The Avalon Theater in Washington, D.C., on June 17. Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades

WASHINGTON — “We’re home.”

So goes the refrain during the rapturous final scene of “In the Heights,” which played at the Avalon Theatre for the cinema’s grand reopening last weekend. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics couldn’t have been more apt on that Saturday night, as longtime patrons hugged, fist-bumped and waved in the lobby of the elegant movie palace, a beloved D.C. fixture since 1923.

Closed for almost a year and a half due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Avalon hadn’t changed a bit. Even the theater’s general manager, Henry Passman, was at his usual perch greeting filmgoers at the door. “Yeah, I’m still here,” he said cheerfully from behind his mask. “Still standing!”

“We’re home,” of course could just as easily – and literally – have applied to the HBO Max subscribers who chose to watch “In the Heights” from the comfort of their own couches. But they were missing out – not just on the Avalon’s superior sound and projection, but its vibe, from its signature gilded scrollwork to its popcorn, whose warm, salty terroir is just as distinctive as Usnavi’s cafe con leche on screen.

“In the Heights” is exponentially more enjoyable when seen in a room full of people (or at least one third full, in accordance with social distancing policies at the time of the screening). My first viewing of the film was on a weekday afternoon in the empty auditorium of a suburban multiplex, my only company a studio publicist who watched as quietly as I did.

I came, I watched, I took notes, and I left.

Even on my own, I knew that “In the Heights” was a terrific movie. But, let’s put it this way: I didn’t salsa dance my way to the exit, as one Avalon customer was observed doing last Saturday night. Nor did I applaud after the musical’s boffo opening number, as many in the crowd did, or audibly laugh and sniffle at the appropriate moments.

The movie audience is a singular and enigmatic organism. It can’t really be compared to the audience for live events like theater, music and opera. As Stephen Colbert, who taped his first post-pandemic “Late Show” in front of a live audience this week, told Terry Gross in April, there was “some vital performance adrenaline spark that’s missing” when he did the program from home. “I’m much more likely to mess up and have to retake something, lose the rhythm of a joke or even just misread the prompter without an audience there.”

Obviously, that kind of feedback loop doesn’t exist for actors on-screen. Their performances have already been shaped in front of what passes for an audience on a film set: the director, maybe a few random crew members and that toughest room of all, the camera.

That ineffable transaction between a live audience and a live performer – the unique emotional weather that can transform just another Broadway matinee into a train wreck or a routine tour date in Cleveland into instant legend – doesn’t apply to the one-way encounter that is cinema.

Still, the audience plays just as crucial a role in that encounter – even beyond the esoteric tree-falling-in-a-forest question of whether a film playing to an empty house can be said to exist at all. As theaters have begun to reopen, it’s no surprise that the most successful movies have been those that reward the collective response, whether in the form of B-movie whoops and hollers at “Godzilla vs. Kong” or the jump scares that have made the latest “Conjuring” and “A Quiet Place” box office hits.

Whoops, hollers, mutual jolts. Laughs, sniffles, spontaneous applause. These contagious signals complete a film’s expressive circuit. They can’t shape what’s happening on-screen, but they express the unspoken thoughts, feelings and reactions of the spectators that coalesce into what the film becomes.

“An audience is never wrong,” Billy Wilder said. “An individual member may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark – that is critical genius.” On bad days, the imbeciles decide they’re bored or confused or disgusted. On good days, they communicate a tacit understanding that here is something worthy of their sharpened attention and focus. On great days, that investment results in something like levitation.

It’s what Hollywood insiders call “buzz” when they nervously read the room at test screenings or festivals. You can’t account for it. But you can’t mistake it, either.

I still can’t explain why I and dozens of others couldn’t stop laughing long after a scene of Ricky Gervais mugging with a halitotic Great Dane during a preview for “Ghost Town” in 2008. I can’t forget the shared gasp that went up in a crowded Baltimore theater in 1999 at the end of “The Sixth Sense.” I can’t watch Prince in “Purple Rain” and not hear the woman who sat behind me when I first saw the film in 1984, yelling, “You know you’re wrong,” when his character slapped Apollonia.

With only images on a two-dimensional screen to react to, the movie audience’s best audience is, in a sense, itself. Rather than responding to the people we’re watching, we’re responding to each other, picking up on vibes that are constantly ebbing, flowing, conflicting, meshing – and ultimately accruing into our perception of the movie.

Indeed, precisely because moviegoing is so powerfully conditioned by the crowd, many people have abandoned movie theaters altogether, having reached their limit of constant talking, texting, noisy eating and ringing cellphones. “I just feel those days of communal experience are gone for good,” Marsha Schmidt, a frustrated D.C. filmgoer, emailed me in April. “The moment has passed and I like my movie bubble.”

If every movie audience is its own self-governing community, some turn out to be failed states. Maybe heightened spatial awareness and concerns over aerosolization will result in better etiquette. It’s still true that, for all the insulation from irritations that our pandemic bubbles have offered, a foundational value has been lost – as this year’s Oscars ceremony inadvertently proved – when none of the nominees or winners gained much traction as must-see cultural events. There’s an essential difference between watching a movie and going to the movies: a social and aesthetic contract that turns isolated content consumers into an audience – with all the messy human interactions and foibles the term entails.

As the saying goes, “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

The feeling last weekend at the Avalon was one of palpable joy – reflected in smiles that were discernible even behind the masks, in scrums of people kibitzing in the lobby and on the sidewalk after the show, and in that woman shimmying cheerfully up the aisle. It was Saturday night, and we had just been to the movies. We were together. We were happy. We were home.

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