When I went to AA for the first time two years ago there was a lot of talk of “giving yourself up to a higher power”. I looked around the room, saw the old souls, the haggard faces, the fucked up stories, and rolled my eyes. Pissy thoughts ran through my head—mainly because I was coming off a mid-morning bender, a combination of bourbon and weed. There were thoughts of Jesus and God and how they should fuck off and keep away from my drinking, my sobriety, my life in general. The meeting was held at a cancer ward in the Bronx. Up by Einstein Hospital. The Bronx has got a lot of religion in it. Or at least my Bronx does. Plenty of Italians, Albanians, Russians, Jews, Caribbeans—Catholic churches, synagogues, the Baptists’ place next door to my grandma’s—my grandma’s address being 777 and wedged between a church and a hospice. I even attended a Catholic school for eight years. (Mind you: as a casual Jew). The Holy Ghost and all its voodoo, Judo magic has long been a presence in my life, even if that presence has been more metaphorical than literal, so you can understand why it was so easy for me to roll my eyes and scoff at the possibility of sobriety.
“I don’t need Jesus in my life. I don’t need higher powers. I just need a way to quit doing what I’m doing and get my health back, my sanity, my fucking drive and will to do.”
Six months later.
I’ve kicked drinking, cold turkey.
The stakes were too high for me to continue with my drunken antics. I was firing off brutal insults at my loved ones, hurting people, stealing from them, burning through my memory—gaping holes of moments and camaraderie and intimacy I’ll never be able to piece together again. So I stopped. Just like that. I had weighed the bullshit behind me against the work ahead—the seeming impossibility of a life unhindered by drink, a life without my liquid crutches—and wondered if the drinking was worth the wayward tilt.
I started seeing this therapist. A hypnotherapist actually—(and no, it’s nothing like what you see in the movies: I have yet to cluck like a chicken)—and he started off by telling me how strange it was that I was able to toss alcohol so quickly. He told me about attachments, and the habits that could possibly lead me to relapse. When you’re an addict—or even when you’re obsessed or compulsive about a certain something—half the issue is the routine of it. The rituals:
Go to the liquor shop on Eastchester Road. Avoid eye contact with the bald, Albanian dude behind the counter who knows my face well enough to never ask me for my ID. If it’s bourbon and the money’s there, it’s Wild Turkey, it’s Makers. If the money’s a couple of scraped-together bills and change, it’s Canadian Club, it’s Ezra Brooks’. The nasty shit. Then it’s home. It’s Chinese food. It’s a movie. There’s the kitchen counter, solid marble, black and green, with swirls of shapeless nebulae restoring everything into cosmic perspective—“The world’s a blighted little dot, what does it matter if an even smaller, more microscopic dot is wasting away?” There’s the glass tumbler, the ice in the freezer. The crack of the ice cubes as they catapult free from their tray. The liquid amber pours over three cubes; they dance in the swirl, they crackle. And then, BLINK!: bourbon’s gone. Empty bottle, drill-fucked head, scratchy-tongue, lost thoughts.
And so on.
But what about the following day? As long as there was no work, it’d be the same shit, different movie, maybe a different brand of booze. Mexican or pizza instead of Chinese. But the principled beats remained. Prominent and fixed. In my bones, beyond my brain, the stuff of marrow, my body knew what to do, how to drink. Could’ve decapitated me, severed me from my neurons, and my body would have still known how to tie one off.
Per my therapist’s advice: it was important for me to create new rituals. New obsessions. It was the only way to ensure my sobriety.
That’s when my old lady love finally returned to me: the movies. Or more specifically, movie theaters.
After sobering up, I started watching an average of ten movies a week. Three of which I would see in theaters. No matter the movie, no matter the venue, if I was even remotely interested in killing time, allowing the clock and hour and minute hands to elapse in a way unnatural to our internal tick-tocks, I’d sidle up to an automated kiosk, swipe my Movie Pass and hideaway in the middle-middle seat, under my hood, under my jacket, with my eyes on whatever book I was reading or scribbling and stabbing at whatever script I was writing, and wait for the movie to begin. And there was order to it, too. I don’t like the rush or anxiety of last-minute seating. Never have. I’ve become something of a burden to my friends when it comes to catching a showtime. I like to be there a half hour ahead of time. An obstinate demand I refuse to budge on. (Unless you’re my girlfriend, in which case, yeah…okay…duh!…I’ll concede). I show up, thirty minutes in advance, and walk up and down the aisle looking for the sweet spot, the perfect focal point, the convergence mark of all audio. I judge the screen’s size. If it’s a screening at IFC, chances are the movie might show on one of the smaller screens, in which case, I get right up in there, right in the movie’s face, and watch it from the second or third row—gotta do whatever it takes to simulate that all-immersive cinematic experience. Same goes for the Angelika and its shotgun narrow theaters—which I still don’t understand. And if I have company, if I’m on a date, it solves that issue of “what kind of a way of hanging is that?” We’re there in the church-like quiet, the screen and its gauche local ads and easy-peezy trivia questions flickering upon our faces like a living room fire, and we’re talking. Easy talk, bubble talk. Like the world outside, all its pressures and cinderblocks and cement pavings, has disappeared, along with all our responsibilities. And if you don’t want to—due to millennial awkwardness—you don’t have to face your companion eye-to-eye, you don’t have to fill the silence with utter bullshit—that’s what the screen is there for. And because of these distractions, as well as the peacefulness of mundanity, the impetus to have the world’s coolest conversation is low. The movie theater’s a place of placid commonness. A great equalizer.
