Monday, May 22, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2001)

One of my friends at the office has been entertaining himself by telling people about his encounter with me at the film festival. He arrived ten minutes into the movie, and with all the seats taken in his preferred area at the back of the theater, he moved down to the first few rows. He came across a row that was empty except for one guy sitting in the aisle seat, who he recognized as me. He whispered my name as he pushed past me, but I didn’t respond. Then he tapped me on the knee, but I again didn’t respond. Then he reached across and tapped me harder, at which I finally did look round, offering a cursory smile before settling back into the movie.

Thomas in Love

I guess the point of the story is that I was unnaturally wrapped up in the movie (an especially unnatural state since this happened at the relatively unengrossing Sex and Lucia rather than at, say, Pulse). My angle on the story is that I knew some jerk was tapping me, but I figured that if I ignored him he’d just go away. It’s true that to me, hell in movie theaters is other people. I like to sit as close as possible to the screen so that I won’t be distracted by the audience. I have an unnatural memory for bad encounters – the old woman with the Scottish accent who caused me to move during The Insider, the guy with the cellphone in Bringing out the Dead, and so on.

The other week I went to see Thomas in Love at the Carlton. I got there about five minutes early and passed maybe five or six people on my way down to the front. I slumped down in my seat for ninety minutes and watched the movie. When I stood up at the end, I realized that I was the only one there. Everyone else had given up at some point during the film. Which puzzles me, because the film surely delivered well enough on what it claimed to be.

But maybe Thomas in Love is best seen in just the way I unknowingly saw it – as a film for one. It’s set in a near future where connectivity has reached its full potential. The title character is a severe agoraphobic who never leaves his apartment and can’t even bear to be in the same room with other people. Living completely alone, he communicates with the world via an all-purpose monitor. The film’s gimmick is that we never see him – we hear his voice, and we see only the screen he’s staring at. In that sense the movie consists of a single unchanging camera angle, although the format accommodates lots of diverse stuff. This includes videophone conversations with prostitutes, his mother, his shrink, and a simulated female with whom he has cybersex via some kind of sensor-laden body suit (a practice that the movie presents as being highly effective, but socially frowned upon).

Better on TV

Given the constraints, the film develops some quite effective story lines – although maybe if I knew what some people already do online or over the phone, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. The film hints at the source of dramatic tension – how can Thomas maintain a love if he won’t let anyone near him? The story arc is pleasant, but ultimately a little rushed – it reaches for an emotional impact that’s not quite there. Thomas’ voice over seemed to me too bland and monotonous, although so much time alone would do that to you.

It’s usually a put-down to say of a particular film that it might look better on TV, but that should be a fair comment for Thomas in Love, which evokes the condition of a whole life spent watching the box. Theoretically, seeing the film on TV might make you more likely to identify viscerally with Thomas’ predicament; on the other hand though, TV lives among all the distractions and paraphernalia that remind us we’re not sealed off from human contact. The movie theater is a far more insinuating environment. The street may only be feet away, people may be laughing and talking in the lobby, but there you are in this dark space, divorced from everything. If the movie works and you’re willing to go with it, you could find yourself anywhere.

The communal aspect of movies, sitting near the back with your pals and your popcorn, whispering and laughing out loud, always seems to me like an evasion of cinema’s power. If you’re watching Me, Myself & Irene, I guess it doesn’t matter – the movie virtually aspires to be hanging out with you in the aisle. I’m not necessarily criticizing – I saw that movie on cable and thought it was just fine. For me though, there’s no need to pay the premium to see it in the theater. If I were interested in the nature and texture of communal experiences, it’d be different. But when I talk to people about movies, I realize how it never occurs to them, even to some of the smartest people I know, that if they put everything else aside for a couple of hours, if they let the coordinates slip, the movie might repay the effort ten times over.


Did everyone all walk out on Thomas in Love because they decided they’d save it for TV? Who knows? Maybe it’s just coincidence – a few people all realizing they’d left the oven on.

This is a wacky town for movies. There’s not a week when the New York Times doesn’t carry ads for five or six cool movies that will never make it here. They’re usually foreign films of course. But then, on the other hand, the Carlton will occasionally make a totally unexpected programming move. Thomas in Love hasn’t played in the States to my knowledge. And Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure recently opened out of the blue – four years old, but extremely welcome.

Cure is one of the best releases of the year, but we’re in a year where even the best releases are a touch disappointing. I know Kurosawa’s work only from his most recent aforementioned Pulse, which played at this year’s film festival. Maybe there’s a problem with seeing his work in reverse – after the apocalyptic Pulse, the more intimate traumas of Cure seem a little tentative. But the film – about a detective investigating a series of apparently unrelated murders – has superb poise. It’s very much a genre exercise, certainly a cousin to standard-issue serial killer fare, but it manages to make the plot mechanics reflective of our deepest fears about the fragility of relationships and self-identity. You don’t want to be tapped on the knee during this movie, even by someone you know.

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