What We Lose When We Lose the Cinema
One of the hardest hit brick-and-mortar establishments during the COVID-19 pandemic is the cinema. Industry leaders in the United States have been warning of impending doom for the industry as pandemic fears, quarantine, and social distancing restrictions gut the traditional business model that cinemas have always relied on. To further emphasize the changing landscape in cinematic entertainment, the Academy Awards this year voted to allow, with heavy restrictions, streaming-only movies to qualify for the Oscars. While this may seem like a pandemic provision, others see it as part of the evolution of a “new normal”. And while there is much to look forward to for a lot of people in this new normal, there are some important storytelling aspects that will disappear along with your neighborhood movie theater.
One of the first things that will disappear is the phenomenon of film as collectively experienced story. Storytelling as a collective experience is as old as the very notion of storytelling itself. Collective story experiences served a social purpose, bonding communities and peoples over stories commonly learned and appreciated or reviled. Even with the rise of popular individual story experiences such as you get with books, comics, video games, etc. humanity has still set aside some forms of storytelling as meant to be experienced with a gathered audience, such as theatre and the aforementioned cinema. Gathering at the cinema used to be such a community event. You could come out of a movie theater and find that you could talk to strangers who have been in there with you about the film you’ve all experienced together. And, while watching movies at home by yourself or with a small intimate circle has been around for decades, the increasing dominance of streaming only contributes to reinforcing the individual experience of film. This transforms film into an agent of atomization and isolation (where we’re all chilling to Netflix in our rooms) from its old role as a form of storytelling meant to bring a large gathering of people together to experience something with each other.
Another thing we will lose as cinemas shutter their doors is the presence of spectacle in our experience of film. There are some shots in filmmaking that are just meant for larger screens and larger audiences. These are typically shots reserved for some large visual spectacle: large-scale battle scenes, sprawling birds-eye human urban activity, or even depictions of endless space like in science fiction. They imbue the collective story experience with a sense of common largeness. And while you can be perfectly content to see these sequences in smaller screens, they lose some of their visual profundity. Film consumed on smaller individual screens, such as the TV series, tends to lend itself to more intimacy with the smaller audience. So, the tendency for film shot for this sort of experience is to maximize that intimacy with the more individual audience and to work within the confines of a smaller screen. As more of these stories migrate to the smaller film medium, the big screen spectacle loses its punch and may simply fall into disuse. With the fading of spectacle also fades this sense of film and movies as large-scale storytelling for everybody.
Both of these losses, the sense of community in the experience and the sense of largeness, contribute to a longer-term decline in the notion of a collective “our story”, as big screen movies used to play a large part in helping define collective identities. It is a different thing for a student asked to watch Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “Jose Rizal” for a civics class to have experienced it sitting on the steps of a large, darkened cinema with a crowd that may well be a perfect cross-section of the Filipino nation than it is to have to watch that movie on a laptop or a phone screen while alone in his room. As we’ve retreated from grander truths to more private, self-defined ones, so have we retreated from grander collective stories to more intimate ones. The most modern movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, felt like a pesky war got in the way of a lowest common relatable love story. Even where the subject is grand, we’ve retreated from that grand-ness and sought what we can more easily make intimate and deeply personal. The loss of cinema will exacerbate this trend, and it is enough to make one wonder if, perhaps, the greatest thing we lose when we lose the cinema is the ability to tell stories that transcend the many personal truths that we’ve used to divide ourselves.