By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 28, 2020 at 9:01 AM

Perhaps the best part of movie-going happens before you even arrive at the theater. Like the feeling before you unwrap your Christmas presents, there’s a thrilling tension in your brain, racing through all the possibilities the next two hours could hold, what ride you’ll go on, what new jaw-dropping moment you’ll experience, what new star you’ll see or what new joke you’ll beat to death quoting over the next several weeks.

And no matter how the next two hours go – whether you spent those two hours breathlessly watching "Parasite" unfold or desperately hoping "The Emoji Movie" would stop unfolding as soon as possible – there’s always that same experience, that tense excitement of promise and potential.

Driving to the Fox Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay – the first movie theater in the Milwaukee area to reopen amidst the COVID-19 pandemic – earlier this month, the tension I felt was not that. 

My mind was racing – not with the potential of what could take place on screen –but what might happen off of it. Would the theater actually follow health guidelines? Would it be crowded?

Would people be wearing masks? Or would I be the only one, and would my fellow moviegoers make a harrumph out of that? People make you feel as evil and diabolical as Thanos for merely asking them to turn off their cellphones or stop talking; what would happen with a life-saving accessory that’s somehow become an inflammatory political statement? Would I still be healthy in a week? Would others?

Oh yeah, I guess there would be a movie on screen too. 

Thankfully, the answers to at least most of those questions were positive.

Walking up to the Fox Bay that Friday night, I was greeted immediately at the door by a theater worker holding a touchless thermometer and astride a stand of masks to offer up in case I wasn’t already wearing one. The temperature check was quick and painless, and after I was given the OK, I was allowed into the building. I  made my way to the box office, which is now shielded with a thick wall of clear protective plastic. I’d already bought my ticket online beforehand, both to cut back on contact points and to make sure I had a seat ahead of time in case the showing would be bustling. 

As it turns out, I didn't need to worry about the latter; I was the only one there to see "Trolls World Tour" that night. Talking with Fox Bay’s owner Roman Kelly, children’s films struggled to draw in the theater’s opening weeks while throwback favorites and classic movies, such as "Back to the Future" and "E.T.," have done best with bringing back audiences during this fallow period for new releases. Another theater employee told me that the goal, especially in these early weeks, wasn’t to be particularly busy; it was merely to be open and available for the community if they wanted a break and a taste of normalcy.

That friendly employee helped guide me to my auditorium, where I picked out my seat from the few made available. In order to limit crowds and maintain social distancing, most of the chairs were flipped up, with maybe four or five seats in groups of two or three actually available in each row. Even with the limited seating options, as the only audience member, I had my pick of the place.

When I sat down, he asked if I wanted a menu, as the Fox Bay is still serving food and beverages during its presentations. I politely declined in order to keep my mask on, even though not having at least candy or popcorn during a movie felt mildly sacrilegious. 

By the time the opening titles rolled, I was still the only one in the theater, and I almost felt a sense of relief. That relief, however, was quickly followed by sadness. This isn't why we enjoy going to the movies. Sure, people can be annoying, talking or texting during a film, but I’ve got a room with a decently sized TV if I want to watch something by myself. Where was the energy of people together, watching something wash over them, collectively laughing or crying or feeling moved at the same time? And what did it say about me that I was briefly grateful that experience wasn’t there?

With all of that, "Trolls World Tour" began – and as any parent over the last several months can probably tell you with an exhausted sigh and shell-shocked eyes – it’s a very bright, loud movie. But, strangely, the silence in the auditorium was even louder.

Now, I am no stranger to seeing movies by myself in a crowd of air; I’ve been an audience of one to plenty of late-night screenings, trying to catch a buzz-devoid indie movie or a months-old forgotten blockbuster before it leaves town. But never before had the silence simultaneously felt so deafening and deathly, a shrieking quiet reminding me of the reason why people weren’t there and what was going on in the world outside the walls. 

When I pushed that out of mind, another equally disquieting thing would take its place, whether it was the unfamiliar sensation of laughing behind a mask or taking an extra second before merely moving my arms, suddenly self-conscious of every surface around me. It felt similarly to the beginning of this outbreak when we realized how often we touch our faces without knowing. I suddenly was all too aware of how often I touched the armrests or table.

Reality just couldn’t stop distracting me from my distraction – no matter how much James Corden on-screen singing "Who Let the Dogs Out" tried to yell and blare it out. At least when somebody’s talking or texting during a movie, you can move or ask them to stop. How do you tell an invisible deadly outbreak to keep it down and wait until after the movie to bother you?

After the movie, I got back into my car, took off my mask and, without thinking, let out a big exhale. It wasn’t because "Trolls World Tour" is a thrillingly whirlwindy cinematic experience that that had me breathlessly on the edge of my seat. (It’s fine.) I hadn’t realized how tense I was the entire movie, not because I felt unsafe but because my subconscious was telling me that something was just … off. 

