Last week I walked out of a film - am I a bad person?

Is it ever right to leave a film early? After all, going to the cinema is about so much more than what’s on the screen.

Last week, I walked out of a film. Maybe you do this all the time and think nothing of it but it’s unusual for me. There were several mitigating factors. Most importantly, I knew I wouldn’t be reviewing the film; it would be unfair of me as a critic, after all, to even mention the movie’s title given that I bailed after the first hour. (The basic requirement in the profession is to stay in your seat for the duration, and to stay awake. Not all have cleared that hurdle.) So I was there in a non-professional capacity. And when it became clear to me that my young companion was as bored as I was, I suggested that we skedaddle.

If I’m honest, I didn’t feel too great about it. I love cinema but I also adore the cinema: the physical space, its quirks and flaws and guilty secrets, the proximity to others (or not) and how the dynamic in the room changes according to how many people happen to be sharing the experience. Going to the cinema is about much more than what’s on the screen. All but the most unfortunate interference can become tied up with, or in some cases even enhance, our recollections of the movies themselves.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare will forever be associated for me with being the only audience member at an early evening multiplex screening of that film, which was then interrupted by a man running through the auditorium, pursued a few seconds later by two police officers. Early Cronenberg always take me back to a double-bill of Shivers and Rabid in a subterranean Oxford Street cinema, which was all the more unsettling because I felt a sharp and persistent jabbing in the back of my seat and became convinced that the person behind was trying to inject me with heroin. (Forgive me. I grew up in an unexceptional village. We wanted for excitement.) More recently, a child in the audience at the Pixar film Up responded revealingly to the order of shots at the start of the movie, which shows a man mourning his wife’s death then reaching over in bed to silence his alarm clock. “It was only a dream!” the boy chirruped merrily. I spy a future film editor.

All of which is to say that it takes a lot for me to leave a movie, just as it is virtually impossible for me to enter once it has started. (For many years I loved the rumour that the director Nicolas Roeg would sometimes leave a movie halfway through, the better to devise his own conclusion to the story. Unfortunately, he later told me that this was complete poppycock.)

In his insightful book Watching, Tom Sutcliffe pinpoints the anxiety over making it to the cinema in time: we fear, he says rightly, that “pleasure will leave without us.” Perhaps my ambivalence over leaving before the end of a film, even one that bores or insults me, arises from the same principle: that I have, to extend Sutcliffe’s transport metaphor, disembarked before reaching my destination. Those who make a premature exit also release themselves from membership of the audience, and going it alone can often be an alienating experience. Who knows what treasures and rewards awaited those who stayed the course? The film in question certainly has its cheerleaders. But from now I will associate it not with anything the director intended so much as the poignancy of trudging up the aisle while the soundtrack faded behind me and the screen shrunk to the size of a postage stamp.

For lovers of cinemas, as well as film, there's a fear that leaving the room sends a poor message. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era