I’ve missed going to the cinema. A lot. In early 2020 it was unusual for a week to pass without my seeing five or six showings – sometimes at an Odeon (limitless subscription), sometimes at The Prince Charles (my spiritual home in London), sometimes at an occasional freebie screening courtesy of a friend who works in film programming. And then, on the 20th of March, all cinemas across England were ordered to close their doors. It was a gut-wrenching suckerpunch. Of course, more severe developments were to come, like the unprecedentedly draconian stay-at-home orders, but the forced closure of cinemas hit me hard. In the days leading up to the announcement, all major cinema chains already closed, all blockbusters postponed, I still clung to the dream that my beloved Prince Charles would keep going. Surely they would. But it was only a dream. A few days earlier, on my second trip to The Lighthouse (extraordinary and terrifying, mainly for the insight it gives into what it might be like to be trapped on a tiny island with Willem Dafoe), unable to stem the quiver of nerves in my voice, I asked the always-lovely staff, “you’re not planning to close, are you?” They reassured me that they had no plans to, but of course had to listen to daily government advice, which was continuously changing. But I could feel it in the air and in my heart. The rumblings were there, Boris was going to make an announcement. It was only a matter of time. I cycled to Leicester Square for the last time to watch The Godfather. Somehow it was a fitting last drink before the drought. There were only a handful of people in the audience. Cycling home, I was simultaneously elated and depressed. It was going to be a tough spring.
I am obsessed with cinema-going as opposed to watching films on the telly. It took me a long time to work out why, but a move to Japan (and the lack, therefore, of an all-you-can-see monthly pass) prompted me to examine what it was about actually going to the cinema that I loved so much. After all, I could have saved a few hard-earned Yen by frequenting the Toho multiplexes less often. But once settled in the cosy darkness – often alone, yet together with the crowd – I know what the next 100 or so minutes of my life is going to consist of. It’s a lock-in, a plan, and my attention will be focused on the film, I’m committed. If I put on a film on Netflix, or even chuck in a DVD or VHS (yes, I do that sometimes), there’s always the possibility that something else will come along and I’ll pause the film to finish later. I try not to do this, but the possibility is there. In the cinema, it isn’t. The only film I can ever remember leaving is Ip Man 4 and that wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying it, it was because I had a friend arriving at Victoria coach station and I mis-managed the timing. Also, all-day film marathons at a Cineworld in Ashford, perhaps after a particularly beer-filled Friday night, (a different) friend and I would occasionally program films to sleep through (our second viewing of Quantum of Solace comes to mind). But generally speaking, if I start watching a film at the cinema, 99.9% of the time, I’ll finish it. I’ll take in the whole experience. Then there is the atmosphere, the sound quality, the immersive darkness, and the big screen. I even like the smell of popcorn (but not the extortionate price). To quote Christopher Moltisanti, “I get high off that shit”. TVs are also great, and of course a cosy marathon with home comforts has its own allure, but for me the gold standard method for imbibing movies must be at the movies. My brain operates differently at the movies, my antennae tune in more acutely, my frequencies more prone to absorption, more likely to glean that coveted ephemeral magic of cinema. And there’s always the chance you might get chatting about the film with other patrons or staff. I’ll do another piece on my favourite cinemas around the world at some point, there are some wonderful cinemas where this is always a possibility. So I suppose the last point is a feeling of community that can come along in a cinema, and this can happen in multiplexes as well as repertory cinemas or arthouses.
So the big cinema closure of 2020 was a great sadness, not just because I was temporarily unable to go, but because I feared (and still fear) for the very survival of the small cinema as a viable business model.
Today there is a lightness in my heart, and it has something to do with the beautiful string of oldies The Genesis cinema has been showing. And people turned up, hungry for the big screen, delighted to be back. The Prince Charles isn’t open yet, but I feel confident it will survive. I am less sure about other small cinemas, but I was delighted to see a full house at The Genesis for Back to the Future and The Goonies. What’s more, they’re only charging a fiver without concession, not at all bad for London. Something they (along with other cinemas) need to do now is make sure their websites don’t still say “closed until further notice” in the search result descriptions! Surely this is not good for business… Last night I watched Black Water: Abyss – a (gasp!) newly released film. It was terrible. I like the crocodile sub-genre of the monster movie, but this was not a good entry. Dull characters and dialogue, and duller scares. Just good enough to miss the so-bad-it’s-good category, though it raised the odd chuckle. Still, my spirits soared as the credits rolled. I was back.
I had been increasingly worried about an austere and unappealing “new normal” of moviegoing – separation, the stench of disinfectant, mandatory masks. My fears were allayed, and it was pleasantly traditional (apart from a temperature check, which I’m willing to put up with, although those infrared sensors are apparently wildly inaccurate and therefore basically useless.)
I am completely sympathetic to anyone suffering from any malady, but at the same time I fear that when data is properly analysed, and the efficacy of the measures taken soberly scrutinised, it will turn out that the world went mad and we’re in danger of losing some pretty important stuff, including independent cinemas. I also worry about anyone suffering from any illness that is not “the illness” we have been told we must all worship and fear on a daily basis – the UK alone estimates over 30,000 cancer patients will die due to delayed treatment. I hope not. My experience this week was uplifting. If you want to see smaller cinemas survive, I urge you to go out and support your local cinema.
Considering the current climate, I feel compelled to make two things clear. Firstly, this has been a difficult time for everyone, and I don’t want to leave the impression that I am callously indifferent to the plight of the victims of the illness which led to such drastic change in our society. I see the blunt instrument of lockdowns as a misguided and catastrophic mistake which will cause far more harm than good. I could be wrong, this is simply my opinion. Here are two regularly-updated resources for anyone interested in an alternative perspective on the seemingly widely-supported lockdown measures: swprs.org/a-swiss-doctor-on-covid-19, lockdownsceptics.org.
The Prince Charles Cinema is just off Leicester Square, London, and I look forward to its reopening.
The Genesis is on Mile End Road, London, and is open.
I’ll leave you with a list of films which came to mind during the lockdown. They Live, Network, Paris Belongs to Us, The Matrix. All essential.