Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's What You're Used To, Isn't It?

I've been thinking about cinema a lot recently.

I started seriously going to the cinema in 2001. Before that I was literally too shy to walk up and ask for a ticket. (Which may sound ridiculous, but when you're as intensely shy and over-analytical as I was, you anticipate pitfalls everywhere. I never expected anything to be straightforward. I thought there might be some sort of convention to cinema ticket buying that I didn't know about.)

Everything loomed so large for me in those days. I look back on it with a certain gratitude, since so much shyness and anxiety can't help coming with a large dollop of wonder.

I remember just before I started going to the cinema, a woman in the training course I was attending was telling the other trainees about the film she'd just been to see, Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. She remarked that she knew it was going to be a bit different because it was titled Cast Away rather than Castaway. I was terribly impressed by this and thought I would never have enough acuity to be a proper cinema-goer.

I think my long period of not going to the cinema, but hearing other people talk about their cinema-going, has left a lasting impression on me. It means the cinema always seems rather exotic to me, even after seeing so many hundreds of films there. I spent so long outside looking in that I still remain starry-eyed about the whole thing. (It's not the only department of life where I think being a late starter might be a blessing.)

But once I'd started going, there was no stopping me.

Today, I found myself thinking about art-house cinema. The library where I work, as might be expected, has a large stock of art-house films. I realized that, not only do I not like art-house films, but I find it hard to really think of them as films at all. They no more seem like films than ginger ale is ale, or a nut cutlet is meat.

When I hear someone talking about cinema, I prick up my ears. But when they start talking about Italian neo-realism, I un-prick them.

And, thinking about it a bit more, I ruminated on the elements that need to be in place for me to have a satisfying cinema experience, many of them rather at odds with my outlook in most other matters:

1) I expect cinema to be a business. It's a strange part of the pleasure of cinema to know that this story is making a profit, or at least intended to make a profit. It gets by on its own steam. It is a genuine reflection of the popular mind, and of popular taste. A visit to the cinema then becomes an immersion into the spirit of the age, a fascinating mirror of its hopes, dreams, fears and preoccupations, writ large on the silver screen. Story takes on the status of myth-- the tales that ordinary people use to make sense of their reality.

And conversely, when I see (usually in Irish and British films) a caption that announces the help of some arts council or other in making the film, I feel that the experience has been thereby diminished. I am not an apostle of the free market in most matters, but I do incline that way when it comes to cinema.

2) I want the cinema to be impersonal. I do not want a club-house atmosphere. The curious magic of the cinema is, to me, a blend of the intensity of the experience while watching the film, and the indifference of one's immediate surroundings to that experience. When you walk through that door into the darkened auditorium, it should be like walking through a magical portal from one world into another. Outside-- whether that's the cinema lobby, or perhaps the shopping centre or street outside the cinema-- the world is carrying on as always. The whole experience should be like Lucy stepping through the coats into Narnia.

For this reason, I prefer to see a film in a multiplex where the same film is being shown four time that day, along with eight or nine others, than a little cinema where the screening (rather than the film) becomes an event. And art-house cinemas (like Dublin's Irish Film Institute), which often feature events around the movie-- like talks by the director, or a discussion afterwards amongst the audience-- would be completely destructive of this enchanting mixture of intensity and impersonality, event and non-event.

3) I expect a cinema to be comfortable. I want soft seats, clean bathrooms (with soap), and a general air of plushness.

4) I want cinema to be an activity with a strong public dimension-- I don't mean inside the walls of the cinema, but outside them. And it usually is. And that pleases me.

Other people have usually at least heard about the film you're seeing. They've read reviews, they've seen it themselves or they're thinking of seeing it themselves. I especially like it when it's a film most people go to see and have a strong opinion on, like the Lord of the Rings movies. It's a shared social experience, but in a different way from the news or the weather or sporting events, because it's so specific and so concentrated, and it's something you experience individually. And every cinema release belongs, in a very special way, to a particular moment in time, a particular moment in social and cultural history.

5) I expect a movie to use the resources available to it, to exploit the format to the fullest. If I wanted to see a play (which I don't), I'd go to the theatre. If I wanted to listen to radio, I'd listen to the radio. I don't go to the cinema for talking heads. I don't want drab, minimalist sets. I want spaceships, monsters, fantasy sequences, colour, motion, extravagance. I don't think the cinema should be a subdued, low-key experience-- either visually or emotionally. It should be a BIG experience. What's the point of the big screen if you have small pictures on it? Or small stories?

So, given all that, a movie like Cinema Paradiso, which seeks to capture the magic of the movies, leaves me completely cold. What do I know about colorful Italian villagers sitting in a little hall, chatting familiarly amongst themselves as they watch a movie, seated in wooden chairs? What's magical about that? Magical is a well-upholstered multiplex on a Saturday afternoon, with empty seats all around you, and a medium-sized Coke in your hand.

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