May 18, 2022

The Old Movie House

By Alexander Nemser

Thomas Denesha, Sky #3, 2018

Every night, the Fool sat with his parents in the old movie house. 

Family lore held that it was once a glorious, glamorous place, but the Fool had only known it to be dilapidated. There were rows of rickety seats, some of them missing their cushions. The aisles were strewn with popcorn, candy wrappers, plastic straws, and teeth. On most of the seats, the upholstery was stained with caked rivulets of fluid. Some of the cushions had been chewed down to exposed plywood at the corners by feral dogs. 

Stretched over the screen was a carved proscenium arch overflowing with gilt figures, half-animal, half-human: a man’s body with a lion’s head, a woman’s head on a fish. The screen was framed by worn red velvet curtains with long tassels of gold brocade. But it was the screen itself that seemed most elegant, towering over the seats with a prehistoric magnitude. The scenes that played on its surface candied the family’s eyes with uncanny images.  

Night after night the Fool’s family sat there, transfixed. Hour after hour, movie after movie, they jammed their fingers into crinkling sandwich bags, pursed their lips to guzzle smuggled soda through a straw. Guttural groans pulled themselves from their captive organs. As they watched, their eyes always stared straight ahead. They didn’t know if they were the predators, and the images were the prey, or if the images were hunting them, and they were only frozen in shocked response. 

Next to the doorway of the theater, by the tumbledown popcorn machine, was a small altar with a candle stub and a small cup of coins. As they left the theater, the Fool’s parents would toss a coin into the cup. 

No one else was ever in the theater. 


The Fool remembered the tears. How the family cried when they watched the movie where a great-great-uncle barely survives an attack by masked horsemen, and then, when he finally makes it across an ocean, takes his own life. The salty liquid spurted from their ducts in jets.

In one movie, bodies were buried in a place which didn’t exist. When someone went to find it, they were swallowed, too. In another, ghostly, grayish figures marched in an endless line along the crest of a hill. There were secret second families under new names, and padded trucks on the way to a hospital. One movie showed an old woman dressed in black rags, rending her clothes and mourning for hours, “Aiaiaiaiaiai.”

The family sat and watched with desperate conviction, as though their lives depended on capturing every detail, taking in every moment of the projection as if it were realer than reality itself. As if it were their obligation to cause it to become unmovable through the force of their unflinching attention. Their attention was their prayer. Their calling was to make the projection substantial; their vocation was to believe it into being. 

As they watched, vast energies flowed through their bodies and bound themselves to their limbs. These energies had one single, unfulfillable desire: to become real. To take form as real as matter, to transcend the flimsy, fickle transience of thought and establish themselves fixedly in the physical, as hard as the particles which composed the world God called “Good.” 

And so the family took the images as the unquestionable word and merciless wisdom of God himself. If someone had asked them who God was, they would have said, “The One who makes the movies.” Or, “He is the movies.”


After the show, the Fool and his parents would stumble out, raising hands to shield their disoriented eyes. When they walked, it was always with one shaking leg still in the images. Outside, it was dark—or dusk the next day, or morning again. They could never tell how much time had passed. 

Often, as they exited the movie house, they would knock crashing into one of the people walking by: since the people outside weren’t part of the movie, they held no interest for the family’s eyes, and might as well have been invisible. 

SLAM! 

The Fool’s father crashed into a passerby. 

After a dazed moment, the ruffled walker walked on. 

Asshole,” whispered the walker. 

The Fool’s father gaped after the figure. “Fuck you!” he shouted, or thought he did. After so many hours in the old movie house, he had no speech, and all the walker heard was a feral throat-sound. 

The Fool squinted, and watched the passerby’s figure flicker as his eyes tried to adjust between movie-house reality and outside reality; the passerby moved, stuttering, half-there. Startled, the Fool began to develop what would become a pressing vendetta against the figure—wherever he appeared—and decided the world wasn’t a safe place. 


Years later, the Fool discovered that although he was now grown, he was still compelled to visit the old movie house with his family every night. He witnessed all the old, familiar horrors, and they lulled him into the same comforting trance, remaking and remolding his familiar, malevolent view of the world, calling belief into being.

