Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why I Love the Cinema

It's something of a cliché that cinema-going is akin to a religious experience for many people. I am one of those people. All things can lead us towards God or away from him-- I hope that my years of cinema-going have done the former.

I don't think I can ever put my love affair with the cinema into words. Like all love affairs, it's had its ups and downs, its ecstasies and its frustrations. But I can't even imagine my life without it.

I can remember my very first trip to the cinema. It was 1984, I was seven years old, and I went with my parents and my little brother to see Indiana Jones and the Temple Doom. It was in the Savoy cinema, O'Connell Street, Dublin. I seem to remember that, when we came in, the previous screening was coming to an end. I've never encountered such a thing again, so maybe I was mistaken.

I struggled with the seat. I didn't realise that it folded down and for the first few minutes I was sitting, quite literally, on the edge of my seat.

I remember I had wanted to go to see The Search for Spock, the Star Trek film, instead. My father assured me I wouldn't like it: "It's all talking", he said. Even as a seven-year-old that sounded good to me. I wonder if my life would have been different if we had gone to see The Search for Spock instead of The Temple of Doom?

I can't actually remember if I enjoyed or didn't enjoy The Temple of Doom. I think I was too blown away by the experience to think critically (in so far as a seven-year-old thinks critically).

Perhaps I am projecting backwards when I recall this first cinema visit. Perhaps there was no great revelation, no surge of awe-- at the time, that is. But the occasion certainly branded itself into my memory-- even into my soul. I can vividly remember the sheer size of the pictures, the ostentatious elegance of the auditorium's plasterwork, the rich red of the curtains glowing in the spotlights, the sense of heightened and intensified life. More than anything else, the contrast between the deep darkness around the screen and the glowing images upon it made a deep impression upon me. The only way I can express it is to say that I felt there something in the darkness; a presence, an intelligence. I still feel this whenever I sit in a darkened cinema.

In the same year we also went to see Young Sherlock Holmes, which was far and away the best of my childhood cinema excursions. I still enjoy the film when I watch it today. I remember we went to see it on a day that me and my brother had played truant from school (we did that quite a lot) and my mother, rather shamefully (but splendidly) compunded the offence by bringing us to the cinema. I remember being struck by the naughtiness of this at the time.

There weren't all that many other cinema visits in my childhood (which is probably a good thing, since it kept my sense of wonder from going stale). There was Biggles: Adventures in Time, in 1986. Of this I remember next to nothing, except that the theme song contained the line: "Do you want to be a hero, hero?" and a scene in which it was played rather excited my sense of the sublime. (My brother was a Biggles fan; that must be why we went.)

After that, there was Batman, the 1989 blockbuster whose campaign of hype was unlike anything ever before or since-- or so it seems in my memory. Even as a child, I wasn't too impressed. Around the same time we also went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I think it was the first time I'd come across the word "crusade" and I had no idea of its historical meaning. I have no idea why the Indiana Jones films are considered some kind of cultural treasure. They comprised a third of my childhood cinema-going, and even that isn't enough to make me sentimental about them.

I remember one more thing from my childhood cinema visits. Before one feature film, there was a short documentary called "There's a Sucker Born Every Minute" about the sweet industry (for my American readers, the candy industry). I like to remember this; it gives me pleasure to think that such a (vaguely) educational short was showing in a completely commercial setting. In all my cinema-going since then, I've never come across anything like it.

My mother took me to all these shows. I wasn't a very independent child, and I wasn't a very independent or outgoing teen, either. In fact, I didn't return to the cinema until 1997, to see Michael Collins, again with my parents. (My sister bought us all tickets for my father's birthday. I know it is still the last cinema visit my father has made. My brother, who was sitting beside him, said he spent the entire film complaining about the film's historical inaccuracies.)

The visit to see Michael Collins utterly swept me away. I remembering shivering-- with emotion and excitement-- in the night air outside the cinema, immediately afterwards. It was my first trip to the Omniplex cinema in Santry, located in the Omni shopping centre-- and my first visit to a multiplex. I can remember writing a poem in my late teens, romanticizing a (fictional) old cinema hall and comparing it favourably to "the multiplex across the street". I had yet to discover the romance of the multiplex. I am afraid I now consider a multiplex much more romantic than the most moth-eaten fleapit. (It isn't the only reversal I've had in my perception of what's romantic. I used to consider Cavaliers more romantic than Puritans, along with everybody else. I've changed my mind about that, too.)

