Excited, we sat in eager anticipation of the experience to come; one achingly familiar, yet strangely distant. Then the enormous screen brightened, and all ambivalence faded; we were back! Back in the semi-darkness, lit only by the rhythmic pulsating of light on our faces. Back in the comforting silence, broken only by the booming sound-waves from the gigantic surround-sound speakers. Back in a movie theater at last, praise God Almighty, we were back!
Ok, that may seem a bit overwrought, but I think you get the idea. Specifically, we were back at the Regal multiplex in Palm Springs, California, where things are finally opening up as COVID cases shut down. Just in time for last Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of summer here in the United States.
“The Zombie-Mall Weirdness of Going to the Movies Again,” read a headline in the New York Times. Over at the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, a popular film critic chimed right in. “Speaking personally,” he wrote in his review of a long-delayed sequel, “I feel compelled to note that the critics screening was my first time in a movie theater since the COVID-19 shutdown, and I was so excited to be there, so gob smacked by the enormous images and immense sounds—and eerie silences—that I may not be the most objective judge of the production’s ultimate worth.”
I report all this, of course, at the risk of alienating my friends in the Philippines where COVID-19’s retreat has been maddingly slow. My message to them: read these words not as a taunt for your continued suffering, but as an inspiring glimpse of the flickering light that awaits you at the end of this insanely long tunnel.
Growing up in Southern California, naturally, I loved movies and seldom missed a Saturday night at the theater. That changed several years ago when we moved to Surigao City, Philippines, where, amazingly, there wasn’t a movie house in sight. So we made the occasional drive to Butuan, the theater-rich city just three-hours south. And got accustomed to streaming videos on our flat-screen TV at home. Which turned out to be excellent preparation for surviving the pandemic that was to close the world’s theaters for more than a year.
But there’s something unmistakably special about sitting in the dark in front of that immense flashing screen. I felt it the minute we entered, literally alone in a looming 300-seat space. Leisurely, we picked our seats and settled in. Then watched as the rest of the audience entered; a masked mom with two giggling girls. “They’re very excited,” she informed us, as if an explanation were necessary. We smiled and nodded, caught up in the conspiratorial comradery of strangers enjoying something long forbidden to the rest of the world.
The movie was “Reya and the Last Dragon,” a fantastical Disney animation about another young girl in an imaginary Asian country confronted by an evil force that turns people into stone. Eventually the few remaining flesh-and-blood humans find themselves scattered into several warring tribes, each distrustful of the others and focused on its own survival. The only antidote is a friendly dragon, the last of its kind, possessed of the power to become the world’s savior. The problem: that the humans must learn, once again, to trust each other. Only then can they resurrect and embrace the world as it once was, a place of unity and joy now potentially lost to the ages.
Not unlike our present situation.
I don’t mind confessing that the movie made me cry. As did my heart upon entering that beloved empty theater.
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David Haldane is the author of an award-winning 2015 memoir, “Nazis & Nudists,” as well as a more recent book of short stories called “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he divides his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines.
Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily