“When I was younger and you entered a cinema, it was a different world completely; there were beautiful carpets and brass fixtures and it had a very wonderful quality and it was fun to stand [in] line and to see people all dressed up and to hear their comments. In television, you know, you simply put the cassette in and it does distract you but it’s a much smaller, petty experience.” Woody Allen to Jean-Luc Godard, Meetin’ WA (1986)
Going to the cinema has changed. From the above conversation between two cinema legends, to Andrei Tarkovsky declaring cinema an “unhappy art” and Susan Sontag marking the “decay of cinema” years later, there seems to be a state of agreement among filmmakers and theorists alike that cinema is not what it used be.
Film has come a long way since its inception and the art form has, naturally, undergone many changes both as a field of study and as an industry. But the change that concerns us has more to do with the ritual of going to see a film, a dying tradition which was once an occasion in itself.
Cinema used to captivate us: it taught us about ourselves. But long gone are the days where the audience would scream as they saw a moving train speed towards them. Today, a cinema hall is filled with popcorn and glaring smartphone screens where there used to be velvet curtains, a stage, and even live orchestras. Cinemas were places where people would dress up in their best clothes to go and watch an emerging art form that offered them a grand and new experience.
Perhaps it speaks volumes about the cynicism of today’s audiences that our cinemas are filed with screaming babies and ringing phones. The romanticised images of cinema as a social and collective experience are often met with skepticism. Television has made cinema a mere passing of time for most, and has reduced popular debate among audiences to a few snarky comments when the picture ends.
The change can also be attributed to the space itself: the cinemas have morphed beyond recognition, often grouped in malls, a way for the over-shopped to pass time. Cinephiles these days have to wait for niche film festivals to watch acclaimed films that were once readily available to previous generations in most cinemas.
There are very few cinemas today in Cairo that still have a wooden stage, a grand hall, or a velvet curtain. We are fortunate that today the idea of cinema as an art form is a non-issue, because the medium is no longer a new and emerging form of expression and there is no debate concerning its status. But we risk the decline of cinema to change from the complex art form it is today to a mindless passing of time, as we sacrifice its most important aspects: the ritual and the love of the art form in and of itself.