A socially distant cinema? Finally we can watch a film in peace

Decent folk have been complaining about bad behaviour in cinemas for many years

Let us not bother with the notion that the rearrangements will ruin the experience

Let us not bother with the notion that the rearrangements will ruin the experience

 

There are people who reach middle age without ever having been to the cinema on their own. I’ve met them. I wouldn’t have them put in camps. But these are not people I could easily love.

Such thoughts are prompted by the imminent reopening of Irish cinemas. Government regulations state that such venues can trade only if social distancing measures are implemented. Capacity will be greatly reduced as audience members are scattered sparsely across echoing auditoriums. Foyers will be similarly thinned out. This offers enormous challenges for exhibitors. Already gasping after the lockdown, they will struggle to turn a profit with so many of their seats allocated to empty space. All sympathy to them.

Let us not, however, bother with the notion that the rearrangements will ruin the experience. A cinema is always the best place to see a film. No vulgar assembly of flatscreens and home speakers can replicate the theatrical ambience of that large dark room with its house-wide wall of image. But the much-celebrated fancy of cinema as a “communal experience” is - like hovercrafts and family holidays - more successful in the ideal than the actual.

Let’s put it another way. People behave like pigs in the cinema, and the farther you can get from them the better. Forget social distancing. They should be ushered towards a sty equipped with a trough of overpriced swill - corn kernels suspended in sugared water - into which they can stuff snouts while the film plays largely ignored on an overhead screen. (This does not apply to you and me, obviously. Hell is forever other people.)

Don’t mourn too much for a lost age. Decent folk have been complaining about bad behaviour in cinemas since those early adoptees didn’t actually run screaming from the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. When this writer was a young child, filmgoers would habitually tramp into continuous screenings halfway through, chat during what remained and then watch the opening section until the point of their arrival.

Things have definitely got worse. The food became more elaborate in the 1980s and 1990s. Before then popcorn in lampshade-sized containers was largely an American phenomenon. Behaviour deteriorated further with the arrival of the smartphone. Suggest that a nearby viewer cease texting during the film and you will receive the same scowl you’d get if you demanded they delayed breathing for 90 minutes. The auditorium is now habitually awash with the glow from a hundred tiny oblongs.

The distance will be enough to inhibit infection. It may also be enough to dull the sounds of swilling, munching and inane commentary

The professional film critic does have a somewhat happier time. You can count on audiences at press screenings and festivals to show a modicum of decorum. If anarchy breaks out at such events, the mob will usually incline towards benevolent vigilantism. Some years back an unfamiliar attendee at a press show answered his phone and, unmoved by shushing, yabbered for five minutes as if sitting in his own living room.

Confronted by virtual pitchforks at the close, he pathetically whined that he didn’t know taking calls was prohibited. “Did he know you weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom in the corner of the cinema?” an editor later quipped (though not in those exact words).

All this springs from an ancient, not altogether unreasonable belief that cinemagoing is primarily a social experience. It belongs with snooker, dancing and dinner parties. Only an eccentric would, the argument maintains, visit a cinema for the sole purpose of seeing a film. In the US it is common for audiences to hoot along in delight and horror as if attending medieval bear-baiting. We are all in this together.

Hence the baffled conversations I have had with those people who wouldn’t consider going to the movies without a companion. They have long watched telly on their own. They would read a book in seclusion (if they’re able). But it feels weird to buy just one ticket for the latest Marvel conflagration or Fast & Furious pile-up. There is a feeling that someone - Other cinemagoers? The ticketing staff? The man filling the trough? - will think you a loser for turning up without a date.

There are many advantages to seeing a film without somebody else in tow. No negotiations need take place about what you’re going to see. Nobody need feel guilty if the film turns out to be a dud. One need not worry that an unfamiliar companion will turn out to be a talker and require subsequent banishment to the furthest circle of Hell.

Obviously, cinema needs business to survive. The sooner the seats get filled the better for exhibitors, distributors and producers. The temporary arrangements will, however, suit those who want to see the bleeding film in a degree of bleeding peace. The distance will be enough to inhibit infection. It may also be enough to dull the sounds of swilling, munching and inane commentary. Fair enough?

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