Until the advent of luxury cinemas, I never realised that the moviegoing experience could accommodate quite so much pretentiousness. Having avoided such venues since an unhappy visit to the then-new, swanky-model Screen on the Green a few years ago (from punk to plush in just over three decades—that’s progress), I hadn’t allowed them to impinge on my life. But finding myself at a multi-screen London cinema a few weeks back, having set out to see This Must Be the Place without realising that it was showing in the venue’s sole razzle-dazzle auditorium rather than in one of the sticky-floored, rat-infested ones, I swallowed my pride, coughed up the premium ticket price and stole shame-facedly into the darkness.
The bar at the back of the auditorium glowed faintly, and the usher-turned-temporary-barkeep bade me a good evening. That was, for me, the first entertainment-killer. I don’t like being pampered: all it does is induce waves of guilt in me. I don’t like it in hotels, on planes, and certainly not in cinemas. It gets in the way. But that’s my problem. The real issue with the usher-turned-temporary-barkeep is that he had to stay on duty, sitting at the end of my row, throughout the screening, just in case I required an emergency mimosa with accompanying salted pretzels.
At one point, his walkie-talkie buzzed into life and he had to dash off, no doubt to mop up something unspeakable spilt by a low-ticket-price-paying ruffian in Screen 3. At all other times, there were three people in the cinema, and he was one of them. Consequently, I kept fretting about him. Was he enjoying the film? Was he wishing, as I was, that he was watching The Hunger Games instead? Did he find anyone in This Must Be the Place for whom he could muster the tiniest scrap of interest or empathy? Or did he, like me, find the whole movie insufferably winsome, painfully zany and without discernible purpose or direction? Sat there in my triple-cushioned, sofa-size seat, I almost wanted to order something from the bar menu just to give him a reason to divert his attention from the screen. But I couldn’t. You see, olives and focaccia and balsamic vinegar in cinema don’t go.
Cinema is all about what’s on the screen. Start introducing distractions, augmentations and embellishments, be they in-chair dining or mid-film full-body massages, and the emphasis is tipped away from what’s on screen to what’s happening in front of it; that way lies the indignity of the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, or dinner theatre. I’m not talking about the Secret Cinema screenings, which turn a film into an event in a way which honours what’s on screen. I mean the capitalist credo at the heart of luxury cinema. Buried beneath all the PR blather and the pampering is the realisation that while they’ve got you in that cinema seat, the cinema owners may as well play on your prejudices and milk your wallet.
It’s a little like the “Priority Boarding” idea hatched by the budget airlines: make conditions as grotty as possible for ordinary passengers and they won’t mind paying a surcharge on each leg of the journey in order to be treated like something approaching a human being. (Hilariously, this has backfired on the Priority Boarders: everyone clicks the “Priority Boarding” button when they’re booking, so the airlines will soon have to introduce a “Super-Duper-Priority Boarding” category to stoke our all-important feelings of smugness.) Luxury cinema represents the exhibitors mocking us for all the crap we’ve put up with in their establishments over the decades.
To use another analogy from air travel, luxury cinema is doing well because its patrons know from experience that a rum deal lies in wait for them at common-or-garden cinemas. Just as it’s considered hard to go back to economy class once you’ve flown in any other section, cinemas are banking on hooking customers for the long haul after the merest taste of luxury. Although to fully exploit the feelings of superiority that bring the airlines so much money, cinemas need to find a way to make the luxury cinemagoer’s pleasure visible to the cheapskates in the other screens, just as the major airlines’ pamper packages (which go by names such as World Traveller Plus and Prole-Hater Deluxe) force the plain old economy dwellers to trudge past the pseudo-exclusive seating area, marvelling at the extra few centimetres of legroom, the mealtime napkins in Egyptian cotton and the complimentary copies of What Snob? magazine.
But, to continue the analogy to breaking point, if the plane goes down, you haven’t really bought yourself access to a better class of fireball. And no matter how many courses are available to the cinemagoer, nothing can disguise the fact that you have chosen, in your foolishness, to spend the evening watching, say, Battleship. Or This Must Be the Place. Luxury cinema makes the choice of the movie even more precarious. My Screen on the Green experience a few years ago at least hinged on a film which suited the plushness—Tom Ford’s A Single Man—to the point where half the audience seemed to have come dressed as characters from the movie. There needs to be as small a disparity as possible between the images on screen and the comfily upholstered, truffle-oil-drizzled reality of the auditorium. To watch Shoeshine or the Dekalog or Tyrannosaur in that setting, while a tiptoeing waiter serves you halibut, would be to open up an irreparable chasm between art and life.
I don’t think any of this has occurred to the architects of luxury cinema. And even multiplex cinemas are getting in on the boutique business, ploughing money into fancy-pants auditoria that are off-putting to the riff-raff. Those funds might be better spent improving the piss-poor facilities that most of us have to endure if we want to see films without trekking several hours beyond our postcodes. Pay an extra member of staff to stand sentry in one of the lowly non-exclusive, non-bruschetta-serving screens, the better to root out anyone disrupting the movie, or to curtail the mid-movie mobile phone conversations that still persist, and fewer potential audience members would be giving multiplexes a wide berth.
But that won’t happen because the cinemas, chains or otherwise, have got a whiff of the money that’s theirs for the taking. The films themselves are incidental. This sector is selling the snacks, the meals, the beverages; the reclining, gadget-festooned, Bond villain-esque armchairs; the thick carpets in which you could lose a relative. Should cinemagoing really be so laboured-over, so sculpted? One of the great things about it is its immediacy and casualness. Max Cherry, the bail bondsman played by Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, puts it best when asked what he’s going to see at the local multiplex: “Something that starts soon and looks good.”