When you go the local movie house, do you ever pay attention to the flesh-and-blood human beings who work there? Or, is it an abstracted experience? Too often we move through space and time oblivious, sunk in our own private misery, passing others like ghosts. In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), Binx Bolling shows an alternative way. What he says below stirs an ache in myself to be really heard and challenges me to compassionately hear out others:
On my way home I stop off at the Tivoli. It is a Jane Powell picture and I have no intention of seeing it. However, Mr Kinsella the manager sees me and actually pulls me in by the coatsleeve for a sample look. He says it is a real pleaser and he means it. There go Jane and some fellow walking arm in arm down the street in a high wide and handsome style and doing a wake up and sing number. The doorman, the cop on the corner, the taxi driver, each sunk in his own private misery, smile and begin to tap their feet. I am hardly ever depressed by a movie and Jane Powell is a very nice-looking girl, but the despair of it is enough to leave you gone in the stomach. I look around the theater. Mr Kinsella has his troubles too. There are only a few solitary moviegoers scattered through the gloom, the afternoon sort and the most ghostly of all, each sunk in his own misery, Jane or no Jane. On the way out I stop at the ticket window and speak to Mrs de Marco, a dark thin worried lady who has worked here ever since I moved to Gentilly. She does not like the movies and takes no pleasure in her job (though she could see most of the last show every night). I tell her that it is a very fine job and that I would like nothing better than sitting out here night after night and year after year and watch the evenings settle over Elysian Fields, but she always thinks I am kidding and we talk instead about her son’s career in the air force. He is stationed Arizona and he hates the desert. I am sorry to hear this because I would like it out there very much. Nevertheless I am interested in hearing about it. Before I see a movie it is necessary for me to learn something about the theater or the people who operate it, to touch base before going inside. That is the way I got to know Mr Kinsella: engaging him in conversation about the theater business. I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at least dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see. Do not misunderstand me. I am no do-gooding Jose Ferrer going around with a little whistle to make people happy. Such do-gooders do not really want to listen, are not really selfish like me; they are being nice fellows and boring themselves to death, and their listeners are not really cheered up. Show me a nice Jose cheering up an old lady and I’ll show up two people existing in despair. My mother often told me to be unselfish, but I have become suspicious of the advice. No, I do it for my own selfish reasons. If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.