Culture

I’m Upset: Your dinner is ruining my movie

“Dine-in” movie theaters like Nitehawk and the Alamo Drafthouse are fundamentally antithetical to movies themselves.
Culture

I’m Upset: Your dinner is ruining my movie

“Dine-in” movie theaters like Nitehawk and the Alamo Drafthouse are fundamentally antithetical to movies themselves.

For a limited time, you can order something called “The May Queen” at Nitehawk Cinema’s two Brooklyn locations.

Described as a “short rib and lingonberry hand pie,” it’s a grotesquely fitting special for the psychedelic freakfest film Midsommar — a movie so colossally fucked up that it drove one rattled guest to ask a manager for cocaine, just to get through the screening. (So rattled was this guest that she also evidently forgot how cocaine works.)

She hadn’t ordered the hand pie, but I can probably guarantee you that someone has. And I’m not sure about you, but eating one of those during a horror movie sounds like the functional equivalent of drinking vodka in line for a Tilt-a-Whirl.

Aside from occasionally inducing nausea, I’ve come to view the recent scourge of “dine-in” movie theaters like Nitehawk and the Alamo Drafthouse — particularly in Brooklyn, where numerous have opened in the last few years , but also in cities across the country — as fundamentally antithetical to movies themselves. These establishments allege to improve the moviegoer’s experience with artisanal pub fare and themed cocktails delivered to one’s seat but they simultaneously misunderstand why some of us go to the movies in the first place: to escape. They’re gentrified foils to the old-fashioned immersion of the cinema, which is increasingly hard-won amid the onslaught of technological diversions endemic to modern life.

If you haven’t been to one of these dine-in movie theaters, here’s how they work: Typically, they feature some kind of modified cabaret-style seating; at the Alamo Drafthouse and Nitehawk, a menu is placed on your table, under which there is a dim light and a slot for pencils and paper. Before the film starts — or whenever, really — you can write down what you want on a scrap of paper. A waiter will slink by to pick up your order and will later return during the movie with your food and/or beverage. This is how you end up trying to watch The Souvenir while the couple next to you flirts over a bottle of red and mojo-marinated shrimp tacos.

Maybe you like the idea of scarfing down a meat pie while watching the most psychologically devastating film of the year.

There are numerous aspects of the dine-in movie theater experience I find loathsome. To name a few: I hate the way the waiters are relegated to scurrying up and down the aisles like blind mice, walking half-stooped through the rows to avoid blocking the screen. I hate how people who’ve ordered crunchy foods try, and fail, to eat them noiselessly. I hate the whispered exchanges regarding tater tots. I hate the smell of cheeseburgers in the dark.

Whereas traditional movie theaters are expressly designed to pull you in, this stuff inherently yanks you out. I’m not a film snob; I once watched The 400 Blows wine-drunk on a flight to Dubai. But for people who go to the movies to sit in the dark and turn off their phones and forget themselves for a few hours — or even, to, I don’t know, share in the collective fright or delight of the audience — it’s not hard to see how some dude shoveling kale salad into his mouth can become its own brand of spoiler. Nor is it hard to imagine why a movie theater is a genuinely horrible place to enjoy a kale salad.

Of course, there are economic incentives behind the dine-in theater — a justifiable urgency to transform moviegoing into an “event” in the Netflix-and-Chill age. Concessions have always buoyed the movie theater business, and they’ve taken on an even more outsized significance as ticket sales have declined. It’s worth noting, too, that many dine-in theaters tend to show the kind of movies mainstream theaters rarely do — which is precisely why I find them so hard to avoid. Ultimately, if being able to scarf down a banh mi hot dog while watching, say, Gasper Noé's Climax gets you to a movie you otherwise wouldn’t see, I suppose that's a good thing (if not a gross thing).

Yet something more insidious undergirds this trend, too. The dine-in movie theater seems to spring from the same fount of consumer-driven brainstorming that brought us driving ranges-cum-nightclubs, grocery stores-cum-bars, coworking spaces-qua-gyms, and gyms-qua-coworking spaces. In these spaces, it feels like the physical world is contorting itself to match the combinatory, all-at-once-ness of the digital realm. It may be a coincidence, but it should also come as no surprise that the rise of dine-in movie theaters over the past decade reflects the growing ubiquity of streaming services — of dinner with a movie, as opposed to dinner and a movie. Perhaps what we really want from cinemas nowadays is not a “night out,” but the same level of convenience fast Wi-Fi and DoorDash grants us on a night in.

Still, maybe you like the idea of scarfing down a meat pie while watching the most psychologically devastating film of the year.

But consider how few places like movie theaters exist nowadays, how rare it is to devote your undivided attention to a piece of art for more than an hour. Museums are fast becoming slaves to Instagram. Concerts are increasingly spoiled by Snapchats nobody wants to see. TV is routinely watched alongside a perpetually refreshed Twitter feed. The latest season of The Real World airs on Facebook. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect some people watching Roma on their iPhones paused it to take a few swipes on Tinder.

Which is why the movie theater is an institution worth protecting from merely above-average bar food. And why I’d implore you to settle for popcorn like a normal person. Dinner will always be there for you afterwards.

As will cocaine, I guess.

Are you upset about something about would like to be paid to write about it? Email leah@theoutline.com.

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Sam Eichner is a writer based in New York whose work has been published in the Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily Beast, and Electric Literature, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @seike17, where he mostly just tweets about The Bachelor.