Living Without Cinema in the U.K.

Catch a flick or catch an infliction?

At multiple points during John Schlesinger’s thrillingly tense 1976 Nazi war criminal/torture drama Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier’s calm, calculated psychopath Dr. Szell asks Dustin Hoffman’s poor, kidnapped graduate the immortal, nebulous question: “is it safe?”.

Whenever I consider going to catch a movie, I hear this question in my head, Szell-style. And the answer, almost always, seems to be… no.

Cinemas were able to officially re-open on July 4th in the U.K., but most remained closed given a government recommendation doesn’t mean an enforced edict. We don’t live in North Korea just yet. The biggest chain, Cineworld, kept its doors closed, forestalling an earlier opening in mid-July after Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was shunted back. Mainly because Tenet is now opening in Europe at the end of August, Cineworld flung open their doors on the last day of July promising exciting films, old and new… and Russell Crowe in Unhinged.

Chances are, had Tenet moved again, Cineworld would have stayed closed. Odeon, probably the second fiddle main chain in the U.K., had opened, and as I discussed in my podcast Motion Pictures in more depth, one of my best friends frequented his local Odeon twice in July to catch some classic movies and found the experience perfectly fine. My bread and butter is Cineworld, however, unless I’m paying to frequent an independent venue such as Birmingham’s Electric Cinema, Mockingbird, or the MAC, or occasionally as a treat going ‘upmarket’ and luxuriating at the Everyman.

Cineworld no doubt were driven by the incoming presence of Tenet that will, theoretically, drive up what will almost certainly be a steady, limp return to cinema going in England over August. They’ll be hoping Inception’s anniversary re-release, Tenet and even the possibility of a trailer pegged on it for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, will draw in punters who are anxious about attending a venue. It could work. Opinion online seems pretty split between audience members keen to go (some gilding the lily by claiming they’re doing it to #supportthearts), and others defiantly against attending for some time.

For a long time, I have been firmly in the latter camp. I wasn't going to conscience attending a cinema until 2021, even if it might mean missing my first Nolan cinematic experience since before 2005, and my first James Bond film at the cinema since 1995. In recent weeks, admittedly, I was starting to wonder on this position. Was it too paranoid? Covid-19 cases, despite flashpoints of infection in the North and the government’s pull back on relaxing lockdown measures, are continuing to either plateau or fall generally. We’re not in the chaotic mess seen in America or Brazil. Our leaders may be negligent ultra-capitalists, but they’re not outright fascists (yet). They ultimately cave to scientific consensus, even if they blunder on for longer in denial than they should.

Yet I, like many others, remain uneasy about attending the cinema, as desperate as I am for that experience. Because much as I wouldn't go back to the pre-streaming era, as someone far less nostalgic for previous eras as some, you can’t beat going to the pictures. I don’t go and see everything, despite my Cineworld Unlimited card. Most indie fare, honestly, I’m perfectly happy to watch on my smart telly at home. Event films, though, or ones with a clear artistry, are meant to be watched on that canvas. I didn’t get much from Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’ll be honest, but I wonder if that might have been different had I been immersed in a cinema surrounding rather than at home at 5pm on a warm summer’s day distracted by my Twitter feed.

It just doesn’t, right now, feel safe enough. Cineworld are enforcing social distancing measures, as are other cinemas and chains, but questions still remain. Cineworld’s app is at times unclear in terms of booking next to seats booked by other customers, even when there is a one-metre enforcement either side that is mandatory. Rows in front and behind do not seem to be closed, invalidating the one-metre rule vertically, which seems designed to allow for greater patronage but comes at a risk to safety. The legal enforcement of masks from August 8th could help, but given how laissez-faire this is being regulated in shops (despite most people having the civic goodwill to wear on), I’m not optimistic cinemas will have the staff or the will to refuse cinema-goers entry without a mask.

The whole situation remains, as everything is with Covid-19, all to play for. It will be interesting to see how those who are attending cinemas in these early days, as new films finally begin to trickle out including the aforementioned Unhinged and Eva Green-starring Proxima (films which, ironically, would have barely gained a mention in normal circumstances), find the experience. Some will no doubt refuse to accept it is anything less than perfectly safe as they foster their own narrative about tyrannical rules being unnecessary in public forums. Others might be turned off the experience. Honestly, I suspect most people simply won’t go either way until Tenet rolls around, as that film will be the real litmus test.

I think I will attend a cinema before 2021, should the spread of the virus continue to not warrant a second national lockdown or translate into a serious second wave (which remains a strong possibility), but in August? Almost certainly not. September? Perhaps. When the Tenet excitement has died down, and audience numbers for it thin out, then perhaps. It will almost certainly play in cinemas for longer than it normally would, given the autumn slate of major releases has largely disappeared. There will be plenty of time. Supporting the arts is important but nothing comes before public safety, because unless we act responsibly and control how we spread this virus, cinemas will likely end up completely closed down again anyway.

If you have gone to see a movie, I’d love to know how you found it. Is it safe? Or are we all, right now, Dustin Hoffman?

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