On one of the final days of my undergraduate degree I met a friend for a coffee. It was one of those summer afternoons in London everybody loves; the sun felt inescapable, and the heat was seeping into every corner. We wandered past our local cinema, a place where I had invested a lot of my time, watching movies, good, bad, and somewhere in-between. “I love that place,” my friend mumbled fondly. I was overcome with feeling, remembering the many times I’d watched something special and felt more at home in the world, afternoons I’d sat opposite a friend in the foyer, munching on leftover popcorn and debating the film we had just watched. “Me too” I said.
Moving around a lot as a teenager meant that much of who I was felt disjointed. Out of place. I was perpetually negotiating who I was with where I was. I was trying to present to others all the ways in which I was different while desperately attempting to fit in. For as long as I can remember, visiting the cinema felt like an ointment easing the sting of self-awareness. It was a place where anonymity was guaranteed. I was one of many, there only to surrender myself to an artistic experiment.
“As I began to make the local cinema my second home, I grew into a more complete version of myself.”
As an emotional teenager, having a dark room to wrap myself up in, where I was encouraged to feel everything, was irresistible. I would walk out of films that my friends would describe as “okay…kind of long,” feeling like something had been broken open inside of me and stitched back together. I was granted this just by showing up. For me, being a teenager often felt like waging a war against my most complicated emotions, so there was a thrilling catharsis in choosing to go to the cinema, where I could relinquish control and allow my biggest, most sincere feelings to spill out.
When I moved to London for university, I spent a lot of time feeling unmoored – suspended between my teenage self and this newfound adult freedom that felt unruly and open ended. As I began to make the local cinema my second home, I grew into a more complete version of myself.
I would sit down and watch life settle into a series of easily recognisable highs and lows or something ever-shifting, multi-faceted and complex. While I had initially treated cinemas as visual escape routes, I gradually started to understand them as ways of reconciling with the problems that felt unwieldy. Whether I was wandering into a sparsely populated 2pm screening of a romantic comedy or blending into the hubbub of a blockbuster’s midnight premiere, I began to treat a visit to the cinema as a fictional reframing of who and where I was.
“I miss settling into my seat before the film starts, keenly aware that this movie, and whatever kernel of truth I can grasp onto, will be inextricably linked to this time, this place, these people.”
I miss it. I miss pushing open glass doors and glancing over the assortment of films displayed above the tills. I miss the thrill of clutching a newly printed ticket in my hand. I miss wondering if I should tuck it away for safekeeping, slip it into my phone case or stick it to my wall. I miss half-heartedly resisting the temptation to buy a bucket of popcorn and always getting one anyway. Above all, I miss settling into my seat before the film starts, keenly aware that this movie, and whatever kernel of truth I can grasp onto, will be inextricably linked to this time, this place, these people.
As the lights dim and the adverts flash on screen, I am always struck by the hundred acts of coincidence which aligned to bring this audience to this screen and showing, the events which occurred in order for us to entrust ourselves to a filmmaker who could ruin our moods or change our lives.
I miss hearing the speakers rattle, bearing the sound of a couple fighting brazenly or buildings exploding. I miss the thrill of panic rolling over a crowd still reeling from a plot twist, nervous whispers floating back to the screen. I miss laughing and gasping together, reacting in unison not because we must but because we are gathered in the same place at the same time.
I wish I could go back and comfort that younger, less confident version of me. I’d remind myself that the world is bigger than the problems threatening to overwhelm me, and there is something wonderfully human about choosing to invest in the world that is right in front of me. I’d say that to be the best version of myself, I sometimes need to take some time to see life from a different perspective. But with enough trips to the cinema, I’m sure I would come to understand that anyway.
Anna McKibbin is a freelance journalist, mostly writing about film and culture. @annarosemary
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