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Gilbey on Film: Foyer-voyeurs

Cinemas are turning their cameras on the audience.

I visited a multiplex last week. There was a small screen mounted in the foyer wall, next to the ice-cream counter. My daughter and I went over to the screen. We noticed it was showing black-and-white CCTV pictures from inside several of the fifteen or so auditoria. We exchanged a conspiratorial glance, sipped the sodas we had just bought, and watched. I thought of Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr Ripley, spying on Matt Damon spying on Jude Law, and asking him: "How's the peeping, Tom?"

Screen 1 was shown to be so spacious that it required two separate camera angles, one from the left side of the auditorium, the other from the right. It was packed with bodies, all of them dazed and compliant, the faces gawping at a screen that was just out of shot. It reminded me of the footage found in documentaries about sleep disorders, night terrors and so on. Time-lapse photography comes into play in those cases, so that a typical amount of nocturnal movement can resemble a severe epileptic fit. There was something comparably eerie about the in-auditorium film. The general stillness of the audience ensured that the slightest twitch or fidget registered as a jarring disruption. We saw a couple nestle closer to one another under their coats in a "love-seat", that double seating space achievable by raising the armrest. A woman steered a floppy-armed child along a row of knees, each of which bobbed or swerved in turn to allow the sleepwalking escapees to pass. They plodded down the steps, toward the camera, and were gone. Then the angle switched, so we could see them vanishing into the dark corridor toward the Exit sign.

Four or five more screens got the peeping treatment. One was completely empty -- was it between showings, or just a bad movie? In another auditorium, the audience members were scattered across the seats like rag dolls dropped from above: lone viewers in the upper rows, the odd couple here and there, a trio of bored-looking boys in baseball caps slouching down the front. Their eyes showed up as bright, pupil-less spots of white light. They were zombiefied. We can't have looked much healthier, stood there watching a film of other people watching a film, slurping our drinks as the figures on screen did the same. At least they had paid for their pleasure, and were enjoying themselves unselfconsciously. We were not so pure. We were the foyer-voyeurs.

In my childhood, cinemas still showed short films before the main feature -- I saw everything from Balham: Gateway to the South (a spin-off from the Peter Sellers sketch) to a documentary on the medicinal properties of snake venom, which played before Conan the Barbarian. The screen serving live images from the auditoria served the same purpose, I felt, as a pre-movie short. This was an appetite-whetter. As we were going in shortly to see The Artist (my third time; my daughter's second), which features many images of cinema audiences crammed together in the stalls, it seemed an especially apt and vivid taster. Perhaps in an hour's time, another father and daughter would be standing in the foyer watching us watching a movie which invites its audience to watch a cinema audience watching a movie.

Sadly I don't think there were any cameras in screen 15, where The Artist was playing. Perhaps, with the advent of CCTV transmission in cinema foyers, audiences are auditioned just as any other performers would be; maybe it was felt by the management that cinemagoers who see The Artistsimply don't provide the same entertainment value, the necessary voyeuristic thrill, as those glued to The Grey or Man on a Ledge or The Muppets.

I don't know how many of the people caught on CCTV knew that the cinema was in the business of turning its audience into entertainment. There is all sorts of capacity for trouble here (the person who sees their partner snuggling up to an unidentified neighbour in Screen 4 when they had sworn blind they were going to the office today) as well as for increased safety (the eagle-eyed foyer-dweller who spots something afoot in the image, à la Blow-Up or Snake Eyes). It is all very complicated and unsettling and even naughty, and consistent therefore with the sort of experiences you would expect to have in a cinema.