To Somerset House to see A Fistful of Dollars, one of the first in this London landmark’s sellout August season of open-air screenings.
The forecourt is a mobocracy of picnics. Oatcakes and polenta frittatas, mothers buttering artisan loaves for families, empty bottles of sparkling rosé and – I swear – several cheese boards. It’s like Glastonbury, which has long been that very modern, corporate thing: all about fine dining (a friend tells me that at this year’s festival one of the longest queues was for lobster benedict – and that’s not a band).
In the half-hour before the movie starts, the feeding slows, some people now playing cards, the girl in front of me mixing gin with apple juice in a toddler’s no-spill beaker, holding the receptacle up like a chemist checking reaction rates, eyes narrowed to Nancy Drew slits (there is no toddler by the way). As someone takes to the stage to introduce the film, a sense of the straightening of ties. “This print is 35mm,” raves the compère. “Which means there is actual film running in the projection box!”
So we begin. And bar a noisy group chuckle when Clint Eastwood primly rearranges his poncho after a shootout, you don’t hear a squeak from this immaculate crowd. They are completely into the film and exhilarated. To the extent that the theory of the “communal experience” is always a bit of a myth, when it does happen – as it does here – it can be brilliant.
Still ... it doesn’t feel right to me. No matter how many of these things I go to, there is ever a stone in my curmudgeon’s shoe.
This month in London we can see Lost in Translation on a moving canal boat, The Matrix in Brompton Cemetery, and Austin Powers while neck-deep in a hot tub in the former Shoreditch Tube station – all of them doubtless great nights out, if none quite as great as Jaws screened in the middle of Lake Travis, Texas (as it occasionally is), for those prepared to strip off, swim out to the screen, and tread water while watching. And I’m all for all it ... only, that stone.
Increasingly, cinema has to sing louder for its supper. To be “worth it” now, there has to be an element of “full customer experience”, the unequivocal assertion that this is being made unbelievably special.
In some ways it’s a simple response to economics. Figures recently published by the British Film Institute show that audiences in the UK over the past decade have officially reached a plateau. While even newly released films can now be downloaded illegally or for a pittance, the industry is forced to think of ways that make cinema something that simply cannot be experienced by computer, especially for young people aged seven to 24, who now make up 43 per cent of the UK’s cinemagoers. Hence the enthusiasm for 3D or seats that vibrate and lurch along with the action (recently installed in an Odeon cinema in Liverpool). For older movie lovers, there’s the introduction of special screening rooms that feel more like first-class air travel.
At the Odeon Whiteleys in west London the other day, I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes while lying on a leather recliner as soft as a kangaroo’s pouch, being served lemon goujons and excellent wine. The people around me politely tried to negotiate entire Lebanese platters with proper knives and forks while ingeniously subtle waitresses responded to the press of a small blue button glowing in the darkness, as would a nurse in a private hospital. It was delicious and comfy ... but wrong. Like swimming with your trousers on.
Despite the undoubted excitement, the hilarity and pleasure of these inventive screenings and the many inspired extras, it will always be lined with melancholy for me. Because the old simplicity of experiencing movies is fading.
The truth is, I don’t really want to watch movies with 5,000 others in a superb heritage setting. I don’t want to watch them Imaxed on the moon. I don’t even want to watch them with a lover. I want one thing: total sensory deprivation. That’s what cinema is to me. Nothing. The black box.
Of course one’s tastes are helplessly connected to one’s own nostalgia but the reason I’ve preferred movies to theatre or live music all my life is that it is an experience I associate with the removal of things. No real food to speak of, no drink, no interval chatter, no catching up with friends. Just stillness and quiet.
Nothing can beat an afternoon screening in an unremarkable cinema with a sticky floor, five people dotted about and just the film. Whenever I see a film like that, I love the privacy and slight feeling of failure. That each of us must be a bit sad to be there. Who watches a movie at four in the afternoon except a bunch of losers? And it’s precisely that loserish feeling – of slight disorientation leading, as it always does, to an unexpected openness – that is the perfect frame of mind in which to appreciate a movie. To me, that is the apex of the cinema experience. I like being a loser. I am a loser. And not even Clint can save me.
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