Like many other people I love films, and have enjoyed watching them for as long as I can remember. The problem is that for almost as long I’ve found myself periodically having to watch films, which I love, with a selection of those “other people”, who I don’t love. Increasingly I’m finding that the experience of going to the cinema is actually anathema to the appreciation of film – every time I swear it’s the last, but there’s always a birthday or limited screening to drag me, kicking and screaming, back into the scrum. There is a long, and still-active, tradition of popular paranoia over the potential hazards of ‘media affects‘, concerned parents and shameless self-promoters alike depicting the viewer’s mind as a vulnerable receptacle into which dangerously hypnotic fictions can project images as persuasive as reality. Anyone harbouring such fears about the impact of film should try watching a newly released blockbuster at the Park Royal Vue cinema in Acton on a Saturday night – the chances of any ‘vulnerable’ young audience members even looking at the screen for fifteen seconds at a time, let alone becoming obsessively absorbed in the violent, sexualised images it might display, are slim-to-none. The simple fact is that for some people going to the cinema is first and foremost a social event, a chance to be seen by others as much as to see something for yourself. Like the wealthy elite attending an opera’s opening night, many cinema-goers seem to see themselves as the main attraction rather than simple spectators; posing and preening their way through the entire performance.
However, this isn’t just about isolated pockets of insurgents talking, shrieking or, at a screening of Kick-Ass (2010) I recently attended, literally dry-humping in the back rows. Don’t think for a second I’m not talking about you too, gentle and sophisticated reader – yes, YOU. We’re all partly responsible for that most heinous example of an audience ‘performing’ their audible reactions to be observed and rated by those around them – the fake laugh. It takes a finely tuned ear (or possibly an overactive imagination) to perceive the dividing line where a genuine laugh becomes a put-up job. Having become adept at such distinction, I can reveal that this constitutes an epidemic; approximately 73% of the laughter you hear from any given audience is completely fraudulent, a front intended either to nervously affirm solidarity with one’s peers, or aggressively assert one’s superior appreciation of the film’s subtleties to anyone within hearing range. At a screening of Charlie Kaufman’s uncomfortable act of exposure Synecdoche, New York (2008) I once witnessed a man sitting alone in the front row literally shout “Ha ha ha ha ha” at the top of his lungs during every awkward silence, and after every sardonically delivered line (these are many). It was actually quite an impressive performance, but towards the middle of the second hour he was clearly starting to flag and I felt a bit sorry for him.
It may seem overly mean-spirited to condemn someone for enjoying a film, but that’s sort of the point; having other peoples’ reactions forced on you, whether they’re positive or negative, insightful or idiotic, can only disrupt or destroy your own personal experience. Psychology has much to tell us about what happens to the mind of a person when they function as part of a group: emotions are heightened, judgments simplified, and the individual’s capacity to reason for themselves swiftly goes out of the window. Most enlightening are the numerous recorded cases of large groups falling victim as one to what psychologists politely term “mass hysteria”, which is really a tactfully clinical way of calling them “fucking idiots”. It’s clear that when we function as a pack we see the world in a very different way, coloured by the feelings of those around us, and find it harder to seperate our genuine feelings from the show we are performing for each other. This explains not only historic embarrassments like the Salem witch-trials and rise of Nazism, but the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight (2009), Christopher Nolan’s inferior but wildly overrated sequel to his superior but mildly underrated Batman Begins (2005). When audiences are caught up in a wave of ‘hype’, generated by marketing or happenstance and sustained by their own shared excitement, the cinema serves merely as a quiet space in which to re-run the imaginary film they have carried in with them. The images appearing on-screen are at best a colourful backdrop, and at worst an expensive distraction.
I fully admit that sometimes the distorting effects of communal viewing can make rather than break a viewing experience. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is of an evening when I and a friend each drank seven-or-so double Southern Comfort and lemonades before staggering into The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) and proceeding to laugh like morons for 106 minutes. If I’d been sitting behind us sober I probably would have hated us with a burning passion (not to mention the movie), but locked into that little universe of private, drunken pleasure I had the time of my life. Now, while I could never deny that Dukes is one of my favourite movies of all time, I can also never deny that (aside from Johnny Knoxville’s infectious laugh, some world-class car wrangling, and a bitchin’ soundtrack) it is also quite a ‘bad‘ film. The rub here is that the quality of the movie had absolutely nothing to do with my experience of it which was and shall hopefully remain totally, joyously skewed by the presence of a beloved friend and sweet liquor. However, actually judging a film for what it is rather than merely enjoying it requires very different tools and surroundings. I’m not completely satisfied unless I can repeatedly rewatch key scenes, pause it to scrutinise individual frames, scribble notes, slouch around in my underpants, and generally do all the things which a crowded multiplex makes socially unacceptable, if not actually impossible.
Recent concern over the effects of piracy on the box office have occasionally heralded a potentially apocalyptic Death of Cinema, as audiences join me in retreating to their bedrooms and defiantly removing their trousers. Certainly the desperation with which the industry is currently fighting back, on a rising tide of unnecessarily 3-D releases, does suggest a humiliating struggle for self-preservation. However, such fears are clearly unwarranted. Illegal file-sharing has raised similar concerns in the music industry but has completely failed to kill off the popularity of live performances, or their profitability for bands, for the simple reason that actually listening to music is only part of the fun. In the same way cinemas will never be out of business because, unfortunately for me, most people don’t go there just to consume films but to congregate around them, sharing in a noisy and continuous exchange of opinion and sensation. And that’s actually pretty great – if all you want to do is enjoy yourself. If you want to love a film, by all means see it at the cinema, preferably in good company and at least partially drunk. If you want to actually watch it then buy a DVD, close the blinds, strip to your underpants and, for God’s sake, shut the fuck up.