ON Tuesday, September 1, last year, in that normal-not-normal period between lockdowns, I did what I always do when I have the chance. I went to the movies. To the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling, where Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet, unfairly hyped as the film that was meant to save cinema, was playing.

It wasn’t saving anything that night. Sitting in the Macbob’s main auditorium with my sister-in-law I looked around to see two other people in the audience. Four seats filled in a venue that could hold, in pre-socially distanced times, 468. Such were the times.

I didn’t really care much for the movie, an overengineered high-concept thing, to be honest. But it was good to be in a cinema again. Especially this cinema. This was where I did most of my student film-going back in the 1980s. In more recent years I’ve seen films in its smaller, custom-made cinema, but on this night we were in the larger theatre which was where my younger self had sat all those years ago.

I spent a lot of time during Tenet thinking about the times I’d sat in this room before. The film’s central idea – of two different time streams travelling in reverse directions and intersecting – only encouraged it.

I found myself wondering that if I sat there long enough I might catch a glimpse of my younger self, sitting in this same cinema nearly 40 years before when I was a student, at a Saturday morning matinee of the 1950s sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, surrounded by kids, sitting beside a girl I was totally smitten with, who, in the timestream that was running forward from that moment, would later become my wife.


That thought – of being back in the same room in 1982 with the person I loved most in the world but who had died in 2019 – made the night worthwhile, even if I didn’t care much for the movie.

In the absence of movie-going over the last year I’ve been thinking a lot since last September about how cinema was at the heart of our relationship, and how our first days together were spent in the dark.

The first time I’d ever had a proper talk with Jeanie was about the movies. A late-night conversation in the kitchen about an old screwball murder mystery we’d both seen that summer called A Night to Remember, starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne, a chat interrupted when a fellow student came in from a night out spent drinking Pernod and black and hiccupped up his evening all over the table. A few weeks later watching Paul Schrader’s Cat People at the Allanpark cinema in Stirling I watched Ed Begley Jr get his arm chewed off by a black leopard. In the film the blood washed across the floor and over Nastassja Kinski’s shoes just like the Pernod and Black across the table, I remember thinking.

Those first few months with Jeanie (and for many of the years after) were spent at the movies. Afternoons and evenings all spent in the dark. Some days we’d make a day of it, travelling through to Falkirk and the ABC cinema in the afternoon and then back to Stirling for an evening showing. We even watched the films now and then.

Trashy horror was our favourite, though, thinking back, I’m not sure how appropriate The Entity – a lurid film in which Barbara Hershey is molested by an invisible demon, unmakeable now (you’d hope) – really was as a date movie.

It’s a pretty normal pattern for a love story, isn’t it? It’s what couples did, still do, (until the pandemic closed the cinemas down, at any rate.). In Phantom Empire, his 1993 book about cinema and its impact on us, the cultural commentator Geoffrey O’Brien asks at one point, “What did people do, anyway, before there were movies?” Well, exactly.

Cinema was our idea of fun. It was a pattern set in both our childhoods. Jeanie always told me that she had left the Brownies after she came home to find that her dad and her sister had gone to see Krakatoa, East of Java without her.

I’d grown up in Northern Ireland watching Disney movies, James Bond films and Zulu at the local fleapit (rushing to get out at the end before the National Anthem came on). I remember taking an Action Man pistol with me to see Jaws for reassurance.

I’d go and see films and then rush back the next night to see them again. Good films, bad films, indifferent films. Even the much-maligned 1976 version of King Kong (though New Yorker critic Pauline Kael loved it).

Years later I’d tell its star Jeff Bridges that I’d seen it more than once. I think, I said, it might have been because of Jessica Lange. “Yeah,” he agreed, laughing, “it might have had something to do with her.”

Cinema was always a desire machine. The sex symbols of the 20th century were film stars (or they were until pop stars replaced them). From Rudolph Valentino to Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean right up to Scarlett Johansson.

HeraldScotland: Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It HotMarilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot

But it was always about more than sex. The critic Molly Haskell writing in Film Comment’s new weekly newsletter the other week quoted Susan Sontag on the post-war embrace of the idea of the movies as art, “born of a conviction that cinema was an art unlike another: quintessentially modern, distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral …” That was still the case in the 1970s and 1980s when we started watching. In time, we fell in love with China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers (Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum is a greater example of the greatness of 1980s cinema than Top Gun) and the outrageousness of early Almodovar.

But cinema also offered what it has always offered; a dream of escape, of lives unlived; of glamour and aspiration at times. And also fear and anxiety and the thrill/chill of the dark. A spectacle shared with other people sitting in the dark.

There’s an electric thrill when a film is good to share it with an audience. The collective rush of it. Sometimes the audience are irritating, of course. Sometimes, they are the only fun. I remember watching some second-rate movie in New York. The rest of the audience were really into it, however, cheering and whooping at every action sequence. They made the movie more entertaining than it really was.

And now here we are, after a year without movies, more or less (that brief window in the autumn notwithstanding). There’s a lot of hot air talked about how the pandemic might be the end of cinema. I don’t really buy it. It will take cinemas time to come to terms with the new situation as they are allowed to reopen, but audiences will return.

Cinema is changing, of course. In 1993, Geoffrey O’Brien could write with confidence, “The camera prowls around the room. This is how the eye works at the end of the twentieth century, after a hundred years of training.”

Does it still, nearly 30 years later? Do we have the patience to follow the camera around the room? Perhaps not. But then cinema has been changing throughout its history – from silent to sound, from movie palace to Cineworld box – and still it thrives. In 2019, there were 176 million UK cinema admissions earning £1,254 million in box office takings. We may take some time to feel confident to return, but we will. Because it’s a different experience to sitting in front of your laptop or TV screen.

HeraldScotland: TenetTenet

There are so many new films I want to see. Dune, Chloe Zhao’s take on Marvel’s Eternals, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie (delayed until next year, it seems), Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jordan Peele’s take on Candyman, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog, Celine Sciama’s Petite Maman. All will turn up on streaming services, sooner or later. But to see them in the cinema is still the ultimate viewing experience. Size still matters.

The last film I took Jeanie to see, a few weeks before her death, was Crawl, about a Florida hurricane and man-eating alligators. She loved a good scary movie. I am inordinately fond of this film now because it was the last time I got to sit in a cinema and hold her hand.

I will never be able to do that again. But I can go and sit in the dark again. I can go and watch a movie and dream about the past and the future and lives lived and unlived. It can’t come soon enough.

The Macrobert Arts Centre reopens on Monday with screenings of Sound of Metal and Nomadland. For more details, visit macrobertartscentre.org/

* Cinema Sotto le Stelle, Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, 2018: “Storytelling is really about a relationship,” architect and set designer David Rockwell notes in his new book Drama (Phaidon, £39.95). “If there’s nobody listening to the story, there is no relationship.” Drama looks at how architecture and theatrical spaces intersect and examines Rockwell’s own stage designs.