Hang on a minute, the shrewd readers among you cry, didn’t the last article on this blog argue that cinemas are but zoos, the audience animals on show, and the future of film viewing lays in DVDs and underpants (possibly in special edition combi packs)? Flickbook has two voices, and this will not be the last point my esteemed colleague and I disagree on.
Going to the cinema is something I cherish, and while I’ve had my share of horrible experiences, there’s still no better way to escape the pangs of everyday life then submerging yourself a good film in a good cinema. ‘Good cinema’ is a term which almost exclusively applies to independent/arthouse cinemas. The audiences at such cinemas are much more palatable then multiplex mobs, whose diets of overpriced hotdogs and Michael Bay blockbusters have the clogged the receptors in their brains that recognise film as an art.
Approaching a film in the correct way is of the utmost importance. My experience of Paranormal Activity (2007) at a multiplex was marred by a group of what one understands to be Chavs determined to demonstrate to each other, and the rest of the cinema, how ‘hard’ they are. One was not impressed. However, if horror films are approached as films not rollercoasters, by people willing to get scared, the feeling of a whole cinema gripped in tension can enrich the experience. I had the pleasure of viewing The Orphanage (2007) at the same multiplex with a Chav free audience (presumably they’re scared of subtitles). At one incredibly well timed, pant-wetting, moment one viewer unwittingly exclaimed ‘oh shit’, eliciting a giggle from the rest of the audience. This event allowed the audience a short respite, momentary comfort found in the comical reminder that their nerves weren’t the only ones being shredded, before returning to the edge of their seats.
While there’s also an exquisite pleasure to be gained from watching a horror film on your own at night, I’ve always asserted that the genre lends itself to communal viewing. William Castle recognised this, and famously unleashed an array of dubious novelties on his audience such as fitting seats with electric buzzers, and reserving a ‘Cowards Corner’ in the cinema for those of a nervous disposition. However, the truly unique pleasure of communal horror viewing is the phenomenon of being scared shitless whilst surrounded by people, in a completely safe environment. Detaching from reality with a likeminded audience eliciting honest reactions, most of whom you’ll never see again, is a pleasure shared in the consumption of other genres. I’m sure romantic comedy audiences have great fun laughing together, then crying together, before doing both during the affecting finale when the two contrasting protagonists realise they’ve fallen in love.
Films which elude genre definition can also be enhanced by the communal experience. Watching the films of Michael Haneke, a director who deprives his audience of comfort and complacency, in a cinema, adds insightful layers to the experience. I shared his English language version of Funny Games (2007), an uncompromising refusal to water down or glamorise his film for Hollywood, in a spacious cinema with an audience of around twenty others. The claustrophobic, uncomfortably long takes of two young men casually torturing a family were too much for the five audience members who left, leaving those remaining to question their continued spectatorship.
Here’s a truth some may find more shocking then Haneke’s oeuvre; the cinematic experience does not have to be communal. Any respectable cinemagoer will shut up, bar involuntary reactions, for the film’s duration. If you go as a crowd you can discuss the film afterwards, and alone you’ll have exactly the same viewing experience then can turn to the internet for discussion. To avoid disorderly audiences try seeing an afternoon screening. You’ll find far less seats full (sad for the film industry but a Godsend for film lovers), and nobody will be on a ‘night out’. Make yourself comfy, preferably without another living creature for radius of a few metres, and lose yourself in the images projected ahead.
Sure you can watch a DVD anytime you want, but cinematic immersion cannot be fully replicated. You’ve disconnected your doorbell, lost your mobile phone and corrected all other external distractions, but the single most deadly threat against your total immersion remains; you. DVD players offer many handy features perfect for destroying a film’s flow. There are simple ‘pause’ breaks, which range from the forgivable five minute tea run, to watching half of the film now, then squeezing in the rest before dinner on Thursday. If you’ve ever complained about commercial breaks, yet watch half a film at a time then, in my humble opinion, you shouldn’t be allowed access to feature length DVDs. Apart from rare occasions where intermissions are used for structural purposes, film is an art designed to be consumed in one sitting. If you don’t have time in your busy life to watch a whole film then buy a TV boxset, or a collection of short films.
Chapter segmentation on DVDs implies that films are designed to be viewed in sections. It seems somewhere along the path of film becoming respected as an art the assumption has been made that it should therefore be presented, and possibly consumed, as other popular forms of narrative art are. Films are very different from novels. Few novels can be read in one sitting and are therefore not intended to be, allowing the author to include detail as limitless as their imagination, and the reader flexibility in consumption. The reader will interpret the books world, mentally crafting visuals and dialects, taking as much time as they wish to ponder the text. In a film the director has complete control over what we see and hear, the pacing and order of scenes carefully constructed to elicit certain responses. We must therefore surrender our senses to the director, allowing him/her to become our dictator. The temptation of the rewind button must be avoided. If you missed some dialogue or a plot point then you either weren’t watching the film properly (shame on you), the filmmakers have failed at communicating their vision (shame on them), or the film is meant to be ambiguous at this point. In all of these scenarios the solution is to keep watching the film at its intended momentum. If the film’s decent the disparate elements will weave together like magic carpet whisking you away.
But allowing the director to act as dictator doesn’t necessitate getting suckered by their propaganda. Like any art viewing a film isn’t just about absorption, but is a process of adding your own experiences and views to those expressed. This could lead to a profound 90 minutes of self discovery, or a torturous endeavour where all you hold dearest is mindlessly crushed. Ultimately, by shutting off the outside world, removing all temptations to rupture the narrative and possibly sharing the experience with some likeminded others, you are respecting the filmmakers’ intentions while inviting the strongest possible connection between you and the film to form. Once you’ve watched the film as it was intended, feel free to segment it for your enjoyment, revisit specific scenes to figure out how it went so drastically wrong, or even re-edit the material to correct flaws or pay homage.
You may have noticed, what with flat screen TVs almost outnumbering humans, that there have recently been great advances in home cinema systems. While I’m very fond of my high definition TV and Blu Ray player, there’s an unavoidable issue where people end up lusting over technology instead of watching films. It’s hard to engage in an analytical discussion after watching a Blu Ray without getting sidetracked on issues such as just how defined the cracks in the Joker’s make up were. But even with 3D bursting into your living room, and shrinking delays between cinema and DVD release dates, I don’t think we’re approaching the death of cinema, rather the death of the multiplex. Once the novelty has made its way to the lounge the mobs can have ‘nights in’, discussing/engaging in their sex lives as multi-dimensional robots brawl on their rug. The arthouse audiences, who will happily attend a cinema’s retrospective of a director whose oeuvre they already own on VHS, DVD and are anticipating the Blu Ray release, will continue to seek the cinematic experience. I will smugly sink into a cosy seat at my local arthouse, eagerly anticipating being swept away, and emerge a few hours later moaning about sheer amount of shit littering cinema screens.