And there are the smaller details, too. How to deal with terribly salted popcorn, when to go use the bathroom, the right time to quit texting and sexting and all that other nonsense. For instance, most places and concession stands don’t know what’s up when it comes to butter. You have to catch them before they fill the bag and let them know that there’s a part to the buttering process that they’re missing. Fill a third of the bag, pour the butter, another third and another layer of butter, etc. Also, if the concession joint doesn’t carry salt packets—which far too many don’t—there are one of two ways to react: (1) fuck everyone else and grab the shaker for yourself (to be returned after the movie), or (2) take a napkin, pour a molehill of salt in the middle of it, and pack it away like a hobo’s bundle. (I typically go for the former). As for the bathroom: I go to unload about five minutes before the trailers start. Although, truth be told, I see so many movies nowadays that I go to the bathroom whenever—so as to avoid repeat trailers. (Nothing will kill your mojo for a movie quicker than seeing its trailer time and time and time again—I’m looking at you, About…err…Time).
Then there’s the obsessiveness. To an extent, watching movies has grown synonymous with counting movies, stacking them up and tallying the numbers. IMDB’s been the best for this. An AA sponsor of sorts. (Criterion, too). In order to keep all the chaos manageable—all those movies and stories and directors and stars and history—I’ve created an IMDB list for every year that cinema’s existed. As soon as I’m done with a flick, I log onto my IMDB account, find the movie, grade it (out of ten), and add it to its corresponding year. (Just in case any of you are curious, the last ten years or so have been my busiest lists). A physical manifestation of my lists endures, too, in the form of a tumbler glass I keep on my work desk. A collapsible desk. Nothing fancy—like the tumbler. It holds my portable typewriter, my various pens and pencils—pens: Pilot G-2 07s (exclusively), and pencils: anything that’s mechanical and can be re-filled—my notes, my scraps of paper, loose change, crumpled bills, a vial of soap bubbles as a means for distraction, a ruler for drawing lines and keeping other non-movie lists, and a stray feather that once belonged to a Pennsylvania turkey hawk—a feather that I once drunkenly convinced myself I would turn into an old-fashioned pen. But none of those items are as important or dear to me as my tumbler. For its significance, its contents.
Even as a prepubescent kid, I always had trouble ignoring movie ticket litter. I’d spot a stub on the ground and feel my center of gravity pull towards it. It was a magical pull I could never explain. Still can’t. (Or maybe I can—shrug—who knows?). Maybe I did it for validation. I’d flip the ticket over and see the title of the movie I saw just the other night there printed before me. The tickets would be covered with sneaker marks, bent corners, creased folds, sidewalk scum, traces of gum, etc. But I didn’t care. I’d see the title and feel a blast of communal jubilation. Me-oh-my! Sweet ol’ rapture! People watch what I watch! My taste’s been legitimized! And now, with my everlasting hunt to prove my cinephile bonafides (mainly to my Wrong Reel co-host Jamie Hancock)—compounded with my penchant for stats—my OCD for ticket stubs has reignited. Every movie I see, I make sure to pocket the stub for posterity. As soon as I’m home, away the ticket goes, right into my glass tumbler.
I look at my tumbler packed with stubs—at their varying lengths and fonts and hues, stubs from blockbuster actioners, from foreign art house pics, from retrospectives, tickets from the Film Society, Landmark, Alamo Drafthouse (the one in Yonkers)—I even have a transatlantic stub hailing in from the Filmhouse in Edinburgh—I look at the uneven ridge of ripped paper crammed into tight order—F for Fake rubbing shoulders with Edge of Tomorrow—and feel that heat, that warm carbonated foam, as it spreads through to the ends of my limbs, to the the tips of all twenty of my digits, and I spin with intoxication. I feel that well-acquainted warmth. But it’s no longer fleeting. It doesn’t abandon me the way a night of drunkenness would. It stays. It firms the ground beneath my feet and supports me as I sway with thoughts of cinema, of waxed nostalgia, of odes to Hitchcock, to Wayfarer sunglasses, to conversations debating the worth of digital filmmaking versus the more obsolete celluloid. I also feel excited—excited for the future, for the year’s new releases, for the discovery of an unfamiliar director, for the revival of a long-gone print…
…for another year sober.
It’s been a year and four months since I’ve gone dry and almost two years since my first AA meeting where they told me to relinquish myself to a higher power. With a fixed and stupidly focused mindset, I scoffed then. All I could think of was God. What other belief system could there be other than a religious one?For the longest time, I thought religion and ghosts and other forms of spirituality was all a person could sink their soul (whatever that may mean) into. I was wrong. It can be anything, as long as it’s bigger than you. Movies are bigger than me, literally and figuratively. They’re not about me, they’re not about my self-pity. They’re about a crowd of strangers—however big or small that crowd may be—coming together and collectively projecting their fears, insecurities, their life-sized questions upon one big ass screen. I’m not special in that regard. Movies aren’t for my sole benefit. If a movie has spoken to me, it’s spoken to others. That’s why I now believe in movies, why they center me and keep me from toppling over. Drinking was far too insular, too selfish. And now I’m part of a larger tapestry—no more than a simple loop of thread, sure, but still: I’d rather play the most minor of roles in the history of cinema than stare any longer at my own pathetic, lint-stuffed belly button.
And so, with our ticket-stuffed tumblers aimed to the skies, lets give toast: To cinema! May you always be there, waiting, shepherding, whisking us away into worlds bigger than our selves!