Every town deserves a cinema - film is not just an escape but a way of sharing an experience
The Irish, I'm proud to say, are rated as the best cinema-goers in Europe (along with the French) by the International Union of Cinemas and last year, cinema attendances increased again in this country.
That's great, but there's something else I'd like to see: an operational cinema in every town, as once there was. A local cinema is a blend of art, entertainment and community involvement.
A queue for the cinema animates a sense of joining others in a shared experience: you pick up the responses from the rest of the audience, and quite often, conversations about the film are shared as you emerge.
We are in a wondrous age of visual entertainment. Television drama has probably never been better, across a range of networks, and it's enhanced by access to playback. Word of mouth prompts a second chance to see a gripping new series on TV.
Downloading, DVDs, Netflix, all provide amazing choices. I travel by train a fair bit and I notice that commuters often watch a film on their personal screens after a working day.
Fabulous invention. Films delivered to your own screen offer personal choice and even intimacy. But only a visit to the cinema brings that sense of total immersion in the parallel world of the story. You've been instructed to turn off your phone, and you are in Ebbing, Missouri: or with Paul Getty's kidnappers in Calabria: or in the newsroom of the Washington Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks: or in that world of the Jedi.
The cinema saved my sanity when I was struggling to quit the alcohol habit. A boozer (or a drug-user) is always seeking an alternative universe: getting "out of your head" is an urge to escape from the ghastliness of your real-life self. That's not just alcoholic - it's human. We cannot bear too much reality. We may have to face reality, but we also need to escape from it. Some choose opiates.
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In the cinema, I found a different parallel universe, so that when I had the urge to seek the conviviality of a pub, I planned a visit to the cinema instead. It got me out of my head.
Cinema, like drink, is escape, but at its best, the stories stay with you forever. There are people who can recount Casablanca frame by frame. There are recognisable film phrases which have become staple allusions in the language, from "Here's looking at you, kid" to "We'll always have Paris". Star Wars gave us "May the Force be with You", and we got "ET - phone home" from that affecting Spielberg sci-fi fantasy.
Everyday speech is full of film language, sometimes now spoken ironically, but always recognisably: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" (in Gone With The Wind - Clark Gable instructed to emphasis the word "give" so as to distract from "damn", potentially offensive in 1940): "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse" (The Godfather): "Greed is good" (Wall Street), "Houston, we have a problem" (Apollo 13), and the endearing excuse for our shortcomings, "Nobody's perfect!" (Some Like it Hot).
Is it regrettable that so many of the films weaved into our cultural lives are brought to us from Hollywood? There are fine films from elsewhere, and the Irish film industry is producing films of real quality - I thought John Butler's Handsome Devil was terrific. There are also many more co-productions too - Maudie was co-produced with Canada. But Hollywood's dominance is inescapable. Back in my younger days, we regularly saw films from Sweden, Hungary, Russia as well as, especially, France and Italy, the giants and pioneers of film as art - the brothers Lumiere having really invented film as we know it.
To see more French films these days, I usually go to a DVD shop in Paris and buy up a bunch of them - though I'd prefer to watch them in the cinema. Hollywood dominates - as we'll see with the Oscars in early March - because it has the money and the star power, and it has always had the daring, the innovation, and the driven, sometimes crazy personalities. The Harvey Weinstein scandal opened a can of worms, but frankly, Hollywood has always had its share of outrageous and amoral characters.
Big talent can go with big egos and atrocious behaviour: it was always known that Charlie Chaplin had a taste for young girls, and that Joan Crawford had been forced into an abortion performed on a kitchen floor as a result of the "casting couch". Jack Warner was an ogre and Alfred Hitchcock a creep. And yet, just look at the movies.
Prime Minister Theresa May has recently appointed a 'minister for loneliness', Tracey Crouch (a cause for which the late, murdered MP Jo Cox campaigned), because loneliness is a known factor in social isolation and depression. Social media, paradoxically, links people together, and yet isolates each individual in her own little atomised world.
The new Minister for Loneliness will be directed to "shine a light" on all this isolation, and encourage more participation in communal activities.
I'm not sure that it's the government's job to tell citizens how to go out and socialise, and to go out and share experiences with others, not just via Facebook and its ilk. But communal life is important, and it is achieved by having community facilities - libraries, post offices, churches, local markets - and, I believe, a cinema. You may enter a cinema on your own, but you're never alone in the shared treat of a visit to the movies.