But for some reason, on one particular night, he found his attention wandering. The familiar image of a family dying in madness on the street failed to captivate him, and his attention drifted. Specifically, it drifted from the images flickering on the screen to the blank quality of the screen itself, up the brocade curtain pull, along the red velvet curtains, across the ornamental molding of a fish with a woman’s head, up to the balcony, back around, and finally, to the light gleaming from the projection booth like a ghostly, glowing pyramid catching the dust.  

His parents were transfixed, and so the Fool was free to explore the scene unobserved. He took the ramshackle steps up to the balcony. One sagged in the middle like skin; another squealed and creaked and frightened the Fool, who froze—then, after a minute, danced over it. He groped along the wall until his hand found a brass doorknob; sure enough, it opened a thin door to a narrow hallway. The clickety-clack of the projector sounded louder now, and he let his ears guide his steps towards it. He rounded a corner, and, for the first time, saw into the projection room.

In the booth, which had once seemed to tower overhead like the mind of a Creator, stood a simple projector. Next to the projector lolled a wild-eyed old woman on a wobbly stool. Her right leg, from knee to ankle, was straightened by an old-fashioned metal brace. Stunned, the Fool stared at the old woman’s leg, then tore his attention away and rushed back down the stairs. The fibers of the sagging step shredded with a sigh. 

On his next visit, after a night of unquiet sleep, the Fool returned again to watch the old woman operate the projector. As the lights dimmed, she leaned forward on the stool and flicked the projector with a long fingernail. While one reel of celluloid ticked by, she prepared the next, winding another reel around the spool. She was slow and clumsy. At various times, she sequenced the reels incorrectly, so the end of the movie played before the beginning, or the middle act played two or three or thousands of times before proceeding on to the beginning of the story. The viewers were so dumbstruck and frightened, they didn’t notice. 

On his way out, he paused at the altar, looked up towards the projectionist in her booth, then back down at the cup of coins. He wondered what she spent them on. 


In the Fool’s memory, there was an astonishing variety of films, each story bold and novel. But, as the Fool’s fascination moved from the movies themselves to the mechanism that animated them, he made a discovery: the movies were all the same. 

Yes, there was an astonishing variety of setups and set pieces, tropes and costume changes. But each time, the story was identical. The family witnessed its fate repeating on the screen, repeating through the ages without change, from before the Big Bang, through the prehistoric period, mass migrations, the “great” civilizations, political upheavals, scientific discoveries and technological advances, right up to the present day, which appeared as a romantic comedy about a snake the size of the world who pursues its own tail in a will-they-or-won’t-they love affair. 

Always, the Fool’s family lost everything unjustly; always, they hid in a basement, and it wasn’t safe to come out.  

The repetition was now laid bare to the Fool. Staggered, he saw the same thin pattern playing out over and over. He experienced the boredom of the Creator whose story has moved on.  


One night, as the Fool watched the projectionist at work, something happened that had never happened before: the old woman fell asleep. The movie played until the end, then the film sputtered out, and finally, the projector shut off. The Fool returned to the auditorium and gazed at the screen. The breath caught in his heart and bent. 

There it was: blank, luminous, and unsullied. After bearing thousands upon thousands of horrifying images, brought to a pitch of almost-reality by the force of his family’s belief, the screen remained completely untouched

Thousands of films, in which thousands of unnamed extras lost their lives spattering the landscape with jets of performance blood, in which thousands of tamed animals pretending to be wild animals recreated their natural habitats, in which thousands of artificial buildings were destroyed with expertly placed preprogrammed explosives, in which thousands of thrown pies harmlessly splashed banana cream onto the faces of seemingly surprised clowns, in which thousands of volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, flash floods, and forest fires indifferently shattered the landscape, in which the old woman rended her black garments and cried, “Aiaiaiaiaiai,” in which the family lost all its money to authoritarian injustice night after night after night—all these disturbances, ruptures, and destructions had failed to stain or alter the vital, unblinking surface of the screen, shining inwardly out from its blankness into the dark of the movie house.

