The Review/ Feature/
Crying at the Movies: Ireland
A personal essay by Emma Healey
This is the first in a series of personal essays that explores emotional reactions to watching movies, across the world. If you have a story to tell, email email@example.com.
I started going to the movies by myself when I was 20 – the same year I moved to a small town in Ireland to blow up my life.
I’d applied to my school’s study abroad program hoping for an easy escape from Montreal, where I’d spent most of that year living in an apartment that was literally collapsing, and drowning in a destructive, secret relationship with a man 15 years older than me. That affair had become the defining feature of my life – my days and nights, desires and fears had all organized themselves around it. When the study-abroad people asked me where I wanted to go, I picked a university in Cork, Ireland – both because it looked beautiful and because I wanted to go somewhere completely new. I wanted to build a brand new life out of thin air.
The flight to Dublin was turbulent and terrifying. On the train to Cork, as I watched the Irish countryside speed past me in a blur of green and gray, I was struck by the realization that I had no idea what I was doing. I had nowhere to live, no friends and very little money. School didn’t start for another two weeks. Now what?
Mostly, I walked. Cork is bisected by a beautiful, shimmering river that loops its way through the whole city. Every day I would follow it, passing through residential neighbourhoods, the college campus, the strange downtown where new and old buildings crowded each other for space. The city felt ancient and unfamiliar, and as I walked through it, I could feel loneliness and excitement and sadness and anger and fear and regret all tangling together into an enormous knot somewhere at the centre of my ribcage. For days, I drifted through the city like a weird Canadian ghost, too anxious to talk to anyone, sure my loneliness gave me a visible glow. Each time I made eye contact with another human being, a bright rush of panic and hope would shimmer through me. Then, I’d keep going.
No matter where I went, my walks always took me past the city’s only multiplex, an unflashy beige cube that sat right on the edge of the river. It wasn’t lined in neon like the big-city theatres I was used to – it looked more like a place you’d go to get a permit or a blood test – but the first few times I passed it, I felt a sharp pang of longing. I loved going to the movies, but that wasn’t something you did by yourself.
It’s not always easy to be alone, but it can be a particularly hard thing to do in public. Any person alone in a space that’s primarily coded as social will stand out a little, but the nature of the attention you draw depends a great deal on how you look. Your gender, your age, your race, your class, your hair, your face, your clothes, your makeup and your mood all change the tone and temperature of the public spaces you inhabit in different ways. Anything about you that doesn’t seem male, white, straight and stoic gets you noticed, and being noticed makes you vulnerable.
A few years ago, I went alone to a late showing of Godzilla. (Yes, the 2014 remake with Bryan Cranston in it. It was the only thing playing!) In line at the concession stand, I felt someone standing behind me, too close. I tried to ignore it – you’re probably just being paranoid – but when I turned around, there he was: not big or threatening, just some guy. I tried to pretend that I hadn’t seen him, but he noticed. I could feel his stare. I went into the cinema and he followed me. There were a few other people inside, but not many. I picked a seat in an empty row near a couple of teenagers. A few seconds later, the man sat down three seats away from me. I got up and moved to another row. He followed.
I moved four times and each time, he came with me – like a dance, or a game of chess. I didn’t want to leave in case he followed me, and the previews had already started, so rather than disturb anyone around me, I sat through the entire movie staring straight ahead, so aware of his presence that I thought I might burst into flames. The second the credits started rolling, he stood up, shot me one last look and calmly walked out of the theatre, leaving me flooded with fear, anger and relief.
The Godzilla guy wasn’t the first person to make me feel threatened in public, nor was he the most frightening. Like most women I know, I’ve been followed before, by men in cars and on the subway and on the street. Sometimes they’ve wanted to talk to or touch me, but more often they’ve stayed silent, just lingering on the periphery – as if to make sure I know I should never feel alone and safe at the same time. Those experiences stay with you somewhere in your body; they accumulate into an instinct.
It’s especially frustrating because when you’re allowed to forget that feeling, you get to experience the best kind of being by yourself, a version that’s thrilling instead of frightening. Alone-ness, stripped of lonely. I don’t remember what eventually prompted me to go into that weird Irish multiplex alone, or what I actually saw there on my first visit. I do remember feeling so self-conscious about being there by myself that when the woman handed over my single ticket, I said, “you’re welcome,” instead of “thank you.” I remember ordering a small popcorn even though I wanted a large. I remember taking forever to choose a seat, piling my bag and my jacket on either side of me like a barricade. And I remember the feeling – once I was settled into the theatre’s cool, anonymous darkness, surrounded by a sea of mostly empty seats – that the enormous knot inside my chest had somehow been undone. Whatever that movie was, I cried all the way through it.
