Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
On the Edge of My Seat
By Roxanne Fequiere
The plans had been set for weeks. Thursday night, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Hardly a superfan myself, I’d agreed to attend mostly on account of Oscar Isaac’s presence in the movie. Luckily, a few of Cameron’s friends from work would be attending as well. They could geek out over the plot twists while I feasted on Sour Patch watermelon candy. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday night.
I started off the day at a deficit, with a list of past-deadline projects that grew as I struggled to focus. I felt unmoored and irritable as the hours passed by, and tried to find a silver lining in this upcoming appointment that I really no longer felt like attending. At least the theater we were headed to that night was within walking distance from my apartment—I’d need to rush home afterward as quickly as possible and work late into the night in order to dig myself out of this hole—and typically not too crowded. Of course, I’d underestimated the Star Wars fandom. When we arrived at the theater, it was humming with activity, packed with excited viewers as far as the eye could see. The anxiety I’d been experiencing on account of work seemed to shift gears, slipping from a cerebral realm into something much more visceral.
No matter what’s playing on the big screen, going to the movies has long been a struggle for me to enjoy without reservation. Whether I’ve come to watch a critically acclaimed indie at Film Forum or the latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saga at the local AMC, I become a woman of two minds once the lights go down. One part of me is excited about the feature presentation, curious to see the latest previews, pleased to be sharing this experience with a treasured friend or family member; the other part of me scans the room for exits, extends my legs to see how much clearance I have in front of me should I need to dive down there for cover, scans the room to see if any of my fellow attendees are behaving oddly. Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you have a routine of your own. In Say Anything, Lloyd comforts Diane on a plane by telling her, “If anything happens, it'll usually be in the first five minutes of the flight.” If the first thirty or so minutes of a movie passes without incident, I usually calm down a bit.
Unlike most of my neuroses, I can trace the genesis of this one back to a specific outing: a screening of The Dark Knight on Staten Island in July 2008. I’d convinced two of my girlfriends to take the ferry from Manhattan to my hometown to see the new release, as all of the city’s theaters were sold out for the foreseeable future. The previews passed by without incident, and as the film opened onto a violent depiction of a bank robbery, I slouched a bit in my seat and freed up my right arm. I love a good action film as much as anyone, but I like to keep a hand ready to place over my eyes if things get too gruesome for my personal taste. It was fairly stressful as far as opening scenes go, but I didn’t realize how on edge I was until I flinched sharply at the sound of a heckler a few rows back.
“Fuck Batman,” he shouted, and some of the people in the immediate vicinity of his jeering giggled nervously, my friends and I included. Christian Bale hadn’t even appeared onscreen yet. Maybe he’d just wanted to see if he could make us jump. I imagined a teenage boy, snickering with his friends over the reaction he’d gotten. “Fuck Batman,” he said again, louder, and I exchanged a look with one of my friends, rolling my eyes. It was only funny the first time, I thought, and, barely, at that. Quit while you’re ahead. When he continued to repeat himself, adding more vulgarities to his diatribe and turning up his volume, our section of the theater began murmuring in collective annoyance. “Seriously?” my friend muttered to herself.
Someone else, somewhere behind us and to the left of the heckler called out to him, telling him to shut the fuck up. The heckler responded with an invitation for his shusher to step outside and make him. Surprisingly, the shusher wasn’t opposed to this proposal, but not before they did a few more rounds of verbal sparring over the heads of their fellow moviegoers. They exchanged threats that sounded like vaguely sexual promises (“I’ll twist you up like a pretzel”) and counter-threats (“I wish you would”). Finally, a third voice interjected: “Gentlemen, if you want to take it outside, why don’t you go outside?
More nervous laughter from us. A pause. “Why don’t you mind your business? Unless you want to step outside, too,” the original shusher retorted. The heckler barked his assent. Groaning from the audience. He was supposed to have been the sensible one.
