When did going to the cinema get so complicated? What happened to the moth-eaten curtains opening and closing before the film began? What happened to Kia Ora, Pearl and Dean commercials, and usherettes carrying melting choc-ices in their hanging baskets?
I admit to having gone to the cinema just three times in the past 20 years. Because I get everything sent to me on DVD and watch it, courtesy of Bafta, alone at home, I’ve become a bit of a recluse when it comes to leaving the house for my entertainment.
The last film I went out to see was nearly 10 years ago, and it was a press showing of The Matrix that I went to with my then boyfriend. I don’t know which was longer: the film or the seven-month relationship. But I know that I prayed with equal longing for both to end – with a bullet to my head, if needs be.
I went to see Sixth Sense round about the same time and didn’t enjoy that, either. People had told me there was a brilliant twist at the end, but as I had spent the whole film assuming that Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was dead (Oh, come on: anyone who had seen Ghost must have known that from then on, dead didn’t mean dead in movieland), I thought that the twist might be that he had been alive all along.
When a character spends two hours speaking to no-one but a child who sees dead people, even the dumbest person has to start asking why. My boyfriend didn’t, which is yet another reason why he’s an ex.
Before that, the last time I went to the cinema was in 1990, when I saw The Godfather III. That, too, turned out to be a rather chequered experience. I saw it in Cardiff’s Queen Street, in a venue that had just imposed a non-smoking policy. I took no time at all, therefore, in complaining about a man who lit up barely ten minutes into the film.
When he was asked to put out his cigarette out and refused, staff (clearly inspired by having spent the week seeing how the Mafia operated) called the cops, and, within the minute, three armed officers arrived to evict him. They didn’t mess around in Cardiff.
Living in the heart of movieland, and also now trying to write my own script, it seemed only logical to start hitting the cinema again.
Although I watched dozens of films before I did my writing course here, and have watched possibly more television over 20 years than anyone in the world, there is nothing quite like the experience of the lights going down in the cinema, knowing that your life is untouchable for the next couple of hours; and continuing to keep real life on hold when you emerge into daylight, carrying the fictional world with you and nursing it secretly, in the warmth of your heart, for hours afterwards.
Everywhere you look in LA is a reminder of the city’s great cinematic tradition. I can see the Hollywood sign on the hill from my apartment block; enormous billboards scream about the latest releases in all the shopping malls; everyone’s conversation on which you eavesdrop appears to be littered with the words “picture”, “deal”, “script”, or “contract”. “Tell Jerry/Sam/Steve to call me” is a familiar refrain that leaves you longing to know whether Jerry, Sam or Steve ever will, or whether they, too, are destined to enter the great ether of unknowns that is as vast as it is real.
I had wanted to see The Hangover for some weeks, but having walked to the Beverly Centre a couple of miles away and discovered that it was not showing, lost interest; but this week, after a long work-out and an even longer walk, I finally made it to Century City, where The Hangover was showing in not just one, but two cinemas. And, more to the point, two of 13 other cinemas, all housed under one roof.
“Next guest, please,” said a girl behind glass as I stood in line. Guest? I was a guest? Not just a punter whose money they were glad to take, before thankfully shutting up shop at the end of the night? Sure enough: a great big neon sign above her head indicated that this was the place for Guests to purchase their tickets. I already felt rather special. Heck, they know how to treat people in this country.
They know how to feed them, too. Outside the Guest ticketing area, there is an outdoor dining terrace that, during the summer, shows films. In the adjoining complex, there are loads of restaurants and cafes serving food from about 20 countries that you can – get this – TAKE INTO THE CINEMA WITH YOU.
In London, there are small cinemas that allow you to take in alcoholic drinks and that serve food while you sit around on sofas (the Electric in Notting Hill started this small revolution), but I don’t think that there are any larger complexes that have caught on to the idea of your being allowed in to eat your supper on your lap.
One of the reasons I have always hated the cinema is that I can’t abide the smell of popcorn, and am even more averse to people crunching it around me when I am trying to concentrate, so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about having to contend with the conflicting smells of burgers, pizza and noodles. But if there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that your irritation levels drop substantially if you do exactly the same as the very people who are setting off your irritation.
