The First Date Movie Fallacy

June 15, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

"Dear Mr. B, Pardon me if it sounds like I should be writing to a Lonely Hearts Advisor, but I have a question I thought you could answer. This Friday, I'm going out on a first date with a girl I have had a crush on since junior high. We both just finished out first year of college and when I bumped into her at a party last week, I got up the courage to ask her out. To my surprise, she said yes. I thought I'd take her to a movie, but I'm not sure what. What's the best first date movie out there?"

Skip the movie. There's no such thing as a "good first date movie." There's no surer way to have a solitary experience with so many other people around. Films are ultimately more about self than communion. First dates should be about sharing. The two goals are incompatible.

I reflect on this subject more often than one might suppose. Movies are said to be communal experiences - opportunities for large groups of people to laugh together, cry together, cheer together, and shriek together. Sure, some of that happens. But it doesn't change a basic truth: sitting in a theater watching a movie with 300 other souls, there might be some superficial common ground, but the deeper experience is intensely personal. How else to explain how a single movie can generate such a broad spectrum of reactions?

It's almost impossible to score a 0% or 100% on the Tomatometer. Why? Not just because there are contrarians out there determined to mess up a perfect score. (Although those exist - how else to explain that NO ONE has ever been elected unanimously to the Baseball Hall of Fame.) The reason is that, although the images and sounds presented by a film arrive identically to each viewer, the ways in which they are processed can be radically different. A movie isn't just a collection of moving, talking pictures. It's an experience that is determined by how we react to those moving, talking pictures. One part of the equation is what the director brings to the cinema. The other part of the equation is what we bring. Everything we see is filtered through our lifetime's experiences. We are naturally partial to some stories and more willing to forgive flaws. We resist others and need a lot more convincing. It's very possible for me to sit through a movie in a state of bitter loathing while the person next to me reclines in rapt adoration. When I write a review, I'm not trying to assert what you, the reader, will think of the movie - how the hell should I know that? Instead, I'm explaining what I thought and why I thought that way. Reviews, at least good ones, should never attempt to impose the reviewer's opinion on the reader or influence what they think of a movie. Articles that do that are propaganda, not reviews. The Internet is littered with such misrepresentations.

When we go to see a movie with a crowd, we talk before and after. Hopefully, the movie will be intriguing enough to warrant a lengthy post-showing discussion, perhaps over dinner. But the essential experience of watching the film is a solo one. We're wrapped in a cocoon. Talking is generally unwelcome because it interrupts the reverie of others in the theater. Ultimately, the only one who probably cares about your brilliant insight is yourself.

When I was a kid, I never went to the movies alone. It was always with friends or family. But the communal part was before and after, not during. (Exception: Drive-in movies.) My first theatrical film was the 1976 remake of King Kong. I recall the majesty of the experience, but not the fact that my father was sitting next to me. In fact, the only time I remember registering that he was by my side in a theater was when a woman got naked in Conan the Barbarian. (In 1982, when it was released, I was a die-hard Conan fan but only 14 years old - not able to get into an R-rated movie alone. So my father agreed to take me.) That was embarrassing. There are lots of things you want to experience with your dad. Watching Conan screw Valeria is not among them.

I vividly remember the first movie I saw by myself. It was kind-of like losing my virginity. (Well, not exactly, but you get the point.) July 1988. I was 20 years old at the time, during the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was working at a job 90 miles away from my parents' house, but came "home" on weekends. One Saturday afternoon, I decided I wanted to see Die Hard, a new action/thriller that everyone was raving about. Unfortunately, none of my friends were available. So I took the monumental step of going alone. It was a little weird going in and even stranger afterwards, with no one to talk to on the way home in the car. But the experience of watching the movie was no different than if I had attended with my usual movie pals. After that, I no longer felt constrained to make movie choices based on the availability of others. In fact, I so often go alone these days that it can feel a little odd to go with someone else.

The problem with going to a movie on a first date is that it defeats the purpose of the date, unless it's being combined with some other activity (like a long walk or a dinner or a cup of coffee). First dates are "getting to know you" affairs and it's tough to get to know someone if you're sitting in the dark having an experience that may or may not be close to the one they're having. Worse still, until you know a person, you have no idea whether there's a fighting chance they'll enjoy the movie you selected. The line "It was supposed to be good" sounds lame when trying to excuse a bad cinematic experience.

On the other hand, movies can be good for dates between couples who have progressed beyond the "getting to know you" stage. Hand-holding, meaningful glances, and other non-verbal means of communication during a movie can change the experience. But this really isn't first date stuff, unless the first date devolves from a long friendship. The only woman I ever took to a movie on a first date was my wife, and she and I had spoken on the phone for more than 200 hours before that date (it also included a long walk through downtown Philadelphia and a baseball game). That movie, in case anyone cares, was Hearts of Atlantis. Had I known what she was in for, I might have chosen to do something different.

People often question the sincerity and/or sanity of critics whose opinions run contrary to the mainstream. There's a more simple explanation, however, than believing they're on a studio's payroll (note: this does not apply to Quote Whores). It's that their life's experiences make the film they have seen significantly different from the one most people are seeing. In a very real sense, each of us is a co-director of every movie we see.