But, even though Michael Collins transported me-- not only because it was a powerful film, but also because it was a rediscovery of the cinema-- I didn't become a regular cinema-goer until 2001. Why so long?

It's a ridiculous reason, though not ridiculous to me. All my life I have suffered from shyness, self-consciousness and social anxiety. When I was younger, it was utterly debilitating. People who know me might be surprised by this, since I can be something of a loudmouth in company. But there was a time when walking up to a box office and asking for a cinema ticket was an ordeal for me.

It took until the year 2001 to get over this. (I did go to the cinema on my own for the first time in 1998, to see a dreadful Irish film called The General, but that seems a strange one-off in the annals of my memory). After that the floodgates opened and since that time I have been an ardent cinema-goer.

I wonder if my passion for the cinema has something to do with this long hiatus in attendance. Perhaps it was a brief and powerful exposure to the cinema in my childhood, followed by a long absence, that gives the medium such a hold on me.

Since I am dorky enough to keep an Excel spreadsheet of all the films I've ever seen, I can say that I have been to see exactly 420 films in the cinema, the majority of those since 2001. That doesn't count films seen several times; for instance, I saw Kill Bill five times, along with The Matrix Reloaded and Batman Begins. (I can't imagine doing that now!)

The cinema seems to me a bigger experience than most other experiences in our life, and it seems to make life itself seem bigger. It is bigger both in the crude sense of the size of the images, and in the more figurative sense of being more intensified, dramatic and concentrated. One of the questions that has always haunted me is: is anything really important? Why is it important? And how important? Religious faith is the ultimate answer to this question. Cinema, though not an answer, does at least give us a sense of importance; a sense that both the events on the screen and (by extension) life itself is of supreme importance.

It may sound ridiculous, but I retain a perpetual sense of pleasant surprise that the institution of the cinema exists. I can easily imagine a version of history where the dire predictions that TV (when it was a new invention) would kill of the picture palace came true. I can also imagine a situation where there were only a few cinemas in each country, and where only a handful of films were released a year. It seems too good to be true that new films come out every week, that there are films on pretty much every subject, and that they range from big blockbusters to small independent productions.

And it's so cheap. I don't understand why people complain about the price of cinema tickets. What entertainment is better value? The same people who whinge about forking out ten euro for a cinema ticket, and a little above average on cinema snacks, are happy to pay many times more to go to a fancy restaurant or to watch some clapped-out rock star in a stadium.

I love everything about the cinema experience. I love the names of cinemas, with their unabashed grandiloquence-- Odeon, Savoy, Regal. (Much better than the pretentiously unpretentious names given to theatres, especially modern theatres-- like Red Kettle.) I love the marquees with their exciting roll-call of titles. I love the broad, plush, welcoming lobbies. I love the movie posters. I love the tag-lines on the movie posters. I love the titles. (Is anything so pregnant with promise as a good film title? Some favourites: Ice Cold in Alex, The Breakfast Club, Scream --which neatly captures in one word the film's mixture of comedy and horror--, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Bridges of Madison County, Smokey and the Bandit, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and The Big Chill.)

I love the moment of walking into the darkened auditorium. I love the heavy, serious-looking curtains across the screen. I love the little lights underfoot and overhead. I love the atmosphere in a cinema before anything has appeared on screen and the seats are still mostly empty. In the Omniplex, they play ambient music at ths time. (I've always loved "incidental" music like that-- music in supermarkets, public bathrooms, pubs, and so forth. The appeal lies in the fact that it seems to be overhearde rather heard. Somehow it gives it a strange poignancy and pointedness.)

I am such a veteran cinema-goer that, on more than one occasion, I have had the strange but interesting experience of being the entire audience. The most memorable instance of this was when I went to see The Alamo in the Santry Omniplex in 2004. Who would have thought that a matineé showing of a film about nineteenth century American history would fail to draw an audience in North Dublin? (The film itself was pretty good.)

I love the studio logos that appear at the start of the film, though once again I like the more unabashedly grandiose ones-- Colombia's lady with a torch, Universal's planet Earth, Paramount's mountain top-- to the more "hip" and clownish logos such as that of Bad Robot, which seem to be becoming more common.

