The last time I visited the cinema was for a special screening of the experimental Australian feature Terror Nullius – ”special” because it was a fundraiser to support bushfire relief. Just a couple of weeks later, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, few people would entertain the idea of raising money for victims of the fires. Society had moved on – from the aftermath of one terrible disaster right into the thick of another. Ordinary life ground to a halt as COVID-19 tipped the axis of the world.
Terror Nullius is a revisionist documentary that’s described by its creators as “a form of rogue historiography”. The directors take bits and pieces of existing films and TV shows and rearrange them, not dissimilar to the way a DJ remixes music. After the outbreak, the real world began to resemble some of the films sampled in Terror Nullius – particularly the Mad Max movies. The stock market dived. Footy players tackled one another in empty stadiums. The streets looked apocalyptic as people stayed home, paranoid about catching or spreading the virus.
If somebody did decide to launch a bushfire relief now, they wouldn’t do it at a cinema. For the first time in the medium’s history the doors to the picture palace have snapped shut across the globe. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, movie musicals and comedies flourished as audiences craving escapism congregated in front of the big screen to forget about their woes. In the era of self-isolation and social distancing we don’t have that option. But we do have streaming.
“Cinema is a high-tech manifestation of a storytelling tradition that is as old as humankind”
Thank god for that. If we didn’t, imagine what the shelves of your local Blockbuster Video would look like now. Bartertown? The gates of hell? Which would be a place of greater carnage: the toilet paper section of the supermarket, or the new release aisle?
Anyway, cinema is on hold for a bit. We don’t know how long the intermission will be, but we do know that for the immediate future none of us will be able to buy popcorn, get our ticket ripped by a surly teenager, then make our way to the cineaste’s natural habitat – a land of dank odours, Coke-splotched carpets and wall-rattling sound systems.
But people are watching movies, that’s for sure; maybe more than ever given everyone is stuck at home. In this behavioural shift, the films themselves haven’t changed, but the very essence of the cinema experience has gone. Obliterated. Kaput.
That essence is not a matter of screen size. It is about – dare I say it, as a person who often enters a cinema hoping that nobody else is there – a social element: something that is inherently shared. Netflix watch parties will never be able to replace that.
During the current coronavirus-inflicted downtime, we should think about what it means. Perhaps people such as myself, who have long taken the cinema for granted, can return to it with a new appreciation of that giant electric canvas, with its striking visions of other worlds and other people. Over my dead body will I stop shooshing people who talk during the movies. But – provided they keep their mouths shut – I might start to appreciate their presence.
The introduction of motion pictures profoundly affected the human psyche. Audiences for the first time huddled among strangers in the dark to watch giant screens reflect visions of themselves back at them: their hopes and desires, their fears and inhibitions, their wildest dreams and scariest nightmares.
Films absorbed in the cinema are a kind of collective consciousness. They are, to paraphrase words believed to have been spoken by US President Woodrow Wilson over a hundred years ago, stories written in lightning. More than just experiencing a relatively recent artform, the act of cinemagoing taps into something greater, something older, something even ancient.
“Netflix watch parties will never be able to replace the social element of going to a cinema”
George Miller once drew a connection between the cinema and the cultural practices of Indigenous Australians, dating back tens of thousands of years. “When we congregate with strangers in the darkness of the cinema it’s a kind of public dreaming,” he said. “Cinema is a high-tech manifestation of a storytelling tradition that is as old as humankind.”
Now, with all of us huddled at home, the question beckons: can you dream in public, without leaving your house? Can you have a collective consciousness, when there’s no collective?
The cinema relies on a contradiction drawn from a private experience shared in a public space. When watching a film in an auditorium full of people, there is an energy in the air that can only come from the presence of other humans – watching what you’re watching, seeing what you’re seeing. In these moments we are dreaming together.
One of the magical qualities evoked by movies is known as “the mind’s eye”: it refers to meaning created by the collision of two images, which in turn creates a third, belonging only in your head.
The great mystery of cinema involves not what’s in our own mind’s eye, but what’s in everybody else’s. The pictures on the screen are the same but the ones in our heads can be different. A test of a filmmakers’ skill is the extent to which they’re able to draw everybody into the same literal and imaginative experience. The way they can move us not just as individuals, but as a collective.
You feel the communal energy in a cinema in obvious ways when watching films that evoke visceral responses, such as comedies and horrors. That energy is always there. I remember a time three years ago when I was at Event Cinemas in George Street, Sydney – but I wasn’t watching a movie. I was attending the premiere of a sci-fi VR film called Remember. A crowd of about 60 or 70 of us watched it in front of the big screen, although that screen never turned on. We experienced Remember on synchronised virtual reality headsets: our own private big screen, strapped to our faces, millimeters from our eyeballs, blocking out the rest of the room.
“The cinema relies on a contradiction drawn from a private experience shared in a public space”
I’ve seen many VR productions over the years, but something felt different that day. There was an energy in the air; an atmosphere; a buzz. How is that possible when we couldn’t see or hear anyone? We were doing what cinema allows us to do: we were dreaming in public.
I can hardly believe that the bushfire relief screening of Terror Nullius was not much longer than a month ago. It feels like years. It feels like a time belonging to a different era. I miss that energy in the room, that communal consciousness. Cinema’s absence has caused me to seriously think about it for the first time.
The cinema will be back, of course. When it returns, people like me who have long regarded this wonderful medium the same way we regard water coming out of a tap, might begin to cherish and love it like we never have before. Hollywood may deliver a lineup of duds when we venture back to the box office and the candy bar. Yet, even if the movies suck they will be glorious, because the cinema is glorious. Sometimes it’s the energy in the room that matters.