Covid recovery: Why it's time to rediscover the tears, laughter and joy of the cinema – Professor Joe Goldblatt

Scottish Cinemas and Theatres lists in its database over 1,440 cinemas throughout our wee country that date back to 1902. I recently summoned the courage to return to one of the cinemas that first opened 107 years ago.

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa in the movie that captivated Joe Goldblatt on his first post-lockdown visit to the cinema (Picture: Macall Polay/PA)
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera as Vanessa in the movie that captivated Joe Goldblatt on his first post-lockdown visit to the cinema (Picture: Macall Polay/PA)

The feeling of walking through the front door of Edinburgh’s beautiful and historic Cameo Theatre, a temple to the moving image, was deeply emotional.

I was reminded of the character Emily in the classic Thornton Wilder play Our Town. Emily dies during child birth and is given permission to return from heaven to Earth for only one day. As she observes the most minute details around her, she asks rhetorically “Does anyone ever realise life while they live it… every, every minute?”

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Although cinemas were allowed to open a few weeks earlier, I had delayed my return due to the concerns expressed by family and friends. However, I decided to live boldly and follow government and health guidance that allowed the cinemas to re-open with social distancing.

When I booked my ticket I asked the ticket seller how far away I would be from other audience members and he said, “The nearest audience member will be two seats away”. Just to be sure, I booked an aisle seat as well.

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With each new step cautious step inside the cinema, I observed the bright-red carpet, the smell of popcorn and soda and the warm welcoming smiles of the ushers who were so happy to see me that they barely inspected my computer-generated ticket.

As I found my pre-selected aisle seat in the 550-seat Cinema One, I noted that I was the only person in the audience for the 1.30pm showing. A few minutes later, four additional folk joined me in taking their seats many metres away in the theatre. Then the magic got underway as the gold curtains slowly opened and a bold beam of light from the projection booth struck and illuminated the giant white screen.

Despite some misgivings, Joe Goldblatt decided it was time to return to the cinema and found it to be a wonderful experience (Picture: Greg Macvean)

I never have enjoyed adverts so much in my life! After 15 months of viewing the world through a small telly screen, I was finally widening my view through the magic of the cinema.

Following the adverts, the lights in the theatre began to fade and the previews for upcoming films appeared in all their much-anticipated glory.

Prior to entering the theatre, I visited the Cameo Bar that is usually packed with cinema goers grabbing a quick drink or coffee before their film. On this day, it was completely empty and some of the furniture had been removed to comply with social distancing measures. I asked the bar staff if folk were returning to the cinema and they raised their shoulders and through their gesture let me know that this would indeed be a slow march back into their theatres.

I then asked them why the current film releases were scheduled for such short runs and they mentioned that it was probably due to the backlog of feature films that need to be screened and, to accommodate all of them, the runs needed to be shortened. They also believed that there will be significant demand for these films due to advance publicity during the lockdowns.

Although I did not see much evidence of this demand during my 1.30pm showing, I did sense a palpable feeling of relief and enthusiasm at being able to sit in an actual cinema with other audience members. The film that my fellow four other audience members and myself had selected was a perfect re-introduction to the joys of returning to the silver screen.

Lin-Manuel Miranda created In the Heights in 2008 as a Broadway musical celebrating the culture of his neighbours in Manhattan’s Washington Heights through their Dominican Republic immigrant culture. Later there were several attempts to bring this story to the screen, however, each one failed due to the convoluted system of green-lighting films for production.

Finally, in 2021, just as society was once again beginning to realise the preciousness of regaining some semblance of community, the film has been released into theatres – as demanded by Miranda – so that we may all gather and view it together as one human family.

This major motion picture, featuring a cast of thousands, could simply not be contained within a mere telly screen and upon the giant cinema screen it served as a window to a new world that may be soon opening up around us.

One of the major themes in the film is the August 2003 electricity blackout that occurred in New York city and lasted for three sweltering days. This “loss of power” was also symbolic for Miranda regarding the loss of power for immigrants in his neighbourhood.

Through the decisions and serendipity of many of the character, they are able to regain their power. The powerlessness many of us are now experiencing due to the pandemic and also the current controversies regarding UK immigration policies seemed particularly relevant during this extraordinary new cinema experience.

Our small audience of five persons laughed, smiled (even behind our masks), wept, applauded the film and, not unlike Emily in Our Town, we also silently gave thanks that once more we were all able to realise life while we live it in the hallowed and mysterious darkness of a cinema. Now is the time to return to the cinema and indeed love, laugh and live life together, once again.

Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University. His memoir, The True Joy of Life, and his other writing and videos may be viewed at www.joegoldblatt.scot

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