is the premise of the film.”
My second set of experiments grasped at another phenomenon that seems now lost to the stilled, dulled time of quarantine: the shared sense of discovery or encounter; of witnessing the unveiling of a new work and partaking in the frenzy of that moment with others who become, along with you, its initial correspondents. This experience is the lifeblood of a critic, which we are deprived as festivals and releases are either postponed or moved online. VOD premieres are a poor substitute; a film’s availability is not the same as its arrival, which is bounded by time, a place, a gathering of people.
So I sought out online premieres that seemed to reproduce these conditions best: live and interactive film performances, streamed at a designated time, interpellating the audience in their very unfolding. The first one I attended was Maya Daisy Hawke’s Unfated Yet, a multipart “social media novel” about her collaborations with her husband, editor Joe Bini, and his longtime collaborator, Werner Herzog, which debuted for free on Facebook Live after its slot at Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look Fest was cancelled. The second was Zia Anger’s My First Film, a multimedia performance that, in narrating the director’s experience making her debut feature, makes defiantly public the unspoken pains and personal sacrifices required of women to break into the film industry. Anger has been performing her work at many venues since 2018, but streamed it for the first time via Vimeo in March. She structured her performances like a series of repertory screenings, announcing the times via Twitter and distributing the links to a limited number of interested attendees on a first-come-first-served basis.
Both artists shared pieces of their intimate lives through their desktop screens as part of the performances: Instagram stories, home videos, and bits of old filmmaking. Watching their cursors traverse and click around their screens—which was also my own screen—was a ghostly experience. It was as if my laptop had been possessed by them, their digital lives grafted onto mine. Both works also included some simple interactive elements; however, unlike with live-tweets and Netflix Party, these mediated exchanges didn’t just affirm the simultaneity of the collective experience—which was already ensured by the setup—but were integrated into the rhythms and visual textures of the performances themselves. Crucially, they allowed not only for communication among viewers, but also with (or at least at) the filmmakers. Hawke employed Facebook’s comments section, which was archived as part of the record of her piece; in Anger’s case, viewers were set up to text each other and her. The texts she received would pop up every now and then on the corner of her—and my—screen, the Pavlovian trinng! of iMessage startling me every time, making me reach instinctively for my phone. The reflexivity of these elements took me out of the communal dimension of the viewing—I felt too enclosed within the glossy surfaces of my devices—but they provoked a split sense of self that seemed to reify, in strange ways, the paradox of theatrical spectatorship: the feeling of peering into someone else’s world while also, briefly, inhabiting it.
I set up my third and final experiment myself, with a couple of colleagues, using screen sharing—another unsettling hall-of-mirrors option that lets you share your personal screen with others. I used Zoom, the conferencing software du jour, which allows everyone on the call to see and hear each other in addition to what’s being played on the screen—approximating as closely as possible the experience of being in one another’s presence, and looking at the same image at the same time. (My colleagues and I chose to use the audio function only, concurring that having to stare directly at each other’s faces while watching the movie would doom this experiment before it took off.)
To test the capacity of this setup to accommodate our cinematic appetites, we chose a movie that could seem ill-fitted to sharing with others on a small screen: Tsai Ming-Liang’s sublime Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), whose quiet, spare scenes, set in a soon-to-be-shuttered Taipei theater during a final screening of the King Hu classic, Dragon Inn (1967), resist casual interjections and quick reactions. At the same time, it was a fittingly poignant film to watch as we all grappled with the temporary absence of movie going. It offered us a spectral and vicarious resurrection of the feeling of being inside a theater, the uncanniness of it all compounded by the literal vicariousness of my colleagues watching the film through my screen.
As the movie began, we wondered aloud whether we should chat while we watched, feeling out the terms of our “togetherness.” But we were soon hushed into contemplation by the film, which follows a handful of characters as they each interact with the space of the near-empty theater in different ways: the ticket-taker limps up and down the stairs in search of someone; a tourist lurks in and out, attempting to cruise for sex; actors from Dragon Inn watch themselves on the big screen and tear up. I found it comforting to have the movie’s long, gesture-filled silences be punctuated by the gentle sounds of my colleagues’ breathing, or sometimes their “ha!” of delight or comprehension. The knowledge that they could hear me move and speak and see any activity on my screen bound my attention to the film in a curious way, discouraging any breaks or distracted email checks. (One of my viewing partners put it a different way, describing the experience as akin to being in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.)
Watching the characters in Goodbye, Dragon Inn engage in active, bodily spectatorship—bringing the physical space of the theater to life by shifting and moving, looking at each other’s faces, putting up their feet on seat backs—I flashed back to one of the last films (and certainly the best) that I saw in a cinema before all the shutdowns: Tsai’s latest, Days, whose premiere I caught in February at the Berlinale. A nearly dialogue-less film made up of similarly affect-rich, durational scenes, it opens with a static shot of Lee Kang-sheng, his face rugged and gently pained, gazing out of a window as the rain pours outside. The scene lasts for more than five minutes. Halfway in, some audience members started to look around at others’ faces in puzzlement. Some tittered, while others shifted and fidgeted in their seats. Time seemed to slow down, and I became hyperaware of all the people in the room, attuned to their slightest sounds, cognizant of the fact that we were all collectively and kinesthetically processing the film, and when we left, we’d each feel its effects in singular ways in our bodies and minds.
I remembered this scene while watching Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and then I thought again of Barthes and his essay, “Leaving the Movie Theater.” What he likes, he says in the piece, is to leave the cinema; to feel “soft, limp, and . . . a little disjointed,” as if emerging from a collective hypnosis into the harsh light of his own experience. It’s only when we exit from the bounded space of film-viewing, from the mass of its audience, that a movie takes complete hold of us, turning into its most potent form: memories, imprints on our subconscious.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn finally ended. I bid adieu to my colleagues and turned off my laptop. And I clung to the film’s final shot, of the ticket-taker walking out into the rain-soaked street, as I looked longingly out the window.
Devika Girish is the Assistant Editor at Film Comment.