Back To The Cinema (Safely)

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The cinemas in Australia are re-opening. In most parts of the country, some are already open. In NSW, July 2 will see the first batch open their doors.

I can’t wait to get back into the cinema, and I’m not alone. Australians love movies, and we’ve got some of the best cinemas in the world to watch them in. The technical capabilities in some of the big rooms around the country are extraordinary, the seats are generally generous and cushy, and, in most of the cinemas throughout the land now, you can buy, and take into the cinema, alcohol. Our cinema experience is thrilling and civilised.

It’s also constantly under threat – not just from the pandemic, but from home viewing options and real estate developers. A flagship cinema complex in Sydney looks like its days are numbered to make way for a tower that may include a series of more “intimate” screening rooms. Meanwhile, the streaming services have clearly, through no deviousness of their own, benefitted throughout the pandemic: we have become reliant on them, and they’re influencing our habits.

As the President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia, I recently sent a letter to our membership urging us all to support the cinema industry when it re-opens, and I hope the public will as well. But of course, doing so theoretically flies in the face of sensibility: how do you go to the cinema and be a responsible isolationist?

The cinemas will do their part to help. There will be seat and row spacing to follow a four-metre distancing rule; there will be limited ticketing. There will certainly be aggressive cleaning. Some cinemas will be running at maximum thirty percent capacity, some twenty percent.

For our part – to be socially responsible and for our own peace of mind – we can support the cinema experience and thoroughly enjoy ourselves to our heart’s content, and one way to do it is to take advantage of a simple little fact: cinemas, like cafés, stores, and many pubs, are (traditionally) open all day long, through the whole week. You can see a film at 10am on a Wednesday. And when you do, there will almost certainly, inherently, be plenty of seats between you and anyone else. Heck, you may even hit on the elusive joy of having a cinema to yourself.

This doesn’t happen often, but I have been in hundreds of screenings with less than three other patrons. And it is awesome. Going to the cinema on one’s own, at an “unconventional” hour, is a true pleasure. Besides the inherent “me time”, and the luxuriousness of the space around you, there is the thrill of delinquency. I’m a critic, and I’m meant to be seeing films in the middle of the business day, and I still feel like I’m getting away with something wicked.

One of the most enjoyable days I had at the cinema last year was on a Wednesday in October, at a 12:30pm screening of Casablanca at the Dendy Cinemas in Newtown. I believe the ticket was ten bucks. There were about nine other patrons – maybe 14, maybe 6, I didn’t actually count – and, as far as I remember, only two of them were there together. The rest, like me, were flying solo, scattered safely around the auditorium (no one chooses to sit near a stranger, even without a virus around), and loving the film. Claude Rains’ witty bon mots as Captain Renault brought the small house down, and I heard a massive sigh somewhere behind me as Bogie said, “We’ll always have Paris” – a line for our current time as much as ever. Casablanca is showing at the Lido, Classic and Cameo cinemas in Melbourne tomorrow, June 27.

Another of my favourite days at the cinema last year was a retro screening of Psycho – on a Tuesday at 1pm. There were multiple revelatory pleasures. One was that the film was projected from a 35mm print, and if you haven’t seen one of those for awhile, keep an eye out (there are 70mm screenings of 2001 happening at various independent cinemas around Australia in the coming weeks, for example). We’re so used to seeing digital now that the celluloid experience is even more pronounced: it’s immediately apparent, and somehow, in some alchemic way, immediately charming. Again, content-wise, the glory of seeing Psycho with (quite a large) audience was in discovering its humour: who knew Psycho was a black comedy as much as a horror picture? If you don’t believe me, see it with an audience at a retro screening. There’s one on August 9th and another on the 12th at the Ritz in Sydney.

Cinemas, distributors, producers and studios make their money – the bulk of it – on tentpole releases, weekend evenings, and concession sales (popcorn and, increasingly, booze). But every ten dollars at a retro screening is support, and represents enormous value for the punter. When their doors open, many cinemas in Australia will be screening not just the latest releases but will drawing from an almost infinite repertory, and charging flexible prices. Any movie is going to be more exciting in a cinema than at home, and, after what we’ve all been through, I would warrant that a lot of people would spend ten bucks to see almost anything in that cosy, dark palace of dreams. Among the films screening in Australian cinemas when they re-open are 2001, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain, Grease, A Clockwork Orange and To Catch A Thief, as well as films from the recent repertoire such as Parasite, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, Honeyland, Honey Boy and JoJo Rabbit. Pricing may vary from cinema to cinema, but all of these films are worth the price of a ticket, because besides the film, you’re going to the movies. Your JobKeeper cash is doing its work if you spend it at the cinema. Go when it’s safe, and it’s a win-win.