My Cinema Experience || The Long Read

I collect cinema tickets. I’ve been collecting cinema tickets since Summer of 2013 when I saw Iron Man 3 for the first time and couldn’t fathom not holding on to some sort of memento of that experience. Growing up, I went to church a lot – a Pentecostal church with clapping and dancing and people speaking in tongues – and every Sunday I would see people become so animated during the sermon. They would break down crying, fall to their knees, submit to full-body convulsions, and the sceptical part of my brain kind of thought that they were playing it up. Another much quieter part of my brain was in awe of the passion of it all. People were connecting with something so completely and so viscerally in a way that I couldn’t understand and had no frame of reference for. The closest I’ve ever come is when I visit the cinema.

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To be clear, I don’t fall down to my knees in the cinema and I definitely don’t clap. There is a very special, very specific place reserved in hell for people who clap in the cinema. They can’t hear you, asshole! But, I digress… I don’t generally have a physical reaction, but inside? I’ve never felt as deeply or as intensely as I do in the cinema. Every film experience is different but there is always a sacredness to it regardless of if I’m watching Moonlight or The Hangover.

When I look back on the movies I’ve seen, I don’t just think about the films themselves. I think about how I was feeling that day; the things that I did on either side of that trip to the cinema; what was on my mind. Yes, movies mean a lot to me – this blog is evidence of that – but the cinema means just as much. To explain exactly what it is about the cinema that I love so much, I’m going to have to break it into four parts.

 

The Darkness

Hello, darkness my old friend….

I love the dark. Although, I’m more Batman than Bane in the sense that I’ve learned to love the dark. There’s something about it that feels very liberating and calming. Even if it’s not the pitch blackness of the cinema, once the Sun starts to go down I feel more anonymous and, at the same time, more myself than I ever do in the light.

I can, and do, watch movies at home all the time. If I’m travelling long distances, I’ll even watch movies on my phone (9/10 wouldn’t recommend) but it’s not the same. I’m not about to wade into the streaming vs. cinema debate: you’re both pretty. This isn’t about superiority, it’s about what experience resonates with me more.

I’m distracted all the time. You notice what a terrible segue that was from the previous paragraph?  That’s my brain 24/7. If I’m watching an episode of Billions I’m probably also cooking dinner and checking Twitter and cleaning my flat. It’s hard for me to focus on any one thing at any given time and maybe that’s a product of the world we live in today or maybe it’s just who I am. I’d wager it was a mixture of both.

The cinema is my eye of the storm. It isn’t just another way for me to sit down and watch a movie – it is the only way that I am able to just sit down and watch a movie. There are no phone screens, there is no moving around or planning what I’m doing the next day. There is nothing but the film (and those pesky emergency exit signs but unless you’re Steve Jobs there’s not a lot to be done about that).

When I sit in the cinema and the lights begin to slowly dim, it feels like a form of therapy. I feel at peace and I feel relaxed and I feel like I have an excuse to not think. I’m being given permission to ignore the things that I should be doing and fully lose myself in what I am doing.

In the dark of the movie theatre, you feel almost as though you’re in a sensory deprivation tank. You don’t have to think about what you look like or what your hands are doing. The movie is all there is and you’re just experiencing it. It’s as though you’re not even there anymore. You’re not real – the film is real.

 

Familiarity

People talk about an internal compass that points home and I haven’t had one of those for the last few years. Life is inconsistent, and things are constantly changing but the cinema is a point of consistency, of familiarity. I can walk into any cinema in the country and the sounds and smells that I encounter are the same. There’s the smell of popcorn and the hum of slushy machines. There’s the soft, worn felt of the seats and the faint stickiness of the floors from years of spilled drinks. Cinemas are all the same in the best way possible.

Obviously, cinema ticket prices rise every year and if you’re not living in one of the metropolitan hubs of your country then your local cinema isn’t going to screen 90% of the releases for a given month. However, in the grand scheme of things, the cinema is for everyone.

Compared to the theatre, the opera, professional sports games, ballet, etc. the cinema is one of the few places left that you can go to see art that isn’t going to decimate your bank account. You don’t have to dress up, but you also don’t have to dress down: there are no specific guidelines for what you’re supposed to do or how you’re supposed to act (although I wouldn’t be against a ban on clapping, just saying).

I’ve been to a lot of different events where I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable because of my clothes, race, gender, age, etc. and as much as I tell myself that I have to right to be somewhere, it’s hard to shake the feeling of being unwanted. I’ve never felt unwanted or out of place in the cinema and that’s a special thing. As dumb as it might sound, that’s exactly what I think a home should be.

