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Aoife Martin: No, streaming can never beat the magic of the cinema

Our columnist shares her love of the cinema and laments the impact of lockdown and streaming on the whole experience

Image: Shutterstock/Enjoyphoto80

The cinema has no boundaries; it is a ribbon of dream.
- Orson Welles

THE LIGHTS DIM. The screen goes dark. The film classification card is displayed. Then the studio logo appears to a fanfare of trumpets and drums. The magic begins…

For me and, I suspect, for a lot of people, going to the cinema has always been a refuge, an escape from the day-to-day drudgery of life. It’s where I go if I’m having a bad day and need to forget, even if only for a couple of hours, my troubles.

It’s where I go to laugh, to cry, to feel scared, to be moved, to be inspired or just to pass the time.

There’s a famous scene in Preston Sturges’ 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels where a bunch of convicts on a chain gang are brought to see a Mickey Mouse cartoon being projected in a local church.

They laugh uproariously at the onscreen antics of Pluto and for a few brief moments they are allowed to forget the misery of their daily existence and we, the audience, are given a glimpse of their humanity.

Engaging stories

Pre lockdown, going to the cinema was an excuse to leave my apartment. Not only was it somewhere to go, but it was also somewhere to go as a single person. Unlike, say, a restaurant or a pub, I didn’t feel self-conscious going on my own to the cinema. In fact, I usually preferred it that way.

I didn’t have to argue with someone over what to see and when to see it. I could go to see what I liked when I liked. Lockdown, of course, has changed all that.

It’s April 2021 and cinemas have been shut for almost four months now. The last film I saw in the cinema was Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Eve last and, as a film, it was perfectly fine.

I’m not trying to damn it with faint praise but I’m not a big fan of superhero movies – they just don’t do anything for me – but I’m also glad I got to see it on the big screen.

I’m not a purist – not by any stretch of the imagination – but there are very few films that aren’t improved by seeing them in the cinema. No matter how bad a film is it will always be better on a big screen and, sometimes, seeing a film with a like-minded audience can transform that film for you.

movie-poster-collector Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

It can make you see a film in a completely new and different light. Seeing Casablanca in a cinema in Cambridge in the UK with an audience was one such experience. For the first time, and I had seen the film many times alone before that, I realised when the audience laughed at certain moments just how funny it was.

Strangely, I wasn’t annoyed that they had laughed at my precious Casablanca. I saw that they were right. It was funny. But it was also stirring and romantic and moving – I still cry at the La Marseilles scene – and it had taken seeing it with an audience to allow me to laugh at its more comedic moments most of which involved Claude Raines’ self-centred but ultimately noble Captain Renault.

It’s a film that endures but endures all the more so in the movie theatre of my heart because of that communal experience. I have seen Casablanca multiple times but that experience is something I will always treasure.

Safe spaces

Cinemas also allow us to root when we saw films to a particular time and place. I couldn’t tell you what films I watched on DVD or on television last week or even yesterday, but I can tell you where I was (and who I was with) when I saw many films in the cinema.

I saw Face/Off in a cinema in Barbados, the audience whooping and cheering along with all the wonderfully over the top action sequences. I saw End of Days, a dumb Arnold Schwarzenegger movie with Gabriel Byrne as the Devil, in an almost empty cinema in snow-ridden Warsaw when on a work trip.

When I lived in Germany discovering a cinema that showed English-language films in their original undubbed versions was an absolute godsend to someone who was a little bit homesick and lonely.

No matter what films they showed – good, bad or indifferent – I went religiously every week because it gave me something to do and somewhere to go and it allowed me to interact with people on my own terms.

I can still recall the No Smoking ads that screened before every film. Bitte beachten Sie das das Rauchen nicht erlaubt ist.

Cinema can fill in the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness.
- Pedro Almodóvar

Growing up, going to the cinema was a treat. I can’t remember the first film I ever saw in the cinema – it was probably some Disney cartoon or other – but many of the titles I did see have stayed with me: Bambi, Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World, The Rescuers, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Grease, Young Frankenstein, Condor-Man, Watership Down, a double bill of Rocky and Rocky II and many more whose titles have been consigned to the dustbin of memory.

Films fired my imagination and when playing with my siblings and cousins we would often act out what we had seen on the screen.

Cinemas were also formative experiences for me when I first started venturing out in public as Aoife. I’m pretty solitary by nature and the idea of going to a bar or a restaurant by myself, especially when I was still exploring my gender identity, was anathema to me.

Cinemas, however, were a haven. I could indulge my love of film while also expressing my true self. The Lighthouse, the IFI, the Screen on D’Olier Street (no longer with us, alas), and the Savoy were places where I first started tentatively introducing myself to the world.

I could sit there in the dark, in a public space, and just be myself – an ordinary woman doing an ordinary (and social) thing. There weren’t many places for solitary trans people to go where you wouldn’t feel self-conscious or vulnerable. For me, cinemas filled that gap.

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The tech footprint

We live in a different world now, where most films are only a few keyboard clicks away – either on one of the multiple streaming platforms or elsewhere. While that might sound like nirvana to a film buff like myself, I can’t help but worry about what it means for cinema.

Does it matter that you can watch Citizen Kane on your laptop or that you can stream some of the greatest films ever made on your mobile phone? Part of me says yes, but another part of me thinks that I’m just being a snob.

Ease of access means these films are available to a wider audience. This is where we are now. Streaming is ubiquitous and it’s not going to go away but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy going to the cinema too. There’s room for both.

Streaming will never replace the spectacle or sense of occasion we get from seeing a film on the big screen but it has given me access to films I would never otherwise see, films that would never turn up at my local multiplex.

Equally, if I want to watch two CGI monsters hitting each other for two hours then I’d prefer to watch it on the biggest, loudest screen possible rather than pay €17.99 for the privilege of watching it on my laptop.

I’m going to sign off now with the final scene from Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso where a man sits alone in a cinema and watches some of the greatest movie kisses of all time from a reel that has been spliced together by his late friend.

As Ennio Morricone’s gorgeously romantic score swells up and tears roll down the man’s cheek we are reminded of the power of cinema to move and stir us.

Aoife Martin is a trans woman and activist. In her spare time, she likes reading, going to the cinema and practising card tricks.

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