The echo-ey chamber

In defence of the multiplex

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The multiplex cinema experience is oft-maligned. Justifiably so, sometimes. There are the people who seem pathologically unable to put away their phones. The mess and broken seats. The half-hour of ads and trailers. The lighting. All those fucking nachos.

To say there’s room for improvement would be like saying I’m kind of looking forward to Dunkirk. (Of course I am. It goes without saying. Everybody is.) Showcase has, to its credit, recognised this, and responded with reclining seats and a borderline-comical expanse of legroom. Other chains too will need to shape up if they want to keep cinemagoing a national pastime in the age of on-demand everything.

Sitting a hundred strangers in a dark room and asking that they be quiet and respectful for two hours is an imperfect experience almost by design. Until we transcend our fleshy vessels, we’re just going to have to tolerate one another. But, with everything that needs fixing, we shouldn’t lose sight of just how far cinemas have come.

Leeds Film Festival 2016 is now upon us, and the Town Hall is hosting screenings of, among other things, Drive, Heat, The Matrix, and The Shining. This time last year I went to the same venue to watch Apocalypse Now.

If you’re thinking romantically about how nice it must be to watch classic films in a beautiful, historic building, of the poetry and magic of such an occasion, then allow yourself to be swiftly disabused. You don’t fully appreciate the local Vue until you’ve sat on a flimsy un-staggered chair, on a flat floor, in a giant, draughty, echoey space, with tinny speakers and more doors than walls. For 153 minutes.

We think of film as a visual medium, but it’s a misnomer

The chairs are uncomfortable, but my buttocks aren’t so sensitive as to make this unmanageable every now and again. The lack of raking and staggering in the seating is frustrating, but similarly bearable (unless you’re behind someone particularly tall). The real deal-breaker is the sound. When every explosion causes collective wincing, that’s no minor issue. We think of film as a visual medium, but it’s a misnomer: being unable to properly hear dialogue, or having the music distort on every crescendo, causes viewers to bail far sooner than a shaky, grainy picture. Even IMAX is just as much about the ‘earth shattering sound’ as it is the giant screen.

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It’s obviously preferable for these re-releases to get screened than not, and festivals that give viewers these options should be celebrated and encouraged: I’ll almost certainly go to a couple, and I’ll probably enjoy them just fine. But it will be a notably lesser experience in the most crucial regard. Heat, in particular, has received a digital restoration, and it would be nice to get the chance to see it in better conditions.

The multiplex is imperfect. But it’s still, on balance, the best way for most people to watch most movies. We all want that experience to be better, but sometimes it takes hearing Ride of the Valkyries in a room with the acoustics of an abandoned warehouse to make the grass on your side seem a little greener.

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