“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”
– Jean-Luc Godard
During my senior year of high school, I was what you would call a loner. I had friends and cousins whom I hung out with every now and then, but I lived in my own secluded planet most of the time.
I’m not a shy person whatsoever. You might even say that I’m an extroverted introvert. It’s just that I prefer to be alone half of the time.
I wrapped up my high school years abroad, in a land both familiar and foreign to me. I had voluntarily withdrawn from my school in Texas rather than having the word “expelled” stain my academic record.
I was going through a weird phase at the time, getting into petty trouble, and had the mindset of a kamikaze pilot spiraling downwards, sadistically wishing to decimate everything in one fantastic explosion.
That sort of anti-social mentality set me apart from everyone else, and increased the buffer zone that separated me from my peers.
One of the many things I learned during the time I spent abroad is the true definition of alienation. I never really fitted in with a specific type of crowd, and I had done a good job blending in with the scenery: a blurry figure in the peripheral.
But in a country and culture that emphasizes close kinship and being highly social, I stood out like really ugly wallpaper. Even when I actually made an effort to disappear in the background, I would attract quizzical stares.
“What’s with that guy over there? Is he crazy?”
I imagined another person whispering, “No, I think he’s a deaf-mute.”
One time, when I was walking home from school, my beefed up backpack embracing my body like a clingy child, my head bent down, a neighbor of mine told me that I was so depressing to look at. He joked that his heart ached every time he saw me walking down the street.
When I asked him why, he motioned for me to take a look around. I saw everyone else with at least one other person. There were pairs and groups all laughing, chatting animatedly, and enjoying the evening in each other’s company. I even saw a couple fighting in the park, yet I was still the saddest-looking person out of all.
I wasn’t the cloistered kind of loner. I was the loner who blended in with the crowd. I frequently went to places that you typically went to with friends: parks, bars, restaurants, and the mall.
As with the supermarket and the DMV, the mall is where you’re guaranteed to find individuals from all walks of life. There’s the young couple at the food court who haven’t said a single word to each other, chewing their food silently, avoiding each other’s eyes. At the lingerie store, an old man with a gold watch, itching with paranoia, lock hands with a girl who looked only 15.
Then there’s that one kid who spent hours upon hours at the internet cafe playing shooter games just so he could get away from his parents’ abusive hands. He had a new bruise or cut on his face every time I saw him. One time, his parents stormed into the cafe and dragged him out by his hair—his sneakers squeaking against the polished floor—until the mall security stepped in.
Amidst this chaotic, bustling circus governed by consumerism are private worlds. The mall, after all, is not only a place where you go to find a new pair of shoes or silk tie, but also a place to seek temporary distraction. What better place to forget all your problems but the mall?
A church, mosque or temple is too quiet. Silence is a blank canvas to paint your jumbled thoughts and fears upon. You need a place with noise loud enough to drown the one inside your head.
I had my own special place within the mall where I temporarily suspended my problems. It was in the form of a giant white projector screen. To me, the theater screen wasn’t just a flat, lifeless object, but a portal; a rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland. For an escapist loner like myself, the cinema was the perfect escape pod.
Once the lights turn dim, the speakers rattle your chest, and the projector beam pierces through the thick darkness, you forget about all the baggage you left at the entrance. You enter a synthetic reality.
The cinematic experience is similar to watching a magic show. You know it’s fake, yet you play along and allow your mind to be captivated by the illusion.
I went to the movies so often that the manager who knew me by name started giving me discounts on the tickets, which only fueled my addiction.
I watched films from a wide range of genres, whether it was a blockbuster or an independent film: action, horror, comedies, war dramas, and biopics. I consumed them all with equal glee.
One time, on Valentine’s Day, I took a chance on a thriller. As expected, the theater was packed with couples—from high school sweethearts to old folks who seemed just as horny as the teens.
On the seventh row, dead center, the guy wearing the gray hoodie and a dirty pair of Chuck Taylors, with both arm rests down, was me. Was it uncomfortable to be the only solitary figure in a theater filled with fluttering hearts and boiling hormones? Yes, but not because I ached for what they had—I was a loner by choice, not circumstance—but because the guy beside me was finger-fucking his girlfriend. Thank you, arm rest inventor.
When the film started, everyone else in the theater disappeared. Music seeped in slowly and the first scene materialized on screen like a Polaroid picture. Once you cross that line, you’re no longer here, but there in that fictional world that looks like our own, but just slightly different. You are an audience member and a participant in the way that an admirer viewing a painting is a link in its process of communication.
Sometimes a tiny moment of revelation in a film lasts longer in your memory than all your years combined. Once the film ends, everything goes back to normal, except you feel a residue of what you had just watched, what you had mentally ingested.
At a time when my future wasn’t looking too bright, films brought me a sense of confidence. Films made it seem like anything was possible and that I could be the protagonist in my own story.
Some actors claim they chose to act so that they could be someone else, even if it’s just for a short while. In the same sense, I spent many nights in the movie theater alone because I wanted to be a part of their great escape. Through the stories, the characters and hypnotic music, I became everyone and no one.
Unfortunately, I stopped going to movie theaters a long time ago. I’m still a film geek at heart and Netflix revolutionized the way we consumed media. Stream services turned everyone into film scholars in the same way Instagram turned everyone into photographers. Before, a random person on the street didn’t know what cinematography was. Now, they’ll give a move a bad rating if the composition wasn’t correct. It’s great to share my love for cinema with more people, both as a viewer and as a filmmaker.
These days, we have many ways to escape (usually the Internet). In a way, I’m still an escapist. The difference now is that I’ve realized that I’m not running away from anything or myself. Now I’m simply running towards the rabbit hole to embark on a fantastic adventure through the magic of film, even if it was fleeting.
Notes: The photo is part of my project B-Theory, which is a collection of superimposed photographs mounted on slides. That’s me at age 4 with my aunt overlapped with a picture I took of a mini pop-up theater at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.