Millennial at the Movies
La La Land, Summit Entertainment, 2016
by Sarah Murphy
By instinct I write ‘going to the cinema’, though I surprise myself by preferring its Americanism. ‘The movies’ is so much more fitting, capturing the greedy plural of love affairs, the urgent stress of ‘movie’, mo-vie, move me. ‘Film’ is too serious and technical, doesn’t have the same rabid sugar-drunk stench to it.
When we bought tickets and went in December, it wasn’t the same.
Till I came upon my twenties, the concept of going to the movies had always held significant currency in my friendships. It was like the cherry garnish on a martini – not crucial to the drinking, but you’d wonder if it weren’t there. When I moved schools, my first outing with my newly-found friends was an afternoon at the cinema. The film itself was unmemorable, as are many of the films I watch with friends – action spoofs and rom coms, The Hangover and Bridesmaids and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, at which my pretentious teenage self (“I’m actually really into film noir”) raised a secret inner eyebrow at. These films were about compromise and laughing along. At university, I went to evening screenings of moody French films, projected onto the walls of medieval chapels whose gargoyles would knobble the picture at the edges. The audience wore arts-student black and after it was over would stand outside, everyone feeling stupid for being a mere human, but smoking roll-ups and muttering half-sentence opinions to cover it up. Affectations and septum piercings are no match for the post-movie hangover. There is no one who isn’t susceptible to it, who doesn’t leave pannacotta-kneed and blinking, reeling with offence at being indelicately spat out into the weak daylight, or the unbeautiful reality or two-way conversation.
December 2015. A school friend and I reunited at our beloved, charmless old multiplex to watch Carol, and it made me profoundly sad. The screening room, not the film. Cineworld, Saturday at 2 p.m. – which would have been peak time in my early teens, yielding a scrum of customers wrapping up the end of the afternoon – was barren, ghosted. A few golfers, buffet-sleepy, and a father trying to sedate his toddler were the only other occupants of a room which looked like a peanut shell. Red velvet seats which once bespoke old Hollywood decadence now seemed like they’d be more at home in a motel, their glamour inappropriate. The phrase All dressed up and nowhere to go comes to mind. A man stood up by his partner came in ten minutes late and sat in the front row, ruefully slurping an orange smoothie. He was half of a date, robbed of a good time, which incidentally is just how the cinema felt that day.
It may be heavy-handed to base a thesis about the death of cinema on a few empty screening rooms in a Gloucestershire borough. I had to venture to London to find a cinema that wasn’t a gaping canyon – an Odeon in Covent Garden. The audience were numerous. The audience were cosmopolitan and seething with weary déjà-vu and mocha latte comedowns. Two minutes into the adverts the Chelsea dad in pointy orange shoes declared to his fidgety American lady companions behind us, ‘Sad, depressing little cinema, that’s what it is. Sad, failing little cinema’, nearly smacking his lips with the satisfaction of performing such a rigorous mental arabesque. Twenty minutes into Moonlight he grumbled ‘it’s BORING!’
My partner and I tacitly debated the possibility of an audible eye roll. Then we decided we should save our energy for better things than righteous venom, and watch the film instead. Besides, we didn’t want to add to the general aura of snarkiness which pervaded the room. In a cinema in Hackney, watching the first scene of La La Land, I witnessed a curious thing happen to the audience around me. As road rage gave way to dancing on the roof of Toyotas, 50s skirts did their twirly skirt thing, and the chorus brayed something like ‘if you fall and have a hernia just get up and boogie’, everyone around me was tensing up, twitching like mayflies in that distinctly English, almost anal-retentive aversion to blissful, naive abandon. It’s the sort of scene which necessitates review vocabulary like “toe-tappin’ fun” and “you’ll be dancing in your seat”. The room of post-Brexit cinemagoers was not getting down.
And when they let you down
The morning rolls around
It’s another day of sun (x 4)
Another day has just begun
It’s another day of sun.
-‘Another Day of Sun’, La La Land (2017)
Perhaps we are too bitter for musicals and too distracted for film. Perhaps the magic still exists and is captured in that monsoon of open-air film screenings which floods online event pages during British summer, carrying with it the promise of surreal fun and suspended reality, the vibrato of Humphrey Bogart’s voice sending fireflies dizzying into the lemonade, moonlight and the projector light mixing in a Technicolour milkshake over the femme fatale’s bare shoulders.
While the allure of the cinema as a spritely platonic pastime may have waned in recent years, I like to think it’s still ingrained in our public imagination when it comes to courtship. Going to see a film and the early stages of dating are two images which will forever be seared synecdochically onto each other, like Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton movies, or pastels to Wes Anderson. Whether cutesy and romantic – the intimacy of shared snacks and hesitantly-brushed knees and forearms, the awkwardness of sitting opposite a sex scene mirroring the promise of what’s to come – or slightly gawky, a place for immature couples who have nothing to say to one another and are instead content to sit as spectators to a love story bigger than their own. That’s the one thing about films: they ask very little of you other than looking. The flirty one-liners and fillers for excruciating silences have all been sorted for you.
It’s up to you how much labour you put into a film; whether you choose to muse, or add a running commentary. There are some films which I like to call sleepover films, gap-toothed masterpieces which exist to be talked the whole way through, each twist of the plot happily spoilt, each famous line giggled out in sync with the actor. Mean Girls is one such film. It may mean different things depending on what end of the social hierarchy you found yourself pre-maths class, but will surely induce some act of recognition, be it a high-five or a wince, in anyone born this side of the 90s. Whilst this film is infernally re-watched, its script is even more iconic than the scenes which enfold it. Indeed, if I ever meet Tina Fey I’ll ask her how it feels to have birthed the entire pink slushie vocabulary of the high school zeitgeist. For the last decade, the dialogue of Mean Girls has been revelled through and dissected, like a glorious, hormonal diamond, into caustic gems such as these. I WANT MY PINK SHIRT BACK! Your mom’s chest hair! Four for you, Glen Coco. As these quotes were gloatingly disseminated, they left the movie behind and became something bigger, a synonym for the mordant dumb blonde paradox perhaps. They lived in t-shirts and blog addresses and, most importantly, an unwritten dictionary of staple comebacks dutifully delivered in bratty American accents, which kind of ceased being funny somewhere along the line. I’m not sure if Mean Girls is the definition of a cult film or its opposition; cult denotes a following of devotees, rather than the sick spell cast over an entire Tamagotchi-bred generation.
A quartet of films which have genuinely shaped me, not in the gross way but in the sense that they burrowed into my eyesight, mind’s eye, whatever, and sometimes pop out at me like big beautiful eye floaters when I’m trying to get the bus to work. The Red Shoes. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. All About Eve. I watched these when I was too young to appreciate that it was Jacques Fath responsible for that ecstatic opera-scream of a dress, made of about ten dozen tiers of foaming tidepool blue, in which Moira Shearer uncomfortably climbs up a hundred stone steps like a desert traveller’s mirage.
I thought the other day, it’s been such a long time since I’ve watched a film without interrupting it with static signal from my iPhone. I’d like to let a film interrupt my life, for once. A special person in my life gave me the gift of a film projector recently. If the sad stood-up screening rooms of the local Cineworld are no longer enough to elicit a cinema experience akin to being possessed by Godard’s thick black spectacles, I think my bedroom wall and a good HDMI cable may do the trick.