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Watching movies with friends on Zoom or Google Hangouts can make quarantine less dreary

Don’t just FaceTime each other during coronavirus-induced social separation: make a movie date. It’s a weird alternative, but it’ll help you get by.

Watching movies with friends on Zoom or Google Hangouts can make quarantine less dreary
[Photo: Jcomp/iStock; Anika Mikkelson/Unsplash]
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It’s the little things you miss when your entire way of life abruptly vanishes.

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It’s also the big things, too.

Turns out you kind of miss everything, when you’re confined to a small apartment all day, alternating between a work nook (if you can still work), an entertainment hutch, and a sleepin’ box.

Of all the vast and sundry elements of life you may quickly come to miss during a pandemic quarantine, however, one of the toughest losses is companionship. Talking over the phone or doing a Zoom-based happy hour helps, but it doesn’t quite alleviate the absence of togetherness. It lacks the temporal entropy of whiling away hours with someone close.

What may come to fill that void, though, is digitally watching movies together.

Making a time to meet up with folks on video chat and watch a movie gives multiple people a common object to fixate on and co-experience, beyond everyone taking turns opening up about how quarantine-life is treating them. At least one app-maker is already on top of this problem, with Netflix Party (which is not connected to Netflix) providing a platform to invite friends to watch Spenser Confidential with you.

Of course, it’s easy enough to organize just such a party yourself. Here’s what I learned giving it a try last night.

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A movie, but make it fashion

Because the general mood around the world is understandably dire, my wife and I wanted our group chat movie to be innocuous brain candy that would remind us all of the Before Time. We chose a Harry Potter. Not only would Harry Potter be goofy, super basic, pandemic-resistant fun, it would give us an opportunity to make our indoor outing more of an occasion. We could dress it up a little (not literally). One friend suggested that we make butterbeer. Absolutely. Another friend suggested draping our bodies in our respective Hogwarts house finery. A hard nope, but to each her own.

The five of us, in three separate households, prepped our butterbeers together, apart, making it feel more like an event, even though it turns out there’s no correct online recipe for this fictitious beverage. Making the theme drinks on camera first also gave us time to get the typical coronavirus catch-up over with, so it wouldn’t come out during the movie. Once we were all acclimated and quenched, it was time to start the show.

Getting in sync

When you stop to consider the sheer number of screens involved in a movie-watching Google Hangout, it’s kind of a mindblower. There are the screens everyone’s using to film themselves, the ones on which they’re watching the movies, and also everyone’s phones. (More on those later.) Even with all that hardware, though, it’s still hard to coordinate the synchronization of movies on multiple screens.

First of all, does everyone have the exact same copy of the movie? Regarding Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, one person had a DVD, another had rented it on iTunes, and a third had torrented it. All of our runtimes were off by more than a few seconds. Even after doing a 3-2-1 countdown, the sync didn’t quite go quite as planned. We eventually decided to all pause when the Warner Bros logo hovered in perfect ¾-profile and 3-2-1 unpause at the same time. Once we did, the Harry Potter theme twinkled in echoed stereo, and we had done as well as we could.

Infinite interruptability

Almost immediately, our viewing party devolved into a talkathon. I was glad that we chose a movie like Harry Potter and not, like, Moonlight. The movie itself is sort of incidental to the experience. Ideally you want something that is unchallenging and goes down smooth—something you could miss whole chunks of without missing a beat. This particular movie franchise set us up to talk about any and all related topics—whether Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Watson has had the better career (it’s Emma by a nose), why quidditch is ludicrous, and J.K. Rowling’s commitment to posting cringe—which is what this whole experience should be about. In the best moments of this watch party, the tech apparatuses connecting us vanished, alongside the movie, giving way to all the lazy, unfocused chatter I’ve lately been craving.

Performative movie watching is about to become a thing

Unfortunately, there were times when I felt conversations starting a bit unnaturally. After going through all this effort to watch a movie with friends, I put pressure on myself not just to watch but participate. I found myself picking nits with the movie that I could easily have let go, or over-amplifying instant reactions, just to keep the interactivity flowing. In between bursts of fun conversation, and moments of being legit entertained, I felt myself lapsing into judge-y Statler and Waldorf territory instead of letting conversation flow naturally. (This must be how the team behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 feels watching movies all the time.)

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The other part of performative movie-watching, though, is not reaching for your phone as often as you otherwise might, in order to appear extra present. Everyone committed to doing this, so nobody wants to be the one to declare that all of this isn’t enough to keep you from the handheld Bad News box in their pocket.

Aside from my own obnoxious urge to razzle-dazzle as a movie-watching companion, I got a lot out of our shared movie-viewing experiment. Having virtual happy hours with friends creates a workable simulacrum of a social life, but it also feels oddly formal. There’s pressure to talk the whole time, filling the air with words, so that in no one moment is everyone just sitting there, staring into a bunch of faces that are staring right back from their little cubes. Seldom are there as many “No, you go ahead”-type double-talk jumbles while watching a movie either. It’s a videoconference hangout that actually feels like a hangout: healingly normal. You can just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show for long comfortable silences among friends.

It’s amazing, in such a situation, how long you can go without thinking about the reason you’re all in separate apartments watching a movie in the first place.