The screen in itself, more than the architecture around it, has been a source of adaptation, capable of carrying images projected in any different format, of any different content, from any part of the globe. Cinemas somehow always survived, through dictatorships or democracies: during WWII, they became both a source of distraction and information on the ongoing conflict; after the oil crisis in the 1970s, they turned to accommodate lower-budget, independent or pornographic productions. Being it watching a film or something else related, people always wanted to do it in rooms that are vast, dark, fetid, and funky.
They also wanted to do it in what is, ultimately, a public space. Despite having been drastically commercialized, cinema-going is an event that eventually implies the important choice of escaping our private sphere, giving ourselves to the city, and traveling to what, eventually, is a very dirty chair.
“[...] the darkness of the cinema is the color of a diffused eroticism, by its human condensation, absence of worldliness and relaxation of postures.”
Roland Barthes: “Leaving the Movie Theatre” (1984)
Nonetheless, many of us still cherish moviegoing as an unmissable ritual. Is it for the grandiosity of it? Or is it some sort of unmissable chance to depart our preoccupations and engage with fiction? The magical paradox of the cinema, that is how deeply we can perceive the effort of our senses while being so brutally placed in front of a flat screen, is now common knowledge. However, there could be more to the cinema than just a fun night out, as we are never too sincere when justifying our appeal to the screen, especially when dealing with our more voyeuristic, almost perverse motives. Such dishonesty might reflect our deep attraction for the framing act as a chance to see without being seen, and the looking-through-the-doorlock nature of being in a dark room, with a license to stare, and glare, without consequences. At the same time, while indulging our weirdest selves, at the screens we are in the company of others yet alone, in public yet in odd privacy. The excitement of such perversion is what makes us go back. We return in groups, or sometimes alone (if we are obsessed enough).
It is this strangeness that makes it all so alluring, especially as an urban ritual. Urban participation, quoting film critic Devika Girish, shares in fact the same paradox of “collective solitude” with the moviegoing experience, where urban dwellers find themselves in an exciting state of perpetual loneliness in which they practice the art of curiosity toward the others, avoiding any sort of engagement.
Now, we might agree or not with the contradictory aspects of moviegoing, but why is it so important for people to come back?
This crisis might, in fact, be a particularly tough one. While referring of course to the spread of Covid-19, the challenge for cinemas was already in place, and a crisis had begun way before last year. Let’s think of the rise of streaming bullies, the down of the middle-budget production, the intense polarization between venues for artistic and popular distribution, and the consequent rise in ticket prices. These were all conditions that slowly escalated since the digitization of cinematic production and, more recently, of cinematic reception. The virus might have given the final push in restricting our moviegoing experience to a mere extension of our social media world, equivalent just to an open Google Chrome tab on the top-left of our computer screen. In this stage, we find ourselves depressingly inactive and ignorant, as we get fatally distracted, even for the five seconds required to check our Twitter feed.
Distraction means lack of engagement, a sad ending for the magic of socially accepted voyeurism. Can the cinema, then, become the architect’s battleground?
Too often we exploit terms such as “appropriation of space”, “user-driven”, “bottom-up”, or other tactics that imply a degree of responsibility given to the public within the practice of urbanism. We usually do it without acknowledging the way people might negotiate between our architectural ideologies, when projected onto public space, and their individuality and diversity. Since these marginal audiences are often not automatically active or contestatory to spaces given to them, could cinema be a place for individual empowerment? At the screens, people find themselves to be immersed in imaginary spatial settings (in films) while being themselves in public space (at the cinema). Planners and architects might have taken this particular condition too superficially, simply considering the commercial performance of these places. How can cinemas provide new and outlandish ways of engagement between the public and their urban surroundings, once creatively reimagined as truly urban entities?
We must realize that moviegoing, in all its bizarreness, counts as one of the most defining and significant collective activities of our cities. We must realize, as agents of the built environment, our responsibility to give cinemas another shot.
This will be either by adapting its premises or re-evaluating them as pivotal urban components. Either way, people should go back to the cinema. If they do it differently, architects shall try and accommodate this change.