Since the very beginning of the pandemic, a lot has been made about the survival of film theatres. Many speculated about the future of cinema and the record-breaking proliferation of streaming subscriptions during the lockdown. All hope for revival was lost until Christopher Nolan’s Tenet emerged as the theatrical experience that would remind the world of the magic of watching a film in the theatres. Unfortunately, Tenet mostly made people rush back to their homes and switch on Netflix for something that was actually coherent like My Million Pound Menu.
The slow obsolescence of the theatre experience isn’t an invention of the catastrophic year that was 2020, not by a long shot. It has been a recurring subject of academic discourse since the early years of television but one specific essay is particularly striking when we read it today, with all the retrospective burden of living through the last year and remembering all the articles containing obituaries for local theatres. That essay was penned by none other than the French philosopher Roland Barthes, the intellectual who was forever haunted by the power of images.
In 1984, Barthes wrote an essay called Leaving the Movie Theatre which would become an indispensable part of almost every cinephile’s reading list. Like most of Barthes’ writing, the essay is dense and discursive. He talks about how the images projected on the big screen are crucial for psychoanalytical investigations and he also confesses that he finds film theatres to be extremely sexy. A lot of it is shrouded by academic abstractions but the essay has become a cultural artefact because when it does provide clarity, that clarity is blinding.
Leaving the Movie Theatre isn’t a significant advancement in film scholarship, it doesn’t talk about anything that the oneiric theory of cinema hasn’t covered before. Its description of the theatre as a heterotopic space isn’t special, Michel Foucault described theatres as such in his essay which predates Barthes’ reflections in Leaving the Movie Theatre. Consequently, Barthes agrees with Foucault’s observation: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”
However, Barthes manages to articulate the difference between television and theatres in an extremely effective way. He insists that “on televisions, where films are also shown, no fascination; here darkness is erased, anonymity repressed; space is familiar, articulated (by furniture, known objects), tamed… the eroticisation of the place is foreclosed: television doomed us to the Family…” Anyone who tried to get through a film surrounded by family members during the lockdown will be familiar with this erasure of what makes cinema special, bombarded by countless interruptions and the spatial politics of the mundane.
According to Barthes, the integral part of this magic is the distance between the audience and that large screen that overwhelms us. That distance had already been minimised by television screens but it is almost gone now, with people burying their faces in their smartphones and consuming the latest Netflix special. We are no longer hypnotised by the spectacle of cinema, we control it. We can tap on our screens and command it to start or stop. We can rotate it, we can slide it aside and we can take refuge from the confrontational nature of art by immediately switching to a funny meme on Reddit.
By doing so, we have isolated the images from the heterotopic spaces in which they were revelatory. Most people are unwilling to experience cinema the same way again, having committed to the steady diet of painfully amusing Netflix projects which all resemble each other and appear to be randomly generated by some AI software. Maybe that’s what the future of cinema holds, a tragic adaptation to the tiny screens of phones and tablets for the modern consumer who does not have the time to access these films any other way. David Lynch’s famous clarion call – “Get real!” – has fallen on deaf ears.