Dinner (and a movie) at a distance

Video conferencing allows friends to congregate online when in-person gatherings are a no-go. (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Oxford)

Isolating physically without isolating socially

Seven screens are active, and the audio is a jumble as we decide between trying to sync time codes, or if one person should share their screen as the rest of us listen in.

This is dinner and a movie, COVID-style. As a group of friends settle in for a double feature, it’s all BYO, screen included. On (shared) screen tonight: 1986 horror film Chopping Mall and Troma Studios’ Buttcrack.

Pre-COVID, these dinner parties were hosted at one home, with between six and a dozen people sharing a meal and settling in for a night of slasher films. It’s a bimonthly gathering that I’m joining for the first time; as a vegan with crippling social anxiety, I envision myself as the party guest from hell and generally turn down invitations involving large groups of strangers.

But in this setting—all of us in our own homes, with the option to turn off audio or screen share at any point—I feel comfortable. If there’s a silver lining to the inconvenience of sheltering in place, for me, this may be it.

There are no formal introductions, or uncomfortable questions to the host about any animal products in the meal. This is a dinner party I can get behind. Menus vary from screen to screen: Mac and cheese. Fried chicken. Shwarma. Popcorn and wine.

After deliberation and a little bit of trial and error, we settle on Zoom and YouTube as our technological combo. Most of the group is silhouetted at the side of the screen, shadows of friends on their living room couches allowing the group to witness each others’ reactions in real time.

“In this setting—all of us in our own homes, with the option to turn off audio or screen share at any point—I feel comfortable.”

Lindsay Oxford

I am the lone bedroom lounger; explaining the finer points of Buttcrack if my roommate walked by is not something I’m looking forward to. Also, pets strolled past their owners’ screens, an occasional cat tail flitting by or dog’s head peering curiously at the screen (that last one was mine).

It all works out well: There’s minimal connection lag, and there’s just enough cross-talk to keep it interesting, but still enough silence to follow the action. It is, after all, important to understand why Chopping Mall’s ensemble decides to split up to evade the rogue robot security guards trying to kill them. Because everyone knows you don’t split up. Oh geez, why are you splitting up.

I can’t think of another genre better suited for this type of viewing. Cheesy B-movies with C-plus practical special effects and D-minus dialogue are ideal for yelling at the screen. Just ask Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I regret to say that I did not make it all the way through Buttcrack. I felt my eyelids begin to grow heavy, unable to properly follow the action, compelling as it was. I fell asleep when—wait, no spoilers.

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