It can be difficult, nigh on impossible even, for the chronically ill to find a real sense of peace. On a daily basis, our bodies refuse to obey the most basic rules of human existence, while our appearances give no outward indication of why our lives can be so difficult. We often exist in-between worlds: too able-bodied to be considered truly disabled, yet far too ill to participate in life the way we’re ‘supposed’ to. Finding a place to escape the heavily polarised ‘pull’ of opinions that people are often all too willing to share could be considered to be an essential part of self-care. Even with the various activities and hobbies that I love, the one thing whose absence sincerely affects my psychological wellbeing is going to the cinema. Without these periodic excursions into ‘otherness’, the emotional cracks start to become chasms – it is the sanctuary of the cinema that prevents me from falling in.
Growing up, my weird little household unit wasn’t even like the other branches of our family tree, let alone like those of my peers. My mother’s inherent dislike of crowded places (brought on by a panic attack at a religious rally, before the post-Hillsborough safety laws) meant that not only was an outing to the cinema a rare occurrence, it was also a trigger for a highly stressful situation for all involved. She was also incredibly over-protective and would only allow me to spend my free time with a very specific subset of our extended family, and she had to know for what seemed like weeks in advance if my aunt and cousins wanted to take me somewhere without her being present. The combination of these two unusual issues meant that all of the most iconic movies of my childhood just passed me by – including Star Wars, ET and Tron… Even as I approached my teen years, a trip to the flicks with my school-mates was still strictly forbidden.
Eventually, the VCR craze took off, and cinemas across the country struggled to entice paying customers into their frequently crumbling 1930s buildings. The memories of the thrill of seeing the handful (if it even was that many) of films in an actual movie theatre started to fade as the freedom of enjoying the medium whilst lying on the living room floor became the norm.
By the time I was considered old enough to leave the house unchaperoned, an American company had set about the task of revitalising the ailing British cinema experience. Smoking was completely prohibited (putting them about twenty years ahead of the trends and eventual laws), the seating was designed so that people over 5’4” could actually sit comfortably and the concession ‘stand’ was more akin to a fast food joint – the idea of eating anything other than popcorn was completely alien to me at that time. Those weird ‘local’ adverts were gone (I’m looking at you, Peacocks Of Balham..) and there were so many screens. So. Many. Screens. Walking into the UCI for the first time felt like crossing the threshold into a cinematic wonderland. It made me realise just how much I had loved, and dearly missed the Big Screen.
From that moment, the cinema became my go-to place for escape. I’m not saying my mind would completely shut down the moment the trailers started; just that the excitement and anticipation of an unfolding story were all-encompassing. Plus the size of the screen made the experience seem completely immersive (even though it wasn’t) as wherever my eyes darted to they were still witnessing this other world. And as I am a bit of a ‘genre’ girl, those worlds were often so far removed from my own that I could push my seemingly pedestrian existence to the far corners of my mind and allow myself to get completely lost in the flickering images.
As my health became more labyrinthine, I found myself seeking solace in the light show more and more frequently. This was an experience I used to share – with friends, family, my spouse – but as it became increasingly difficult for me to function in the evenings, I could no longer consider myself an appropriate movie-going companion. I started to make these outings a variation on the theme of ‘me time’; choosing matinees that allowed me just enough hours to trick my body into faking the behaviour of a functioning woman, but were not so late in the day that I would be crashing before the final act.
I soon came to realise that this adoption of solitary viewing was exactly how I preferred my cinematic reality. The emptiness of the screening room (brought about by the awkwardness of the hour) reduced the worry that I would be joined by someone who didn’t understand cinema etiquette. And even though some of the screens in my local theatre have the entrance/exit at the back (making me feel a little paranoid about not being able to see who might be strolling in late and sitting somewhere behind me), there is always a hint of a feeling that I’m involved in something exclusive: that this is some kind of privileged club for true film lovers – not people who treat a cinema trip as something comparable to an evening at a bar…
A shared space in darkness lends itself to a sensation of willful and welcome isolation. Dotted around the shadowy auditorium, we are together but separate. Each of us having a personal relationship with that which dances before our eyes, but knowing we will never willingly share our stories with each other. There is no need to hide the full emotional self when each body is just a silhouette to everyone else. No need to excuse your tears. No need to explain why a story arc resonates so much with you. No need to tell anyone that you watch to the end of the credits because you need to give your body enough time to remember how to move.