A Film Critic Re-Emerges to Watch In the Heights the Way It Was Meant to Be Seen

After 424 days away from the movie theatre it's time to be alone in the dark again

In the Heights

Cinema is not just films. It's an experience. An environment. A communal but extremely individual moment – or, as I stepped back into a theatre for the first time in 424 days, a place of reunion.

424 days. That was the longest I'd gone without being in a cinema since the day in 1978 when I sat down to watch Star Wars (the original, no chapter numbers or modifiers) and became devoted to the glowing screen and the rattle of the projector. Back in March of 2020, like everyone else I thought that we'd be out of theatres for a few weeks. With the devastating word that South by Southwest would be canceled and my plan to spend two weeks in darkened spaces ignoring people evaporating, I'd crammed in a last couple of screenings on the weekend that would have been the SXSW curtain-raiser (a cast-and-crew screening for indie dramedy Shithouse, and a last-minute Sunday afternoon showing of Val Kilmer's one-man tribute to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Cinema Twain). Ever since then it had been screeners and drive-ins – both wonderful in their own way, but nothing quite like the immersive nature of a darkened cinema. The underpowered bulb, the somewhat balanced sound, the vague whiff of old popcorn.

But the last year has called for being sensible. When the theatres closed the day after that last afternoon in the reclining seats, I stayed home. Even with partial reopenings here and there, I stayed home. Even as the situation looked bleak for the continued existence of the cinema, with chains and locations closing, I stayed home. No vaccine, no screen.

Of course, in the new super-sanitary era, the popcorn smell was gone as I walked into my first in-person press screening in 14 months. That last one was a Tuesday morning outing for violent satire The Hunt, which was a pretty fine note on which to go out. Somehow, coming back for In the Heights was perfect. After all, we're in movie-musical boom times (West Side Story; Dear Evan Hansen; Everybody's Talking About Jamie; Tick, Tick ... Boom!), and In the Heights is a film of spectacle, of scale, of color and motion, of the kind that needs to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated. Being in a socially distanced seating situation, buffer seats and all, suited me fine (I like the communal aspect of cinema, but the allure of literal elbow-rubbing leaves me cold). So when the lights went down, the screen lit up, and the first chords of the first song began, I felt ... at home. In the place where the only concerns are paying attention, and blinking once in a while. Where no one was on their phone, no cats would be scrounging food or lap space, and everyone was just facing the same way, waiting for the same cathartic highs and crushing lows, and, yes, just that tiniest whiff of popcorn. Mixed with a few high notes from the cleaning spray, but that unmistakable, cloying, faux-butter odor nonetheless.

As seminal American film critic Carl Sandburg said, the movies are. Damn right they are, and they still are.

Find a movie to watch in theatres or streaming at austinchronicle.com/film.

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