A few months before I would move to Ireland (and soon after the end of the relationship I was going there to escape), I slept with a friend of a friend. He was musician who lived in America, in town for a few days on tour. He was funny, kind and magnetically charming. We kept running into each other at parties and in bars, and even though we barely knew each other, we’d joke and flirt with a familiarity that made me feel as though I’d won a prize. But it wasn’t until his final night in the city that anything happened between us.
We were standing in the middle of some terrible party, watching some shitty band, when we started leaning into each other. When I try to recall that moment now, I see it from outside my body, like a scene in a movie: our arms barely touching, the rest of the room blurring away, that soft, low light. When we left it started pouring rain outside, as if on cue. We ran towards my apartment together, soaking wet and laughing. Cinematic.
The musician and I spent less than a day together, but that time had a kind of intimacy in it – honest, intense and immediate – that sparked an enormous desire in me. It was a crush, but it was also something else. Being alone felt terrifying, and being around other people made me feel like a fraud. But that night, I got to glimpse a different version of myself: someone who knew who she was and was wanted for it. I wanted to be that person so badly that it made my heart hurt.
2011 was a weird year for film. A lot of what I went to see alone in Ireland I can only recall in fragments. I remember The Ides of March, but only for its relentless close-ups of Ryan Gosling’s solemn face. I remember Shame, but only this one specific scene where Michael Fassbender has a very sad threesome in his hotel room. One night, I went on a date with a man I barely knew to see the new Muppet movie. I’d spent my childhood watching episodes of The Muppet Show that my mom taped off the local Christian television station, which inexplicably aired them in the middle of the night. But on our way to the theatre, my date admitted he’d never really liked The Muppets. I spent the length of the film feeling painfully aware of the moments where he wasn’t laughing, digging my fingernails into my palms so I wouldn’t cry during the songs. He walked me home in awkward silence. The next day, I went back to the theatre by myself so I could watch the movie the right way.
I still hadn’t really dealt with the intense longing that my encounter with the musician had set off inside myself. My solo trips to the movies were pretty much the only time I spent alone. Otherwise, I threw myself into schoolwork and new friendships with hyperkinetic frenzy. But then, one day on a trip to Dublin, I went alone to the Irish Film Institute to see Weekend.
Weekend is a gorgeously rendered romance set in Nottingham, UK about Russell and Glen (Tom Cullen and Chris New), two beautiful young British men who fall in love and separate in the span of 48 hours. The story is deceptively simple: they meet at a bar, go home together and then Glen tells Russell he’s leaving England in two days to go to art school in America. Despite this, their romance keeps unfolding, storybook-perfect, in bars and streets and Russell’s apartment – made all the more real by how little time they have together. They kiss and fuck and fight, they drink and do drugs and tell each other their secrets. They fall in love. It’s beautiful and it aches, because it has to end before it can really begin: each moment of connection between them is limned with the promise of heartbreak, shot through with its own eventual loss.
*Weekend *is a love story, but it’s also a movie about intimacy and identity. It’s about what it means to be yourself in front of someone else. Russell (played by Tom Cullen) is out to his closest friends, but he’s still uncomfortable with some aspects of his identity as a gay man. For his part, Glen (Chris New) feels boxed in by friends and a community that wants him to play a designated role based on his sexuality or his past.
The morning after they have sex for the first time, Glen asks Russell to describe it into a tape recorder for an art project he’s working on. “When you first sleep with someone you don’t know,” he explains, “you become this blank canvas, and it gives you an opportunity to project… This gap opens up between who you want to be and who you are, and in that gap [you see] what’s stopping you from becoming who you want to be.”
For months, I’d been doing everything I could to ignore this enormous, overwhelming sense of longing. This feeling that I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted, except in the brief moments I’d spent with a person I might never see again – only to have it repeated back to me in a dark room full of strangers, in a city halfway around the world. Going to the movies gave me a way to be by myself without having to think about myself, and instead, I’d come face-to-face with everything I’d been too scared to deal with. Weekend was a movie built around the premise that those feelings were deep and real and complicated, and that if I paid attention to them, I could learn something.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer any easy resolutions to the problem of falling in love with someone you barely know. In the end, Russell goes to the train station to say goodbye to Glen. After the train pulls away, we see Russell alone in his apartment, leaning out of his 14th floor window into the gorgeous, waning dusk. He’s holding a package that Glen gave to him just before getting on the train, and when he unwraps it, he finds the tape recorder. Pressing play, he listens to his own voice, from two days and a lifetime ago, telling Glen how it felt to see him for the first time. The movie ends like that, a held chord that refuses to resolve.
Then the lights came on. I stood up, got out of my seat and walked into my future.
Going to the movies gave me a way to be by myself without having to think about myself.