After that, the Fool could never again be quite so captivated by the images. He returned to the movie house many times, thousands more times, but was never as enchanted as before. Once, he tried to explain to his parents what he had seen, but his mother only said, “My darling, let’s just watch the movies.” 

He tried to fall back under the spell, but it would only last a few seconds. Sometimes, all he could see was the blank screen. 


One day, the Fool was walking down the street and saw some people making a movie. At least, they were holding up their phones. But the blood was different from the kind the Fool was used to seeing—browner, and not transparent: life couldn’t peek through it with a wink like in the movies. And the cries the people were making. They were unformed; they were being unwound too fast, from a place inside where the bottom of a spine and the root of a tree had a single, unknown name. 

The Fool shook. A cold knowing slipped down his back. 

This scene was going to be projected. 

Other families were going to their own movie houses every night to watch movies like these behind other trembling curtains, in their own entrancing dark. And still, this unfolding moment was different. Inside his heart, the cold, bright knowing cocked a finger: this scene on the street, this was what the images from the family movie house had maybe once been, what they longed to be again. But his family’s images were old—faded and careworn, with frames in need of a touch-up, while these were being wrought in real time, with the jerky vitality of images in need of no belief to be real. 

For a moment, the Fool leaned forward towards the cries on the street, listening. He sensed how his family’s remembered cries coveted the way these other cries troubled the molecules of the air, the way they vibrated through the channels of his ears and pierced. 

Then suddenly, SLAM! 

A heavy figure crashed into him. The Fool had to grab for a street sign to break his fall. Shaking the stun from his eyes, he turned back to the figure, and then he recognized him. It was his father gaping back at him, or past him, eyes quivering. And the Fool knew that in this moment, he was a specter in his father’s eyes, flickering, only half-there. 

“Fuck you!” his father said, or thought he said. Actually, all the Fool heard was a throat-sound. 

The Fool peered at the figure of his father walking away. He longed to be re-enchanted, seduced again by the old movies’ furious spectacles—he was homesick for their seduction, alone in his disenchantment. He mourned the old image-ridden world, yearned to be swaddled back into its known, spectral violence. But gradually, another purpose formed in his mind. 


He began without knowing it. One day, without thinking, he picked up an armrest that was lying on the floor and carried it out of the theater after the movie. Breathing the fresh air outside the door, he carried the armrest part of the way home, pretending it was a wand, and used it to conjure invisible deer who ran back and forth between the alleys behind the apartment buildings on either side of the street. For the first time in a long time, it was a pleasure to walk with one leg in images, and to know it. 

Then, when he was tired of the game, and his arms were heavy from carrying the armrest, he tossed it onto a pile of trash left on the sidewalk for pickup the following morning. After that, it became part of his ritual to grab a piece or two of the dilapidated theater when the movie was over, carrying the pieces partway home, involving them in various games of imagination, then dumping them in whatever pile was most easily to hand. 

After the armrests and seat backs went the stained upholstery. He yanked the gold brocade tassels and pried off the proscenium’s carvings. Out went the planks of the wooden apron, the shards of the stage, and the dented, unused popcorn machine, piece by greasy piece. One evening, he joyfully careened into the velvet curtain itself, bearing down and hanging off it with the full weight of his body, until it tumbled down around him in a gasping heap. 

As he gathered up the discarded elements, the Fool thought he heard a voice waft up and say, No, don’t. Let the images make for us a bower in the dark, where it’s safe

The voice seemed to hook a finger in the crook of his mind and draw him down into a strange eddy, circling blankly. For that moment, the Fool was gone. But when the breeze blew on his face, he remembered the pieces of movie house he was throwing into a recycling bin. Piece after piece, he threw them. 

The bin welcomed the shards like lost relatives, and together, the scraps of movie house rode in the back of a garbage truck, compacted into smaller pieces within the steel mechanism. The stripped wood with its pitted gold foil, the thick fabric and rusted metal: all were compressed back into raw materials, hissing with reunion. 


Finally, after thousands of trips to the movies on thousands of nights, the Fool stood in the doorway of the projection booth. He cleared his throat loudly, but the old woman didn’t turn around. Then, in a loud voice, he addressed her. 

“Excuse me,” he said, and paused, realizing he had no name to call her with. He shook his head. “It’s time to go.”