So, off I went to purchase my burger and fries takeaway. Having been on a vegetarian diet and drinking copious amounts of carrot juice for three months, I figured that after my strenuous day’s exercise and no other food, it wouldn’t hit the waistline too hard.
“Buffalo?” said the sales assistant.
“No, beefburger,” I said.
“Yeah, but you want buffalo?”
My Welsh accent makes it difficult for people to understand me in LA, and so I resort to doing what Brits do when they go to Europe and can’t speak the language: I speak very loudly and very slowly.
“I – DO – NOT – WANT – A – BUFFALO – BURGER - I – WOULD – LIKE – A – NORMAL – BEEFBURGER.”
“Yeah, I get yer. But yer want buffalo?”
What was it with this damned buffalo? Had they had a job lot delivered by mistake? “BEEF! I – WANT – BEEF. YOU – GOT – ANY – BEEF?”
“Sure we got beef. We got beefburgers. But we only got buffalo size.”
“Oh, I see!” I finally twigged and therefore resumed normal speech patterns. “It’s beef, but buffalo size. Er, how big is buffalo?”
“It’s about this size,” she said, making a gesture that seemed as if she would have to acquire arm extensions to give the buffalo full credit for its enormity.”
“Okay! I’ll have the burger, buffalo size.” Finally, we were getting somewhere. “And I’ll have fries with that.”
“You want the combo meal, with a drink, too?”
Oh, why the hell not. By now I was losing the will to live, let alone eat, and praying that the film would not be (a) this long, or (b) this complicated.
“Yes, please. Why not.”
“How you want your meat cooked?” Eh? I get the choice of how I want my meat cooked? At a burger bar? I figured the buffalo might take some cooking, so said: “Well done.”
I was there another 20 minutes and had finished my Diet Coke by the time the buffalo arrived. They re-filled my cup to say sorry (they are also incredibly efficient at putting things right when they go wrong here). I don’t normally drink fizzy, sugary drinks, even low calorie ones – especially low calorie ones, as I am ever mindful of the observation that only fat people drink Diet Coke, but as it was free I gratefully took it.
Once I had added all the freebies from the salad bar to the buffalo (onions, two kinds of chilli peppers, salsa, jalapeno cheese, ketchup, tomatoes), I looked as if I was going on vacation when I finally made it into the cinema.
There was a big warning beforehand, on a soundtrack that included mobile phones and babies crying: it instructed people not to bring their own soundtrack with them, and I opened my case of beef as quietly as I could, only saying “Shit!” out loud once, as the juice from a chilli spurted all over my clothes when I bit into it.
My first job as a teenager was as a cinema usherette. I was paid £4 an hour in Bridgend’s Embassy Cinema, and was instructed to add a couple of pence onto each sale and keep quiet about it, because the manager was creaming the profit off the management.
The enormous basket hurt my neck, and although I thought this would be a small price to pay in return for being able to watch films for free, I discovered that there was no pleasure in seeing anything in instalments over one or two weeks. I saw The Towering Inferno 22 times, and by the end of it would happily have set fire to the Embassy cinema, had I the means.
The Hangover was considerably more pleasurable, and I would willingly see it 22 times; in fact, I think I might. Hilarious, beautifully and tightly written, I thought that sitting there, stuffing my face with buffalo and chilli, I was the happiest I had been in years.
Unlike British audiences, who talk throughout whole movies, the Americans were totally gripped throughout. Maybe it was because their mouths were too crammed with their supper to be able to talk, but they made great company. They went “Ahh” when a character was being treated badly; they laughed at every single funny line; they had their hands clasped to their mouths during a hair-raising car-chase. They had clearly gone to the movie to watch the movie, and that’s what they did.
I left the movie theater having acquired, amongst much else, the ability to say (and spell) “movie” and “movie theater” – essential tools, given that people had looked at me blankly when I asked where the films or cinema were on my way there. I also felt totally exhilarated and high on the whole experience and wondered why on Earth it had taken me so many years to get back to watching movies on the big screen.
Now, I think I really am ready for my close-up.