The Sunday Sermon

Why would you take a girl to the cinema on a first date? You just sit in silence for two hours”. This assertion is central to a common argument: is cinema a solitary activity, or a communal one? Is it something to be experienced by oneself, as a personal, private experience, or one to be shared both during, and after? For many years I went to the cinema alone. There was nobody I knew nearby who liked to see the films I wanted to see: the foreign and independent titles. I had no issue with this: for two hours it was me and the characters on-screen. It was highly personal, and I forged an almost protective relationship to the films. These were my discoveries, my passion. Many times the cinema was almost empty, so it became a truly one-on-one relationship: these performances were for me, and me alone.

But time passed and I found myself finding alternative ways to find people who liked these films. If none of them lived near me, then I’ll use a way to find those further away. So I looked on the Internet. Turned out there were loads of people who liked these films. Suddenly, I could see that all these others felt exactly the same personal connection with the films, and could discuss them ad infinitum. (If the Internet is good at one thing, it’s ad infinitum.) Film became a solitary and communal activity. I could experience the film myself, and then engage with others about that film.

And this is all very well, except of course some films aren’t like that. Cinemas aren’t like that. They’re not individual pods, booths, where people sit isolated from everybody else. They’re theatres, coliseums of silver screen magic, where the big screen is shared by everyone, together, simultaneously. Its very nature is communal, so how can that experience be so solitary? It isn’t always. Some films aren’t like that: they thrive on that group dynamic. Comedies, naturally, come to mind. Canned laughter works because laughter is a fundamentally shared phenomenon. We laugh more in company, than on our own. Seeing a comedy on one’s own will not be as enjoyable as watching it in a packed cinema, whether you personally know anyone else there or not. The experience is shared, but the connection is personal. Horror films live or die in crowds. When Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was unbanned I went to see it, for the first time, at the celebratory cinematic re-release. The audience, en masse, decided that it was hilarious, and thus all horror was lost. When I bought the DVD and rewatched it at home, it was like an entirely different film. Brutal, spare, uncompromising. I wondered where the humour had come from. A shocker like Scream (1996) would be far more effective in a crowd than on one’s own. The Blair Witch Project (1999) was released on DVD in the States before it hit cinemas here (DVD was new, it was a new phenomenon to have a home release beat a cinema release for me) so I bought the DVD and watched it at home first. Chillingly effective on the small screen, watching it on the big screen opened up the film, it lost the claustrophobia, and the effectiveness dissipated. The solitary experience far exceeded the shared one.

I caught Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) for a second time last week and a key moment, which a friend had commented had had an audible audience reaction at his screening, got a similar reaction at this second screening I saw. It’s common to laugh together at the jokes, or to jump together at the cheap scares. It’s less common to gasp together, and that communally shared emotion at a pre-recorded occurrence is unmistakably cinematic.

Cinema is absolutely a shared experience. Seeing films now with like-minded friends gives an immediate post-film discussion, and the buzz from a cinema full of people is unarguably more palpable than one with just 20 or 30 patrons. But there is nevertheless a definitively personal reaction to any given film that no amount of shared audience experience can fully eclipse.

But it’s still a rubbish idea for a first date.

Tim Popple works as a verger and has been involved in churches and cathedrals his whole life. He is also the editor ofThe 24th Frame, and can also be found on Twitter.

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6 Comments

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  1. I’ve long considered cinema to be a personal experience. I’m easily irritated by the smallest of things, so not really cut out for the average night in a multiplex. Granted, I might be missing out on some of the more communal aspects that you’ve outlined above, but by and large I think I still win out in the end with a more peaceful experience!

    Back when my wife and I first started seeing each other we had two notable dates in the cinematheque. The first was a midnight preview of Transformers (2007), a screening which we found ourselves running away from after 25 minutes, citing a “lack of robots” to a confused looking usher. The second was a special screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), complete with piano accompaniment. Hardly the most romantic of evenings, especially given my date was not particularly a fan of film, but when she made it through to the end without complaint I knew she was the girl for me! Even if she did sleep through most of it.

