Susan Toth’s “Going to the Movies” feels like a good transition as we move into our next assignment, which will be writing about other people. It combines elements of memoir and literary journalism/event. Structurally, it feels similar to the Gretchen Legler essay, in that it is organized with numbered sections. (Though, unlike the Legler essay, which uses disparate collage like pieces in the sections, the sections in Toth’s essay follow the same pattern: a guy, movies they watch together). And, like Biss’s essay, Toth merely gives us facts, without commenting or editorializing, all of which lead us to the meaning she intends.
And, to the point of the next assignment, Toth reveals to us each of these men she once dated. In this case, she doesn’t rely on descriptions, or dialogue, or even action, really. Like a Rorschach test, the characterizations of these men are revealed primarily through their taste in films.
So, let’s discuss the meaning of this short essay. In your response below, discuss what you believe is Toth’s intended meaning? How does she achieve this? This is a “classification essay,” an essay that structures by way of a list. Let us know how you feel about this type of structure, and what you feel about the essay itself. Please focus on what you might apply to your own writing.
22 Comments for “Response #7 – Susan Toth’s “Going to the Movies””
Wow, I really enjoyed this essay! It is incredible how Toth was able to create vivid characters with very little description other than the sort of movies they like and how they behave while watching them. After reading each section, I felt like I had a good idea of what each of these guys were like. I knew how they moved, sounded, and behaved. I could hear the unspoken desires of Toth as well. Through each section there is a sense of a frustration on Toth’s part. She has studied these men, she knows the rhythms they operate at, and she is not happy with any of it. While she doesn’t say this directly, it is so obvious that she is displeased. Through each section, she shows that while she is with these men, she has to change her behavior and she isn’t comfortable to be herself. She seems to be at their mercy and has to wait for their response, rather than the other way around. It is clear that Toth is looking for a real and deep connection with someone and she simply has not found it. Not only does she dislike them, but each one of them seems to reject her in one way or another. Perhaps that rejection is what plays a role in her disdain for them. The fact that she simply dislikes each of her dates is proved farther in the last sentence of her essay which says, “In the movies I go to by myself, the men and the women always like each other.â€ Her solace is found when she goes along to the movie, rather than with a date. That is where she is most comfortable, and yet it seems that she does still want a partner. She simply realizes that she deserves better.
One thing that I want to incorporate into my own writing from this is getting better at saying things without actually saying them. They way that Toth painted characters without using specific descriptive words is powerful and makes the essay SO interesting and engaging.
Good, Aubri. There’s a word for what you mention at the end here with “saying things without actually saying them.” That word is “subtext.” It’s easy to forget that characterization is not just about description. I think you’re right that she deserves better, but I think the essay reflects how difficult it is to find someone that you can connect with. So it’s not just that the men are flawed, but they’re just not right for her.
At first, I couldn’t quite understand what Going to the Movies was supposed to teach me about the writer (or, possibly, about myself) except that she chooses wildly inappropriate men. They’re either snobby, or cold, or actually dating someone else. Writing about the movies the men choose and the way they treat Toth during the films may have felt cathartic for her, but for me as a reader it just felt tragic. Until the last section, when I understood why she had set up the first three sections in the first place–because telling us about the men in her life first helps us better understand the sort of date she is to herself. Alone Toth seeks satiety (eating “large handfuls of popcorn with double butterâ€), comfort (in her “saggy jeans,â€ feet propped up in front of her), and Technicolor musicals. She is a kind and generous date to herself. The last section also provides us with the most insightful sentence in the whole essay: “In the movies I go to by myself, the men and women always like each other.â€ Ah! I thought when I read that line. Now I get it! As it turns out, Toth knows that Aaron, Bob, and Sam don’t like her–and perhaps she doesn’t actually like them either. Rather than feeling somewhat anti-feminist, then, the whole essay can be read as a woman getting what she needs out of each “relationship,â€ whether it be a free movie or possibly a chance to roll her eyes at someone when his back is turned. The setup helps the reader understand Toth; without the last section, the essay would feel incomplete and somewhat pointless. This is an interesting takeaway for a classification essay. In writing one myself I’m going to remember that a reveal can be useful here, and that there can be a big distinction between the setup and the conclusion. Looking forward to trying this out!