I love the smell of hot dogs and popcorn on the air. I love the shared experience with strangers in the dark. I love being caught up in a wave of laughter, or the (all-too-rare) moments in horror or suspense films when the whole audience screams. (The longest cinema laugh I ever heard was in Stillorgan's Ormonde, during the comedy-thriller Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. The gag was too naughty to repeat here...but if you are curious, I will happily tell you by email.)

I love the moment when the censor's certificate appears on the screen. For that reason alone, I am all in favour of film censors (or classification boards, as they prefer to be styled now.)

I love the public nature of cinema. I love hearing people discuss the latest releases. I love the bond it often creates between total strangers.

I love the ephemeral, topical nature of cinema. Nothing seems so exquisitely dated as an old photograph that shows what was playing at the pictures that day. Nothing heightens nostalgia like mentioning what film you went to see with your schoolfriends, one long-ago summer evening, or on your first date with your wife.

I like that cinema, more than any other medium or art-form, serves as a kind of collective subconscious, or even a societal dreamlife. The Exorcist, The Matrix, Wall Street, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Truman Show-- such films, especially when they are box-office successes, are often taken to illustrate some fear or aspiration or problem haunting the collective psyche at the time of their release. Even when such speculation is rather fanciful, I like the fact that it exists at all. I like the idea of a collective psyche-- the idea that a society dreams and desires and dreads, almost in unison, and that these hopes and fears might be transposed onto celluloid.

I love walking out of the cinema, after the climax, into the sunlight of the real world-- the real world which seems somehow more solid and more full of promise after the emotional journey I've just finished.

I love the sense of event at the cinema. I sometimes think our society has fewer and fewer self-contained, ceremonial situations. Mobile phones, the internet, and television inflitrate almost everything. We are rarely wholly present in a given activity, since we are always having our attention diverted by the latest text or tweet or news bulletin. The cinema is one of the few places were this is not the case; a place and a time that is a place and time of its own.

I love the cinema because movies tend to have an affirmative view of life, and an uplifting moral code-- certainly as compared to television. Underdogs and outsiders usually come good in the world of movies, while ambition and arrogance tend to come a cropper. The band of misfits wins out over the sophisticated, professional operation. The community centre is saved, while the Evil Corporation is frustrated. Small town values triumph, true love wins out over shallow lust, and people who thought they had nothing in common realise that they are not so different after all. True, there are cynical and nihilistic films, but they are a rarity. Something about the very medium seems to cry out for heroes and redemption.

I love the cinema because I think I am rarely more intensely alive than when I am sitting in the dark, absorbed in that enormous screen, utterly lost in a tale of long ago, far away, or some world that exists only in the imagination.

Most of all, I love the cinema because it reminds me that I am alive, and that life is worth any amount of getting excited about.


  1. That's the addiction of a previous generation that you have. If you were just a couple years younger, you'd likely have ended up as a video game addict. Someone gave me a playstation a few years ago on my 30th birthday after I hadn't played any video games in the better part of a decade. I thought that I'd use it just for DVDs, but at 5AM the next morning I was still tapping away at the game pad like I was 10 again. It was horrific. Whatever weird nervous or chemical reactions the flashing lights set off in the brains of video game players, it keeps me playing the things long after my eyes are red and my fingers are sore. I always think that if I could somehow have just harnessed all of that concentration and focus towards a goal that was actually worthwhile.. maybe I would never have been a rock star, but I might at least have become a master of some niche skill like calligraphy or olympic air rifle, instead of having to work at a real job.

  2. On two occasions I have become utterly, though briefly, addicted to a computer game. The first was a game called Civilization in which you built up a civilization, the second was called Shogun in which you conquered medieval (or was it early modern?) Japan. Anyway, both of these brief addictions ended in sixteen-hour sessions of play, and after that I decided I would never play a computer game again.

    It was fun once or twice, though.

  3. Yeah, those are exactly the sort of games that I'm talking about. I played Shogun but it's sequel Medieval:Total War really hooked me good. I spent hundreds of hours of my life trying to make sure that Constantinople never became Istanbul, but when I snapped out of the transistor induced trance those damned minarets were on the Hagia Sophia, anyway.

  4. The first movie I ever saw was Time Bandits. Rather dark children's fantasy movies like The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of Nimh and so on that involved a character making a wrong step and falling through some seam in the universe seemed to be popular around that time. I've sometimes wondered if it affected my personality. During the DVD commentary at the end of the movie the kid from Time Bandits says something like "well, that's it. And I've been living in a dream world ever since." I sort of knew what he meant.