Steve Braunias on a 'ye olde form of entertainment' - the movies.
Going to the movies is supposedly and reportedly another one of those legacy things, like reading a newspaper or playing a record. A 20th century antique, a ye olde form of entertainment – all this is the standard narrative, the one that says everyone would rather stay home and watch whatever's streaming than leave the house and sit somewhere in the dark. Cinema, we are told, is dying. Cinema, we are assured, is on its knees. But in 2019, global box-office revenues from cinema were a record high. Eight films pulled in over a billion dollars, including Frozen 2, Joker, even Aquaman.
Going to the movies in 2020, though, is not like going to the movies in 2019. Last year was another country. They did things differently there, they didn't die of a plague born from bats. Everything felt sweet when lockdown was lifted and life returned to something resembling the old normal; we could go to bars, the mall, a sit-down meal at KFC; but cinemas were slow to open when lockdown finished. It was all very tentative. There were dark rumours, dire speculations. Cinemas, people said, were bust. Cinemas, people predicted, had gone for good. But word finally came through that Reading Cinemas were about to re-open.
Going, I texted my girlfriend when she asked what I was doing, to the movies. It felt intoxicating just to type out the words. It was a return to innocence. It was an escape from Netflix. Walter Murch, who won an Oscar as the film editor on The Godfather, wrote a beautiful appreciation of the cinema in The Guardian: "A film's agency depends on it being seen at an appointed time, in the dark, in the presence of strangers also drawn to this moment ... If we could somehow render visible the emotions and thoughts of an audience in the sway of a good film, it would probably resemble the beautiful arching loops we see with large flocks of birds or schools of fish."
Going to the movies to watch The Invisible Man at an afternoon screening at Reading Cinemas at Lynnmall in New Lynn wasn't quite like that. I didn't expect thousands to rush out to see The Invisible Man – no one can see the invisible man, that's the point of his existence – but it was a bit disappointing that there was only one other person at the afternoon screening. An elderly woman sat in the back row and wore a facemask. It kind made of her look invisible.
Going to the movies in the daytime is one of life's simple pleasures. You exchange daylight for dark, you swap activity for sloth, you leave the world of creepy little screens for one big screen. But it was a creepy experience at Reading Cinemas at Lynnmall. The lobby was dark and silent. There was a row of eight ticket machines at the door. Buying a ticket was a laborious sequence of pressing different buttons. A teenager hid behind a popcorn machine at the confectionary counter.
Going to the movies again, I texted my girlfriend the following week (The Trip to Greece, at Lynmall; I was the only person there) and the week after (The Wretched, at the newly re-opened Event cinema at WestCity mall in Henderson; I sat near the front, two teenage girls in hijabs sat near the back). "The darkness at the movies," wrote the great Pauline Kael, "where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone." Such happiness. I was terrified at The Invisible Man. I cried at The Trip to Greece, a comedy about death. I longed to be terrified at The Wretched but all hope was lost when a character was made to say, "Mommy, one of the bunnies is missing."
Going to the movies will always be a thing. Plagues and Netflix cannot halt the cinema any more than the 1918 flu epidemic and television. I wandered around the Time Out game zone at WestCity after watching The Wretched. A gang of five teenagers were there, too, cheerfully wagging. Four were boys and the smallest, coolest one had his arm around a girl who had on an orange bandeau and a puffer worn off the shoulder. "Let's go see that dumb-looking horror," he said. "K," she said.
Next week: Siena Yates