A film lover’s arguments against the dubious pleasures of the movie-going experience.
One of the most frequent questions that I’m asked by baffled friends and associates is this: “if you love movies so much, why do you hate going to the cinema?”. It’s a fair point. But having just made a rare cinema visit (to see Nightmare Alley – verdict: glossy, overlong, fairly unnecessary but generally inoffensive), I feel that now is the time to answer those questions.
Now, I’m aware that some people love going to the movies. They often don’t care what they see, they just want that communal big screen experience. Well, bully for them and each to his own. And yes, ‘hate’ is a strong, some might even say clickbaity word. Do I hate the cinema? Well, probably not. In the list of life’s intolerable moments, going to the movies comes pretty low down the list. Do I enjoy the experience, though? Increasingly, the answer is ‘no’.
As a kid, I went to the cinema a lot. In a world of three TV channels, there wasn’t much competition. That diminished as home video came along to offer a much wider and more interesting selection of movies than my four local screens ever could – with limited finances, the choice between the cinema and video rental increasingly became a no-brainer, especially as the sort of films that might have been my theatrical bread and butter – the Eurotrash, the low budget horror, the weirdly experimental – were increasingly not even getting a theatrical release. As the 1980s saw the demise of the traditional movie palace and the rise of the multiplex, my interest diminished further and as time has gone on and the home viewing experience has improved, my desire to visit the cinema declined even more, to the point where I really have to be dragged out to see a movie. And here’s the interesting thing: the less often you go to the cinema, the more you start to notice the intolerable aspects that regular moviegoers seem to accept without question.
One of the constant cries of the cinema lover is that you have to see certain films – you know the sort – on the Big Screen where the sound and visuals can overwhelm; that all other viewing experiences are diminished and so your critique of a movie is invalid because you didn’t see it ‘properly’. That doesn’t speak well about their choice of movie, to be frank – a good film ought to work on any size screen, at least within reason (I’m not saying a phone is an ideal way to watch anything). If you are being dazzled by the overkill of an IMAX screening, I’m sure it’s an experience – but don’t forget that underneath that it’s sound and fury signifying nothing a lot of the time. If a film doesn’t work on your TV, then perhaps it’s simply not a very good film. I’m defining ‘good’ here as a film with a compelling story, well-defined characters, good dialogue and so on… but, you know, if your idea of perfect cinema is all 3D, explosions and CGI fighting, then so be it. That theatrical experience might be more important to you than it is to me.
Anyway, let’s talk about that ‘big screen’. Last night, the screen was – at least from the back of the auditorium – not actually that big at all. As far as overwhelming spectacle goes, our TV has it beat – and by modern standards, our TV isn’t that huge. But it dominates the room while the cinema screen didn’t remotely. I’m aware that some cinema screens are still, by any definition, huge; I’m also aware that many are not. In any case, in a world of 50-inch plus 4K TVs with surround sound systems, I’m not entirely sure that the arguments about the big screen experience made in decades past are still valid.
Last night’s screening ‘started’ at 8.20 but the film didn’t actually begin until 8.50. That first half-hour was full of commercials and pardon me for being a pedant here, but while I can put up with ads on free TV channels, having thirty minutes of the damn things when – as a couple – you’ve paid enough money to buy a few Blu-rays or subscribe to Netflix for a few months seems a bit much. Sure, you can be that person who takes a guess at how long the preamble will be and turns up just before the start of the film – but those people often turn up after the film has begun and trickle in for the first ten minutes, wandering around looking for a seat and distracting everyone else. To be fair, they’ll even do it at film festivals where the actual movie start time is pretty much set in stone and pre-announced. I do question how interested you actually are in a film if you roll in after it has begun. In any case, if the screening is a popular one, you’ll probably not want to want until the last minute, lest you be left with the shitty seats that no one else wants to sit in, squeezing down narrow rows of seats, kicking over drinks and coats and generally being a pain in the ass to the rest of the audience.
Ahh, yes – the audience. Nothing sets off my ‘what the fuck is wrong with people’ twitchiness than the cinema audience, I’m afraid. Within the first three minutes of the film last night, two people got up to leave the auditorium – presumably to refill on the snacks and drinks that they’d eaten in the last half-hour. Were the awful TV ads and trailers for turgid, TV drama-level British movies simply too gripping for them to consider replenishing their supplies beforehand or did the film actually starting take them by surprise? Was their thirst so intense that they couldn’t just wait a while? Frankly, getting up to leave the auditorium during the film’s initial set-up seemed a bit excessive. Then there was the man who went and stood in one corner at the back for a few minutes before switching to another corner and then finally sitting down somewhere in the middle and the constant stream of people walking to the bathroom and the bar throughout the damn movie, then forgetting just where they were sat and so wandering up and down the aisles until they finally found their seat. Bear in mind that this was watching a movie aimed at more mature viewers in a posh Picturehouse cinema – I can only imagine what it is like in the multiplex world.
We could see all this very clearly because the door separating the auditorium from the foyer was either left open (it certainly was for the first few minutes, allowing the chatter of cinema staff to compete with the movie for attention) or just very well lit – maybe the latter, as the whole cinema also had low-level lighting running the length of both walls. Perhaps this is a legal health and safety requirement to stop punters falling over in the dark – but it hardly immerses the viewer in the movie. Again, not all cinemas are created equal and some do a fine job of plunging you into darkness. But still.
