“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.