But there is a case against the movies, and it is concerned not with crude criminology, but with much more subtle psychology. In some places it is said that the cinema has destroyed the theatre. And in another and peculiar sense it has really destroyed the old childish feeling about the theatre, and especially about going to the theatre. The theatre, of course, has not actually been destroyed, and fairy plays are still provided for the child. But when I was a child all plays were fairy plays. By fairy plays I do not mean plays about fairies, written by fairies. It was not that in an elfin drama ladies and gentlemen dressed up as elves. It was rather that in a modern drama elves had dressed up as ladies and gentlemen. The whole play, the whole theatre, the whole fact that there was any play or any theatre, seemed to me something produced by a spell or the stroke of a wizard’s wand…Every man of my age has had that purely theatrical thrill. When every allowance is made, I gravely doubt whether every child who haunts the cinema really has it. Cinemas are so numerous, so cheap, and so changing and disconnected, that I do believe that the spectators soon lose, if they ever had, that romantic and almost religious intensity in the experience.
Pleasure-Seeking in the Modern World, Illustrated London News, December 9, 1922
How could Chesterton have been so utterly wrong? I have attended the cinema hundreds of times in my life. I have often gone to see films up to five times. I’ve sat in packed theatres, and once or twice I’ve been literally the only person in the audience (for instance, for the 2004 film The Alamo.)
I’ve had plenty of time to lose “that romantic and almost religious intensity of the experience”—but I haven’t. From the first film I was brought to see (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when I was seven years old—I didn’t realise the seats folded down and was literally on the edge of my seat for the first while), to my latest trip to the flicks (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a few hours ago), the magic has never faded. In fact, I believe it’s grown more potent.
“Romantic and religious intensity” is a good phrase for it. There are very experiences in secular life that match the cinema for its atmosphere of solemn ecstasy; and the solemnity and the ecstasy are there no matter what the film is about. Even the most witless comedy or the most nihilistic art-flick takes on a certain grandeur, given the size of the screen. Even the fluffiest chick-flick can’t help being solemn, set against the incomparable darkness of a movie theatre.
I love it all. The films titles on the marquee; the movie posters on the cinema wall; the smell of popcorn and hot dogs drifting from the shop; the delicious anticipation of walking into the darkened auditorium; the empty aisles before a film; the piped music; the heavy folded curtains, the rather genteel ornamentation so many cinemas prefer; the trailers (often the best part of the whole trip); the studio logo (Columbia is my favourite); the goosepimply moment when the censor’s certificate is displayed; whatever whispers and giggles and shrieks and cheers come from the audience; the moment of repletion when the credits roll; the rediscovery of the outside world, an outside world made more vivid, if the film has done its work; and the post-film analysis, which can begin right there and then if you’ve gone with a companion, and can be revisited for years into the future. (I especially love “event” movies, like the Lord of the Rings series, where everybody seems to join in the analysis).
The few cinema references I’ve encountered in Chesterton have been unenthusiastic, even disparaging. I can’t blame him too much for this; how many films from his era could you happily sit through? (I managed to endure The Battleship Potemkin a few years ago; it might be a monument in film-making, but it’s also monumentally dull.) But there’s something pleasing in the thought that even Chesterton, the apostle of wonder, couldn’t keep up with the wonders of the world. And it’s salutary for a laudator temporis acti (or stuck-in-the-mud nostalgist) like me to realise that modernity has brought its marvels, too.