I was browsing twitter late one evening on the night David Bowie died. No one really believed that he had passed away when the faint whispers of death began to get louder. I thought it was a hoax. Everyone did. But it wasn’t a cruel prank, and when the weight of his death settled in it felt like some of the magic in the world had slipped away. That great album he had released only days prior changed dramatically with this news. It now carried the weight of deaths and goodbyes behind it, but it also reaffirmed the belief his fans had in the shape shifting and bountiful creativity that Bowie always possessed. Needless to say we were all hurting when he passed away. Fans of his went out into the streets and sang “Starman”; a kind of public grieving and shared togetherness that feels impossible now. I never want to forget the image of hundreds reaching out together to say goodbye to someone who mattered in their lives. It helped us all at once move on together. That morning my husband, my best friend and I sat on a bedroom floor listening to Bowie as the sun rose and in between crying fits of disbelief we talked about how much Bowie meant to all of us.
A few weeks before David Bowie passed away our local cinema had announced a screening of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986). Bowie stars in the film as the Goblin King. He’s a sorcerer of sorts, seductive in his tight fitting onesie, cod-piece and all, with billowy anime hair. He scared me in this movie when I was a child, but I was also attracted to him. I fell in love with the danger that his sex offered before I ever gave a damn about his music. Years later I’d be drawn to his muddying of gender and the latent homosexuality of the simulated fellatio that he sold with Ziggy Stardust era guitarist Mick Ronson. Along with Lou Reed he was this totemic figure of queerness when I came out of the closet as a trans woman in 2011. It was so easy to get swept up in songs like “Walk on the Wild Side”, “Candy Says” or “Rebel Rebel”. These songs suggested a world I wanted to live in, like a yellow-brick road to self-fulfillment and existence. But before David Bowie could be a guardian angel for a trans girl with broken wings he was a goblin king.
My David Bowie story isn’t unique. Before the screening fans of Bowie were showing up to the theatre dressed as the man, or wearing t-shirts that adorned his face. Some wore Ziggy facepaint. It was very clear that the two-hundred or so people that were there for Labyrinth were there for David Bowie. When the movie began I wondered what kind of energy the screening would have, and I learned very quickly that this was not going to be a funeral dirge. Everyone there was tired of crying and when David Bowie made his first appearance in the film the audience exploded in applause and cheers. I’ll never forget that moment. The weight of Bowie’s passing was still there, but we didn’t come together on that day to say “goodbye”. We were there to say “thank you”, and it would not have been possible without the communal experience that cinema offers.
There’s really nothing else like going to the movies. After all these years I still find something infinitely magical about the experience of the lights going down. It’s the only place where you can be alone and with others at the same time. I love the experience of walking out of a movie after the credits have rolled. The world is a different place after a truly captivating movie, because the great ones will hang in the atmosphere. You can physically feel the movie when they’re special or if you’ve had a memorable experience with the crowd. With all the restrictions in place right now due to COVID-19 I’ve worried about the life of the cinematic experience going forward. If going to the movies isn’t viable anymore or if it changes to alienate us with more distance then a moment like the one I had with Labyrinth will struggle to exist, and I find that immeasurably sad. I’ve often compared the cinema to church. I’ve told friends of mine that I go a little batty if I go a long time without going to a movie theatre. I haven’t been to one in two months, and I find myself missing the cinema more and more, but I’ve also been thinking of all the great memories I’ve had at the movies like watching Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019) with my best friend three times in one week when they visited or when an older woman told me and my husband that she was happy to see young people appreciate the classics after a Sunday matinee screening of City Lights (1931). I think more than anything I miss people, and the possibility to share the experience of movies with them. Watching over Zoom or Skype or through streaming is not the same thing, and we all know this to be true. I don’t know when it’s going to be safe to go to the movies again, but I hope that they’ll be waiting for us when we come back.
During this pandemic my childhood theatre that I considered my real home closed up shop for good. The place wasn’t taken care of and hadn’t been renovated since my mom saw it open in the 1980s. She used to talk to me about sneaking out to see Purple Rain (1984) on opening night with her best friend. She wore these purple boots with jewels encrusted on them, teased her hair with an entire can of aquanet (not really an exaggeration) and wore a baggy Prince t-shirt. After Prince passed away in 2016 I got the chance to see Purple Rain in a cinema as well. I drew his symbol on my left arm and wore purple. It wasn’t as celebratory as Labyrinth, but with the screening I had the chance to be sad and say goodbye and see him full of life performing his music. I felt connected to my mom when I watched the movie. I haven’t seen her in years, but when I heard the cinema back home had closed down I thought about her time there as a teenager, and my time there as a teenager. Because it hadn’t been renovated I felt close to the stories she told and the history of the place. They were even slow to switch to digital, and projected on film up until 2010. That place is now empty and I assume it’ll be torn down as my home-town begins to look more and more like a place with history, but not one with a future.
The cinema has this spiritual magnetic quality to it, and I miss it more and more by the day. I’ll probably weep the next time I walk through the doors of a movie house for a screening, but I wonder if it’ll come with a sense of relief that some of the old ways of life can be preserved or if it’ll feel like a boxer standing up for another round when he should have just stayed down. I don’t know what the future holds for any of us, and I’d be naive to say that what we’re experiencing right now will be the only massive shift in our day to day lives with things like climate change needing to be addressed, but I hope the cinematic experience can survive. I long for wasted days of a time gone by filled with the simple pleasures of catching whatever is playing next and then getting a coffee and chatting about what I saw with a friend.
And if the cinema I remember is gone or has been changed irrevocably from this virus then I will remember the times I spent in the theatre as the most wonderful thing I ever had the chance to experience. and I’ll probably never be quiet about how much I loved going to the movies.