Monday, May 31, 2021

My Cinemania

Ireland's cinemas have been closed for pretty much the entire duration of the Covid-19 lockdown, aside from a short spell when they reopened for a few weeks, back in the summer. I find myself increasingly craving the big screen experience, as I imagine are thousands of other Irish cinema fans.

This situation has had me looking back at the cinema infatuation of my twenties. I don't know if infatuation is the best word. Passion, obsession, compulsion, and mania might all apply just as well. I pretty much spent my twenties in the cinema.

I only really started attending the cinema in 2001, when I was twenty-three. I saw twenty-nine films in the cinema that year. (Figures are courtesy of a spreadsheet I put together, about a decade ago, of all the films I could remember seeing, with the help of a movie almanac. I've kept it updated conscientiously since then.)

After that it really took off. Here are the figures:

2002: 29
2003: 58
2004: 68
2005: 94

2005 was the peak. After that my cinema attendance dropped significantly, though it went up and down from year to year:

2006: 30
2007: 21
2008: 5
2009: 19
2010: 40
2011: 33
2012: 20
2013: 15

In 2013, I got married, and had more claims on my time and income:

2014: 9
2015: 1
2016: 4
2017: 5
2018: 5
2019: 4
2020: 1

My cinema-going really began in 2001, the year I started working in UCD library, where I still work. But actually it began before I started in UCD, when I was in a training course in a Christian Brothers research library called The Allen Library. My mother had died in January of that year.

Although I've loved films all my life, I'd avoided going to the cinema for so long for the most ridiculous reason. I was too timid to buy a ticket. It sounds utterly bizarre now, even to me, but I was unsure how to go about it. I didn't know what to say when I got to the box office. Somehow I got it into my head that there was a lot more to it than just naming the film you wanted to see. There it is. Shyness was the bane of my youth.

The few visits to the cinema in my childhood are some of my happiest memories. I was taken to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Young Sherlock Holmes, Biggles, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Batman.

As well as this, there was a Saturday morning film show in the community centre that my father helped to set up and run, back in the eighties. The film were shown on a big projector screen in a large dark hall with refreshments outside, and were often recent releases, so it was more or less the same thing as the cinema. I can't remember all the films I saw there. They included Back to the Future and The Karate Kid.

The first film I went to see in 2001, when I started going on my own, was The Mummy Returns. It was an inauspicious start. The film itself was poor and, for some reason I can't remember, I arrived late and left early. But soon I was hooked.

The first film that I remember really impressing me, in this first year of attending on my own, was a Canadian horror film called Ginger Snaps. It was about two teenage girls who find themselves turning into werewolves. The tagline was "They don't call it the curse for nothing". I was pleased at the idea that the cinema could address important features of the human condition, such as female puberty, in such a tangential way. Visually it was quite impressive, with its own dark and cluttered aesthetic.

Before I actually became a frequent cinema-goer, I wrote a poem favourably comparing an old single-screen movie house with modern multiplexes. Once I started attending the cinema, I quickly changed my mind on this. I'm a big fan of multiplexes. I like big, plush cinemas. I like knowing that other movies are being screened around me, simultaneous with the film I'm watching. The cinema I fell in love with (and the one I attended most frequently by far) was the Omniplex in Santry, a big, dark, comfortable multiplex with a large lobby, part of a busy shopping centre. I quickly came to feel very at home in its plebeian, unabashedly commercial atmosphere.

Cinema-going was a sort of spiritual rebirth for me. It was a new world, a new phase of my life. It felt as though both myself and the world had become younger. Although I had been to the cinema before, going on my own somehow seemed a completely different experience. It reawakened all of my senses-- the huge glowing screen, the echoing surround-sound, the scent of popcorn, the taste of my medium-sized Coke (Coke tastes better in the cinema than it does anywhere else).

Strangely enough, I felt this sense of awe most powerfully, not when I was watching the feature, but when I was watching the ads and the trailers beforehand. Even today, I feel like a visit to the cinema is half-ruined if I miss a single trailer. Some particular ads stand out in my memory. There was an ad for Orangina which featured (I think) a huge orange with arms and legs, dancing up a staircase to the tune "Cheek to Cheek". As you probably know, the song opens with the words: "Heaven, I'm in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak..." The first few seconds of this advertisement had such a profound effect on me that I've never forgotten it. The colours and the lighting, as well as the rendition of the song, struck me as heightened, otherworldly, even eerie (in a pleasing way).

The Carlton Screen Advertising intro, which is sadly now obsolete, also branded itself into my memory-- pun fully intended.

