You’re in a large room filled with many seats. To avoid any confusion, you made sure to get into your assigned seat early, or maybe you arrived right on time. Other people filter in and walk past you trying to find their row. The lights seem to be dimming, but you’re also not sure if they are. You may call this place the cinema, the movie theatre, the silver screen, or the pictures. What happens next has the power to profoundly affect you— if you allow it.
You’re in a large room filled with many seats. To avoid any confusion, you made sure to get into your assigned seat early, or maybe you arrived right on time. Other people filter in and walk past you trying to find their row. The lights seem to be dimming, but you’re also not sure if they are. The smell of popcorn wafts through the air as chip packets crinkle and voices whisper around you. You remember that your phone is still on and quickly turn it off, as a larger and much more enigmatic screen looms silently in front of you. The ads and trailers have not even finished, and yet you are immersed in the anticipatory nature of this room. You may call this place the cinema, the movie theatre, the silver screen, or the pictures. What happens next has the power to profoundly affect you— if you allow it.
In my opinion, there are few sociological phenomena more mysterious and fascinating than going to the cinema. Whilst we witnessed the decline of physical home media and Video-Ezy, many have wondered where the future of physical cinema space lies, particularly with their struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic. In my lifetime at least, this is the biggest crossroads that the cinema has faced, in an industry which is ever-changing. So how can we possibly make ‘sense’ of the cinema in its present state and possible future?
The popularity of streaming services has steadily continued to grow and diversify in the last few years. Noticeably throughout the pandemic, theatrical windows for blockbuster movies shrunk to microscopic levels. The domestication of movie-watching has finally reached the point where even some of the latest movies are immediately available on-demand. Disney princess remake Mulan, sci-fi epics Dune and The Matrix: Resurrections, and even the 2021 Academy Award Best Picture Winner, Nomadland, were just some of the major movies to be released directly to streaming services. In this new era, a society in lockdown has become accustomed to watching the latest films from the comfort of their couch, with their phone on hand. This speaks to the nature of the entertainment industry, which seems to exist in perpetual decay and growth. As different mediums combat for market space, changes are naturally inevitable. For example, the film industry has experienced a vast number of transitions with both the medium itself (film to digital) and how it is domestically distributed (VHS to DVD). But in all that time, the movie theatre has been a communal staple of society. It makes economic sense after all, as there’s plenty of money to be made at the box office and the snack bar. For the general public, there’s always the thrill of that communal ‘gasp’ and collective experience fostered in the cinema. There was a separation between exhibition and distribution which gave movies an ethereality. Importantly, you could only witness it at its full cinematic strength for a brief period before it vanished.
At their best, films in a cinema feel like masterful artworks in a gallery: tangible and enthralling. It is the benefit of seeing it at its full strength, aided by a space designed to grip you. The key difference between this and the home-viewing experience is vulnerability. You are not in control of the film, you are vulnerable to its rules, the fact that it won’t pause, and the social decree to keep your phone in your pocket. It sometimes feels as if there exists a collective cultural anxiety in putting a phone away whilst in a dark room full of strangers. Or perhaps it’s a relief. Regardless, it is antithetical to the last few years where we have been invulnerable movie watchers — able to switch films, check Instagram or get an ice-cream mid-stream. The cinema experience has re-emerged only to be put to the sword by these luxuries. It will either die or change. I insist that it should be the latter.
But making ‘sense’ of the cinema is so much more than considering the context of its existence. We must also not take for granted the sense-experience which the cinema provides. You choose to enter a dark room that’s either intimately empty or warmly buzzing with people. You take a leap of faith in buying a ticket for something which may bore the hell out of you or change your entire perspective on life. You surrender your eyes to an expanding screen and your ears to overpowering speakers. This vulnerability allows you to let your senses be indulged or affronted. This in turn makes for such a great range of sensual effects: the shiver of a perfectly placed musical note, the disgusting sight of an entirely CGI mutilated corpse.
Sure, a good movie has the power to do this from the comfort of your own home, but its power is tenfold at the cinema. Evidently, where we choose to place our attention and our sensory experience is definitely a choice worth considering. This is not to say that we should be going to the movies all the time, but that we should be fostering sensual experiences over de-sensual experiences.
Sometimes, it feels almost too easy to distract our senses with numbness. I am sure most people, myself included, are guilty of over-using their phones when they sit down to watch a movie at home. There is no greater distraction than sitting on the couch, flicking your streaming platform of choice on, and then jumping right onto the phone as soon as our attention lulls. Of course, this is sometimes a necessary evil — distraction is often needed for the mind to relax. But we should not make the mistake of taking our sense-experience for granted. We should not make the mistake of desensitising our capacity to engage with screens, especially when they promote a numbness over profound sensory experiences. The same argument could of course be made with watching a film in the cinema. But if we are to find sense in the cinema-going experience, we should firstly appreciate the invigoration of the senses which it provides. If it grips your senses, it can take you anywhere. And that’s an invaluable experience worth protecting.
But it must be said that going to the cinema isn’t always the perfect experience. Unless you look out for discount prices, the tickets, food, and drinks tend to be expensive. If you try and bring your own snacks in, it’s always amusingly awkward trying to figure out whether that’s acceptable or not. When you finally make your way into the cinema, you then leave yourself at the mercy of the (hopefully) considerate people around you. There is nothing that better promotes streaming the latest blockbuster film in the comfort of your home than the threat of other moviegoers kicking your seat, talking to each other, and using their phones. Sometimes the risk just doesn’t even seem worth it, and that’s before you add a worldwide pandemic into the mix.
As a generation of movie-watchers, where do we go from here? You would not be alone if sometimes you only choose the cinema experience just to get ahead of the spoilers. The proliferation of movie streaming and online discussion has effectively moved the cinema into a virtual domain. Perhaps we have a reduced patience for movie watching with the rapidity of the online world, or perhaps we have a greater communal knowledge and appreciation for film through online accessibility. As usual, the reality lies somewhere in the middle.
In the end, films are expressions of art, and are integrally reflective of humanity in one way or another - as is the way we choose to consume them. To make ‘sense’ of the cinema is to attempt to make sense of our reality. And when our reality feels joyous, surreal, privileged, ignored, or any wide range of feelings, we may just need the power of the cinema to understand our humanity again.
I hope that in these unique times, we do manage to rediscover sense in the cinema — it may just help us find sense in everything else.