Tom Jolliffe looks back on his treasured big screen memories, and why seeing unforgettable films in a cinema will always be the ultimate experience…
There was a horrible feeling for cinema fans last year, which was perpetual until a few months ago. Cinema chains were struggling to stay open, and not just because of forced government restrictions due to a pandemic. Some chains were already in trouble prior to the arrival of Covid. This last year only seemed to compound the matter. Since that time, we’ve seen streaming come on leaps and bounds, whilst Disney’s own streaming channel has launched and taken its own hefty chunk of a pie which Netflix and Amazon Prime already has a hefty share of.
Furthermore, initially through pragmatism but possibly becoming permanent, several companies have had simultaneous theatrical and pay per view home releases. The potential of a new distribution model for the biggest films is plain to see. As an option it might be welcome. Many filmmakers and die hard cinephiles have been staunchly against this model however, a big backlash coming against some of these releases (Black Widow for example). There has been an unfortunate reality though…the recent worldwide circumstances have seen countless big budget films delayed. We’re still seeing films pushed back now. The Green Knight, David Lowery’s Arthouse Arthurian adaptation finding itself pulled just prior to its UK theatrical release (it also had a one off PPV release in the States, whilst still at the cinemas).
Ultimately, a question has regularly been circulated. Is the home experience beginning to eclipse the big screen? Most people have an HD TV these days, whilst increasingly the more elaborate entertainment set ups are becoming more affordable and easier to put together. It’s not now just a nerdy geek niche for the tech savvy (with a wedge to spend) who can transform their living room into a mini-cinema. Additionally the almost apathetical nature of modern life, of disposable food, entertainment, thrills, has lead to scrolling mentality. You book a cinema ticket, you sit down and you’re almost trapped by your purchase, locked into seeing something you may potentially not enjoy. If you crack on a 4K stream from Amazon (etc), you can of course give up and choose something else if it doesn’t grab you. Great isn’t it? Or is it?
Increasingly consumers are being pushed and/or drawn to quick, comfortable and disposable. Why go out to pick up your dinner when a guy on a moped can do it for you? Why go to the cinema and spend ‘x’ amount when your monthly subscription grants you access to hundreds of films to choose from (even if you may inevitably find nothing you fancy watching). Do the majority of film consumers still care for the cinematic experience? Those who go, who inevitably trundle to the latest Marvel adventure might well enjoy their experience in the same passing manor as they might enjoy a McDonald’s (or as Mr Scorsese might say, a Theme Park attraction). Sometimes it’s more about having something to see, something to do that given week. In my experience of more recent cinema visits (say the last decade or so), increasingly people can’t even give themselves over to what they’re watching. The phone remains more interesting.
I have had unforgettable moments in the big screen. These range from my earliest memory watching Masters of the Universe (it’s easy to be entranced as a kid of course), to being among the many utterly blown away by Jurassic Park (in a period where CGI was breaking ground and was genuinely awe inspiring). A little later it was The Lord of the Rings, which became the first Christmas event film that felt unmissable in ages (and which hasn’t been matched since The Return of the King ended three years of essential Christmas cinema viewing). I also recall going out of my way to watch Let the Right One at a converted barn turned cinema. I’d been intrigued by buzz and a review on TV, feeling compelled to watch it. The fact it was never going to play at a mainstream cinema near me said it all. Even No Country For Old Men had a few weeks in smaller indie chains before its Oscar buzz inevitably saw a wider release come, but seeing that for the first time (one of a select few 21st century masterpieces) was an amazing experience (so much so I dragged my brother to a cinema that ‘didn’t have popcorn’ the next day to watch it again).
At its best, cinema can send a chill down your spine or make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Rocky Balboa, Stallone’s franchise comeback in 2006, might have rested on nostalgia somewhat but I recall feeling that unmistakable electric feeling, tingling from spine to neck (and pit of stomach) during the training montage and final bout. At that point, I hadn’t felt it in years. I’d been enthralled and amazed by exceptional films, but this was an extra physical feeling on top, later repeated seeing Blade Runner: The Final Cut during its brief rerelease. Sure, by this point I’d seen Blade Runner innumerable times. I’m always enthralled by it and moved by it, but I’d never seen or heard it quite like that before. Vangelis’ synth swells in the opening Dystopian LA vistas, piercing right through my soul as I watched, to a point where it actually felt new, almost to a point I was in tears. It wasn’t purely nostalgia either, it was a cinematic vision, combining sound and visuals in the way it was fully intended (and I was engrossed in). Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049 managed to evoke similar feelings of awe, and butterflies in the gut.