Then there is the constant eating of popcorn and other snacks and slurping of drinks. What is it about a trip to the cinema that makes people want to pig out? There are people who seem to think that eating popcorn is as important as the actual movie – all part of the ‘experience’. Some cinemas even have table service for food and drink, which quite frankly can’t possibly be less of a distraction than someone checking their phone, the absolute social taboo of cinema-going. To be tutted at for checking just how long this awful film still has to go by someone crunching on snacks and slurping soft drinks has always struck me as odd because I know which is the more continually annoying, especially when multiplied across a room. No wonder modern movies are so constantly loud – they have to be to drown out the audience eating.
It also didn’t really feel like a collective experience, which is the standby reason why people claim the cinema is the best place to see a movie. This might, of course, depend very much on the sort of movie you watch. Comedy and horror perhaps lend themselves to crowd reactions of laughter and terror in ways that other films don’t. Certainly, the half-full cinema I was in last night watched the film in complete silence – there was no sense of whether or not they were loving it, hating it, indifferent or even asleep. The idea that this was in any way a shared group experience is laughable. Only the constant, unwelcome shuffle of people up and down the aisles reminded us that we weren’t alone.
The thing with audience involvement is that it should be all or nothing. I remember cinema once being an event. The audience would react to movies – especially at all-nighters, but also in regular shows – and had less reverence. You definitely knew if people had enjoyed a movie or not. A great audience interacting with a movie makes it a collective activity – again, perhaps not the best way to see a film if you want to appreciate it, but a piece of live theatre nevertheless, sometimes in cinemas that felt dangerous (either because of fellow punters or simply the state of the building) or edgy. It might not have always been pleasant, but it was always an experience. Today, everything feels so sanitised and corporate that even festival audiences – the sort that once howled bad films off the screen and cheered and chanted throughout the crowd-pleasers as if at a football match or a gig – now watch movies in a continual silence broken only by the munch of snacks and the shuffle to the toilet.
We no longer have the vagaries of dodgy, beaten up film prints, distracted projectionists and eccentric programming choices, which some will see as an improvement. Certainly, there’s little pleasure to be had by watching a print that has been shown so often that you can barely see the film through the scratches and frame jumps. For me though, it has also stripped cinema – and cinema-going – of any sense of individuality and adventure. Similarly, the monotone sameness of every cinema’s programming has become depressing. I live within ten minutes of two former repertory cinemas that once showed an alternative selection to first-run cinemas – but now it’s the same old stuff everywhere. I know that home video effectively did for the rep cinema – but if the big screen really is all that, surely movie lovers still want to see classics and cult movies of yesteryear at the movies rather than at home. Or maybe they don’t – it does seem that the more people love going to the cinema, the less interested they seem to be in anything that isn’t the latest release (and how many horror stories are there of classic movies being laughed at by 20-something hipsters because “it’s old so it must be bad”?). With rare exceptions, it’s only new releases that get a theatrical release. Arthouses show blockbusters alongside the multiplexes. With more screens per cinema, we somehow still seem to have fewer films to choose from as the new Bond movie or Disney release gobbles up several screens at a time and cinemas give precious programme space to live streams of West End stage shows and opera.
It’s worth noting that since the mid-1980s, your chances of finding the most interesting and provocative films in your local cinema have been increasingly slim. I have no idea what the stats actually are but a bit of research suggests that something like 75% of the movies made each year won’t see any sort of theatrical release. Whether that includes the films that make it onto the festival circuit or not is unclear – these days, a film that plays several festivals will have had screenings comparable to or beyond some smaller movies that have officially had a theatrical release but, in fact, might only play in one cinema for a few days. In a world where your film might be buried amongst thousands more that people haven’t heard of, a theatrical release is still seen as a selling point. Regardless of the specifics though, we know that most films don’t play in cinemas – and to suggest that these are all inferior movies is naive, to say the least. The theatrical circuit is dominated by the increasingly small number of major studios and establishment distributors; the arthouse circuit is equally narrow in its own way and now that even the most unsuccessful major film will play for a month rather than the one-week presentations of old, screen availability is limited. The chances of an independent production, a genre movie made outside the established studios or anything a bit strange finding a significant theatrical release are slim, and as much down to luck as quality. There are movies appearing on home viewing platforms and physical media that you probably haven’t heard of that are better than anything you’ll see in the cinema and if you’ve been ignoring non-theatrical releases while watching every movie that plays in cinemas, we really suggest widening your horizons.
I’m aware that some people have a sentimental, almost pathological devotion to the cinema and will refuse to accept any criticism or any suggestion that it is no longer the ideal way to watch a movie, even though all those arguments are either based on the options we had decades ago or else take a rose-tinted view of the actual cinema experience. If those people are still reading by this point, I imagine that by now they are absolutely fuming – or perhaps scoffing at my complete misunderstanding of their pleasures. I actually agree with that last point – it’s one of the many, many things that lots of people do that I just can’t relate to. But saying that I don’t revere the cinema experience – and saying it as someone who watches and writes about movies continually – seems to be something that really upsets some people, as if I have said that their baby is ugly; it has even been used to try to discredit my writing on movies. Yet we live in a world where not only is the cinema just one of many ways to watch movies but probably isn’t the best if you really want to focus on the production values, narrative concepts, subtexts, wider meanings and general quality of a movie. If you love the whole cinema-going experience, then good for you. Just don’t expect me to join you, okay?
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