Midnight premiers, lazy Sunday matinees, late night blockbusters… the cinema experience is painted in thousands of colours and cultures across our global canvas. Perhaps you’re the type to savour the comfy seats, the dark, immersive bubble of surround-sound, and the crystal-clear quality of the big-screen. Maybe, quite contrarily, you absolutely cannot stand chatty cinema patrons or costly tickets, and just the smell of popcorn is enough to make you sick. No matter your attitude when it comes to a weekend at the flicks, the experience is undeniably unique to the cinema, and a memorable experience for sure.
My friends and I have eagerly booked our tickets to see the new Tarantino movie next week. From what I already know about this director, I’m assuming the viewing will be, at the very least, an exciting one. It might be comparable to my cinema run-in with the highly anticipated and successful blockbuster film, Avengers: Endgame; the audience was lively, engaged, and integral in forming my unique watching experience. Although many would insist that noisy, rowdy cinema-goers are a nuisance, the truth is that I’ll never be able to recreate the events of that night with any subsequent, at-home viewings of Endgame. Sharing my reaction to each emotional beat in a room full of complete strangers is, honestly, an exciting thought. Unfortunately, it never really plays out as expected. I’ve found this ‘cinema rush’, the thrill and enjoyment of watching together, to become more elusive with each ticket purchase. After all, the experience of Endgame was built on a foundation of immense hype and fandom. It seems like the determining factors for what makes a trip to the movies either boring or brilliant are actually formed outside of the drab, dubious carpeted halls of the cinema complex.
In this way, the cinema is a heterotopia or ‘other space’, separate to the space surrounding it, mirroring aspects of our own socio-cultural make up. Philosopher Michel Foucault describes the cinema as an “odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space”, noting the unusual composition of the space when observed without cultural context and purpose. The cinema as an ‘other space’ has it’s primary function moulded by the society it exists within; numerous external factors are at play when shaping the cinema experience.
Considering that the rituals and practices of a cinema visit are formed in this way, I wanted to ask my mother, Ann, about her own movie-going experiences when she was my age. Her stories frame the cinema as a more interactive, social experience than I’d say it is today; many people hollered, clapped, cheered, laughed, and cried together, without any silent eye-rolls from the other patrons in the comfortable, anonymous, and pitch-black movie theatres of today. Apparently it was also customary to throw bundles of popcorn at the people seated near the front, and roll ‘Jaffa’ candies down the aisles like it was a ten-pin lane. Maybe the snacks were cheaper back then? But the most fascinating out of all her experiences would have to be those with the midnight screenings of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’. Seriously, this movie takes cult cinema to the most elevated tier possible of ‘ritualistic’.
Ann recalls dressing up, shouting rehearsed call-outs at the movie screen, and watching ‘shadow casts’ act out each character on the stage-like platforms of Wollongong’s Regent Theatre (an old cinema-turned-church that is said to soon be re-purposed, in true ‘heterotopian’ fashion). The cultural significance of the Rocky Horror cult cinema craze encompasses the key role of audience and the theatre space in forming an entire movie experience. Midnight screenings were an outlet of freedom and expression for the youth of the 70’s and 80’s, creating a space without judgement for all ‘freaks’ to have fun. The cinema experience is unique because it extends beyond the movie, further than the media being consumed; rows of faux suede seats, buckets of popcorn, whispers in the dark, first dates in the back row, choc-tops! The cinema is not simply a space, the cinema is a culture.