I was slumped down in my seat as far as I could possibly go. The scene playing out before us hinged on bloodshed, confusion, and heightened anxiety. The scene behind us had at least two out of three of those elements and it was a bit more than I could take. The arguing continued. A few irritated viewers got up to leave. Before long, the lights came up and a couple of police officers strode in. Spontaneous applause broke out as they made their way over to the source of the trouble. One minute. Three minutes. Five minutes. The movie continued to play while they spoke in hushed tones, though it was nearly impossible to see anything with the bright lights overhead.
“I really hope they plan on restarting the film,” my friend said. I silently prayed they wouldn’t, not sure if I could handle it.
Down in front, a portly man stood up and turned to face the back of the theater, his hands thrown up in exasperation. “Officer,” he called out. “How long does it take to escort two people out of a theater?”
The officer located the source of the comment, glared. “I can escort you out of the theater if you don’t sit down and stay out of it,” he shot back. “How about that?”
The whole theater grumbled in disbelief. It was if the movie itself was somehow to blame for this strange turn of events, like the grim friction and urban unease of Gotham City had drifted off the screen and materialized in reality.
Days later, when a young man named James Holmes made headlines for killing 12 and injuring 70 at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight in Aurora, Colorado, my friends and I exchanged stunned text messages, recalling how everyone in our theater had seemed to be on edge, operating on a hair trigger. I caught myself grinding my teeth during action scenes on subsequent movie outings, slumping down in my seat as I’d done before. Just in case. I didn’t realize how pronounced my mounting anxiety had become until I went with my mother to see The Princess and the Frog a year and a half later. The theater was nearly empty—too empty. I suggested we sit towards the back. Closer to the exits, I reasoned. Just in case.
Once we’d shuffled into our seats for The Last Jedi, I realized, grimacing, the stadium-style seating in the back half of the theater was such that there was no legroom, no designated slump-down space in our second row. Not ideal. And the nearest exit required me to descend a few steps, U-turn, and then walk down a long hallway. No good.
I set about scanning the room and as my eyes swept the space, a lanky man approached his spot in that awkward row of chairs sprinkled between the metal railings separating the floor seats from the stadium seats. He put his bag down on his chair and took off his zip-up fleece with exaggerated movements, flinging his arms out and blocking the screen partially before performing a cartoonish approximation of a yawn. He then bent over to move his bag before sitting down, while talking to a fixed point on his right.
I unclenched muscles that I hadn’t realized I’d tightened. Oh, okay. He was talking to a friend. Perhaps he hadn’t been able to snag a spot next to them, but he was cutting up for them and exchanging words before taking his seat. I followed his gaze. No one in that general region was talking back to him, or even looking at him—he was babbling to no one. The previews hadn’t begun yet, and the lights were still up. I leaned forward in my seat to hear what he was saying but couldn’t make anything out.
He sat down, and I did what I hate to do and yet can’t stop myself from doing. I imagined him standing up again, turning to face the crowd behind him, and opening fire. There was just one row of people between us; I was located to his slight left. No room to slump, no exit behind me. I checked back in on him in real time. He was still chattering away to the air.
The people around me didn’t seem to notice any of this odd behavior, instead excitedly swapping theories on what might transpire shortly in a galaxy far, far away. I considered that I may be overreacting, and tried to tune in to the conversation Cameron and his friends were having. I found that I only understood half of what they were talking about, only recognized a handful of the characters they were referencing.
When my eyes drifted back to the spot where the lanky man sat, my heart jumped. He was gone. I glanced around in a panic, spotted him leaning against the right wall of the theater, fidgeting and murmuring to himself. The previews began, and he found his seat again. I realized my heart was pounding.
I told myself there were several reasons why he may be behaving like this. Not every oddity that occurs in a dark theater is a death sentence, I reminded myself. He appeared excited over the previews—giddy, even—and I scolded myself for having worked myself up to near-hysterics over a young man who was probably just simultaneously socially awkward and amped about the movie to come.
