Zen and the art of communal experience

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The Daily Asahi reported that Sony and  Toshiba are “hoping to make a comeback” with a new generation of TVs that make your living-room into a “cinema-like experience.”

Nice try, but it won’t work, even if you invite a couple of hundred people and lay on an unlimited supply of popcorn.

The fundamental entertainment shift of the past century has been away from shared communal experience and towards individually determined choice. Movies will fit that bill, if you insist. Movies can be chopped into five-minute chunks, squeezed onto a smartphone screen, conceived and packaged for audiences with the attention span of an overindulged two-year-old.

But cinema can’t, and shouldn’t.

Cinema is about going somewhere, being somewhere, outside your normal experience, outside your self-determined, self-directed timetable. It’s sitting down in a place you don’t own with a community you didn’t choose to see a story unfold at a pace you don’t control. It’s about suspension of disbelief, surrender of autonomy, going with the flow.

The great magicians of cinema are autocrats. (Yes, even Mike Leigh.) They control the horizontal. They control the vertical. And although few state it as clearly as Hayao Miyazaki, they want you to see their work in the environment it was made for: on a big screen, with a big sound system, at the pace they intended. They don’t want you hitting the pause button whenever you fancy a beer or a snack.  Just for that hour or two that you’ve agreed to trust them with your imagination, they want total control.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo puts it beautifully. “Films have the power to capture dreams” says the hero’s lost father. “Come and dream with me” says Georges Méliès. And one of the primary characteristics of dreams is that their events are outside our conscious control. The director in our subconscious manipulates events into a narrative that, waking, we could not allow ourselves to watch.

Spend as many hundreds or thousands as you like on shiny new tech. Fill up the planet with junked old tech. Keep corporations going and stockholders happy, keep people in jobs in factories and boardrooms, and encourage ad agencies to create more and more hyperbole around pointless consumer fripperies. You will not change reality. Your living-room will never be a cinema.

If you want the real thing, the true cinematic experience, you have to go out into the dark, and trust, and share, and give up the illusion of control for the illusion of magic.

4 thoughts on “Zen and the art of communal experience

  1. I hate to be that guy, but while in theory I am fully in favor of supporting a medium that means a great deal to me personally as well as artistically, my local “communal experience” is quite terrible. They also never show arthouse or fringe films (by which I mean films not starring Adam Sandler) so it’s less of an issue these days for me and I content myself by supporting creators through purchasing the blu-ray, which when they come usually are a communal experience as they’re watched by a small army of children, the local cinema not bothering to screen stuff like Arietty.

    Although (sarcasm), my home cinema setup is just as good as the real thing – it comes with complete strangers who sit behind me talking all the way through, occasionally nip out to get popcorn (that they spill over my floor) and come back reeking of cigarette smoke, and one of them usually piddles all over my bathroom. Also, before the film starts, I put a card up that says “if you see someone recording this film, please call FACT” and one of them usually obliges by loudly telling their mates to put away the camcorder and then snorting loudly.

    • I can see where you’re coming from. Public behaviour in cinemas (or any other public space, for that matter) is frequently inconsiderate and boorish. Maybe one day all these surveillance cameras in public spaces will capture images of people behaving like turds and then sending it to the screens of every TV shop, pub, bar and cinema in in the area so we could all stand around laughing and pointing our fingers at the eejits: why should reality TV stars be the only ones to get airtime looking like the kind of people you wouldn’t want to sit next to on public transport, when the general public can do it so much worse?

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