Film Critic Rhys Lloyd-Jones reminisces over better days, when the UK’s cinemas were still open
Picture this. You’re walking just slightly too fast, at a hurried pace. Whoever you’re with, your gaggle of friends, your cluster of family, or a singular date, are wondering what the rush is. But you can’t help it. Across the street, through the light haze of rain, the neon light of the cinema bleeds through. It takes all the self-control you have not to break into a sprint, to hurtle yourself inside, like you did when you were a kid. You still have ten minutes until the showing begins, but you don’t want to miss a second of it.
Through the lobby, past the posters of your next adventure, coming soon, you reach the counter. Popcorn? A drink? You’ll have to take out a mortgage, but it’s worth it. Everyone knows cinema snacks hit differently. Clutching the bucket of popcorn, which erupts like Vesuvius each step you take, you waddle awkwardly over to the ticket machine, anxious not to drop your treasure trove of food. Maybe you should have done this in a different order.
So where next? Do you fancy an epic fantasy, through hell and high water, with brave companions and clattering swords? What about a romantic comedy, ready to trip you headfirst into stammering, stumbling, slipping your way into falling in love? Superheroes? Detectives? Gods, mortals, and Adam Sandler, it’s all waiting for you. Take your pick.
It seems to take forever to print your ticket out. What if you miss an advert? How will you know what’s coming this summer? Now you are practically sprinting down the hallway, all the way down to those colossal doors, into the darkness. You hunt your seat in this eerie gloom with the efficiency and determination of someone who just really wants to eat their popcorn now. You find it, you’re settled. The lights dim. The speakers explode into a swelling roar of music. The film begins.
This is now a distant memory. Since COVID-19 flipped the world on its axis, every major cinema chain and independent branch has closed its doors. Whilst necessary to keep each other safe, the world is in desperate need of escapism, now more than ever. With each of us battening down the hatches in this state of lockdown, we have more time to binge, to marathon, to watch all our favourite films. But is it the same? Without physically leaving the house to watch a film, there is no journey of excitement on the way. There is no communal sense of escapism. Even with the best sound system, drawing your curtains shut and the best screen you could find, the atmosphere is an echo. Nobody charges me a small fortune for popcorn. While watching films is still a nice distraction, it is not the same. This does beg the question; why is the cinema experience so special? And so necessary?
Maybe it’s the scale of the cinema. For many, the difference between home viewing and the big screen is the sense of occasion. These films, blown up on the big screen, etch themselves into your memory as events. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is by no stretch the best film I have ever seen, but the excitement, the emphatic, communal joy within that screening has burned the memory in as something I won’t forget. People whooped and cheered as the Millennium Falcon took flight, and one small child yelled ‘boo!’ each time Adam Driver came on screen. Much like concerts, a cinema audience can make or break your experience. You might not remember much from that buffering film you streamed from Netflix last night, but you’ll remember the gasps and grimaces from around you in the cinema. In this context, you’re watching a film exactly the way it has been intended. The scope and vision of a filmmaker is not often intended for compressed viewing on a phone screen. But audiences have a right to enjoy a film any way they so choose. And whilst the cinema has taken a hit in the age of online streaming, they’re still ploughing forward. A lot of this success comes to down to the relationship between socialising and film. Movies are a talking point, and they work best as a shared experience. Storytelling has been an instinctive force in humanity since tales around a campfire. This primordial urge has translated from wall carvings, to excitedly pulling your friend in for a double bill. Whether you consider yourself a film fan or not, almost everyone has their go to favourite movie to talk about if you’re asked, and almost everyone has found themselves dragged into a debate or argument about a film’s logic or plot. Friendships are often built on bonding over the films you like. But missing the big screen has a silver lining: we know now what we’d miss, so our support and our love for the stories we share, is stronger than before.
On a social and technical level, the cinematic experience is vital. It is universal and ageless, as literally anyone can enjoy it. Losing that, in a time like this, hurts. The industry itself faces an uncertain shift in circumstance. The filmmaking elite, such as Christopher Nolan and Edgar Wright, have come out in force to express their concern and support for smaller cinema chains. It is important to remember that the cinema experience is not just made by the screen. The staff at the cinema are enthusiastic, integral aspects of what we love about the movies. If you can, look into ways you can help keep them afloat. Concern has also been noted for smaller, indie studios. Whilst Disney won’t be forced to take Goofy out back by the end of all this, the studios that survive film by film, box office by box office, will be teetering at knifepoint by now. The consequences for this are frightening, as in an increasingly monopolised industry, the sparks of different, smaller films are a breath of fresh air that we can’t afford to lose.
So how do we move forward? Really, it isn’t all bad news. The cinema is more than the physical building. While it is impossible to recreate the magic of the screen, the communal spirit of film fans and filmgoers is indomitable. Joint streaming like Netflix Party allows you to watch simultaneously with your mates, so by the end of The Irishman, you’ve all aged like Joe Pesci together. Take the time in lockdown to reach out to a friend, recommend a feel good film to them. That drive to tell stories and discuss them is stronger than any virus. Now more than ever, explore and dare to watch those films you’ve been putting off, or just enjoy the best hits as much as you like. Cinema is more than escapism. It is a reflection of life and all the oddities within. And unlike our lives right now, it doesn’t have to reach a standstill. And once those doors open, and those neon lights flare back up, we can share those wonderful events with each other, all over again.
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