Christopher Nolan Reminds Us to Make Sure Movie Theaters Live On
by Alex Billington
March 23, 2020
"The single biggest threat to man's continued dominance on the planet is the virus." A quote from Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, Ph.D, that is shown at the beginning of Outbreak. In just a few months, followed by a few weeks of frantic decision making, the entire world has been upended by a virus. We still don't know when things will get back to "normal", or if they'll ever get back to normal, but for the time being everything is changing before our eyes and there's nothing we can do besides wait and see. Stay at home and stay safe. Ride out the storm and wait for sunny skies after it's all over. The biggest change affecting this website, and every reader, is that cinemas worldwide have shut their doors. Most countries have passed emergency laws requiring all entertainment venues, including all cinemas, to close down until further notice. Thankfully we have digital libraries at our fingertips, but I still miss the cinema. I wish I could still see films in theaters…
In response to this global pandemic, and global shut down of cinemas, a number of cinephiles have started writing about our current situation. One of these people is none other than Christopher Nolan, who just so happens to have a big movie set to open in theaters this summer (Tenet is scheduled for July 17th, as long as the movie theaters reopen by then). "People love to experience stories, because whether they are doing it together or alone, film, television, novels and games engage our emotions and provide us with catharsis," he says. Nolan wrote a short editorial for the Washington Post called: "Movie theaters are a vital part of American social life. They will need our help." In this article, he goes on to explain how sad it is for cinemas to shut down, and how much he hopes that they can live on once this is all over. It is a meaningful and emotional bit of writing, his own way of responding to the shut down. Here's an excerpt from his piece:
"When people think about movies, their minds first go to the stars, the studios, the glamour. But the movie business is about everybody: the people working the concession stands, running the equipment, taking tickets, booking movies, selling advertising and cleaning bathrooms in local theaters. Regular people, many paid hourly wages rather than a salary, earn a living running the most affordable and democratic of our community gathering places."
We all know Christopher Nolan is passionate about the theatrical experience, always prioritizing the cinema over anything else (including releasing theatrical trailers that never ever show up online). And I love him all the more for being this passionate about that experience. His movies are made for the big screen. "When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever." Isn't that the truth. I'm glad Nolan decided to write something and speak up about this. Not that it will change anything, but at least he gets to talk about why they're so important. "Hardest hit right now are workers from businesses such as movies theaters, whose entire appeal is based on humanity’s greatest instinct — and the one now turned against us, which makes this situation so damned hard: the desire to be together. Maybe, like me, you thought you were going to the movies for surround sound, or Goobers, or soda and popcorn, or stars. But we weren’t. We were there for each other."
Another worth-reading article about the theatrical experience was written by veteran New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, who (in lieu of new reviews) wrote about her love for cinema, growing up going to the theater, and the need to keep cinemas around and alive after this pandemic settles down. Her editorial is titled "The Moviegoer: Our Critic Misses Sitting in the Dark With You". Many of the writing about cinemas right now touches on the idea that, while we do now have streaming and digital libraries available everywhere thanks to the internet, that doesn't mean we should forget about the big screen experience. We shouldn't just move on and only think about how nice it is to sit on our couches and watch movies in the comfort of our own self-quarantine homes. And I agree – we need to re-open the cinemas and get back out there as soon as we can (as soon as it's safe for everyone again). Because that's what movies are really about:
So many of my memories are connected with moviegoing; some are of being alone in a theater full of people, which is a metaphor for my life, though also a metaphor for being alive. I love laughing and crying and shrieking with an enthusiastic audience. And while I now go to the movies for work, I also go to the movies for pleasure and for the love of the art. I go because I'm curious, because I like the director or star. I go because I’m happy, anxious or depressed. I go because films have provided comfort throughout my life, offering me an escape from my own reality but also a way of making sense of it, giving me glossy and gritty worlds to discover and reassuringly disappear in.
Read Manohla's article here. She goes on to talk about how our experience of watching films can be affected by who you see them with – especially sitting in a cinema. "When I write about movies, I tend to frame them in aesthetic and cultural terms. What I don't write about are the people I saw them with and whose presence — their bodies next to mine — can become inextricably bound up with how I think about certain films." It's so very true. Which touches upon another point: your experience with and your appreciation of cinema is, unquestionably, affected by how you watch. Not just where & when, but the mood you're in, the experience of the cinema (is it too loud, or too quiet, out of focus?), and the audience. It all matters. And it all makes a difference. Critics tend to deny this, but it's true. The theatrical experience is important because it pulls you deeper into the screen, that "window to another world" is bigger than anything you have in your own home.
Another film critic wrote about this idea, too. David Ehrlich from Indiewire also wrote an editorial about the theatrical experience, titled: "Movie Theaters Are Closed, but Their Value Isn't Lost to Us Yet". His analysis is aimed more towards reminding the industry that moviegoing is not "gone for good". It is an important part of cinema, even if we like to pretend it isn't. One of the most poignant passages in his article:
Regardless of how the pandemic reshapes the film Industry, the taxonomical gap between theatrical and streaming content will continue to grow wider. But that will only further entrench the need for both to exist, and casual movie fans who think they want to watch everything at home are missing the forest for the trees: They're forgetting that the way we watch things has a direct effect on the way we make things, and that — as Quibi is threatening to prove — the standards of theatrical entertainment are the last bulwark we have against a corporatized push towards passive viewing. It's a cultural war based on the premised on the idea of art that only asks for half of your attention, and has the nerve to sell that as a feature instead of a bug.
He's definitely right about that. And he goes on to reiterate: "More importantly — and this bears repeating — people want to go to the movies! People want to go to the movies so badly that drive-in theaters across the country saw an immediate surge in ticket sales as soon as multiplexes began to close their doors." While we all do enjoy the relaxed feeling of watching movies in the comfort of our own homes, without any worries or distractions, it seems there's still a desire to go out and watch them on the big screen together. And one day we'll be able to do that again. When that day comes, I expect theaters to be packed with people, who've been waiting to return to the temples of cinema and laugh, smile, cry, and cheer together once again.
All these articles have one thing in common: they remind us that, even though everything may be shut down right now and every cinema is closed, they will re-open one day. Have hope. Look forward to the day when we can all go to the cinema again. Ehrlich adds: "Movie theaters aren't about to be unmasked as an archaic inconvenience that should be consigned to the ruins of our pre-coronavirus world. On the contrary, they're about to become a painful reminder of how suffocating it can be to experience spectacle in private." I miss that full-on surround sound, I miss sitting in the dark waiting for the movie to begin, I miss that communal experience of sitting with an audience, quietly soaking up glorious visual storytelling. I'm not worried that cinemas will disappear forever, I'm only worried about how long it'll take to get this virus under control so we can reopen theaters and get back to regular life. Until then, stay safe. Cinema, and cinemas, will live on.