    Perhaps my favourite cinema date moment though involves a programmer friend’s exasperation when I told him I was taking the girl who would eventually be my wife to a matinee screening of Antichrist, her first Von Trier. The whole situation reminded him of the infamous date in Taxi Driver.

  2. Carl Copeland 28/08/2011 — 1:53 pm

    I’ve always attended the cinema for personal pleasure. I too have little friends who share the same cinematic interests as my self, whether that’s foreign or classic cinema. So I therefore found myself more often than not attending the cinema on my lonesome. Which is the way I prefer it if I’m honest. I am more satisfied, more moved, more focused when I’m by myself the experience is far greater for me personally. Be that as it may I enjoy the occasional Hollywood blockbuster or film which I’d initially have little interest in seeing and attending with my friends as an all round experience. It’s more fun that way. On the date factor I’ve gone on many first dates to the cinema. Why? Because I’d prefer to sit in silence and avoid awkward conversations than being subjected to any cringe worthy silences. But again you wouldn’t find me watching the latest Malick movie it’s more often than not a mediocre Hollywood film or horror movie so both parties are ‘partially’ satisfied.

  3. I, like Adam, get distracted by everything and anything in a cinema ,but I think it’s a testament to the film about wether I get sucked in or annoyed , when I went to see rise of the planet of the apes there was a spot in the centre of the screen ( I suppose on the lens or the glass infront) but within mins I had completly forgotten about this .
    For most of my life (bar the odd superhero or Wes Anderson film with adam) going to the cinema has been about me on my own in my own little world , but for the past year I’ve been going atleast once a week with my current partner to many films I would never hav gone to we just just love the experience of being there together.

  4. One of the best film experiences I had was watching Matrix Revolutions in an empty cinema. I do prefer home cinema now, I’m easily annoyed when at the multiplex with all the commotion, noise and constant chattering. It’s really tiresome. I appreciate some don’t get out too much or the cost of a cinema means its a real treat for a normal family around here, but that still doesn’t excuse manners.

    The cinema is a group experience but for many an event without rules. On those rare occasions when we do visit the Odeon nearby, its a late screening or early performance (on a day off) to hopefully avoid others. Funnily enough, as a kid I don’t remember it being too bad, nowadays its pretty disruptive trying to watch a film.

    In saying that, when I look at back crowds at the Filmhouse or Cameo, they do know how to behave. Seeing film in the US or Canada is a unique experience as well; they totally get into the onscreen events, but I’d never consider them disruptive or distracting. Group viewing can be brilliant when the group knows the boundaries!

  5. Maybe I’m lucky in the fact that I love going to the cinema both alone and with people. There’s nothing better than leaving a screening and talking about what you loved/hated with a friend often resulting in an interesting debate or giving an insight into the film that you completely overlooked.

    That being said, I do also enjoy going to the cinema alone and I’m still amazed by the odd looks I get by people who must think I have no friends as they simply can’t imagine the horror of sitting alone for 2 hours. But to be completely honest, I only really go to the cinema alone when no one I know wants to see something I do and that rarely happens.

    On the issue of a full house, a packed responsive crowd can enhance my enjoyment of a film no end. For example, I went to see Harry Potter 7.2 twice, the first time with a friend on the night of release and the second time alone in the middle of the day a couple of weeks post-release. The first time, the collective booing, cheering and laughter of the audience bolstered my own reaction to scenes which almost went by unnoticed second time round.

  6. I usually go to see action films or “blockbusters’ with my wife. We usually enjoy the same films and talk about them afterwards. In addition to this we do laugh together at many of the same jokes in films.
    I do enjoy going to cinema with other people with similar cinematic tastes than me.
    I’d prefer it if people who are not enjoying the film just left though, instead of moaning and bitching, which spoils my enjoyment.
    Going to a cinema on dates has worked for me in a number of ways, know what I am sayin?
    But I am not adverse to going by myself!

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