What is the So-Called Cinematic Experience?

The movie website FilmJuice have just published my first feature article entitled simply ‘The Cinematic Experience’.

As regular readers of this site will doubtless recall, I have a great fondness not only for the cinema as an institution but also its capacity to bludgeon us into a state of supine beatitude with no more than a thunderous explosion of transforming robot. In fact, I recently had a ‘best genre films of 2011’ piece published in the BSFA’s house journal Vector and my top ten included Takeshi Koike’s recently released Redline, an anime so beautifully animated and insanely visual that its finale rivals the pure cinematic spectacle of the opening sequence of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. However, despite enjoying both 3D and action movies projected on vast IMAX screens, my article expresses a good deal of concern over what I call the technological arms race that is currently raging between the cinema chains and the consumer electronics firms:

The race began when James Cameron resurrected 3D technology and made a fortune with his Smurf-based epic Avatar. Convinced that 3D was the future of film, cinema chains spent billions retrofitting their theatres with digital 3D projectors. For a while, this worked quite nicely and everyone made money. Then audiences began getting tired of having to pay extra for poorly made 3D films and technology companies soon found a way of providing 3D at home, thereby sending everyone back to square one. Next came the suggestion that the only way to experience Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol was on one of those giant IMAX screens that are usually used to entertain tourists with images of shipwrecks and dinosaurs. Unfortunately, while it is difficult to imagine Samsung and LG finding a way of making home IMAX systems, the failure to sell Andrew Stanton’s John Carter as an IMAX experience suggests that the popularity of IMAX may be even more fragile than 3D. Furthermore, if IMAX is to become the new benchmark for cinematic experiences, then cinema chains will be forced to spend even more money building thousands of new IMAX. With many industry insiders already talking up vibrating seats as the Next Big Thing, the toxic and self-destructive nature of this technological arms race is becoming all too apparent.

While I do not mention it in the article itself for reasons of space, I feel that a far better use of money would be to invest in updating the existing cinematic infrastructure so as to ensure that every screen in the country has comfy seats, good quality projection, properly functioning speakers, adequate sound-proofing and a concession stand that aspires to being more than a dementedly ruinous tuck shop.

For me, the cinematic experience is not some fairground ride but an act of almost religious devotion. I choose to see films in the cinema because I value the act of leaving my house and traveling to see a film. I choose to see films in the cinema because I like sitting in a space designed solely for the purpose of viewing films. I enjoy the distraction-free environment of a quiet cinema and I am more than happy to pay for the opportunity to use it because I believe that it is the best possible environment in which to surrender myself to a director’s vision.

And if you’re looking for a personal recommendation: My favourite London cinema is the big screen at the Curzon Mayfair.

One Comment

  1. Much of what I would like from cinemas are negatives. Less light. I appreciate there are health and safety concerns and cinemas want it clear how the exits are reached, but one thing that stopped me going to cinemas was the ambient light levels being so high from emergency and floor lighting that it killed immersion.

    For me the cinematic experience has been badly cheapened by multiplexes and an attitude that cares more for concession sales than film. Small screens and jumbo drinks.

    What frustrates me is how often the experience at home is better, on my cathode ray tv set which isn’t even wide screen. That just shouldn’t be so, and yet it is.


    “The disappointment begins with the realisation that it is now more expensive to see a film at the cinema than it is to own it forever on DVD or Blu-ray. Combine this with the hair-raisingly expensive junk food and the tendency of cinema ushers to search customers’ bags in search of recording devices and you have a cinematic experience that begins with an audience feeling cheated and harassed. Then we have the fact that cinemas refuse to publish the actual start times of their films and preface every film with half an hour’s worth of adverts, trailers, copyright warnings and jokey reminders about turning off your phone. These days people are reluctant to sit through adverts when they are at home, why should they be expected to do so when they are paying a premium for the pleasure of not just seeing a film but experiencing it? Add to this, the lack of properly trained projectionists and the decaying fabric of most cinemas and it is hardly surprising that increasing numbers of people are choosing to have their ‘cinematic experiences’ in the comfort of their own homes.”

    and this;

    “it’s hard not to feel that cinema chains have lost sight of what it is that made the cinematic experience so special: great stories, great performances, great direction and a comfortable and distraction free environment in which to experience all of these things. That is the core of the cinematic experience; everything else is a fairground ride.”

    Yes. I love the cinema. From around the age of 16 until just a few years ago I used to go pretty much every week. I haven’t now been in several years (apart from some Secret Cinema trips, and I think they’ve now lost the plot). I watched Drive the other day at home. That is a film made for cinema, but how many cinemas would make it a rewarding experience?

    Good piece.


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