There is no love like movie love.
You know this. It’s why you’re reading this magazine, this article. Cinephilia. It sounds like a disease and you might, indeed, define it as a very particular passion, inspiring a blind loyalty and commitment beyond most sensible limits. Sure, people are football crazy, as the old song goes, but they tend to support just one club to distraction. I obsess over Arsenal, for example, but don’t care to watch much Manchester United or Liverpool, and certainly not if they’re winning.
Movie fans, however, love all of it. We are addicted to the thrill of the lights going down and a story flickering into life. It seems to me that it’s this very act of watching that consumes us, that ignites our passion.
Is it love, or is it hope that brings us back to the screen? By which I mean, the hope that, as each fresh movie starts, each time the lights go dark, we’re possibly about to see the BEST THING EVER? We hope to fall in love.
That’s certainly my passion and my madness. Even if the 15,000 hours, maybe 20,000 hours, I’ve spent watching movies can’t possibly prove this to be true, I still get a ridiculous tingle before the start of every film, a feeling that I’m definitely about to witness a masterpiece. Is this love?
A therapist or an agony aunt would advise against such recidivist behaviour. A movie lover throws themselves into the experience with alarming regularity, looking for passion, for amour fou. And when they find it, wow. The chatter, the raving, the evangelical championing—a person fallen in movie love has got it bad.
What can this particular love be, then? I’m convinced more than ever that watching movies is a romantic act. It was the pandemic that hammered it home. There we all were, stuck on the sofa, not so much watching as being streamed at. The movies came to us, we did not go to them.
Suddenly, there was a huge difference in the way we watched movies—for the first time, we did not move towards them, we did not elect to immerse ourselves in the dark of the auditorium and the wide open spaces of the big screen. Instead, we just sat there and watched movies on the same screen on which we watched the news, the football, the quiz shows, the cartoons, the DIY shows, the reality and the celebrity. When the movies came on, they might still have looked a bit like movies, but there was no romance in the experience.
Sitting on your sofa at home is not a romantic gesture, no matter how much you like the person sitting next to you. Even when Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones were having sex in Normal People, the big hit of the lockdown era. It was great TV to watch—and Normal People was anything but normal – but streaming is not loving. The act of sitting there is not passionate. It’s just something you do after making dinner, because you can, because it’s there. It is lazy and gluttonous, and spoilt. It is the very opposite of choosing to get up, get out and go to the movies.
So now, more than ever, going to the pictures is romantic, an act of love. I worry increasingly that it’s merely nostalgic, the pursuance of a vintage experience, in a retro setting. All those refurbed palaces, with velvet seats, boudoir lighting, usherettes with torches and trays of ice cream, all that hankering for an interval and a B-picture.
But I love all that back-in-the-day business, of course I do, even if it isn’t actually what movie love is about.
I remember my first movie love. I was only four years old.
We’d been to see Robin Hood, the cartoon (you could still call it that, back then), the Disney version, a Christmas treat with Mum and Dad, and I definitely felt something funny inside when Lady Marian batted her eyelashes.
Surely I wasn’t really besotted with a cartoon character, even if she was a total fox. No, although I didn’t realise it at that exact moment, I was in love. With the movies. And every time I went to the cinema, I fell in love again.
Maybe I’m too romantic about the movies but I made them my life. I became a film critic, an interviewer and a broadcaster talking about films on the BBC’s London radio station every week for 25 years. I became the “Voice of London film”, no less. I immersed myself in the movies and that still didn’t cure it. Particularly as we are, now, on the threshold of another Cannes Film Festival, I’m as soppy and sentimental about them as ever, as thrilled and excited as the four-year-old me, dreaming of being Robin Hood, confounding the Sheriff of Nottingham and winning Marian’s favour.
Don’t we all feel the same way? I don’t argue against the importance of the streaming world, but we can’t deny it has brutally changed the dynamic between us and the movies. They don’t even call them movies now. They’re content.