There has, particularly in the last couple of decades, been something of a falsehood. That cinemas are made for the biggest films. That our multiplex experience is best reserved for The Avengers, or whatever latest gargantuan blockbuster is out at the time. Those huge screens and booming sound systems are best utilised by films with 20 minute CGI action scenes that relentlessly hit you with visual excess. Earlier in the pandemic when cinemas were still open and blockbusters were all delayed, we had a brief period where indie films and rereleases were making up the numbers, filling the schedules. What it did, at least briefly, was to offer a more diverse selection. Checking more recently though I looked at the schedules for my local cinema only to be greeted with a choice of comic book films, blockbuster sequels (most of which Disney owned in some manner), or films for kids (slightly understandable given we’re in school holidays). Given many cinemas these days can have 8+ screens, it still felt a little disappointing that there was a lack of indie options, world cinema options and even rereleases too. It felt disappointing many of the films were simply the next (in many cases) disposable meal. If you’ve bought your ticket that’s what matters, and whether you have long lasting memories the film, doesn’t matter to the money men.
There had been something of an indie resurgence at the cinema in until last year. Films like Uncut Gems and The Farewell doing well, and last years Oscar winner Nomadland also flying the flag somewhat too. Additionally, the success of Parasite lead to hopes that we might have a little big more interest in world cinema on the big screen (Parasite was wonderful to see on the big screen). Uncut Gems gripped me, and had me on the edge of my seat, almost tearing the arm rests off with tension, more than any 200 million dollar blockbuster had in recent decades. No, these ‘smaller’ films, at their best are gripping and unforgettable because the power of film will always rest predominantly on engaging characters and stories. I do enjoy the latest blockbuster as much as the next, but you go in knowing full well this is a place setter. It’s supposed to be a little bit like a disposable barbecue. It does the job and burns out into the ether, perhaps slightly forgettable (bar a few exceptions). We’re not always after deeper cinema, meaning or to see a film that we might actually feel compelled to revisit and analyse several times over. Will people remember and re-analyse Fast 9 or Black Widow in decades to come? Some films, even if it’s par for the course, fade out of our memory, almost by the time we’ve past the foyer on our way out. That’s their remit, but give us alternatives.
So when I was looking through those listings, seeing Black Widow out for its 5th/6th week, but nary an indie film in sight (the closest approaching that description was The Courier), I couldn’t help but feel irked. I checked my nearest indie chain in Oxford. To my dismay, it was almost the same story. I appreciate there’s a backlog of blockbusters kind of flying out now, needing homes, but why run Black Widow on a screen where two people might show (if lucky) when you could put something out which might pull in viewers wanting more grown up fare. Indeed, looking at rereleases, I’ve seen many over the years. Given the one off nature of these and the associated nostalgia, they’ve almost always had impressive turn outs. I’ve seen films not limited to From Russia With Love, Blade Runner, Taxi Driver, Terminator (1 and 2), A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, The Thing, Back to the Future and more, all of which were at least half full (most sold out). I’ve also been to see Rambo: Last Blood on opening day, a tired and slightly dated sequel that felt almost aggressively more suitable for home entertainment, where there were 10 people in the screen at best.
I’m by no means saying we need to cut out blockbusters from the chains, and additionally this also occasionally comes back to distributors, rights and more, but if we can, I’d like to see a wider range of films on the big screen. More diverse choices. More films which are made to have longevity, or seep more slowly into your synapses. If chains are going to run a 200 million dollar car film two months after release to a near empty auditorium it’s their prerogative, but if the potential had come up to fill that screen with a classic rerelease, a cult film (if you rerelease Withnail and I on a screen every few months I guarantee you’d sell tickets, as an example) they might gain more revenue back. The irony is too, pop ups and drive-throughs, special events, or rare geek cinemas like The Prince Charles Cinema are already catering to audiences who want underground, cult, world or retro cinema. There is a market.
It boils down to this: We can make disposable entertainment the specialty, catering for the widest market (which works in opening 3 week windows per film for the most part), or we can try to offer out the cinema that might leave its claws in, which might even give viewers a more transcendental experience. It doesn’t take monstrously huge set pieces and increasingly impossible action sequences to grab attention, sometimes great cinema can do that, sometimes powerful performances. Again, my most recent trip, to see Taxi Driver (again) was one such unforgettable and fresh experience and interestingly, on eavesdropping on the way out, some first time viewers were equally amazed by the films style and power.
What are your unforgettable cinema experiences? Which films blew you away on the big screen? Should cinema be more than just turning up now? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/