This is a good point, about the setup and conclusion. This is kind of a poetry structure, what’s called a turn, or volta. Often this is a rhetorical shift, but it can also be an emotional one. In this case, the shift is playing on a kind of irony. Though not funny, it kind of works like a joke structure, with the ending being like a punchline.
“They smile at each other; I smile at them” while at the end of the essay was my favorite line in the whole article as it summed up her true feelings about movies. Perhaps Toth is on a social experiment to go to films with different kinds of men and explore how that feels? Her descriptions of each man and their different personalities. They are like a snapshot of life for any woman who dates. These men only seem interested in what they want to watch and do not look to ask her what she wants.
Aaron, for example, wanted to come back to her place because the movie made him feel a certain way. But then he changed his mind going back and forth on the idea. This reveals a lot about Aaron’s character and, in this instance, inherent selfishness. That could not even be intentional. Then there is Bob; he wants to watch movies that give him something to think about when he is watching them. He calls them movies, not films in it seems a reverse attempt to be a snob is how it came across to me. Then there is Sam who wants to be entertained and is not afraid to say so. He wants to feel good and not think too hard in the movies themselves. He has rules about paying except when it comes to popcorn, which is unusual.
Then there is Toth herself, she is exciting, and I would enjoy reading more from her as a writer. She expresses that if given a choice, she likes the older movies when she goes alone. Her writing is clear and crisp and easy to understand and provides a modern snapshot of the dating world.
Good, Diana. I agree Toth is working to capture the world of dating. I like the essay for the way that we get a sense of these men just by their taste in movies (and also in that none of them ever seem to ask Toth what movie she might like to watch). I like Toth’s writing, too. I hope you do look for more of it. I thought her book NO SAINTS AROUND HERE, which deals with her taking care of her husband who has Parkinson’s, was really good.
In the classification essay, “Going to the Movies,â€ by Susan Toth, the intended meaning is that she can define happiness for herself and does not need anyone else to dictate what it is for her. When she is by herself, she is free, without the burden of having to please somebody else or live by their expectations and rules.
She achieves this by using a four-part classification structure. In the first three parts she has a few main points that she compares each man to: the movies they like; who pays/drives; sitting in the theater foreplay; and what they say when asked to come up for a drink when the night is over.
In parts one through three, Toth does this by comparing three men each of whom have different ways of approaching movies and how they treat relationships and in turn, Toth. In part one, Aaron makes going to the movies a painful and laborious experience. Toth makes fun of his overall impotence through the description of him. Toth describes the awkwardness of sitting next to him. In part two, solid conservative Bob had only his particular movies to watch. While a comforting and solid presence, he thinks relationships move too quickly. Again, Toth describes the awkward movie theater setting of how Bob dictates when the proper time was to hold hands, or not of course. In part three, Sam is the far opposite of Bob and Aaron. While he is interested in the movie for entertainment is also interested in Toth. Sitting in the theater seats is much more fun with Sam. When asked to go inside, Sam would, but he has a girlfriend.
By part four, solo Toth is almost Bohemian and free. The reader learns that she loves musicals, a genre none of the men would see. She only wants to watch happy endings, the ones where a convivial drink is finally poured at the end of the night. The narrator’s voice feels completely changed, like a breath of fresh air.
The classification essay structure helped chunk down the essay while helping to weave together a greater analysis. I enjoyed moving between parts in order to piece together the author’s intent. This organizational style could be beneficial in my writing as I often attempt to fit too much information in a small framework making the intended point dissipate. This style seems very straightforward from a research paper perspective, but I believe it would be more challenging when working on a creative nonfiction piece.
