Sunday, October 09, 2005


Going to see a film on the big screen has become less and less of a pleasure. The modern multi-plex seems to be the antithesis of what the cinema-going experience should be. And lately, it is being widely reported that box office is significantly down on recent years. Call it what you will: a worrying trend, a slight blip or just the media's over anxious need to say something about Hollywood. Nevertheless, where once the cinema was a reverent altar to the visual flicker of story, it’s now become a place where what’s on offer is as disposable and dismissive as a downloaded ring-tone.

Things I would ban from the cinema: Popcorn. Rustle-sweets/packets of any description. Teenage groups that number more than four. Mobile phones, a complete ban, not just those Orange adverts that amusingly tell us to ‘switch them off’.

Is it just me? Am I getting old? Audiences seem far more restless and disinterested at the flicks than ever before, and they end up ruining the film for everyone else. I don’t get it. They’ve paid for their tickets, obtained their kilo of popcorn, so why don’t they sit still, shut up and focus on the film? Don’t get me started on mobile phones. No-one turns them off, they put them on ‘silent’. The problem with this is that they can’t stop themselves from checking for messages or missed calls every few minutes, resulting in their display lighting up and really distracting your attention. Have we really developed into such a solipsistic state of self-importance that we dare not miss a call from our friend Dave who’s in Cinema 2 checking out Wallace & Gromit?

The growth and demand of the DVD market is pushing cinema into the sidelines. At home, everyone seems to have state of the art surround-sound TVs - plasma screens for those who earn a deep crust - and all we have to do is wait three/four months before the latest blockbuster becomes available for rental. But what I love about the DVD experience is the ‘extras’, and in particular, the DVD commentary. I can’t get enough of them and I won’t purchase a DVD unless it has at least one commentary track.

I’m a complete anorak for what the writer/director/cast have to say about the script and the making of the film. One of my favourites is with Lem Dobbs (writer) and Steven Soderbergh (director) as they intelligently bicker about the making of The Limey, and one of my least favourites is Tim Burton’s luvvie-gush on Sleepy Hollow. I was basking in the series four box-set of Six Feet Under the other day (birthday pressie) and, as is my habit, I listened to all of the commentaries first before I prepare to watch the series as a whole.

The controversial episode of last season involved David Fisher being taken hostage by a sociopath hitchhiker. Director Alan Poul (the co-show runner along side Alan Ball) provided a commentary on how and why they did the story the way they did it. At one point, he made reference to David’s character and said something like: “It’s about putting something out there into the world, expecting or hoping for a particular reaction, but often it comes back to smack us in the face, quite unfairly and unforgiving.”

I’m paraphrasing here but even though Mr Poul was talking about David’s inner-motivation, it struck me as a perfect representation of what it’s like when you finish a script: you think you’ve done a good job and written it with the best intentions, you hope people are going to like it and you 'put it out there'. But unfortunately the truth is that they’re probably going to grab it and tear it to bits, crushing your ego and sensitivity to pieces.

My appreciation of DVD commentaries grows while my urge to attend the cinema diminshes with each visit. I saw Oliver Twist today and I was confident that it would be a respectful crowd who would want to watch the film. Who was I kidding? Mobile phone displays, chatty teenagers, restless children, toilet breaks, sweet wrappers and that ghastly popcorn smell all resulted in a less than satisfying experience of the film. It seems the cinema is developing a commentary track of unsettled audiences and messy auditoriums, pushing me more and more into my DVD habit. Curmudgeon critic or sign of the times?

(Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos when he wanted to be a screenwriter: “I love the movies. That popcorn smell. I get high on that”.)


Tim Clague said...

Danny. I just think that cinema seems so out-of-time now. The world has moved on and it hasn't. It kind of has - with the multiplex experience - but it still has a dead feel. Not a live feel. Its too passive. Is film dead then? NO. But the cinema experience had better get with it if it wants to survive. Less like a fast food chain. More like a restaurant.

bot37363838 said...

I'm probably odd in that I always preferred the commercial cinema to the so-called "art" cinema experience. I always felt the art-house was too cliquey, too many people working there called Leaf and 'Drew (the middle-class version of Andy) who provide a surly countenance to strangers (i.e. regular punters) and then light up like a Christmas tree when one of their friends walks in.

The classic cinema experience was the single screen, of course, with the queue round the block - which, in spite of its length, didn't mean you wouldn't get in, because the place was HUGE with a HUGE screen and HUGE sound.

The modern multiplex often has auditoria little bigger than your living room, anyway, which is before you get to the chatting, and the fact that it's never properly dark, and the smell of rancid "butter." You get packed in like sardines, and if you end up in one of the front 2-3 rows, you can't actually watch because you get a crick in your neck, and because you can't see the whole screen (so you have to pan and scan), and because the screen appears curved when you are so close to it.

Even if you manage to hit upon a film that no noisy teens are going to watch (because it's rubbish, like The House of the Spirits, say), you still have to experience the lobby, with its noisy video games, blaring television trailers, filthy floors, and mindless, milling, crowds of people who never seem to do anything other than hang around in the lobby. And the smell of rancid "butter."

I never thought I'd become one of those people who never goes to the cinema, but I have.

Favourite DVD commentary has to be on Seinfeld, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

You are not alone.

The groups of kids at my local cinema seem to use it as a place to hang out and chat. They never pay attention to the film and just chat. They are in and out of the screen all the way through the film, and if they do get chucked out, they 'Strut their stuff' with a big 'Look at me, I'm hard' look on their faces.

They probably only see half of an entire film.

When I go to see a film, I want to hear every word and look at everything that is going on in every scene. I just don't get these kids that pay money just to get chucked out.

I'll put my soap box away before I get started on the rest of the gripes I have :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I only go to BAFTA now - their house rules make it a joy, unless you really need to do a pee half-way through. No talking, no phones, no food or drink, no latecomers, and no leaving until the end of the credits except in dire emergency.

BAFTA rocketh. And we get to see the films before they come out - sometimes with Q+As. But you have to live within easy distance of Piccadilly and they don't show trashy schlockbusters.

James Henry said...

BAFTA sounds fantastic. It may be the cinema of my dreams, apart from the lack of trashy blockbusters. Cinema volumes are going up as well, which drives me mad - as though there's now just a thin line between going to the films and going on a rollercoaster. And I've have countless films ruined by chattering kids, and no-one ever tells them off. Including me, as I'm too scared.

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly lucky in that my home town is surved by one enormous, crass multiplex, a smaller 5 screener which is now off the beaten track and the country's best art house cinema. So I have a nice level of choice and I tend to avoid the big neon-lit one.

It tends to take a lot to get me to the cinema these days, and it's Hollywood's current crop of bad movies that I think is the cause of the down turn (watch it shoot up next month with Goblet of Fire and The Chronicles of Narnia).

I guess it depends on the cinema, I've had some awful experiences, but some great ones that make it all worthwhile.

James Henry said...

Yes, interesting that kids films are pretty much the most intelligent films around, although Dreamworks Animation seem to be lowering the bar just as fast as they can...

James Henry said...

Yes, interesting that kids films are pretty much the most intelligent films around, although Dreamworks Animation seem to be lowering the bar just as fast as they can...