The impact of venue on film and audience / by Scott Wilson

To suggest that a film’s optimum intent can be felt anywhere other than the cinema is enough to be excommunicated in some circles.

Everyone was rightfully disappointed when Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) premiered on Netflix, shunned by a studio with no faith in it or audiences going to see it. Effectively a sensory overload, Annihilation deserves the big screen treatment for its sound and visual achievements, but it has a more contemplative nature too, perhaps one more suited to a 2am viewing in the privacy of your own home.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow (2015), followed by its equally impactful sequel, on the big screen at the Glasgow Short Film Festival. The chances of ever seeing a 17-minute animated short released three years ago in the cinema seemed slim, but sure enough, I prepared myself for the existential crises, elated at the chance to see it big and see it loud, instead of on a laptop screen in my pyjamas.

World of Tomorrow lies on the lines between absurd and profound, ridiculous and philosophical. It is immensely quotable – “Now is the envy of all of the dead” – and its deliberately erratic, occasionally jarring dialogue is played for laughs and forlorn stares into the distance. “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive” is followed swiftly by “I no longer fall in love with rocks.”

Because of this balancing act, it tips in favour of what you bring to it. For me, it is a deeply touching story about the enormity of life, the certainty of time, and the joy of feeling. Those are personal things that you want to sit with for a while, long after the film’s short runtime has passed.

But for others, it is a comedy. Emily Prime’s bounding youthfulness in the face of a stoic clone of herself pontificating about the future is kind of hilarious. Take a step back and it is an absurd fever dream conducted by a visitor from the future, talking about robots programmed to fear death and – as mentioned previously – falling in love with a rock.

Which means, while I am having a moment, half of the cinema is laughing. While I am coming to terms with “we mustn’t linger, it is easy to get lost in memories” other paying punters are shifting in their seats waiting for the next gag.

Fine. My reading is personal, and so is everyone else’s. I would hate a world in which we all agreed or took completely the same things from a film. Nuance and diversity is what makes cinema such a rich medium to devote time to. I would never have categorised it as a comedy.

But it does suggest the venue impacts your viewing. That recalibration after each joke in the cinema never happened when I watched World of Tomorrow at home. It was just me and Don Hertzfeldt’s unrestrained imagination, undiluted by the presence of others. 

It might be heresy to suggest such, but I – whisper – preferred watching World of Tomorrow at home. 

There, what Hertzfeldt’s film was saying and what I was taking from it happened in an unfiltered harmony. In the cinema, all too aware of everyone else, the film was shared among us. A bit for them, a bit for me.

For an introvert, arguably all spaces could be improved by having fewer people, but in this instance the presence of them directly impacted a film’s capability to emotionally resonate. They got in the way. I started to think of similar experiences, and yes, they sprang to mind. Before Sunrise (1995) in particular, is wonderful at home and in the cinema, but more touching on your own, and more of a euphoric haze with other people.

I opened this up to Twitter. Millicent Thomas, co-host of the Screen Queens' podcast and writer, noted The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s (2015) intimacy worked best at home. Medieval historian Mary Hitchman feels unsettled by the idea of watching Carol (2015) with people around her. For Orla Smith, associate editor of Seventh Row, the quiet loneliness of Certain Women (2016) works better in solitude. Creative writing tutor Melissa Reid can’t imagine having to get up and talk to people after watching Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy (2011), Breathe In (2013), and Equals (2015)

Other issues go without saying. Noisy patrons who giggle nervously during horrors when you just want peace to sweat in silence, or even ones who smell of weed, as experienced by author Sophie Cleverly on their trip to see Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), can all be distracting. It is this personal connection interrupted by others which makes home viewing preferable to the cinema on some occasions.

Any fan of cinema will defend the existence of picture houses to the death. Their inscrutability belies truths of the medium, that the venue in which art is displayed is also part of the art. The opposite of this piece is more often true – did you know Dunkirk (2017) is best seen in 70mm IMAX? – and will remain so, but every now and then, a film comes along which deserves to be seen in private, undisturbed, with nothing and no one in the way. 

This piece was written by A Film Club member and writer, Scott Wilson. You can find out more about Scott via their Twitter and Common Space Author's page!