In the world of special effects and robotics, there’s a concept called the uncanny valley, where the closer something appears to human, the more suspicious and uncomfortable a person feels around it. It’s the reason why digital Tom Hanks in "The Polar Express" is so haunting. Despite having the voice of America’s Dad, his character is profoundly unsettling; there's nothing where the light behind the eyes is supposed to be, so close to human yet even more inhuman as a result. That’s how my movie experience felt (due in no part to the friendly and amicable staff at the theater, or the presentation, which was bright and beaming): an uncanny screening, all the surfaces and details looking and feeling close to normal and human, but somehow the soul was missing.

Take two

I figured it was only fair to try again. This time I checked out the Thursday night debut screening of Jon Stewart’s "Irresistible." Surely there would be others there this time – not only for a new movie, but a new movie set in Wisconsin, complete with Point beer signage and a Great Lakes Distillery T-shirt. 

There were – about ten of us – just about all wearing masks and all going through the new normal entry process. The safety measures were still in place though this time, instead of being met at the door, the touchless temperature check happened at the box office. Otherwise, it was all still contact-free and as friendly and genial as possible when employees are wearing masks and positioned behind thick protective glass.

Once again, a pleasant and gracious employee guided me into the theater where I found everyone sitting well distanced, a situation that continued throughout the show (The waiters quietly taking orders and delivering food throughout the film served as not only food service, but as security ensuring that no one got dangerously cozy to anyone else during the show.) It was a process that felt about as safe, personable and easy as possible, and when the movie began, a brand new film on the screen and people in the audience, you could almost convince yourself that life – and this screening – was normal. 

But it wasn’t. There was still an unavoidable "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" feeling to it all: all looking normal but a black hole where the soul was supposed to be. I was still hyperaware every time I touched the armrest or table. I was still self-conscious of the muffled silence in the room (not that the very unfunny "Irresistible" did anything to help that). 

As much as I wish I could blame "Irresistible," for my experience, the reality is I’m a movie addict chasing a high that’s just no longer there right now. 

I desperately wish I could say, without hesitation, to go back to the movies. Selfishly, I wish I could say it merely for my own mind. I’m not entirely kidding when I call myself a movie addict. I used to bring the newspaper’s Weekend Cue section into grade school on Fridays to read the movie reviews and recaps, eventually writing my own reviews for a readership of one. My first job was at a movie theater, where I worked for most of a decade and loved just about every day wearing those awful butter-stained tuxedo shirts, cleaning up popcorn and nasty nacho cheese goo. In normal times, I see probably about a movie every day – and often several in a single night. The movie theater is my temple. It's my corner bar and my vacation. 

The home movie-watching experience, as has been cemented for me over the past several months, just doesn't cut it. No matter how nice your sound system or screen, you can’t let go while sitting on the same couch you sit on every day. Even the most captivating movie can't save you from being distracted when your phone or laptop call your name. Your mind needs the space to escape – and that’s a movie theater. 

But even more so, I wish I could enthusiastically say going to the movies is the same as it's ever been for places like the Fox Bay. After all, it's an independent local theater trying to survive in an exhibition business that was already difficult before COVID-19 robbed them of their summer movie season and the big new movies that would’ve been their lifeblood. In my experience, the Fox Bay (and the four newly reopened Marcus Theatres locations) are doing everything as right as they possibly can; they’ve incorporated all the health measures – though I would very much like to see Marcus mandate masks, not just encourage them – and upgraded to enhanced and thorough cleaning processes in between showings.

Nothing here is a fault of theirs. Like many businesses, they were urged and forced to reopen to an unsafe climate, and ultimately they are doomed to fail because – while you can open your doors – most people still don’t feel comfortable walking through them. They’re doing the best they can in an impossible scenario.

Maybe when we can see the actual impact of people sitting indoors in movie theaters, see that there’s no threat of a new spike and see that people are able to behave themselves and wear masks, more people will feel like returning.

But even then, until there's a vaccine and COVID-19 is pushed to the past, can it ever really be the same, escapist experience that you've always loved? You can reopen a theater for the sake of normalcy, but you can’t make a 33 percent filled theater of masked people, spaced far apart, on edge at the faintest sound of an innocent cough or sneeze, feel normal. Much like bars and restaurants in these unusual times, there's an antiseptic feel in a space that's meant to evoke life and energy. That place of escape is now just filled with reminders of what you’re hoping to leave behind and echoes of what your escape no longer is.

Sure, you can go to theaters again. (Though, please, if you do, wear a mask.) Honestly, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t go again – partly to support these places during these arduous times, but also simply because I'm still chasing that high and hoping the next time will conjure the experience I remember so fondly.

But right now, going to the movies just isn't "going to the movies."

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.