The majority of my 2020 was spent in a one-bedroom flat with my wife and two cats, working from home at a makeshift desk. My spare time was spent like anyone else. Rewatching Friends for the umpteenth time; doing a Jimmy Stewart impression and watching the neighbours, Rear Window-style; planned to write a novel; learned how to use Zoom to chat with friends across the world; watched a horror movie set on Zoom; and had a Ben Wyatt ‘Cones Of Dunshire’ moment and created a board game based on Uncut Gems.
It would be an understatement to say that the last fourteen months spent in and out of lockdown has had a huge impact on the way we live our lives. Not only has it taken a huge toll on both our physical and mental health, it has meant being unable to do the things that we previously took for granted. For myself, it meant that for a large part of 2020 and 2021, I was not able to participate in my favourite pastime: watching a movie at the cinema.
Movies have often tried to predict the future. Akira got close when it predicted that Tokyo was set to host the Olympics in 2020… however it didn’t predict they would be cancelled due to a worldwide pandemic.
It turns out that the film which was most accurate was 2011’s Contagion. As the world watched the drama slowly evolve into a documentary, the devastating effects of the Coronavirus were clear to see. Not only was it outside your door but it was on the news on your TV, and all over social media. It was inescapable.
For many people, myself included, going to the movies was a way to escape. To be transported to another world, to another time and place. To be able to switch off and forget about what was happening outside the four walls of the cinema auditorium.
Now although cinemas were closed, I am not going to pretend that I did not watch any films over the last year. Of course, like everyone else I was signed up to Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+. However, these movies were viewed on a variety of devices, from a 32” television down to an iPhone 7
As a film critic, I was able to attend the digital version of the London Film Festival in October; something that in the past gave me great joy in attending in person, for the ability to see new films and catch up with fellow critics and friends. However, as a lifelong film fan, I was shocked to discover that I did not have the same enthusiasm. Viewing 4-5 films a day at home on an iPhone, I found it difficult to concentrate and focus, which impacted my enjoyment. Was I falling out of love with the movies?
With the best will in the world, there is no way that watching a film at home is the same as watching it in a cinema. There is a constant stream (pardon the pun) of distractions at home. More likely than not you will have your phone next to you and be checking it when you get a text, call or notification. Perhaps using it to figure out where an actor you recognise has appeared before. You might have pets or kids to deal with. Or a partner, spouse, or family members who are watching it with you. Or even worse, not really watching it and constantly asking you about plot points that wouldn’t be an issue if they had been paying attention.
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Like Nicolas Angel in Hot Fuzz, one of my biggest problems is not being able to switch off that brain of mine. My mind is constantly buzzing away. If I am not working at my day job, I am working away at my side-hustle of film reviewing. Writing reviews and pitches, recording podcasts and planning my schedule. I am constantly being told by my loved ones that I am unable to enjoy the present because I am always focused on and worrying about the future.
Over the last couple of years, I have struggled with my own mental health issues, including suffering from panic attacks. I tried to learn and practice mindfulness. Whether that be yoga or listening to meditation apps like Headspace. However, when I practice these at home, I always find it difficult to stay in the present moment. Even when Headspace tried to make it easier for me by being available on Netflix!
That is why was I welcomed the news that cinemas were able to reopen on the 17th May.
Initially, it might seem counterproductive to some people. How can you possibly be able to practice mindfulness when you are being bombarded with an intense audio-visual experience?
One of the definitions of mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment”.
Have you ever watched a film and it feels like there is nothing but you and the movie at that moment? For example, a screening of A Quiet Place where you are so invested in the family’s struggle that you discover at the end of the film you haven’t touched your popcorn for fear of making a noise.
Another element of mindfulness is the ability to recognise the feelings, thoughts and emotions that come to mind, acknowledge them and then return to the present moment.
We have probably all watched a film that is so bad we have zoned out from time to time, or had an audience where someone has been talking or using their phone which distracts us from what is on the screen. The key to practicing mindfulness in those moments is to acknowledge the distraction, let it pass and get back to watching the movie.
As I sat down in the cinema auditorium on opening day, I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness and calm. It felt like I was home. For the 97 minutes of the film (Spiral, if you are interested) I was not worrying about that email I forgot to send at work, that approaching deadline, the bills that need to be paid, etc. I was focused solely on what was happening on the big screen.
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Even the cinema that I attended, Vue, is now running with this notion of switching off, with their pre-film message starring John Boyega, ‘Get Lost in Great Stories’.
Of course, I am not an expert in the field and this technique is not going to work for everyone. Mindfulness is a very personal thing. It can take a lot of practice to master and the ways of achieving that measure of stillness in the mind will differ from person to person.
However, not only have I found that a trip to the cinema has a beneficial effect on my mental health but it has also allowed me to rediscover my love of film again. So any time that life gets too much you’ll find me at my local independent picture house or multiplex to get lost in the movies.
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