Right before it became a ridiculous thing to do, I sat in a darkened room with tens of strangers and sobbed, mouth agape, at Pixar’s latest offering, Onward. It seems impossible, now, that ten days before Boris Johnson put the nation into lockdown, I enjoyed a casual trip to the cinema. I remember my boyfriend was nervous because the cashier coughed into her hand before giving him our tickets – I dismissed him as paranoid with a chuckle and a big slurp of my Tango Ice Blast (self-served from a machine that touched hundreds of cups touched by hundreds of hands and mouths).
There are so many little things that so many of us miss about life before lockdown: libraries, swimming pools, coffee made by other people, pints, hugs, a dinner out. The innovative among us have found ways to replicate these experiences at home: drinks over Zoom, expensive coffee machines shipped in three to five working days, living rooms turned into restaurants. One thing I can’t seem to replicate – and one thing I desperately miss – is the experience of going to the cinema.
Of course, people have tried. On a heart-warming Facebook group populated by Brits who love a bargain, mums and dads across the country are dimming the lights, organising sofas and chairs into rows, and setting up concession stands to replicate the cinema-going experience. Some parents print out posters of the movie they’re showing and craft little paper tickets for their kids, while simultaneously cooking hotdogs to be served alongside popcorn scooped into red- and white-striped paper buckets. These are all things I love about going to the movies, and undeniably things I’d attempt if I had children of my own, but the cinema is more than posters, tickets, snacks and squishy pews.
The cinema is something that makes me feel alive. I couldn’t tell you exactly why. The big screen and the surround sound play their part, as does the total escape of tucking my phone away in a backpack on the floor. Now that I think about it, the cinema is probably the place where my phone is farthest from my body, and it’s true that when I watch movies at home, a casual scroll is the thing that most often rips me from a fully immersive experience. But the cinema is more than that, too.
The cinema, by all logic, should be a highly distracting place. Since we were teens, my brother and I have documented a phenomenon we call “Cinema Kid Laugh” – that high-pitched gleeful giggle emitted by children when, I don’t know, a cartoon character’s head gets stuck in a tuba. Often, the cinema is too cold; you have to shift in your seat to let someone go to pee; just when you’ve snuggled comfortably into seat G4 to watch the adverts, a man with a large head plonks himself down into F4. My favourite part of going to the cinema is when all these uncomfortable distractions melt away, when things you’re highly aware of become things you aren’t aware of at all. That’s how I mark a good movie: when I forget that actors are acting; when I forget that F4 munches his popcorn at an alarming volume.
Part of the appeal, too, is that I have to shut up. At home, my boyfriend laments that I can’t watch anything rated above 96 per cent on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes without assuming that I am cleverer than the collective critical world – I shout out tropes, make predictions and laugh smugly when I’m right, rolling my eyes. In the cinema, we store up the silence in our bodies until we’re ready to burst – there’s not much I enjoy more than anticipating opening a portholed door and, once out of earshot from others, tentatively asking my fellow cinema-goer, “What did you think?”
Then there’s the bus ride home, filled with, “Oh! But do you remember that bit?” and, “Didn’t you think it was weird when…?” and, “No, no, they wanted you to think that, but remember earlier when it showed she was an unreliable narrator?”
As a freelancer, I’ve found myself going to the cinema alone in my spare hours, but it’s never quite the same (not least because it’s awkward to be the only person not dressed as – or accompanying someone dressed as – Elsa at a 4pm screening of Frozen 2). No, the joy of the cinema is how it is simultaneously an individual and collective experience: you watch with others but keep your thoughts to yourself until the end; you cry openly but try to stifle the sound of your sniffles; you marvel when people laugh at unfunny jokes. Some of my favourite cinema-going memories are of times my boyfriend and I laughed uproariously at something no one else found funny, attempted to control ourselves, and found ourselves still letting out suppressed chuckles ten minutes later. (Honourable mention here goes to Sally Phillips’ delivery of, “Don’t say fucking ‘erection’ at a christening” in Bridget Jones’s Baby.)
Cineworld, Vue and Odeon currently plan to reopen all of their cinemas in July – provided the government restrictions are lifted by then. It’s entirely possible we will be allowed to go to the cinema in a month, but as someone who has little faith in our government’s response to this pandemic, I don’t think I’ll be returning in a hurry. This is a shame, because the cinema is also home to some genuinely formative memories: a First Proper Date to sneak into Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny while underage; a later date with a different boy who tried to talk throughout Evan Almighty, an act that scandalised me more than the popcorn prices.
I am not sure I can really explain how sitting in the cinema is so different from watching a movie streamed from the sofa. The joy of the cinema is something in the air – and the air is dangerous now.
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe