A critical look at cinema

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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.

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

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.