I am out in London, and it has been a long day. I am walking towards the train station for the journey home, when I pass close by a shopping centre with an art house cinema in the middle of it. It is still early evening, and I think to myself why not see if that film you read about is still screening. I turn up at the cinema and find that its next showing will be in ten minutes’ time.
There are two queues, one for each person manning the ticket office. I join one of them. The people in the queue are a mixed crowd, some young, some middle-aged, generally of the sort one expects to see queuing for this sort of film. It is to be a cultural treat. We stand by a display of DVDs of other art house films, each with quotations announcing that film’s exceptional qualities. There is nothing average on display here; everything proclaims itself remarkable. I wonder how so many films can all be so good and worry about those that I have not heard of, let alone seen. I feel reassured about those that are familiar to me. I have come to the front of the queue. It will cost £11.50 to see this film, which seems a lot of money to purchase something that you cannot take away with you afterwards. Were it a DVD I would hope to pay less.
I pay the money, take my ticket, and go down a set of stairs, where there is a bar with a few people seated on stools with drinks and snacks. There are posters on the walls for films past and films to come. I go down a second set of stairs. A young man takes my ticket, tears it in two and hands it back to me. It occurs to me that this is not much of an occupation for anyone. I go into a darkened room with seats in rows, each with a letter to differentiate it from the next. There are seats for around 200 people. Probably 50 or so people are arranged at various points, facing a large screen. I calculate how much revenue the cinema may take from a single screening such as this and how this helps pay for the women at the box office and the young man tearing tickets. I find a corner three-quarters of the way back, away from other people and with some leg room. I set down my bag of recently-purchased clothes, take off my coat and switch off my mobile phone. The seat is soft and comfortable. The room itself is sloped so that those at the back are higher than those nearer the front, enabling those behind to see over the heads of those in front, so long as we are all of uniform height.
The screen in front of us is showing advertisements for products. These advertisements help pay for the cinema; we understand this. There is one for a Beetle car, another an animation with young men self-consciously walking down a street with their shoes changing colour – it is advertisement for sports shoes of some kind. Another advertisement attempts to be amusing in a laboured way, and I concentrate on my knees until it is over. Two women behind me laugh at what they see on the screen. Then we are shown trailers for films that the cinema will screen in future days. One trailer tells us that its film is the best produced in Ireland this century. I try to consider what this might mean. I have not heard of any of the films trailed, nor do I feel any compulsion to see any of them. The screen then shows us advertisements for the cinema itself, including its upcoming screenings of live opera from New York. The operas look sumptuously staged. I almost forget that I do not much care for opera. The trailers show the highlights and none of the trials that may come between.
A disembodied voice asks us to switch off our phones. Some rustle with objects in their coat pockets. The film we have paid to see is about to begin. There is a message from the British Board of Film Classification to tell us that this film has been classified as 12A, which means that it is considered unsuitable for children under 12 unless they are accompanied by an adult. There are no children aged 12 or under in the cinema. All is well.
The film has started. It is an earnest work about an elderly couple, one of whom suffers from a stroke, leaving the other one to care for her. Probably we would not normally have chosen to pay money to see a film with such a theme, but it has received awards and many favourable reviews, and the director has made notable films before now, so we expected to be impressed. Certainly we are not expecting fast-paced action or any of the other kinetic thrills of a cinema film. We are prepared for what we see. A mobile phone goes off five minutes into the proceedings, and I wonder for a moment whether it is part of the film. But it comes from the women behind me and is swiftly turned off. The film rolls on. It is in French, and there are subtitles. It is very accomplished work, with exceptional cinematography capturing interior natural light with a quality that makes me think of Norwegian paintings of the late 19th century. Perhaps this is intentional. The director is clearly very skilled, and nothing seems incidental or without relevance. One cut from close-up to medium shot of the couple jars by its unnaturalness, but that is all. There is no story to speak of. There are incidents, because a film is drama and must have incidents, but they are not important.
We admire the flat where the couple live. It is filled with books and paintings and interesting objects. I wish my own home had some of these books and paintings and interesting objects. Probably others in the audience are thinking the same. The film shows us some of the paintings in close-up, filling the screen. The director knew that we would like to look more closely, and knew when we would want to do so.
The film runs for around two hours, during which time we sit still and watch it. I sometimes arrange my legs to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes I think of other things, such as whether I will want to eat after the film or not, but mostly the film holds my attention. Occasionally I wonder when it will end, and how, but I never look at my watch. One of the subtitles has a grammatical error, and this bothers me. The film is filled with significant sounds, such as a tap running, a pigeon flapping or the clink of plates being washed. There is no music, except that which is played on a CD player or by the people who are acting in the film. It is a film about musicians. The main protagonists are more cultured and accomplished than we the audience watching them, but we do not resent or envy them for this. It is simply who they are. This is one of the film’s accomplishments.
The ending comes, and end credits follow which tell us all the names of the many talented people who made the film. They roll past in silence. Some of the audience get up, but I stay to the end out of a long habit which says that I must see the name of every person who contributed to this work, even though their names mean nothing to me. When the film has had its final say, we get up and walk out of the auditorium and up the stairs once more. The film has been bleak and sad and all are silent at first, then turn to chatter as they near the open air above.
I come up to the foyer, where a new set of people is gathering to see either a further screening of this film or another film showing on a second screen. I step out of the doors, where the cold air greets me. I do up my coat, head out into the dark and think not so much of the film but rather of the strange rituals involved in seeing a film. Once it was an act of faith, now it is an act of remembrance. What did that film mean, and why did I see it? I knew these things once, but now no more.
The cold wind blows and I head for home.
3 thoughts on “Going to the cinema”
So you are doing some practical research into cinema audiences perception of cinema going…you _may_ well find reports similar to what you have posted today in the period WWVC covers.
Regarding filmgoers’ opinions, I think it might be easiest to start with the theatregoers and hope to find descriptive notes about the new medium amongst somebody’s writings. Apart from that, diaries and letters that have been indexed or calendared (not necessarily published) would seem the best sources – but where to start?
I would guess that useful information from the producers of cinema about their audiences could be just outside the period, when the cinema audience became a distinct service-buying group.
Journalists may have left useful material but their notebooks and other writings, rather than their copy, would be closer to what they actually _felt_ about films and filmgoing.
Recalling Shakespeare, you will know of the contemporary pamphlets about London crime and criminals, from which it seems a playgoer spent as much time fending off hawkers, prostitutes and pickpockets as actually watching what was happening on stage – so a first cinemagoer may likewise have been distracted by whatever else was in the auditorium, affecting their perception of the new medium.
Scraping the barrel (if you have to), naive reactions to films and cinemas can be found in the records relating to cinema reaching the extreme rural areas of The Isles, many years after the first showings in London.
I hadn’t thought of the post with respect to my early cinema interests, but there are echoes there of some of the first puzzled accounts of the first film shows.
I have researched first film audiences before now, though much more remains to be done. There are press accounts, of course, memoirs (published and unpublished), diaries (a good starting point is the Centre for Metropolitan History’s checklist of unpublished London diaries http://www.history.ac.uk/cmh/publications#Diaries) and even evidence from films of the period. A film such as The Countryman and the Cinematograph may depict more of a myth than a reality, but is no less valuable for that. The greater challenge will be finding the time to build on this.
But thank you for your suggestions. I’ve not tried looking for journalists’ notebooks. I wonder how many survive?
This post has been reproduced in my book Picturegoers: A Critical Anthology of Eyewitness Experiences (2022)