A Walk Down Memory Lane: My Cinematic Misadventures
By Thomas Giblin (he/him)
Culture and Lifestyle Writer
There's an innate value attached to the shared screen experience, which isn't talked about enough. There’s something special about watching a film as a part of an audience, rather than at home. Cinema chains can wax lyrical about how "extra-comfy recliners are just the beginning" and why you should gorge on their overpriced food and drink combos, but the magic of cinema is its shared experiences. Cinema is a piece of entertainment and escapism. But more importantly, it’s a thought-provoking communal experience that will stay with you, transforming into a cherished memory. Unlike the monotony of content streamed straight to your viewing device, this communal experience highlights the beautiful, often hilarious impermanence of in-person human connection.
Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ have homogenised the shared screen experience. A dimly lit lounge or the comforting swaddle of a stained duvet has replaced fading fluorescent lights and the familiar scent of salted popcorn. You can now freely choose what to watch, when and where, all for $15.99 a month, but everything blurs into one. Films like Red Notice, The Midnight Sky, Triple Frontier and The Gray Man are uninspired and trite - produced to attract subscribers. The communal experience, exacerbated by Covid-19, has shifted online to Twitter replies, Reddit comment sections and Instagram DMs. In becoming the predominant way people experience cinema, the magic of hushed voices, overpriced snacks, and hyperbolic trailers is slowly fading. There's plenty to love about these streaming services, but let us remember those cherished memories at the cinema.
In paying homage to sitting side-by-side with strangers bathing in the flicker of a taut thriller or ravishing romance, I've curated some musings from my favourite cinematic communal experiences. From the Cannes Film Festival to Academy Cinemas I've witnessed it all. I've even seen a man devouring a roast chicken while waiting for a Marvel flick to begin.
Lee Chang-dong is one of Korea's most revered directors. His 2018 psychological thriller Burning was considered the best Korean film of all time until Parasite appeared a year later. The film is a slow-burning character study of Lee Jong-su, who's asked to look after a cat for Shin Hae-mi, a girl he used to know. It’s an intriguing but exhaustive mystery for some. With a run-time of two and a half hours, its deliberate glacial pace was too much for the elderly woman next to me, as her head first rocked onto my shoulder an hour into the film. As Lee closes a door, a sound which echoes over tacky gold-adorned statues and into the barren Civic theatre, the sleeping beauty beside me is jolted awake. They apologise profusely, but as the mystery deepened with the arrival of the handsome and well-off Ben, the film’s sensuous twists and turns do nothing to keep the dozing woman next to me cognisant.
This time, as her head nestles once again onto my shoulder, she begins snoring. It fuses with the soundtrack of heady jazz, causing those seated around us to stare. I'm guilty by association - this woman is as much a stranger to me as I am to healthy sleeping habits and choosing not to vape on a night out. My hands gently push her away, but her lifeless body rocks back into mine. Strangers gesture at me to awaken her, and my panic multiplies as the decibels of her snoring increase. I desperately mouth to those around us, "I don't know her", before violently shaking her awake as the film becomes increasingly fraught in its final minutes. Before long, the credits roll, and she turns to me in a daze mustering the most self-serious look she could aspire to, "Well, that was boring."
Andy Serkis as Caesar
This story reveals a spoiler from 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes -if you haven't seen the film by now, huh? The film was re-released in anticipation of War for the Planet of the Apes, a franchise of summer blockbusters far better than expected. In the third act of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dodge, the abusive animal control guard, wields his taser over Ceaser. He wants the ape back in his cage, but Caesar has had enough. "No", he shouts, the gorillas can speak. A girl at the front of the theatre shrieks before exclaiming, "What!" The cinema chuckles together, marking an early communal cinematic memory of mine.
Please Leave the Package by the Front Door
I'll never miss a film from Ken Loach,the British director famed for his attention to working-class social issues such as poverty, homelessness and labour rights. Sorry We Missed You (2019) focuses on Ricky and his family, who are struggling to survive in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash. Ricky seeks out a job as delivery driver, and he hopes to regain some financial independence, but the pressures of the job are overwhelming. À la Amazon, he urinates in bottles, isn't given breaks and is fined if he is late to deliveries.
The crux of the film sees Ricky in hospital after being robbed and viciously beaten whilst making deliveries. Maloney, his rage-inducing boss, furiously phones to explain that he's facing fines of over £1,000 as a barcode scanner was stolen during the assault. Ricky's wife Abbie takes the phone, castigating Maloney for his treatment of her husband.
A packed Civic breaks out into applause,it's an inspiring moment of worker solidarity, but I can't help but sense a feeling of deceit. There's an air of hypocrisy among this overwhelmingly white, elderly and affluent audience. They're happy to engage with these socialist values in art, but they don't practise them, as they'll continue to vote National or Labour “For the sake of the economy." Does art actually have the power to change the world, or do they instead make people feel better about their lives?
The Sounds of Thunder
Thunder Road, the breakout debut feature by Jim Cummings, is not a sexually-charged film. Instead, it is a darkly funny story of a grieving cop whose life is falling apart. The film opens with Officer Jim Arnaud delivering a hilariously awkward eulogy for his late mother, set to Bruce Springsteen's song ‘Thunder Road’. Not long into this monologue, a couple stumbles giddily into the cinema. I hear their wine glasses clink and their hushed giggles. I'm seated in the middle row, but it's a small cinema,and unfortunately, every seat is close enough to hear the perversions of the back row. It only takes a few minutes before the untoward sounds, commonly associated with hormonal teenagers, reverberate alongside Arnaud's Texan twang. My mouth is aghast; this isn't how I planned on experiencing the indie darling of 2018.
The cinema is the perfect place to eavesdrop. People are somehow oblivious to your presence as they chronicle stories from their personal lives. Often, those eager to impress their dates will flaunt their filmic knowledge while waiting for the light to dim. I arrived early and found myself seated behind a group of elderly friends. The film? The Truth, Hirokazu Kore-eda's first non-Japanese-language film. Shoplifters, his previous effort won the Palme d'Or. Despite these two facts, the group of friends rattled off mistruth after mistruth about The Truth and Catherine Deneuve's oeuvre until the film began.
"The French know how to make a film," one says to the other as the credits roll. Moments later, "Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda" appears on the screen; "That's odd", they utter. There's little harm in this cultural gaffe, but its humour brought a wry smile to my face, unlike Netflix shoving their latest original down my throat.
The Noé Effect
Cinema's enfant terrible Gaspar Noé, delights and thrills with each cinematic endeavour. From I Stand Alone to Vortex, all his films are notoriously provocative, with his hugely divisive 2002 feature Irréversible, which was labelled by film critic Roger Ebert as "a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable". Climax, his fifth film, follows a dance troupe rehearsing in an abandoned school. The rehearsals are a success, and a party begins. Unknowingly the sangria has been spiked with LSD, sending the celebrations spiralling into a psychotic frenzy.
The Civic’s immense scale, combined with the visceral intensity of Climax, left viewers tearing at their friends for comfort. People shielded their eyes with shaking hands; some even left. Films by directors like Noé thrive on the energy of the audience together in a dark room. Laughs and screams are best heard when you're not alone.