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A Phenomenology of Lost Cinemas

Miss the movies? You're not alone. With cinemas closed, Martina Bani assembles a poignant collection of perspectives on the space of the cinema to show just how much movie-going means to us.

Every time I frantically peruse my notes, I find the keystone unlocking the bliss of unbridled writing flow by way of recalling. I remind myself of how stepping into an ethereal film theatre imprinted itself in my internal memory, shepherding me hic et nunc. I was in my second semester of undergraduate studies, planting my roots abroad, in academia, and, tentatively, in tipsy adulthood. In other words: I was utterly and foolishly open to possibilities. 

Amsterdam, end of March. The day after my birthday I moseyed up to the Eye Filmmuseum: an experimental exhibition held by local filmmakers excavated its way into a raw, uncultivated facet of the self that I did not yet know was so close to the core. An epiphany. I felt like a novel St Paul on the cinematic road to Damascus realising that I needed, almost vocationally, to call art – the most synthetic of the arts – to the centre stage of my academic endeavours. This way only could I feel whole, authentic to my aspirations. 

Oxford, end of March. Four years later. The day before my birthday, I nostalgically fathomed that I didn’t know when I could return to the MOLT, the cinema auditorium at St Anne’s College where Film Aesthetics students spend afternoons relishing screenings and unpredictable heating. However, that in this quarantine of grief a film student would also mourn the closure of cinemas should have not come as a surprise. A more subtle, unanticipated chord was struck instead by many non-cinephile friends reminiscing, missing, and even dreaming about going to the movies. A collective phenomenology of the lost cinemas started to claim irrefutable urgency.

As soon as I launched my little informal survey I was submerged by a cluster of familiar, yet unexpected voices invoking cinema’s place as an institution of empathetic sensibility, an aesthetic panacea, and a precise landmark in their social geographies of feelings. “It’s like being on a plane; you’re locked in for a certain amount of time away from the world. You succumb to it fully” wrote C., and I cannot help but wondering whether in the neurosis of multitasking, cinemas reconfigure themselves as sites of healthy suspension. But behind the passivity that cinematic immersion seems bathed in, lies a trusting commitment to the unfolding moment, a total presentness, a full-fledged embracing of the cinematic flow. 

Indeed, most interviewees took pains to punctuate all the ritualistic legs from “vacating my own environment” to entering a whole other realm, as J. puts it. Driving long ways in anticipation, liturgical walks, rushing through shortcuts delusionally taken to be only theirs, secret. Ticket checks, excited smiles. Tearing the velvety veil onto the solemn darkness. The smell of popcorn. The infamous search for the seating. Lights out, world gone.

“I love that moment, like I’m about to go on a ride”. Freed from the entrapment of  notifications, “at the cinema stories fly high”. D. and N. make me smile for their fitting use of the vocabulary of juvenile emotionality. Larger-than-life, the engrossing physicality of the moving image enraptures, making one abdicate themselves: a sacrifice in the name of the mystique of wonder. “Cinema began in wonder”, Sontag[1] writes, recalling the faces of the first audiences erupting in stupor while watching the Lumiere brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Indeed “all of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder”. It then becomes easy to sympathise with D., who during oppressing times went every Sunday to the cinema “because real life wasn’t enough”. The devotion to that very sense of alive wonder made me envision cinemas as places of aesthetic worship, with the MOLT as the latest simulacrum of that first Dutch encounter. 

Sometimes a refracted rainbow graces the staircase as you leave the MOLT cinema auditorium at St. Anne’s.

The faith in cinematic wonder is a strange kind of faith, since it demands its disciples to abide by a sole, strict requirement: opening up to the possibilities of your feelings, and to strangers. Taking up the risk for the film to be underwhelming, or of enduring an annoying neighbour. In other words, it’s the only faith that doesn’t promise you any sacred land, but asks you to be a sensitive, appreciative traveller. The creed unravels through visual meditations, reimagining temporal and spatial coordinates. The experience of contemplation becomes on a par, and at times even superior to its object. “Whether I do or do not understand the film, ‘the eye licks it all up instantaneously’ all the same”, S. remarks, quoting Wolf’s[2] famous essay on cinema.

However, aesthetic solace is also to be found in observing the observing: G. loves witnessing how the film speaks to the ethereal space of the dark theatre, the relationships that it creates with the audience and intersubjectively, between the viewers viewing. In doing so, the audience becomes part of the sublime: “You didn’t write the film. But [..] you contribute to the story that we’re telling because suddenly when you hear this song, it’s your emotions, it’s your sensibility [..] you become a writer of the film and we’re writing it together”, recounts film director Xavier Dolan[3].

Hence, it is no mystery that philosopher Stanley Cavell[4] titled the first chapter of his systematic study of film, “An Autobiography of Companions”. In his introductory enquiry on the consciousness of film experience Cavell elevates empathetic engagement as a psycho-social condition inscribed in the very metaphysics of the filmic medium. Intentional and embodied sharing of intimacy makes the external forms of life of the screen personal, and the personal reactions external. A sense of community. “I’m at one with the audience”, all my friends have reported. 

Seen this way, the film theatre experience becomes the aesthetic offspring of the Ancient Greek storgé, the instinctive familial affection, but voluntarily gifted to strangers. But families need not be only metaphorical. Indeed, for P., going to the movies elicits childhood memories of joyful family gatherings, reunited for the occasion. At the end of his contribution, he also writes, somewhat furtively: “Now I bring to the cinema only “serious” dates”. It might be naïve, but since then I can’t help but asking whether he uses film theatres to see if his date would fit his picture of affective happiness. As for me, in the museum of loved paraphernalia, cinemas would not be an object. They would be the museum itself.

[1] Susan Sontag, “The Decay of Cinema”, New York Times, last modified Feb 25, 1996, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/12/specials/sontag-cinema.html

[2] Virginia Wolf, ‘The Cinema’ in Selected Essays. ed. by David Bradshaw, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 172.

[3] Xavier Dolan, ‘Xavier Dolan on Blink-182, Bottoming, and Being the World’s Biggest Kate Winslet Fan’, last modified Dec 8, 2016, https://www.vulture.com/2016/12/xavier-dolan-on-his-new-film-critics-and-more.html

[4] Stanley Cavell, The world viewed: reflections on the ontology of film, New York, Viking Press, 1971, pp. ix, 9-12.

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