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There’s a cinema in south-east London called Peckhamplex, which is one of my favourite places in the world. Set on the bottom floor of a car park, it’s a kind of faded 1990s dreamworld. The colour scheme is lurid, the typography can only be described as “funky”. At first glance, the aesthetic looks like it could be an affectation, marketed to affluent Time Out readers as a “retro-style cinema” selling gourmet popcorn and themed £13 cocktails with names like “The Mia Wallace”. But in fact it’s looked this way since it opened in 1994. Even better than the way it looks, however, is the price. Every film costs £5 and that’s reflected in the demographics of the people who go there. It’s a place that serves the community, but not in a lofty or improving way: sometimes people just want to take their kids to a Marvel film without spending too much money.
Earlier this week Peckhamplex announced that it would be closing temporarily, citing low levels of admissions – a local story that upset a devoted local clientele. But it was the subsequent news that Cineworld (along with Picturehouse, which it owns) was also temporarily closing its doors that brought the problems facing the industry to national attention.
With Boris Johnson urging people to go to the cinema but the government offering no extra subsidies, it’s understandable that most people focused on the possible economic outcomes of cinemas closing for good, the job losses and the knock-on effects on restaurants, bars, or commercial rents. Making the economic case is important (and I do think the government should help the industry financially) but I don’t think it’s sufficient: it seems like the current iteration of capitalism would take the end of everything that makes life bearable in its stride, trundling on without bars, restaurants, football or cinemas. It’s just as vital to think about what we would be losing as a culture if cinemas dwindled, or even ceased to exist altogether.
Although I think going to see a film is an unbeatable second or third-date option (there is nothing better than two hours of low-level physical intensity with someone you fancy), it’s mostly an activity I do by myself. When I was younger, there was something self-conscious in the pleasure I took in going alone. This was how characters in novels inhabited the city: sensitive young men ducking into matinee screenings on dark, rainy Tuesdays.
At the same time, every cinema trip I’ve taken has served a different purpose. I’ve gone because I didn’t know anyone in a new city and had nothing else to do on a Friday night; I’ve gone because I couldn’t bear my inner monologue and the alternative was drinking myself into a stupor; I’ve gone to avoid being ignored in real time by a man I was in love with who was slowly losing interest (by the time the credits rolled, he still hadn’t texted). Sometimes I’ve even gone to the cinema because I liked the look of a film.
So it’s hard not to be sentimental about something that has provided me with so much solace and distraction. Cinemas aren’t public spaces (although publicly owned cinemas would be a good idea), but they are somewhere you can be out in the world, surrounded by other people and yet, if you want, alone.
In an era where internet addiction is practically our default setting, there’s also something valuable about spending time in a place where you’ll be shunned, hissed at and possibly ejected for glancing at your phone. In that sense, the cinema is a kind of flotation tank. Almost everyone I know struggles to put their phone away when they’re watching a film at home. I certainly can’t do it: even if I’m watching a visionary masterpiece, I am unable to resist the siren call of my Twitter notifications.
The perilous state of cinemas speaks to a larger problem. The last 20 years has seen a decline in socialising: people go out less, go on fewer dates, drink less alcohol, smoke fewer cigarettes and have less sex. We are living in the era of platform capitalism, where you can do just about anything without leaving your home, and are in fact encouraged to do so.
The decline of going out is a pre-existing trend, but one that the pandemic will accelerate. Plenty of dressing gown-loving homebodies have already settled into this nicely. As the public sphere is eroded even further in the next few years, many of them will react with chortling indifference, so long as they can still order takeaways and watch content on the multiple entertainment platforms to which they subscribe.
This dressing-gown capitalism has done well out of Covid, with both streaming and takeaway apps enjoying a surge in usage, helped by the fact that staying in has come to be seen as morally virtuous. The responsibility for what happens after the pandemic lies with the government rather than consumer preferences, but it looks like people will continue to spend more time at home. There will be fewer places to go, fewer things to do and less communal space. At some point, checking our phones for the hundredth time while watching “UNTITLED DISNEY LIVE ACTION (2023)” on a laptop, we might start to regret this.
• James Greig is a journalist based in London
Source: The Guardian
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