Alone in a Movie Theatre, Debating with Himself

He is mindlessly watching the uneven commercials, hoping he still has the theatre to himself when the movie starts. There aren’t many companies in east Africa that advertise on the big screen, so he knows them all by now.

There’s the one for the soda company, obnoxiously hyper and colorful. The one for the cell phone service provider – another one of their extended documentaries about all the charitable work they do – wouldn’t be so bad except it’s so dark it can barely be seen. The ad for the new condominium development was obviously done on powerpoint. Worst of them all is the one for the law firm, recorded at a jarringly loud volume. The last one, for paint, has a saxophonist dancing in the bottom right corner for reasons that are never clear.

He is still alone when the commercials end and the previews begin. It’s always the same fare: a slapstick comedy starring Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell, a weak summer action film with Tom Cruise or The Rock, an adaptation of a comic book, something from Bollywood, and maybe one quality drama, probably directed by Clint Eastwood. When the lights dim again he is reasonably confident no other patrons will be coming. He is so comfortable he considers it a positive suggestion, not a negative admonishment, when the block letters on the screen mention putting your feet on the seat in front of you. The sound and sensation of ripping his feet from the sticky funk on the floor below him are as satisfying as popping bubble wrap; he drapes them over the vacant seat in front of him. He is reclining comfortably, having just decided to cross his left leg over his right rather than the other way, when the last of the shorts before the actual film begins. A giant electronically generated Kenyan flag fills the screen, fluttering in the digital wind, and the national anthem begins to play.

He is conflicted, his conscience locked in a wordless debate between every child’s petty fear of being caught stealing from the cookie jar and every American adult’s secret fantasy to be just a little cool and cavalier. Maybe he is afraid the kid in the projector booth will rat on him. The damn police in Kenya would threaten to lock him up overnight if they thought it would sweat the cost of a soda out of him. Then he remembers the first time he saw a movie in Kenya; he didn’t know to stand for the national anthem. He got heckled by the offended Kenyans behind him who must have thought he was being deliberately insulting, but he didn’t get in any trouble. It may be a law, but it’s a lax one – standing for the national anthem when there is no one looking would be like driving exactly the speed limit even when there are no cops in the area.

Remembering the Kenyans who scolded him for being disrespectful, he wonders if it is possible to offend people who are not there to see him being offensive. He has met a few ugly people in his life, and he easily convinces himself they are just as grotesque even when he is not watching. He worries that maybe other people think of him as the sort of lazy, selfish jerk who doesn’t stand for the national anthem if he’s alone in the movie theatre. Then he worries that maybe they think of him as the sort of simpleminded idiot who would stand even there is no one there to make him. He is torn.

In the end it is neither the guilty child nor the rebellious adult that wins the debate, neither the angel on his right shoulder or the devil on his left one. It is the physics of inertia.

The national anthem is ending. The film is just beginning. And he is comfortably seated.

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