You’re seated in a crowded movie theater. You, and every other person in that space has entered into an unwritten contract, agreeing to certain rules guaranteeing a pleasant experience for everyone. No talking, smoking, cell phone noise, or alcohol consumption for starters. If a young child cries or misbehaves, adults remove the child from the theater. No shouting, “the butler did it!” moments before the butler does it.
Opening the door upon arrival and entering the theater lobby, the immediate whiff of buttery popcorn floods your nostrils. You abandon all common sense regarding health concerns, giving yourself a temporary hall pass from whatever fad diet you happen to be screwing up. After all, we’re at the movies. Consuming terrible food is in the contract.
There is something more fundamental, much more essential, to the unwritten contract than these simple applications. It involves the willingness to abandon the expectation for cinematic complexity; plot, character development, the expert co-habitation of sound and image to heighten emotion. We relinquish all of it when we purchase our ticket. Since Hollywood movies are really the only movies that matter, we toss hope aside for a deeply creative shared encounter with other people in favor of the all-too-typical story-line and syrupy ending.
We are content with this contact. It works. The filmmakers do not ask too much from our brains, and we can relax knowing no extraordinary mental exertion is expected of us. We need a place to not think about our lives, a cool, dark, comforting place we can focus on the lives of people who aren’t real. Feel their unreal emotions, pain, and happiness. Laugh at their silly stupidity. To know, even for a short time, the joy of being a likable criminal, or how cleansing it can be to exact murderous revenge. We can trick ourselves into knowing what it must have been like living in the past, or what it might mean to live in the future, even though it’s impossible knowing those things. The word for all this is escapism. For two hours, all we want is that no one ask a thing from us except to feed us crap and let our fantasies shift into overdrive.
We leave the theater and step reluctantly into glaring sunlight. Our pedestrian day-to-day existence is once again lit for us. We squint, perhaps using our hand to shield our eyes from re-entering reality. We try to reflect on what we have just seen to prolong life in the world we’d just left, hoping to live in it as long as possible. Maybe we talk among friends and family to see if they identified as favorably with the fantasy as we did. But it’s no use. The brightness is overwhelming, and we go back home.