A preview for Rampage began. Cameron leaned over, whispered to me, “This is based on a video game.” In front of us, a couple chatted among themselves, the words video game drifting back to us. The lanky man in front of them twisted in his seat to face them, an eager grin on his face. “It’s a video game!” he said. The couple laughed nervously. “Uh, yeah,” one of them said. “I think we covered that, buddy.”
“I’ve been watching him,” I admitted to Cameron. “He’s a little excitable. He may have some loud opinions during the movie.” I forced a chuckle, trying to speak my comfort with the situation into existence despite every fiber in my being screaming that something wasn’t right. This is fine. It’s fine. We’ll be fine.
Meanwhile, the lanky man appeared crestfallen by the couple’s dismissal of his comment. He whipped his body back around to face front, bent over at the waist, stuck his head between his knees, and began rocking back and forth while palming the left side of his head. By this time, Cameron was watching along with me; I’d unwittingly begun to clutching his hand a little too tightly. He could sense the source of my concern in spite of my casual commentary. “What’s up?” he asked, and I explained what I’d observed so far. “Do you want to say something to the theater staff?”
I shook my head. That seemed somehow beyond the pale. What if I’d misread every one of this man’s actions? I didn’t want to be one of those aggressive “can I speak to a manager” types, prioritizing a perceived threat to my own comfort or safety over another person’s mere existence. Meanwhile, the lanky man had straightened up in his seat, grabbed his messenger bag and was now rummaging through it. Inside, I spotted a red light. He scooted over and wedged the bag in between him and his right hip and continued to rustle through his bag while keeping his eyes fixed on the screen ahead. I started to wonder if I should just remove myself from the theater. There was no way I was going to be able to sit through the next two hours. “That’s enough,” Cameron said. “I’ll say something, then.”
The movie began while Cameron was gone, and I felt another wave of guilt crash over me. Now I was ruining his experience, too. Once the main theme started to play, the lanky man shoved his bag to the floor, jumped onto his chair and crouched while bouncing up and down. A couple of security guards entered, approached him, and asked him to please put his shoes back on. He’d kicked them off in his excitement. His eyes didn’t waver from the screen as he stuck his arm straight out, putting up a pointer finger an inch from the security guard’s nose. He didn’t want to be bothered.
Had this just been a misunderstanding? I said as much to Cameron as he sat back down next to me. “They’ll check his bag and send him right back in if everything checks out,” he said. Meanwhile, the man refused to listen to the security guards. “Please put your shoes on and come with us—we just want to ask you a few questions,” they repeated.
After he’d gone, I waited for him to return. He didn’t. I spent the movie falling deeper and deeper into a downward spiral. Had they found something in his bag? Had they found nothing and kicked him out anyway? Maybe he’d had gotten upset—didn’t want to return to the movie having missed the whole opening scene. How long had he planned to be there to see this movie on opening night? How quickly had I ruined it for him? Why had I been willing to suppress my extreme concern and discomfort in lieu of potentially making a scene? Was I in the wrong? Maybe I’m the one who had no business at the movies. How long I can continue to show up to various screenings and plunge myself into the darkness, hoping that the story onscreen will outweigh the terror in my heart? Then again, if it’s not a movie theater, it’s another place that’ll do it: a crowded subway, a parade, a plane.
I’m still trying to make it work. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go see the new Han Solo movie when asked. I begged off, claiming franchise fatigue, which is partially true, but I just couldn’t do another packed, opening weekend theater. When I proposed the idea of books made into movies, I thought my introductory essay would be a romp, waxing poetic on the joys of movie magic, but there was something else in that headspace waiting to be released. The worst part is that I have no literary wisdom that will tie this up in a nice bow—no antidote to quell the fear. Books are a balm for the soul, but my body still needs to find a way to move through the world that seems to become scarier by the day. I’m still trying to make it work.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.