What is the Cinematic Experience anyway? A #CinemaDay discussion

Conor Smyth
4 min readAug 30, 2017
A blurry Jim with John Butler and Tara Brady at the Strand Arts Centre

Cinema Day is an annual treat for Northern Irish movie lovers, and this Bank Holiday we got free or discounted screenings and special events in Belfast and beyond. At the Strand Arts Centre in East Belfast, Banterflix’s Jim McClean hosted a panel discussion about the changing nature of cinema and the ‘cinematic experience’— how it is produced and consumed. Joining him were local director/producer Margaret McGoldrick, film director John Butler (whose sophomore feature, Handsome Devil, is now available on VOD), Irish Times critic Tara Brady and Sean Kelly from Into Film, an organisation dedicated to improving film literacy and access amongst the young.

Here’s some of what was discussed.

Representation is getting better, but still sucks

Tara Brady made an excellent point about the hyperbolic reaction to Wonder Woman (a solid but hardly radical superhero film); the relief and catharsis surrounding it indicated a starved desire for more interesting images of femininity. She noted that historically there has been an ‘extraordinary bias’ in terms of identities behind the camera and in front of it, and there is a connection between the two.

John Butler explained that as a gay man growing up in Ireland had few film characters he could relate to, and in terms of directors he looked to Derek Jarman or John Waters. He has now been given an opportunity for some small correction: his film Handsome Devil features a gay young man at an aggressively masculine, rugby-obsessed Irish boarding school. Baby steps, one at a time.

TV-style storytelling means films that don’t really end

‘The best stuff is on TV now’ goes the mantra. TV and Hollywood, Tara pointed out, have been in a Cold War ever since the ’50s, but there are important contemporary trends to deal with. The rise of VOD services have broadened the outlets possible for smaller projects which would struggle to get into cinemas, while also concentrated power in a small number of streaming companies like Netflix, whose metrics remain obscured and financial sustainability is uncertain.

The rise of post-HBO ‘prestige television’, a genre with its own tropes and problems, has led many to dub TV the new Hollywood, but the influence goes both ways, with the studios’ embrace of serial story-telling through universe-building and extensive networks of prequel, sequels and what Matt Singer calls ‘legacyquels’. The Marvel factory is the most competent example of this approach, and its various rewards and limitations. Serial storytelling, which mimics the nothing-changes continuity of comics and soaps, makes it hard to establish stakes, essential for making stories that connect on a emotional as well as spectacle level.

‘Endings are good’, mused Tara.

The Strand Arts Centre, East Belfast

Young people don’t care about ‘cinema etiquette’ (and probably never have)

Part of how movie lovers conceptualise the ‘cinematic experience’ is through codes of theatre behaviour. It’s understandable: we’re engaged in our own little guerrilla war against the talkers, the texters, the munchers and disrupters. So much of film is communicated through nuance, which requires unbroken attention, especially if you’re supposed to write a useful review afterwards.

When the the light of a phone screen pops up I feel annoyed for myself but even moreso for its owner. Pay attention! You’re missing it!

But, equally, I recognise that my standards aren’t everyone else’s, and the ‘cinema experience’ isn’t a fixed entity.

If you’re at a multiplex on a Friday night and get upset by young people people talking, it’s kind of your fault for going in the first place. Teenagers are not out on a Friday night looking for themes, they’re out for the craic, and that’s different, and that’s okay. Cinemas have never just been spaces for receiving movies.

As a Strand employee at the discussion pointed out, the audience of a recent Bollywood screening did not conform to our codes of still silence, nor did his experience of many audiences in the States. There’s the genre question, too: broad comedies are built for a loose, eager, vocal audience.

Still, it’s important that younger people have the opportunity to engage with film and visual storytelling, and there are barriers here of culture, economics and upbringing. Sean shared the stunning fact that he has worked with 16 and 17 year-olds who had never been to a cinema. They deserve better.

The ‘cinematic experience’ is more than just being at the cinema

The social and domestic spaces in which films are experienced are changing — high-end home setups, live scores, site-specific shows — and so is the ‘content’ (ugh) that cinemas are putting on their schedules. For example, National Theatre Live, a programme of live broadcasts from London’s Royal National Theatre, are regularly available in some Northern Irish cinema chains.

Can a live theatre broadcast be considered ‘cinematic’? With the initiative’s investment in sophisticated camera tech to convey story and pace, it can be. Special TV episodes, like Doctor Who or Game of Thrones, make the effort, but the format jump can be too steep. Even movies themselves, sometimes tame and visually uninspired, aren’t always ‘cinematic’.

The nature of the ‘cinematic experience’ is kind of intangible, but, I think, has something to do with form and vulnerability.

You might also like: When I Got Depressed I Went To The Movies

Conor is Film Editor at The Thin Air. Follow @csmythrun

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