I developed a ritual: I would buy a medium-sized Coke and wait until the very first trailer to take my first sip. I never ate food in the cinema. Sometimes I would have a lemon-flavoured Lucozade while wandering around the shopping centre before the film. The cinema was about a twenty minute walk from my home, and I would always walk there and back.

I generally liked to go on a Saturday morning. I much prefer to go to the cinema in the daytime than at night. Walking out of the darkness into the daylight, with life still going on all around me, was a sensation that became familiar and then cherished. (Although I've only browsed it, I love the title Mornings in the Dark, a collection of Graham Greene film reviews.) Although morning has always remained my favourite time for cinema attendance, I did develop a habit (somewhere around 2004) of going on Friday nights, sometimes to premiers. I much prefer a sleepy, mostly-empty cinema to a crowded one, but a crowded one has its own pleasures.

It could be argued that cinema-going became compulsive to me, that it was simply a way of filling emptiness. I was single and in a steady but undemanding job. I didn't really have a social life. Aside from wanting to write (and I was writing), I had no real direction to my life.

But I really dislike that kind of assumption. I didn't go to the cinema because I had nothing better to do. I went to the cinema because I loved it, because it was an avenue to the sublime.

I felt a bit embarrassed because I was going on my own all the time, not having anybody to go with. I got so worked up about it that I imagined people assumed a man alone in a cinema was some kind of weirdo, and were looking askance at me.  I've changed my mind completely about this. Solitary cinema-going is the best form of cinema-going. Yes, talking about the movie afterwards is a pleasure of its own, but it's hard to really disappear into a film if you're always conscious of the person or people sitting next to you. Only, perhaps, if you go with a spouse or very close friend-- somebody you're not worried about impressing or entertaining-- can having company in the cinema not ruin the experience. Going to the cinema in a group is a travesty.

I also got a bit embarrassed and defensive about my cinema-going. Everybody at work would always ask me the same question: "Seen any movies lately?". I began to feel as though this was all anybody associated with me, that I had nothing else in my life. I even stopped going to the cinema for a period of months out of pure contrarianism, so that when people asked me "Seen any movies lately?", I could reply: "No". (Looking back, this was very silly. I realize now that everybody struggles to have anything to say to other people, and they're just grateful to have something, anything, to ask about.)

I went to see pretty much anything that was on. I would turn up at the cinema without any idea what was playing. I saw an awful lot of bad movies this way, but I also discovered some wonderful movies that were given a critical mauling, that I never would have tried if I was less adventurous in my cinema-going.

Sometimes I would even take days off work to see a particular movie; for instance, Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill in 2003 (both instalments).

For a few months in 2005, I lodged in a house which was right next door to a cinema-- the Ormonde cinema in Stilorgan. As you can imagine, my cinema-going became particularly frequent at this time. The Ormonde had a very young clientele, and audience participation was intense. I particularly remember the film Red Eye, a thriller set on board an airplane, during which the hooting and screaming and laughing never seemed to stop. I enjoyed this greatly.

On about half-a-dozen occasions I've been the only person watching the movie. The first time this happened was The Alamo in 2004. It's a unique sensation.

The movies are a big, intense experience and they somehow bolster one's belief that life itself is a big, intense experience. They are a form of heightened, concentrated life. Maybe I overdid it-- I can remember how flat the experience sometimes became, during a particularly dull or clichéd movie-- but I don't really regret my cinemania, and I think it left a lasting legacy on my mind.

And I can't wait for the cinemas to re-open.


  1. Someone was just sorting out their books and papers today and pulled out Me Jewel And Darlin Dublin (originally 1974 Éamonn MacThomáis)- it's of interest that the very first chapter is about cinemas.
    "First it was the twopenny rush,then the threepenny rush and when they got the picture house painted and new woodeners and cushioners installed it went up to the fourpenny rush. My friend Bonker said that the price was now universal. What does that mean, we asked? 'All over the world',said Bonker,'it's fourpence everywhere, it's something got to do with the union'....[he] was right,it was fourpence everywhere as we toured the local cinemas of Dublin. They were the Core at Inchicore,the Ri (Rialto),and the Leinster at Dolphin's Barn, The Fountain in James's Street,The TiVo in Francis Street,the Mayro in Mary Street,the Phoeno on the quays and the Broad in Manor one stage several cinemas took jam jars instead of might be stuck with two one pound jam jars for your change... imagine sitting on the woodeners, trying to balance two jam jars, peel your orange and keep your eye on the chap"
    Must be going back a while- my father is 86,and the only bit he remembers is calling the hero 'the chap'.
    Wouldn't even stand for that now.

    1. Something interesting always seems to happen when somebody is sorting out books and papers...I love all that cinema folklore, there are a few good books ok the subject. One called Here's Looking At You, Kid! My father went to the cinema every day in his youth, he said.