We had a run of movies-about-movies lately: Damien Chazelle’s heady Babylon, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. Of course, these aren’t the first and they won’t be the last pieces of celluloid (metaphorical or otherwise) to address the nature of film itself.
The Artist, Son of Rambow, Ed Wood, Hail, Caesar!, Saving Mr Banks, the list goes on and on for films with movie-making at their heart. But there was something different about the more recent rush of these love letters… There is something earnest about having Spielberg himself addressing the audience in the theatre, thanking them for visiting and experiencing the film in the way it should be seen.
All of these films speak of the transformative nature of cinema; the evoking of emotions and the changing of hearts and minds, even the harmony of an audience of strangers enraptured by the same piece of art. So what might be happening now that makes it feel different?
Well, we all know the answer by now. Times are changing. Media is consumed differently from how it was back in the 60s and all the way through to the 90s and 2000s. Technology is becoming easier to transport, easier to make, and cheaper to buy; people have home cinemas with decent enough sound systems that it may as well be the same as going to the cinema! (Plus, you don’t have to buy popcorn for an inordinate amount of money!)
For me, personally now, the cinema is like a church: a very specific place which shuts out the rest of the world and focusses your every sense to the art in front of you. No other sound. No other sights. No distractions.
Even as I write this editorial, my eyes wander to look out of the window. I’m distracted by something on my desk, on the wall. A distant sound outside, or of someone moving in another room. Of course, creating is different from observing, and the point I am making is that in the dark, cavernous silence of a cinema screen there are no distractions from observing someone’s work. At least, there shouldn’t be.
I feel that even if I had my own home cinema, I would be hard pressed not to check my phone, or press pause, or be distracted somehow.
The argument for avoiding the cinema is to avoid other people. Which is an unfortunate and difficult by-product of our changing times, and perhaps the more insidious issue that these directors, (Mendes, Spielberg, and Chazelle) in all their passion, do not appreciate. Because we can have our home cinemas, our freedom to do whatever we want at all times when a film is on, a lot of us don’t bat an eye at looking at our phone or chatting constantly or eating a metric ton of nachos behind someone’s head. The whimsical rapture of cinema that was represented in the aforementioned movies, doesn’t exist anymore… At least, for a great majority of movies made nowadays it doesn’t.
And a lot of this may come from the understanding of the instruction: “Please do not talk or check your phone during the film”. This is not a limitation, or an authority, that can be rebelliously shirked… it is guidance.
It is a guide for you to fully appreciate the movie in front of you. To take in whatever and everything you can from it.
Speaking to people younger than I, the concept of watching a film in a place removed from the distractions of life to embrace the art fully, was alien. Often the case is: “I’ll wait until it is available to stream”. Which is fine. However, watching a film at home allows for a myriad of distractions, and the ability to pause the movie.
For some, these things break the tone, pacing, and immersion of the experience. In the cinema, the lack of control you, the audience, has is its strength: you are beholden to the experience.
You might not notice, or particularly care, that watching a film at home you might miss parts of the film’s visual narrative. Glancing at an update on your phone? You just missed a story cue in a cut-away shot, or a knowing look shared between characters. Pause the movie? You may have just undone the build of tension in a scene that would have given an emotional payoff afterwards.
Of course, there are times when we are dragged off to the cinema to see something we don’t want to see. That time you were shepherding the kids to see Furry Vengeance, or you were taken to see 50 Shades of Grey only to find you were the only man in there. Yes, the cinema-going experience should be one you want to see; you should spend your money on something you want to watch. But in instances where this isn’t the case, fully taking in the movie can allow either: you appreciate something from the torturous dirge you are witnessing, or it can fuel your arguments against it after the film ends? Or at the very least, appreciate how insane the people around you really are.
There is more blowback from the audience when a famous director says something like: “watching movies on a smartphone is pathetic” – David Lynch said that. Martin Scorsese shared the sentiment (as well as his distain for Marvel movies.)
These sorts of comments do not help the public in their decision to go to the theatre or not. While watching a film on a phone screen is… personally… bonkers to me, it is something people can do. But like any artist, the directors do have passion for their craft; they want you to witness it the way it was intended to be witnessed. So anger from them is not surprising. If you had made something over years of hard work, would you be okay if someone viewed it for the first and maybe only time through a keyhole?
Times are changing, and during the pandemic a lot of us realized the potential of streaming services and the comfort / affordability of home cinemas. Yes, even watching films on our phones. Much to the discomfort of directors and creators who grew up in a golden age of movie-making and cinema.
Is cinema dying? It certainly might be. Cineworld, one of the largest cinema chains, filed for bankruptcy in 2022 to deal with debt of $9 billion created by the pandemic. Odeon, the largest competing chain, also suffered massive losses in the billions of dollars. The mad “fairground ride” mentality of 3D cinema, 4DX, Screen X, etc, are all desperate attempts to offer something more than your home can already do…
Cinema could become a niche experience within the next twenty years. With your average punter looking to stream movies on a television or computer screen instead, distribution of film will change forever. New directors will emerge who don’t remember the golden age of cinema and don’t feel the need for cinema-viewing.
Cinemas could be much smaller affairs, in far fewer locations. They would still get movies, but the financial draw for the studios will be greatly diminished; we will see less showings for shorter periods of time.
This might not bother anyone. For me, it is quite sad.
I can vaguely remember my first cinema trip (the 1990 Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles movie??) and ever since then the cosy, dark, enrapturing atmosphere of the cinema will always be one of my favourites. True, my experience is a personal one; I tend to go alone and then talk about my perspective with others later, and yes… people talking and making a fuss or checking their phone in the cinema always annoys me…
… But most of the time, it is a magical experience of pure escapism. I will miss it if it vanishes for ever, and I will do my utmost to keep it going for as long as possible.