Cinemas, it seems, are on the endangered list. Undercut in recent years by online streamers such as Netflix, they have been dealt a heavy body blow by Covid-19, which has closed multiplexes across the globe and may yet prove their undoing. This week, the World Health Organisation said that the coronavirus may be with us for good, and even if social distancing only lasts another year or two, that might be enough to fatally undermine the basic cinema distribution model. Playing films in quarter-full auditoriums doesn't make economic sense.
So what, you might say. TVs are getting bigger and bigger, and if we're still getting to see new films, does it matter how we do it? Well, think back to your earliest experiences in a cinema, the joy, fear and awe the five or six-year-old you felt the first time the lights went down and technicolour images flickered to life on the screen. Watching TV is nothing compared to the communal power of experiencing a film in a cinema, where seeing the right movie at the right time can overwhelm you and change your life.
Most people vividly recall their first visit to the cinema: the first film I can remember seeing was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, one of the big kids' films of 1969. Dick Van Dyke played Caractacus Potts, a crackpot English inventor who ends up in a chocolate box middle-European kingdom presided over by a portly, tyrannical king. In one famous scene, the Child Catcher - a sinister, black-clad man played by the dancer Robert Helpmann - entices children into cages. I was very young, and had nightmares.
More memorable still was the moment when Potts and his kids drove off a cliff and were plummeting towards the English Channel when the film stopped, the lights went up and the tinny strains of an anodyne jingle filled the auditorium. It was intermission time. Would they die in a ball of fire, I wondered, as we filed out to get those little tubs of ice cream you ate with a tiny wooden spoon.
It turned out that Potts's car could fly. The idea of an intermission might seem hopelessly arcane at this remove, but for me, the pause added to the drama: if this was cinema, I was hooked.
In the 1970s, I felt very grown-up when my dad began taking me and my big brother to Bond films: I did not yet understand why 007 was constantly distracted by passing beauties, and wished he would leave the girls alone and get on with the fighting.
Then, in the spring of 1976, things got serious: a friend and I went into town on the bus when we ought to have been at a retreat and bluffed our way into a screening of Jaws.
We were probably too young to see it, and peered curiously into the gloom as the naked woman ran down the beach to take cinema's most epically ill-advised skinny dip. She bought the farm of course (spoilers), and I shifted uneasily in my Adelphi seat as Chief Brody found bits of her scattered on the sands.
OK, that shark, when it finally appeared, always looked a bit rubbery, but the jump scare when Ben Gardner's disconnected head floats out of a hole in his submerged fishing boat had me leaping about like a beached salmon. I wonder if I would have been quite so impressed by that film if I had seen it first on TV.
A cinema can be anywhere. In the school hall they would put out folding chairs and show old Norman Wisdom films and Where Eagles Dare. Christian Brothers patrolled the aisles packing heat and ready to quash any messing, but when Richard Burton boomed out "Broadsword calling Danny Boy" on the school Tannoy, he had our full and undivided attention.
By the late 1970s, Dublin had lost most of the impressive network of local cinemas that covered the city centre in the 1940s and 50s. Oddities remained though, like the Green, on St Stephen's Green, which had double seats for the amorously inclined, and the Stella in Rathmines, which boasted a worrying array of wildlife. (It has, of course, since been gloriously refurbished). Cinemas like that showed Woody Allen films as well as Rocky and Star Wars.
Foreign movies, though, were harder to find. There was no IFI in those days, of course, but there was the IFT (Irish Film Theatre), an Arts Council-funded cinema on Earlscourt Terrace that ran for seven years and showed European arthouse movies. My elder sister and her boyfriend took me to see Bertolucci's 1900 there, and a beguiling French film called Une Semaine de Vacances. The old Curzon on Abbey Street sometimes showed foreign films, too - they ran Jean-Jacques Beineix's stylish Parisian thriller Diva there for about six months.
In London, there were a lot more cinemas, some odd, others magnificent. The ICA on The Mall was a lovely theatre: I remember admiring its surrounds while sitting through Jack Nicholson's long and tedious Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes. The Ritzy in Brixton used to put on late-night screenings of The Blues Brothers and Animal House: half-cut punters would turn up in black suits, dark glasses, and togas and dance in the aisles at appropriate moments. A classier clientele frequented The Everyman in Hampstead, which put on Ealing comedies, Orson Welles films and David Lean seasons. I saw the restored Lawrence of Arabia there, and a magnificent sight it was too.
Cinemas were more integral to the heartbeat of Paris, home of one of the world's most splendid movie theatres, Le Grand Rex, a marvellous art deco folly built in the 1930s on the Boulevard Poissonnière. It's breathtaking inside, but for some reason I only ever seemed to see bad films there, like the ghastly Batman & Robin.
More luck in the Quartier latin, where small arthouse cinemas such as Le Champo and the Reflet Médicis would play French classics by everyone from Renoir to Rohmer, but also Hollywood classics, film noirs and Marx Brothers movies. I used to sneak into screenings in the afternoon, and emerge into the evening feeling like one of those glamorous artsy types in Woody Allen films.
Cinema follows you everywhere. I remember seeing an outdoor screening of Braveheart in the Canadian Rockies, wondering as I watched if the black bear I'd seen investigating a car park bin earlier might decide to sit in. In New York's fabled Paris Theater (now the flagship of Netflix's movie production business), a Central Park rat loose in the aisles almost succeeded in upstaging Daniel Day-Lewis at the windy climax of There Will Be Blood.
I saw Claude Chabrol's gripping revenge thriller Que la bete meure (The Beast Must Die) for the first time in a dodgy flea pit in Kyoto, Japan: the projector went on the fritz halfway through but they got it running again: as with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the unexpected break only added to the tension.
My point is this: I can often remember the cinema where I saw something for the first time, as well as who I saw it with, enhancing the experience and turning a movie into a memory. I'm sure you can too. I liked videos and DVDs of course, and I enjoy streaming films, but I don't remember a damn thing about when and where I saw them. The darkness of a cinema, the size of the screen and the general hush - popcorn and smartphones notwithstanding allow you to fully enter into a movie's world, its story and atmosphere, and while not all films deserve that reverent setting, some demand it as their birthright.
I don't blame companies like Universal for stream-opening Smurfs 2 and other films during the shutdown: they've pumped big money into those movies and need a return now rather than in August or September. But I do hope that cinema distribution rebounds as fast as it reasonably can in the coming months. It's true that film would survive without it, but only as a diminished, compartmentalised, desperately lonely experience.