I Used to Watch Other People Watch Movies

rows of beige movie theatre seats
Image by I G / CC BY

I have a lot of movies that I’ve technically watched but haven’t really seen. Ones where I could maybe tell you who the major characters are and what the film is vaguely about (maybe), but most of the smaller details of the plot are lost on me.

There’s a reason for this. For my teens and most of my 20s, I didn’t really watch a movie unless I was alone while it was playing. If there was anyone else with me, instead of watching the film, I watched other people watch it.

I wanted to see how they reacted. What did they think of the plot? The characters? Did they think the movie was funny? Sad? Scary?

It was rare in those days for a video to capture my attention. Movies always managed to move too quickly and too slowly. It was such a passive experience. With a book, I could control the speed. I could flick my eyes over dull sections, skimming to get ahead to the scenes that I was really excited to read. And if I found myself confused by something, I could always reread earlier sections.

But with a movie, this wasn’t so easy. If I were watching it in a theater, there was no way to fast forward or rewind. Same with broadcast TV (with no DVR, Tivo, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.). And in the days before DVDs, it was quite cumbersome and imprecise to move through scenes on VHS. Not to mention that going back or going ahead would annoying the ever-loving crap out of anyone I was watching with.

So if I happened to not pay proper attention to whatever the filmmakers intended me to, well, I was shit out of luck. And if they decided to devote ample time to something I found mind-numbingly boring, well, I was stuck with that, too.

I found both happening rather routinely whenever I watched movies. The vast majority of them left me wanting, seemed like they were designed for someone whose brain operated completely differently. So I tended not to watch many movies on my own.

And when a friend or lover suggested we watch movies together, I’d accept. But I’d spend about 80% of the time watching them watch the movie rather than watching the movie myself.

I’m surprised in hindsight that they didn’t notice or call me out on it — “What are you looking at?”, “Stop staring,” “That’s so creepy.”

But they didn’t.

They were usually engrossed in the movie.

If it were one of their favorites, something they were showing to me to bond, they’d want to talk about the movie afterward. Trying to get my take. And I’d do my best to give feedback based on what I managed to absorb. Studying their facial expressions in real time as they reacted to what I was saying. Patching it all together with the bits that I did manage to absorb.

It was a lot like giving a book report on a novel I didn’t really read, searching my teacher’s face for clues mid-speech.

Looking back, it wasn’t just movies that were like that. Where I spent most of my time just watching other people than actually forming my own impressions. I had entire relationships that were the same way. Where I wasn’t really a participant in whatever was going on, but more of a monitor of my lover’s happiness. I wasn’t there to experience anything — but to respond to how my partner was experiencing life.

And I wasn’t really living my own life. I was watching other people live theirs.

If You Have to Radically Change Who You Are to Fit in, Those Aren’t Your People

It’s bizarre to me now, that time in my life. Even though I can remember it quite clearly, it feels like something that must have happened to someone else. It’s not at all how I operate these days.

Sitting in movie theaters used to be agony for me, confined to a dark space with a bunch of strangers I didn’t know. Forced to pay attention to something for a couple of hours. No talking.

But these days I find it fun.

And rather than watching a companion’s face reacting to a movie, I actually watch the movies.

Have I liked every movie that I’ve seen since I’ve started actually watching them? No way.

I found the very first movie I watched that way, incidentally the first one I ever saw in 3D (2011’s Thor), to be completely bizarre and confusing the first time I watched it. (I enjoyed the later Avenger movies and Thor eventually grew on me.) Batman v. Superman was a huge letdown. The film adaptation of Ready Player One made me angry (having enjoyed the book a great deal more).

But I no longer find myself continually monitoring my companion’s face to gauge their emotional reaction to whatever’s on the screen. And I’m no longer spending the vast majority of my energy monitoring the emotional reactions of people around me. Instead, I’m using it to live and enjoy my own life.

So what changed? Well, there were a few different things.

Part of it was finding a group of people I finally felt safe with. Instead of spending all my time in a state of constant hypervigilance, convinced if I made the wrong move socially that I’d be exiled from whatever group I was a part of.

And part of it was coming to understand that if I need to radically change who I am to be accepted by another person or by a group of people, then those aren’t my people.

And part of that was realizing that by trying to force myself to fit into places I didn’t really belong, I was robbing myself of the opportunity to find a place I fit naturally.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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