R.I.P. going to the pictures as we knew it

Americans know it as the movie theatre, Brits call it the cinema.

It used to be a darkened cavern in which adventures and passions were made vivid on a screen that became a portal to another world.

It was a trysting place for a thousand and one nights of fantasy played out in epics of all kinds: drama, sci-fi, horror, musicals, which frequently took place in exotic or imaginary locations.

People laughed and cried with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, and sat spellbound by D.W. Griffiths’ rewriting of history, by Italian neorealism and la nouvelle vague, E.T., Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings.

There was popcorn and ice cream, of course, and boxes of half-melted Cadbury’s Milk Tray, but these were an unobtrusive aspect of a realm entered with a sense of reverence for the experience that was about to unfold. Remember Cinema Paradiso?

Barring technical failures, a film played without interruption or distraction, a continuous stream of someone else’s consciousness in which the viewer had a dreamlike role. But then it moved into the home. With the arrival of videotape cassettes, DVDs, Netflix, downloading and streaming, viewing films was transformed.

First it became stop-start. If the telephone (or now the cell phone) rang, the film could be stopped and the narrative flow destroyed. If someone missed a moment, it could be replayed. If someone wanted to comment, to say “Isn’t that the same actor as in…”, the film could be interrupted. There is worse to come.

Films became mealtime entertainment. The TV-dinner became the film-dinner with all the bustle and noise and lack of attention that ensues. Mealtime chat took priority over film dialogue, with comments and asides interrupting silence, ambivalence, and “listening between the lines”. And all this has migrated to the cinema (or movie theatre).

Going to the cinema has become an outing to a party full of anonymous people cramming mountains of outrageously overpriced popcorn and sucking on gigantic containers of soft drinks. At many cinemas, hamburgers and fries and mounds of nachos and cheese are noxiously available and some cinemas are even beginning to offer the ultimate dining experience: serving you a gourmet meal as you recline in a luxurious cinema armchair.

Cinema-goers are assaulted by half an hour of fun and games, film trivia and cell phone interaction. A trailer for the very film you are about to see gives the game away before it has even started and the volume from speakers located at the cinema’s cardinal points is enough to create a health hazard. And, despite an onscreen plea just before the film commences, those ubiquitous cell phones sporadically flare up in all parts of the theatre with never-to-be-ignored and must-be-answered messages and Instagrams.

Finally, to add insult to injury, when the film is over you find yourself sitting in a pig’s trough of discarded greasy trays, food wrappings, and half-empty drink cartons. Do the people who leave their detritus for others to clear up behave this way at home? Perhaps they do.

Going to the cinema used to be an intense, pleasurable and often life-enhancing experience. As Ingmar Bergman once wrote, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”

Today, going to the cinema has become almost unbearable.



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