Good, Katherine. I think the essay does play on a traditional research paper structure. Cool that you picked up on that. The result is that it gives it a kind of analytical feel, even though it’s a personal essay. It’s interesting comparing this to the Legler essay, which is also told in chunks, but in a much more disparate, and to me, lyrical, way. I think this is more challenging in creating an emotional effect. But as we saw in the Biss essay, sometimes straightforward can enhance the emotional effect. I’m not sure about this one – I feel like it more relies on a final irony rather than creating an emotion by the end.
Toth shares with the reader three stories of going to the movies with three different men. Each experience is sad as it depicts relationships that lack connection and intimacy at different intervals, but the reader is left feeling disappointed. The essay begins with Aaron’s story and he is the most unaffectionate and distant. Bob shows a little more intimacy with the handholding but not too much. Sam touches Toth throughout the movie and kisses her but has a “steadyâ€ girlfriend so he’s never going to commit to her fully. I found it intriguing that Toth choose these men for her essay and they’re all stories that involve movie genres the men prefer and movies they choose. She goes along with what they want, until the final section. She describes the types of movies she prefers and goes to movies she chooses but does so alone. Toth’s final line about going to movies by herself where the men and women like each other sums up the other stories, clearly, they were not compatible.
I like Toth’s essay structure, the way the sentences are to the point, succinct. This type of writing (classification) is appealing to me. Maybe because it’s similar to technical writing. It’s also the type of narrative that often plays through my mind when I’m processing events that are occurring or experiences that happen to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about classification particularly as it relates to COVID-19 as my personal experiences. There’s this thought of, “things I know to be true,â€ which involves bulleted lists. The challenge becomes making sure my writing is not solely this type but figuring out when classification works well and when it doesn’t.
Good, Ana. Yes, I agree the challenge for this kind of essay is making sure its form fits the function. There’s a sayin in writing which is “when the action is hot, write cold.” What this means is that sometimes with material that is already highly charged emotionally, the tendency is to want to really push the emotions, when really a straightforward, technical writing approach might actually carry more weight. (I think Biss’ essay is probably a better example of this than Toth’s).
I also think readers tend to like an ordered, even numbered, structure.
Upon getting to the end of the short essay, it becomes clear what the intent of it was to show that what Toth seeks is a meaningful relationship and what she needs out of it. With each passage, we get to see varying types of behaviors the dates are, whether it being Aaron’s nervous tendencies and later a want to be more assertive, Bob being fair but not seeming to a serious relationship as he believes they move to quickly, or Sam instinctively being smooth but find that he already has a girlfriend. When it’s just Toth, we learn more about her interests, when she feels most comfortable, and what she seeks when she watches the men and women on screen.
Toth’s writing is simple and clear to understand and follow while still being engaging to read. She focuses on the mannerisms of the three guys rather than give details of how they appear other than what they wear, such as Aaron’s glasses or Bob’s jacket. She doesn’t even mention if she finds the guys attractive or what she likes about them. But even then the reader is able to paint a picture of the guys, as well as herself, so easily into the mind just by how they behave and what they find “comfortableâ€.
Yeah, the guys are kind of shadow figures in the essay, in that we never really see them. Ironically, through her descriptions of their tastes and manners, we get a sense of her own. I agree that she is looking for a meaningful relationship, but I also think that one of the points of the essay has to do with learning to be comfortable alone, and to cater to one’s own tastes and interests.
Reading through Toth’s essay I wasn’t quite sure of where she was taking the story, that is until the last paragraph. She opens with admitting that sometimes she goes to the movies alone. All of the times mentioned before have been less than ideal and in reality i think the story is her working through that realization. I’m not too familiar with the set up but i think it works really nicely here. She open each new section with a new name but the experience remains about the same, awkward and awful. That is, until arriving at the end where she actually discovers she enjoys her time at the movies, even if that is when she’s alone. I don’t think this structure works all the time but Toth does a really nice job with it in the short essay. However, I don’t necessarily think it would work if the story had been longer. I think its a unique method and works great structurally. If length were added though, i’d feel things would start to get redundant.