She pointed her sunless eyes in his direction with surprise. He wondered if she hadn’t understood, so he repeated himself. 

She was silent a long time, her eyes caught in the distance over his right shoulder, and the Fool could hear her frayed breathing. Finally, she spoke. 

“No one ever told me why I had to sit here.” 

After that, she was silent, then flinched, trying to remember. “Sit here, play the movies; sit, play the movies. It’s just, I always did. Someone told me, I think once, I was helping.” 

She paused. Suddenly, something else flashed in her face, like a night creature brazenly showing itself in the daytime, its blue-green eyes flooded with light.

“Night after night I had to sit and play them,” she said, her mutter taking on an edge of fury. “Over and over and over.”

Then just as suddenly, the edge was gone, the creature slipped back into the night, and in a voice of ripened waiting, the projectionist asked, “I can go now?”

“Yes,” said the Fool, and he reached out his hand. 

Resting her weight on the Fool’s shoulder, the projectionist rose, her hand floating up absently to touch her hair as if confirming she was still part of the world of things. Then, they shuffled from the room, the projectionist dragging her leg behind her across the floor, and down the flimsy stairs.

On their way out, the Fool plucked her tip cup from the altar, and emptied it into her palm. As they passed through the door, she held the coins in her outstretched hand like an offering. 


Night after night, the Fool dismantled the movie house, until only the screen and projector were left. At last, he stood in the open air. Outside the theater, his eyes caught the light of the world, like they were made to. The movies, he saw, were a labyrinth standing between himself and even the tiniest speck of reality scratched in time on the sidewalk; they bowed before a gumstain. 

He stared up at the blank screen. It shone brightly as ever—unscratched, unmarred, bright and clean in the open air where the old movie house once was: bare, unbending, and without judgment. A small, faithful panel to mirror God. 

The breeze which the Fool felt on his face curled around the screen and, gently, knocked it over. It toppled with a little noiseless noise, and it was gone. 

Then, a light caught the Fool’s eye. 

The projector was still working. The same ghostly pyramid flowed out from it, but now, the images it projected were cast onto the sunlit daylight, onto the trees and grass bending in the breeze and the blue sky. And instead of illuminating the screen with its stories, the projector’s light fell on a much greater light, a vast, gentle field of light, which suffused everything it touched. 

When the projector is gone, the Fool thought, where do the movies go

And somewhere in their own darkened theater, not knowing the time, were his parents still sitting, watching the same images flicker on a screen?


Suddenly, people were walking by, people he had never seen onscreen. The Fool saw them all for what they were: inexhaustible bodies of light, moving with mysterious purpose, unwoven from his narrative. 

The Fool’s eyes, once fixed rigidly forward, now gazed slowly from left to right, up and down and all over, taking in his environment without thirst. He saw the trees, the grass, the blue sky, the golden honey of afternoon plummeting into evening, disappearing into night. And he thought of the thick, brown blood, of the other figures he’d passed on the street unmoored from the past, and wondered where they’d gone, if he’d find them now, before him.

For a second, the Fool thought he saw one of the old images flicker across the branch of a tree. But it, too, dissolved into the greater field, and the only flickering came from the sunlight catching the leaves, lighting their veiny undersides, dappling the trunks and casting dissolving shadows on the grass. 

The Fool watched rapt as the world’s clarity blossomed. Tears burst from his eyes in streams, burning as before, but now with the sting of grief’s liquid sister, joy, pouring out in jailbreak. 

The projector whirred, and finally, the Fool dismantled it, too, and the sunlight lit the green veins of the leaves, and the ghostly pyramid of images joined the rest of the light.


Alexander Nemser is a poet, writer, and facilitator based in Los Angeles. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Paris Review. His latest video monologue “God’s Eyebrows,” commissioned by Scapegoat Carnivale, premiered at the New Ohio Theater in the 2022 NYC Indie Theater Film Festival. After he was wrong three times about the world’s end, he filed for 501(c)(3) as a non-prophet. 

Learn more about his work at https://alexandernemser.tumblr.com and about his teaching at https://realtalkwiththeuniverse.com/.