Hidden Figures

 

Stories

We exist as we do because of stories. Long before we even had books, we had stories and when climate change finally claims the Earth and there is but a handful of small human colonies dotted around the few inhabitable parts of the globe, we’ll still have stories.

As somebody who is very introverted and can struggle with social situations, it is often assumed that I don’t like people. In fairness, I’ve often said that I don’t like people, so I understand where the confusion comes from but that’s an oversimplification. I’m fascinated by people. I find people difficult because every person is just so much, and I don’t have the necessary social skills to navigate them. Stories help me to navigate.

Stories can be big, sprawling epics like Lord of the Rings, or they can be these focused, individual pieces like Before Sunrise. Clearly, the concept of storytelling isn’t unique to the cinema, or even the medium of film, but as I get older, focusing on one thing becomes more difficult. It’s harder to lose myself in a book; I’ll begin to daydream as I watch TV; I have to rewind podcasts multiple times because I started reading something and just stopped listening. In the cinema I can’t do any of that. I’m present and I’m transported in exactly the same way as I was when I was eight years old. When you go to the cinema, you are pulled into a story for two hours and you get to live in a different world, a different person for that time.

I think that when you really know somebody: their deepest desires and fears; how they think and feel; what drives them; it’s impossible not to love them. You may not agree with them, you might find elements of their personality entirely repugnant, but you understand them.

In real life, you’re lucky if you get to know one person in your entire life but in stories? In films? You can see a character’s life unfold before your eyes. You can see their highest moment and then 10 minutes later see their lowest (I’m looking at you Million Dollar Baby). Sitting there in the dark, you forge an intimacy with these characters and come out of it a better person.

There’s no downside to obtaining a wider perspective on the world we live in. I’m the sum of all the stories that I’ve absorbed over the last 21 years and I think that every film teaches us its own lessons.

 

The Credits

If it’s not a Marvel movie, I won’t typically sit through the credits – most people don’t. I’ll stay as long as the lights are down but once they’re up (something that seems to happen much more suddenly and jarringly than the gentle dimming at the start of the movie) it feels like a very clear message: “You don’t have to go home, but you sure as shit can’t stay here.”

Even if you do sit through the entirety of the credits and you try to read every name that scrolls past, you probably can’t. The production of one movie necessitates the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who will likely never be acknowledged for their contribution. The grips and PAs and VFX assistants of the world will get their pay check and maybe a few family members or friends will stay in the cinema to see their names scroll by but otherwise they will go unnoticed.

When you think about Avatar (for the sake of this example just pretend you’ve ever thought about Avatar since 2009) the names that pop into your head are probably James Cameron, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver… maybe even Sam Worthington – he plays that main character and I had to Google his name. The lack of cultural impact made by Avatar is mind-bending and I could talk about it for hours but that’s a whole other essay and I need to wrap this up. Actors, writers, and directors get all the glory and all the recognition, but can you imagine just how bad Avengers: Endgame (#DontSpoilTheEndgame) would look without genius VFX people. Even a less CGI-heavy film like Pride & Prejudice becomes trash without outstanding production design, costumes, location scouts, and choreography (that party scene is film perfection. I am willing to die on this hill: fight me).

Pride and Prejudice

When you watch a film at home on Netflix – this blog is (sadly) not sponsored by Netflix and I must remind you that other streaming services are available – as soon as the credits begin, Netflix starts ushering you into the next thing. Maybe that’s the same as the cinema lights but it feels worse to me. In the cinema you’re lazier and way more likely to just sit in it for a minute of two absorbing the movie you saw and letting the names wash over you. At least that’s what I do and when I do, I’m always struck by how impossible a feat every film is.

I love to read about the drama of trying to get films made. Salacious stories about on-set squabbles? A thousand times yes. Feed me stories about clashing directors and actors and I’m yours. But, in my own life, I find working on projects in groups of three trying. Working with hundreds of people and coming out of that experience with something beautiful is nothing short of a miracle. You can critique Bohemian Rhapsody for its editing and queer erasure (and I might even join you) but I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it exists. Like, someone somewhere had an idea and then over the course of a few years, a few hundred people adopted that idea and made something.

As a society we love to celebrate the individual. Nothing is quite as attractive to write about as an individual who achieved amazing things. Even when it is a team effort we want to single somebody out and label them “the visionary” when the truth is, they couldn’t have done it on their own. The credits are a celebration of collaboration. A collaboration that, in itself, is far more impressive than a single person doing it all alone and that deserves to be celebrated on a big screen, with as many people as possible.

 

So that’s it: that’s why I love the cinema.

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