You make a really good point, Logan. I think classification essays work best when there aren’t too many parts. With the Legler essay, she had five sections. But I think you want to not have more than a reader can keep straight in their minds as they read. I can think of some long essays that use classification ordering like this, but usually, again, with 4 to 5 sections only. With this essay, though, I agree that the tight language and brief sections were just right, and it couldn’t have been much longer.
I liked the classification essay format. It created tidy sections for each man. Even though these snippets were short in length, they felt complete and had a distinct ending, neatly tying up each experience. It also made me anticipate the next section, letting me know what to expect. The last part was a surprise. It stuck to the form, but it was now a date with herself and the focus was on her, not the men she was with.
The different movies served as character development of the different men. By learning what kind of movies they liked, we learned what kind of men they were. The details she chose to include about their clothes and mannerisms also served to round out their characters.
In the last section, we see how those men were set up as a contrast to her ideal movie experience. How the author chose to see a movie in her true personality, alone, and not influenced by a date with a man.
I liked how specific movie titles were used instead of vague, generalities of genre. I also liked how she played an almost supporting role in the first sections, but then became the star in the last. I would have liked to have seen more stories about different men she dated, to flesh it out more, but I did enjoy reading it. It was a good example of how structure can organize a piece of writing and set its pace.
Yes, I really like your point about the movement from “supporting role” to star by the end. You make a good point about the structure, and the surprise at the end. I’m pasting here what I wrote to Liz above: “This is kind of a poetry structure, what’s called a turn, or volta. Often this is a rhetorical shift, but it can also be an emotional one. In this case, the shift is playing on a kind of irony. Though not funny, it kind of works like a joke structure, with the ending being like a punchline”.
I think it’s that surprise, or turn, that makes this essay work.
I’d like to discuss the meaning of “Going to the Moviesâ€ by Susan Toth before discussing structure. I really loved how she touched on relationships, love, sacrifice, and blame. She talks about various men she had been dating or seeing casually and compares them all using one subject: movies. She is so observant of each of them, like she believes they will have a future and remembering these dates will be important. However, they aren’t nearly as observant of her and don’t reciprocate her interest, consideration, or affection. She sacrifices her own interests in order to appeal to them or goes along with what they want, convincing herself she is happy. We see by the last section of the essay that she only shows true contentment when she is alone, allowing herself to enjoy the things that she likes. Toth shows through her essay the dynamic of various kinds of relationships and compares them to one another before comparing them as a whole to experiences of self- love and appreciation.
Now, the structure is really important for separating experiences without awkward time transitions. Time doesn’t really matter here anyway, and these experiences could be overlapping or separate, and we don’t need to know that for the point to be conveyed. I really, really love essays/literature/everything that is structured with breaks in it. Even poetry I prefer to be broken up with white space versus one long block of text. As a reader and a writer, I like “choppierâ€ transitions, time jumps, and things in a story that make me contemplate where I am, what time it is, and what’s happening. I love episodic stories, numbered sections in essays, and white spaces between dialogue. Transitions, to me, feel like nothing. We learn how to do them throughout our English and writing classes to understand how to connect ideas, but I don’t typically like reading a lot of transitions. I think it’s important for a piece to have troughs and swells; it should have slower and quicker paced writing to keep the reader alert and make it feel more real. Typically, transitions are a part of the slower paced sections, but they aren’t adding much to the point of the story, they’re just allowing the story to continue. I want everything I write and everything I read to have a point and be important to the story. Some pieces I think benefit from small transitions, but this piece in particular really benefited in not having them so the comparisons were more clear and didn’t require a timestamp to have meaning.
Good, Isabelle. I tend to like things that are structured in sections as well. It’s good for a writer to remember that readers appreciate breaks now and then, and white space also allows for a pause to reflect in an essay. The difference for me is in terms of whether the work relies on linearity or not. I think essays that are linear narratives usually DO need some transitions, to help a reader move through the story, or be situated and re-oriented in new scenes. But, like most things in writing, transitions are tools in the writer’s toolbox; it’s good to know how and when to use them, but also how and when not to.
