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On Writing at the Movie Theater

I covet the space of the in-between. This is why I see so many movies in the theater. The movie theater is a liminal space, situated between the darkened fantasy world of the viewers and their real lives. This may be why it’s such a shock to be pelted with sunshine when you exit the theater: it’s your real life coming back to haunt you. In a poignant turn of phrase, poet Theresa Cha describes this intermediary space, this experience of being at the movies, as being “between séances.”

Somehow, even after yesterday’s film noir binge, there’s still room for more. The movie theater is my favorite place. A screen, an overpriced soda, miniature chocolate candies, and my mind turns into something else entirely. I love the reacting faces of the audience. Cradled in darkness, there’s a suspension of self-consciousness I so sorely need. I know I make my most taboo expressions there.

Going with someone else is a shared experience, but going alone brings its own thrill. It’s rare to feel so anonymous yet so located, so far from lonely. There’s nobody you know sitting next to you, reminding you of your other life. Your whole existence for those two hours is right there in that flashing place. Sometimes, when it gets to be a certain kind of dark, I get that good childhood feeling that I just might disappear.

If I’m in a certain mood, I like to write at the movies. For this reason I’ve learned to write in a scenario where I can’t even see my paper, much less the words. This motion fits my movie experience, though, as I feel I’m writing my text directly on the images that flash through the darkness. This, at the moment, always seems exactly as it should be.

It turns out I’m not alone. Many of my favorite poets have written what I call movie theater poems. In a self-referential manner that reflects on the creative process itself, these poems feature the speakers/poets watching the film and having thoughts and the process by which these thoughts are revised (which in turn revises the film they have just seen) to become the poem we read. Finally, these various realms merge as the poem integrates the film’s themes and form. Between the film itself and the poet’s verbal interaction with it, in that generative, boundary-breaking intersection between the two different arts, a film and poetry hybrid is born.

Sometimes I get sad as I write at the movies because no matter how hard my writing tries it can never be a movie. I don’t mean that I want to write a screenplay. That’s, of course, possible. I mean I fantasize a world in which I could actually translate my writing into that concatenation of image and desire that mesmerizes me up there on the screen week after week. I know this to be possibly impossible, but it still remains this shining something I can see at the end of my own mental movie theater, a large chunk of the reason I keep on writing and going to the movies in the first place.

I can’t yet write a movie, but I can leave you with the final stanza of my favorite movie theater poem, “Images for Godard” by Adrienne Rich:

Interior monologue of the poet:
the notes for the poem are the only poem

the mind collecting, devouring
all these destructibles

the unmade studio couch the air
shifting the abalone shells

the mind of the poet is the only poem 
the poet is at the movies 

dreaming the film-maker’s dream but differently 
free in the dark as if asleep

free in the dusty beam of the projector
the mind of the poet is changing 

the moment of change is the only poem