Well, I’m not content to sit there and use movies to stave off boredom, to fill time or even kill time. I like my movies to be transportive and they can’t be that if we don’t actually go anywhere. I want to go to the movies, I don’t want the movies to come to me. I don’t like having movie stars in my TV room. I don’t want them in my space; I want to be in theirs. Norma Desmond snapped: I am big—it’s the pictures that got small. But the stars too, now, are diminished, certainly now they have to share a platform with the newsreaders, the politicians, the kids’ shows and, in my house oh God, the YouTubers and Tik Tok-ers.
Movie love is about all the times you went to the cinema, the building itself, the seat, the journey there, the pub before or the dinner after, the person you were with, the mates, the dates, the colleagues, the strangers.
It’s amazing to me that each time I think of a particular film, I can remember exactly where I saw it—everyone talks about knowing where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when Elvis died, when Diana crashed, or when the second plane hit the second Tower. I have the same recall for nearly every film I’ve ever watched. Digby, The Biggest Dog in the World? Odeon Temple Fortune. Rocky II? Golders Green Ionic. Goodfellas? ABC Hampstead in Pond Street. Pulp Fiction? Empire Leicester Square. Star Wars? Dominion Tottenham Court Road. Thelma & Louise? Cinéma Beaubourg, Place Pompidou. Moulin Rouge? Grand Theatre Lumiere, Cannes.
Because unlike the short flop to your sofa, the movies have an ecosystem and a different story every time, a different vantage point, a new journey, someone new beside you, a new screen, sometimes nearer, another time further away. And each time it flickers into life and the lights dim, it might just be the beginning of the greatest love story.
By definition, the movies means movement. Movement on screen, movement of the heart, movement to get off your sofa, out of the home and into the cinema, movement in the narrative to sweep you along, of the camera to build meaning and convey emotion, movement of the actors up there, of the people in the front row, of the cars outside, of shuffling along the row to your seat, of getting up to allow others along, movement of your head to get the best view, movement of your eyes to take it all in and movement of the brain and the blood to process the torrent of sentiment, the action, suspense, fear, grief, laughter and the love. That’s a lot of movement involved. The movies move, and they move us. It’s that simple.
I want to go to the movies; I don’t want them to come to me.
Part of the love, the passion of watching movies is that it’s a two-way street. You can’t imprint on streamed content at home. But in the cinema, you can take part, you can laugh out loud and influence the mood of the room, you can walk out in a huff (unprofessional and attention-seeking, but I’ve seen plenty of people do it, as a form of protest against a bad movie), you can jump in horror and clap a perfect sequence, applaud a dance number or gasp at a breath-holding stunt. At home, on your TV, movies just happen; in the cinema, you are part of the event, a component in the night out, a step along the journey, an ingredient in the adventure, one of the movies’ moving parts. You love them and they love you back.
On my own podcast, Seen Any Good Films Lately, I would ask my guests many questions about their memories of seeing their favourite films. One of the regular questions was: Have you ever fallen in love at the movies?
The guests inevitably pause: “You mean at the movies with someone, or with the film?” Both, either, I’d say. After another pause, some would respond with a charming date-night story, which is of course lovely. There’s nothing like a movie date night. Others took it to mean how they’d fallen for a movie star, smitten by Gregory Peck or Sophia Loren or Diahann Carroll. All perfectly understandable and valid, all of them. But my favourite answers came from directors such as Kevin MacDonald and Nick Broomfield and American star Aubrey Plaza. Have you ever fallen in love at the movies? “Oh, all the time.”
That clinches it for me. That’s it, that’s the point of the whole thing, why we go to the cinema, why we were all hooked on the habit. We go to the movies to fall in love. And if we aren’t going to the movies anymore, we’re all missing out on that regular flow of passion, seduction and frisson. Without movies, there’s no movement, no tingling moment. A world without people going to the movies is a world without falling in love.