I love this essay. It feels so natural the way she describes going to the movies with different people. She uses their tastes in movies to say a whole lot about who they are and what her relationship to them is. While she is honest about them, she also captures the humanity in all of them, why they enjoy the movies they do and the gleam they get in their eyes from them. The section about Aaron is funny but also complex. It’s funny because Aaron’s pretentiousness about movies and life in general is funny, and it makes it easy to relate to the author. However, Aaron is still compelling because of the way he sits on the edge of his seat and the light from the screen bounces off his glasses. These details really bring the reader into the author’s realm of memory. The next two movie dates, Bob and Sam are similarly disappointing. They don’t hold movies to quite the pretentious standard as Aaron but they are just as disinterested in being with the narrator. The fourth part of this story really struck me personally. By going to the movies by herself, the narrator is able to simply enjoy the movies, to see what she wants to see, wear what she wants and not be self-conscious about eating popcorn. She is able to get caught up in the romance on screen in a way she wants. I love how much this ending shows what she was craving from her previous dates but wasn’t getting and how this reflection perhaps helped her realize it.
Good, Lucie. I think that’s an important point. In narratives, often a way to understand them is in looking at the change that a character (in fiction) or a narrator (in nonfiction) goes through by the end. Often that change can be just as you describe it here – just a realization that the character/narrator comes to.
I really enjoyed Toth’s essay for several reasons. I think the structure works really well for letting us know a lot about her and her dates. I was fascinated by the lack of description about these men, and yet I feel I have a pretty good idea of who they are and what kind of choices they’d likely make in the future. We can learn so much about a person by zooming in on a very specific situation and how they’d respond. Their believes and values and insecurities will be expressed in their behaviors, and our ability to notice details objectively will help us understand the other person. Toth has an impressive ability to notice and relay such details about each of the men she went out to the movies with. She neither comments on their behaviors, nor tries to present it from a specific angle. She is able to objectively describe her observations. I think the first three descriptions focus entirely on the men she dates while she spends time with them. The last paragraph focuses on her preferences and what she likes to do when she is alone. It appears to me that she may compromise a lot of herself when she is spending time with these other men, as some of their movie choices are quite a contrast to hers. Perhaps she assimilates her life to her partners’ lives whenever she is with them, allowing them to make many decisions for her. Her passive writing might be an indication for her apparent passivity in her relationships? Or it might be an indication of the lack of interest these men have shown in her preferences. There is no mention of either of them asking how she would like to go to the movie, or adjusting to how much physical contact she’d prefer during a movie, or what kind of movie she’d like to watch. She reserves to express her preferences to when she is alone. Again, the focus on and effect of her ‘objective observation of details’ was impressive, and I will try to work with this more in my next writing.
I’m not sure why, but the minute I started reading this I was enthralled. Usually I’m not a fan of a numbered/list structure of writing–it can feel gimmicky and I have a hard time connecting everything meaningfully, but Toth really used this to her advantage. I really liked the progression of change we saw in this piece. There was a lot about codependency and taking up of personal space which was a really interesting theme. We started with the space she was supposed to give Boy 1, and how uncomfortable it made her to be so aware of her body, to the way she wears looser clothing in section 4, alone, so that she can take up as much as she pleases. There was, in relation to codependency, the interesting detail about the driving arrangements. This detail paired with sleeping arrangements felt like the emotional core to the story–it felt hollow. It made me think about the people in the movies, how they are characters so any emotion is immediately scripted, creating a falsity. Toth does a great job of not only painting the spectrum of movie watchers and creates solid characters from them. I am much like Toth, where I enjoy all types of movies and I have certain people in my life who watch specific types of movies–some insist on calling them “films”–so it was interesting to see them in characters. Toth’s ability to animate real-life people here inspires me. I’m afraid to portray someone in a way that they aren’t, I want to stick to the facts. But I have realized the people in my non-fiction work can be a little flat. With my next essay, I’m hoping I can improve upon that.