Column, Movie Diary

A face in the crowd

By Dom Cioffi

I was out of town recently and had the opportunity to visit a mall that was open. I don’t think I’ve been to a mall since early 2020, so it felt a bit unusual.

I put on my mask and wandered around, admiring the amount of people that seemed to be happily engaging with the world again. It occurred to me that it has been some time since I was in any situation that included a large crowd.

Thankfully, I wasn’t scared or uncomfortable being in a crowd; everyone was dutifully wearing a mask, and hand sanitizer seemed to be readily available everywhere I looked. In fact, it actually felt good to be around so many people.

For almost a year, the world has been pressed to stay away from each other, to avoid large gatherings, and to view most social situations as dangerous. And rightfully so. The pandemic is a precarious event that needs to be dealt with accordingly.

But the longterm ill effects of such behavior are rearing their head and people now need to engage in community behavior once again. I can sense this in myself and those I talk to. The world is ready for normalcy – and not a minute too soon.

We’re still months away from any semblance of a true turnaround as far as social situations are concerned, but change is in the air and I felt it during my visit to the mall.

Eventually I found a spot in the center of the concourse to sit down and engage in one of my favorite pastimes: people watching. Nothing brings me greater pleasure than the meditative endeavor of watching and contemplating those around me.

I guess I picked up this activity (if you can call it an activity) from my father who used to enjoy sitting and watching people whenever he was in a large social situation.

Whenever I was in this setting with him, he would lean into me and say things like, “You see that guy in the red sweater? He’s on his way to a job interview. You can tell by how nervous he looks and the speed that he’s walking.” I’d then size the guy up and more often than not, I could see the credibility in my father’s assessment.

Eventually, I found myself unconsciously doing the same thing whenever I was in a social gathering, whether it was a mall, a sporting event, or even a funeral.

I’ve tried to indoctrinate my own son into this activity, but he has little patience for such mundane pursuits. And with the added distraction of his mobile phone, I’m confident it will be years before he ever finds any sort of meditative peace in just sitting and watching the world pass by.

In fact, I rarely catch anyone under the age of 40 happily taking in the world. Their noses are usually firmly glued to their cell phone as their attention is being monopolized by whatever app is in vogue. The dullness of the real world, unfortunately, pales in comparison to the gleam and glitter of the digital realm.

Occasionally, I will notice others who appear to be enjoying people watching. You can easily spot the type by the half-smile on their face and the darting eyes that seem to be constantly scanning the horizon.  I’d say the majority of these individuals are men my age or older, which may mean something – although I’m not sure what.

I wonder sometimes if I enjoy this activity too much. My wife will often question why I want to accompany her while she gets a manicure, but I see it as an opportunity to relax. I rarely enter the nail salon, but I’m ridiculously happy sitting just outside in a front row seat to whatever happens to be going on.

Whatever the case, I figure there are a lot worse things to do than quietly meditating on the world as it passes by.

This week’s film, “Nomadland,” often feels like an exercise in observation, with its barren landscapes and the hollow souls that make up this interesting and contemplative motion picture.

Starring Oscar winner Frances McDormand, “Nomadland” is like a long, beautiful meditative chant that drifts from one scene to the next with no apparent reason other than to advance the narrative of one lonely woman just trying to survive each day.

This is not a film for everyone – although everyone should see it to understand that “action” does not always equate to quality. We live in a world of bright flickering lights and have come to believe that those are the things we should look at. “Nomadland” is dull and muted, and yet, every bit as beautiful and enticing.

Check this one out if you’re in the mood to just stare and wonder without being beaten over the head with a story. And while you’re watching, try to notice the beauty in the mundane.

An isolating “B+” for “Nomadland,” available for streaming on Apple TV and Hulu.

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]

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