Is it ever right to clap in the cinema? Yes, sometimes it is

It used to seem pointless and self-congratulatory - but in the right circumstances, applause can signify solidarity, celebration and joy.

I was fortunate enough to be in Los Angeles recently when the marvellous Beverly Cinema marked the recent death of Karen Black with a screening of a 35mm print of Robert Altman’s Nashville. This is many people’s favourite film among Altman’s work. It’s the point at which he found a storytelling canvas (the screenplay is by Joan Tewkesbury) every bit as multi-layered, ambitious and sophisticated as the techniques he had been pioneering up to that point. You’ll know the sort of thing: multiple actors yapping and improvising away, their overlapping lines picked up by radio-mike technology, while the cameras zoom in and out surreptitiously on actors who could never be entirely sure when, or even if, they were in shot. Personally, I always cite McCabe and Mrs Miller, the woozy western he made four years earlier, as not only my favourite Altman but my most cherished film of all time. Nashville, though, is indisputably a towering piece of work equal to his other greats—The Long GoodbyeThieves Like UsKansas City and Gosford Park.

Robert Altman is also the name I come up with whenever I’m asked who my favourite director is. So it was quite something to sit in the half-full New Beverly last week and hear the audience applauding his on-screen credit at the start of the film. Greeting the names on screen with applause is not something typically seen or heard in a UK cinema, apart from during the end credits at, say, a festival screening where the filmmakers themselves are in attendance. A few of the cast members (including the late Black) received that treatment at the New Beverly, but it was the response to Altman that I found most heartening, possibly because I have worried in the years since his final movie, A Prairie Home Companion, that his work and reputation are slipping from view.

Applause in a cinema is a curious thing anyway. In a theatre it makes perfect sense: the objects of our acclaim are right there to receive it. But living or dead, no one involved in a movie will know they are being applauded if they’re not in the building. In a fundamental way, this is consistent with cinema itself, which is nothing more complicated than the play of light on the wall and sound in our ears, synchronised artificially to create the illusion of life. To adapt the old philosophical saw: if a cinema audience applauds, and none of the cast and crew is around to hear it, what’s the bloody point?

My first memory of applause breaking out in a cinema was during a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981: I was ten years old, and I recall feeling both perplexed (why was everyone clapping?) but also invigorated, since the response was one of unadulterated and appreciative glee. (Indiana Jones had just dispatched the fancy-pants swordsman with one lethargic gun-shot: the applause was in recognition of a joke so good that laughter alone would not suffice.) I don’t recall hearing it again much in subsequent years; sometimes I even feel embarrassed when a smattering of applause breaks out at some splashy West End preview screening where the audience seems to be clapping themselves for having seen the film first. An exception was the 2003 London Film Festival screening of Dogville, where the crowd’s cheers and catcalls and clapping during the final violent stretch of that movie reflected favourably on the complex levels of provocation which Lars von Trier had packed into his minimalist satirical thriller.

In the case of the response to Altman’s name, it seemed a simple act of celebration and remembrance. Under the right circumstances applause in the cinema engenders a kind of solidarity among the audience members; we (yes, I joined in) were proclaiming that Altman’s worth and significance endures. I suppose a cynic might read something self-congratulatory into the reaction, as though we were applauding ourselves for our excellent taste. I don’t see it that way. It was dignified and respectful. Not to mention unique to cinema. I love on-demand viewing as much as the next binge-watcher but the only noise typically heard at the end of a movie seen at home is the resigned phut of the laptop snapping shut.

The sound of many hands clapping. 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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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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