THERE HAS been another advance in the technology of solitude.
In Denver, it is now possible to rent a movie without going to the video store. A person can choose from a catalog, make a call, give a credit card number and wait for the selection to appear on the cable TV. The whole process takes less time than popping a bag of low-fat microwave popcorn.
If the idea comes to Annapolis, I won't subscribe. I would prefer fetching my movie rentals in person at the video store for some of the same reasons that I now prefer seeing them on the big screen with an audience. I like to sit in a semi-lit room full of strangers, hear what makes them laugh and cry, notice what they notice, size them up, feel their sighing and breathing, imagine their inner lives. Sharing the imagination of others is a big part of going to the movies; indeed, as Hitchcock's "Rear Window" makes clear, cinema itself is voyeuristic.
Of course, sharing the imagination of others is briefer and less rich in a video store than in a movie theater, but it still is more possible there than by telephone. Standing in line at Blockbuster, I can overhear critical commentary, see what's hot and what's not, or infer an unknown home life through the external particulars of clothes, skin, language and cinematic taste.
If those external particulars are enticing enough, I might pick up a French flick and ask, "Have you seen this movie?" By having the movie piped straight into my den, I lose touch with the community. I miss out on current fashion, I pass up an opportunity to ogle and fraternize, I remain shut up in the prison of my self, relieved only by the movie itself -- no small relief, of course, but can it entirely replace the desire to rub elbows with real flesh and blood?
This desire, which at times may be merely prurient and downright lewd, also has a surprising moral dimension. I am reminded of going to see "In the Heat of the Night" over 20 years ago at the Madison Theater in Covington, Ky., where my great-aunt was chief ticket-seller.
This movie about racism, starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, was causing trouble all over the South, much as Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" temporarily increased the very tension it mimicked in Harlem and Bensonhurst not long ago. When my mother and I arrived at the Madison, police cars were parked out front, and my great-aunt was motioning us away. "There's been a fight up in the balcony during the early matinee," she warned. "Best you didn't come."
We scurried on down the street, past dozens of angry blacks. A black girl on a corner glared at me as though I had shot her mother. Even though I missed the film, I experienced the drama of racial hostility and felt the electric interplay between life and art that is often the result of public spectacle. Most important, I was forced to ask myself questions that are still with me: "Why are they angry? What do they want? What did I do to them? What will calm them down? Wasn't it only a movie?"
This summer, I was reminded of this episode by going to see Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," a movie about the difficulty of an interracial love affair. My wife and I arrived early at the theater in Glen Burnie and drank some coffee at a table outside a bar facing a fountain. On a bench close to the fountain, a black man and a white woman sat, intimate but discreet and unhassled. Were they, too, waiting for the movie? Would they dare see it together? Wouldn't it be easier for them to wait for it to come out on video? Have race relations improved since those tense summer days of the late 1960s?
I lost track of the couple as I relished the time alone with my wife without my daughter, and pretty soon it was show time. To my surprise and somewhat to my anxiety, most of the other moviegoers were black. Immediately, I was prompted to share their imagination, in this case perhaps more than usual, because these moviegoers were in a jocular, talkative mood. I was able to see what made them laugh, what left them quiet and pensive, what provoked their open commentary.
I am embarrassed to report that I had to learn what I already should have known, that what engaged them was almost exactly what engaged my wife and me: the circle of rapping, philosophical black women; the intimacy and cruelty of both Italians and African-Americans; the tragic irony that New York Italians and blacks are so much alike in their wit, passion, social tightness, ritualistic religiosity and family structure (authoritarian father, revered mother).
The film was flawed, for it did not portray the love affair convincingly, but that did not matter so much. As we left the theater around midnight, I caught sight of the interracial couple again. They had been watching the movie with us. Suddenly, a trio of teen-age boys who had also been in the theater began laughing loudly at the couple, who walked into the night away from the crowd, arm in arm, seemingly oblivious.
But I imagined they were fortified by us adults who, sensitized by the film, not only let the couple be but even offered them our unstated sympathy, which we could not have done if we had all stayed home and watched the movie in the new order-by-phone way.
Ken Colston is an administrator and teacher at St. John's 1/2 College, Annapolis.