Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Fire In The Theater Of The Absurd

The movie theater is crowded. Almost every seat seems to be taken, and yet there also seems to be no end to the people coming in, still looking for seats. People are in the aisles when the lights go down and the little pack of adverts begins to run on the screen. Some people are still talking, and there are also people shushing the talkers who are, themselves, just as noisy. Someone jostles your seat, and someone makes you scrunch your legs up so that they can pass you, their ass in your face. But despite all this, you are prepared to watch a movie, and you hold onto the hope that eventually people will settle down and the movie will start.

The doors to the theater close. And for some reason this seems really ominous to you. Somehow, claustrophobia-inducing. But even then, you chalk it up to the crowd being so heavily packed in. You still think that, when the movie starts, you'll be transported by movie magic to that happy place where you can happily suspend your disbelief. You manage to work up a moment of excitement about it when, quite suddenly, a commotion breaks out. It's in harsh whispers, down to your left, near the stairs that lead to the exit at the side of the screen. There is more shushing, but you catch some of the words, and your heart begins to race. "There's smoke! I smell it!" "Someone's got a cigarette—" "No! It smells like burning wood and plastic!" "I don't smell it… No, wait. I smell it now. Holy shit!"

There is a general murmur in the audience that spreads like rain beginning to fall. You were not the only one to hear the exchange, and now people are beginning to raise their voices. "What smoke? What? Where?" "I think I smell it, too!" "Oh my God… No no no no…" "Is there a fire?" Is there a fire? You smell the smoke, now. And people are beginning to panic in that low key way that sounds like revving up. Then the person to your right, in the row above you, says, "There's no smoke! You people are imagining things!" And the person directly behind you says, "They're crazy. There's no smoke. Shut up down there and sit down! We want to watch the movie!" They seem calm and annoyed by the fuss going on. But you aren't sure now. The people down in front are slowly doing this weird dance of trying to move around each other toward the stairs on the other side. "Oh my God will you people sit the fuck down!" It's the person above you to your right again. You turn your head and crane your neck to look at the guy, and he looks at you in this exasperated way. "Do you smell smoke?" "I…" you begin, but he cuts you off. "You don't. There is no smoke." And you turn around to look at the screen. You decide that you're just going to ignore all this. The movie will start. The volume will be loud. It's an action-drama-comedy with lots of explosions and big laughs and meaningful moments. It's called, The Life We Live. You decide that you are not going to be distracted by the unfolding ruckus.

Then you notice it. You notice the strange haze in the air. It looks like a light fog, but there are also puffs of heavier stuff moving through it. Your mouth feels dry. From behind you the guy says, "Someone's smoking in here. What an asshole." Someone shushes him and he bumps the back of your chair as he turns to tell the person to be quiet. But your eyes are locked on the thickening haze before the screen. Someone down near the front begins to chant, "There'safirethere'safirethere'safire," really quietly, but audibly. And then someone yells it. "Fire!" A group of people begin to move en masse from the left side of the theater down in front, toward the opposite side of the section. Someone else begins to yell for everyone to stay calm. The person to your left says, "It's probably a cigarette under someone's seat." This strikes you as kind of crazy, because what cigarette makes that much smoke? Someone else—the person in front of you, one row down, says, "There's no way that's a cigarette. There's a fire. We have to get out of here."

But there is no way out. The doors are closed. They won't budge. No one can open them. And now some people are panicking. As people begin to push back into the depths of the theater the first flames become visible, lighting up the bottom of the screen as the first scene of the movie begins. The big name actor is walking across an open airfield carrying a bazooka. His voice echoes in the enclosed space above the sounds of people descending into desperation. "The game is on, and I'm going to win it. You can't stop the inevitable!" And for an odd moment you find yourself transfixed by the hero of the film as he strides meaningfully toward some destination of glory. Then a wave of people crashes over you. People trample over the seats and the people in them, trying to get to the seats higher up, away from the flames. But the people up there are now trying to get down because the smoke has begun to gather thickly up there. And where will you all go, now?

"All this over nothing," the guy behind you says. "The fire's not real. This is stupid. The theater people are trying to scare us into leaving, and then they'll just keep our money!" And his friend laughs like that's the funniest thing he ever heard. "Maybe we should go," he says to his friend. "Screw all these people. Idiots." And even as they continue to talk about how gullible people are and how this is all an elaborate plan to get the moviegoers' money there are flames lapping up the screen, which is beginning to blacken and curl as the hero fires the bazooka into an outhouse where some bad guy has hidden from him. And the thing flies up into the air like a rocket as the bad guy screams, "Aiiiiyeeeeee!" And you can actually hear people in the theater laughing. And now the people in the front who can't get out are fighting over something. "Give me your drink! Give me your drink! We have to try to put the fire out!" "No! I bought this drink! It's mine!" And then someone catches on fire.

And even if you were to focus really hard on watching the movie, you don't think you could manage it, because this situation is really bad. It's out of control. And you wish you never came to this theater. You wish really hard that you hadn't, with your fingers in your ear, saying, "Na na na na na na na na! I can't hear you!" And you close your eyes, and you ignore the guy behind you who's yelling something angrily… something about conspiracies and ignorance and… oh, now he has a gun. You know he does, because he's shooting at people and the air compression is palpable. And several people are on fire now. And the screen is falling as the flames lick upward to the ceiling. And you wonder why no one had tried to stop the fire when it was just a little thing. Why didn't anyone do anything? Why didn't you?

Originally posted in 2011.