Commonwealth of Magic

The first time I saw Blade Runner was with a bunch of friends in a cinema in London, because that was how you saw movies then. The video cassette recorder was just  making inroads into home entertainment, but home entertainment wasn’t the only game in town. For an epic experience, an overload of image and sound and emotion,  you needed a big screen. I still do.

But it’s not just the scale – it’s the sharing. In a movie audience, you become a cell in a larger organism. The same stimuli push your buttons, the same ideas bore into your brain. As you emerge from the cinema, processing the experience, you are surrounded by people who shared it with you but perceived it differently, and you relive the movie with them. You agree if it soared or fell, and why. Blade Runner built its reputation as a classic because I and thousands of others left the cinema knowing that we’d just shared something extraordinary, and wanting to do it again.

The first time I ever saw My Neighbour Totoro – in my opinion, the greatest movie ever made – was on a Japanese-language videocassette on the TV screen in the corner of the living room. Even at that scale, I knew I had to see it again, but I didn’t really experience the movie until I saw it on a big screen in the company of others for the first time. In one of the conference suites at the Liverpool Adelphi Hotel, at the 1990 Eastercon. I sat with a couple of hundred others, caught up in Miyazaki’s perfectly realised fantasy of childhood, and for the duration of the film we were citizens of a commonwealth of magic.

Most film directors make their work to be seen in a movie theatre on a big screen with a huge sound system. Many  – Hayao Miyazaki famously one of them – don’t really care if you see their films any other way. There is a poetry of scale, a sense of being overwhelmed and absorbed into the picture, that doesn’t come when you can see your knick-knacks on the periphery of the image, and pause the action anytime you want.

The arc of modern entertainment has been away from the shared experience and towards the solitary. We gathered in halls and public spaces to watch silent movies, or attend concerts and performances. We shared our reactions, our emotions, the common gasp of amazement and guffaw of laughter. Then we split into our private family groups to watch TV and listen to music in our own homes, marvelling at the convenience of not having to travel to town and buy tickets, still sharing a common experience. As the world got busier TV and radio got less convenient, and technology stepped up to the plate, letting us timeshift our viewing, making devices cheaper and smaller.

Now everyone in the family can watch pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want, and more and more people choose to watch alone. They also choose to watch in small bites, or in multiple streams, with a movie running in one window while email runs in another and a forum chatters away in a third and the phone demands constant attention. It’s hard for a director with an autocratic, all-absorbing vision to push his idea to the surface of that constant stream of chatter. It’s hard for a viewer to realise just how big something is when it’s confined to a group of pixels the size of a postcard. The short, the simple, the funny, attracts instant attention and lets it move on again. The epic can be scary. Maybe that’s another reason why we used to watch the really big stuff together.

Modern economics favours the divide-and-rule approach. Buying a cinema ticket is expensive, and even getting to a cinema isn’t always easy. Until the 1980s, the tiny Northern town where I grew up had two cinemas, both a long walk or a shortish busride from home. To see a movie in 21st-century London I have to trek to the nearest multiplex, where – depending on how unusual my choice of film – I may end up watching it on a screen not that much bigger than an extravagant TV.

Turning back time and technology tends to require destruction on a grand scale, and in any case I like ease of access and variety of entertainment as much as the next person. But I don’t want to see every cinema close and every experience be packaged for the smartphone and the three-minute attention span. I want to feel the way My Neighbour Totoro made me feel when it took a whole crowd of us through a big screen in Liverpool and into another world.

We watched the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner again at the weekend, and I wished we’d been in a cinema.

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