Before the pandemic, the local cinema was my favorite place to be. On any given weekend, and even most weekdays, I could be found watching or rewatching a film, sitting in the backmost half row of the cinema’s primary theater—a row I called Row M½. And although Row M½’s importance to me has not changed in the months since I last saw it, the emotions that surround it have. Trailers that used to spark anticipation for an upcoming box office release now spark nostalgia for a night that I could have been more appreciative for. The smell of microwave popcorn that I knew didn’t compare to the theater’s recipe now reminds me that this facsimile is the closest I’ll get to the real thing. The act of turning down the TV volume late at night out of neighborly consideration now gives me pangs of longing for the boom of two toddler-sized subwoofers built into the walls. All these aches, all these needling desires, I have bottled up until a terminus that lies nowhere on the horizon, at least not as far as anyone can tell. The purpose of this piece is to dissect some of my own feelings about the movies, and to hopefully stir up a feeling in the reader about their own local theater. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t have any replacements, but I do like to note that, while we can’t exactly share movies with each other right now, we can at least still share stories.
I started masturbating while bootlegging films in early or mid 2008 after being laid off from my job at a local bookstore. The habit arose mostly from a desire for cheap escapism, caused and perpetuated in no small part by a declining economy and a job market that was growing sparser by the week. I acknowledge that some might find it inappropriate—the masturbating part—and I offer that I actually used to be a repeat patron at more sex-positive establishments like peep shows and drive-in cinemas. But these alternatives had already all but disappeared by the end of the 90s, and were entirely gone from my town by 2008. Given my financial situation and the dearth of alternatives, the value proposition of masturbooting (bootsturbating?) at Cirrus Cinema was clear enough: I could achieve one of several quotidian releases and simultaneously make a decent amount of money selling the bootlegs, with the only proviso being that I keep my involvement in the production down to the occasional grunt or two, preferably released during a loud scene. It was thus that I decided to head to Cirrus for the first time to see if the idea was feasible. While I was just looking for a place to hang my hog at the time, what I ended up finding was an unexpected home at the back of the theater, in Row M½.
The first detail that I noticed about Cirrus Cinemas was that it was a shithole. The lobby and exterior were, as a whole, a ratty, nauseating masterpiece of 80s suburban cultural sterility. The floors were immaculately evenly coated with what I deduced by smell was a Pinesol-melted-Raisinette solution, the seats were well-worn in the same way that a motorcycle crash victim’s knee skin is well-worn, and the demeanor of the employees always lay somewhere between the anarchistic “the customer is never right” to the avant-garde “fuck the customer.” But, once I had entered the lobby, I had no intention of stopping the search for my spot. I pressed on, past the dirty ticket counters, past the highway-robbing concession stands, past the eye-catching and not-unarousing massive cartoon chipmunk cutouts. I was determined to find what I was looking for.
As I was surveying the main theater for conditions that would be conducive to maintaining hand-eye-hand coordination for the length of a feature film, it became obvious to me that Row M½ was undervalued real estate. Not only was it the smallest and furthest-back row, it also happened to be the darkest. The size and location made it unlikely for me to get caught, and the darkness eliminated glare while conferring some amount of privacy and hopefully plausible deniability. I unfortunately cannot rigorously explain the features of Row M½ that made it so special, as the number of pros necessary to outweigh the con of needing to visually inspect the soda machine nozzle for lice is far too large to be expanded here. So instead I would like to skip ahead and share one of my favorite and most endearing stories in detail. This story is about the discovery of the tiny locker hidden away somewhere inside Row M½.
I found the locker by pure coincidence. Some time in July of 2008, I had decided to go masturbate to Mamma Mia! in theaters. I had chosen to go on a Wednesday night, when attendance would be perfectly sparse. By that time, I had already upgraded my setup to a proper digital camera instead of a cassette-based handycam, a boom mic instead of a tiny built-in camera mic, an adjustable tripod instead of a propped-up elbow, and an oil-based lubricant instead of butter. However, as it was a beautiful summer evening, and I had no excuse to be wearing a ski coat or large opaque poncho, I was only able to sneak in the camera. The previews began to play just as I took my seat in the empty row. I quickly got out my grumbles and coughs, stabilized my camera arm on the armrest, and hit record with my slicked right index finger.
I recall at some point during the “SOS” number in the movie where Pierce Brosnan tries to win back the affection of Meryl Streep and I was close to climaxing that I saw a silhouette appear just within my periphery. I squinted to see it was the usher, walking into the theater, presumably to swiftly complete his appointed rounds of ensuring that people aren’t throwing drinks or fucking the seat cushions. I reacted almost instantly, tilting my head to the side, making it appear as if I were leaning on my camera hand, and rearranging my face to look like I was shocked and baffled by the choice to cast Brosnan as Sam, which, to be fair, I was. The grab-ass gestapo walked by me, barely looking in my direction, walked around Row M½, and went back out of the theater. I distinctly remember, as Meryl stared at Pierce inexplicably putting ornaments on a tree that had appeared outdoors, thinking to myself how lucky I was to spot the usher in time. But the thought gave me pause, and the realization hit: it was the shadows cast by lights in the theater’s narrow hallway entrance that gave away the cum cop’s presence, and it was my specific viewing angle that allowed me to see him! In other words, Row M½ had, again, saved my skin! This overwhelming sense of gratitude coupled with the visual teasing of Meryl and Pierce pressing themselves against a rustic brick wall, so nearly back to back, was too much for my body to hold in. I shot into my cup of Fanta with a velocity I was certain would cause a moan throaty and loud enough to ruin my film. But, to my surprise, I heard a crashing sound instead. For a moment I thought perhaps it was a deus ex ventana, come to rapture my spirit from its shitty Earthly bonds, or at least give me a job, but when my eyes rolled back down I saw that the crashing sound was not the shattering of a glass window, but the breaking of wood, and it came from below my chair.
While I was blacked out and convulsing in a violent full-body meditation on cinematographic critique, I had apparently kicked the floor so hard that a board cracked and revealed a narrow opening. I put down the Fanta au lait and peered into the space beneath the floor. What may have appeared to the average person as a small hole I saw as an opportunity. Not in the gross way in which an uncharitable reader might interpret that statement, but as a solution to my equipment problem and a viable way to convert my hobby into a career. Since that balmy summer night, I have been using the floor space beneath Row M½ to store my tripod, boom, change of clothes, misc. cables, and more. And, for matter of record, I would never have sex with a floorboard. Not when the seat cushions are right there.
It my sincerest hope that, in this winding, love-drunk story about a lovely light in a dark, revolting rathole of a venue whose closest thing to a redeeming quality is the occasional genuine smile on the HSV-1-ridden face of a teenaged ticket-taker who earnestly but tastelessly masturbates in the theater as well, I’ve at least conveyed the sense of hominess that I get when I take my seat in a row that truly is my own. Of course, theaters will be closed for quite some time yet, but I hope I have convinced you, dear reader, to grab a ticket at your local theater when the chance arises in a week, a month, or even a year from now. Perhaps some day I’ll even see you as I take my seat in Row M½ and look around the theater. And if you do happen to catch my eye, and I yours, please don’t take offense if I don’t say hi. My hands are most likely full.