Firewatching: Notes on ‘Leaving the Cinema’

by: , June 14, 2021

© Photo by Mikita Yo

‘You probably won’t want to sit that far forward’, the man at the box office tells me. He shows me the digitised layout of the cinema screen and suggests Row E. Before I say anything, he’s already clicked on the suggested seat and continued onto the next page. ‘No,’ I interject, refusing the decision just made for me. ‘I’ll go for Row B. Central. Yes, that’s it.’ Five minutes later, I’m watching the trailers, waiting for the film to start. I worry that I might’ve made the wrong choice, that I’ll strain my neck and discover that his advice was worth heeding after all. If not, I’ll add it to the log I keep in my head that tracks cinemas and screens and seats and reads like an elaborately styled cryptic crossword clue. British Film Institute (NFT1): C14. Curzon Bloomsbury (Phoenix): A3. I’m promiscuous in my selections: one day to Mayfair, the next to the Southbank. Shoreditch, Aldgate, Soho, Brixton. Like Dickensian inns and alleyways, here a city mapped in screens.

I don’t go to the cinema to look at the glaringly illuminated Exit sign, or at other people’s heads. I want to feel bathed, immersed. This is not a scientific calculation; such studies do exist, detailing the sweet spots that make the most of the theatre’s speaker system or help you to align your gaze. My method of choosing is one based on sensation. At the front of the room, even the border of the screen is outside my direct line of vision. When I was younger, I’d have performed some endearing naivety and half-jokingly declared my desire to sit in the front row so as to be ‘the first to see the film’. Technologically impossible but affectively probable; it feels, up in front, like the film is mine alone. I’m that obnoxious person who asks neighbouring spectators to hush. The new announcements that declare that ‘the glare from your phone screen is annoying too’ were made for me. The cinemas that serve you snacks and cocktails at your seat were not. Stop bringing the outside in.

The favourite cinema of my teenage years was a two-screen, shoebox theatre. Two or three times a week I’d go there, often getting through everything on the programme; I still have my ticket stubs. Four o’clock on a weekday was my favourite slot, a period of lull when I’d avoid the dates, parties, miscellaneous sociable outings. I could always get a ticket in those afternoon hours when my peers were doing homework in the libraryor, more likely, drinking cider in the park. My memories of this cinema have a dreamlike quality of light and texture (so much so that, I’m sure, some of the details are blurred or mistaken). During the winter months, when the nights would draw in even before I arrived there from school, the golden light of the foyer would shine through panels of glass in the red doors. The little refreshments kiosk hid in what wasn’t much more than a cupboard behind dusty curtains. It took them years to start selling popcorn. Sometimes I’d go to two films back to back, and the cinema’s manager would come in midway with a coffee to see me through the double billI’d give him a brief verdict as a I left. They’d save me the movie posters from the board outside for me to take home at the end of a run.

In Giuseppe Tornatore’s nostalgic Cinema Paradiso, regularly hailed as one of the best and most beloved films about film, the cinema is where we go for camaraderie and community. But I resent the companion who fidgets as I fall in love with every frame, who jogs their leg impatiently, who leaves before the end of the credits, who wants to talk too much or too little. A walk home from the cinema alone is a moment to think without speaking, to let the images rest in my mind and overtake those of the world around methe streets themselves become the space of the cinema, too. I’m a contradiction, though; I don’t go for loneliness, just quiet anonymity. The best company is a full house of complete strangers. 

It was Roland Barthes who taught me to put this into words. In ‘Leaving the Cinema’ (En Sortant du Cinéma), first published in 1975 in the journal Communications, Barthes’s stylisation of the cinematic encounter simultaneously summons and alienates the universal reader. From the pages of his essay, I learned to understand something that had always seemed self-evident in my own experience. Barthes fails, or refuses, to document his love for the cinema through a particular film—indeed, he doesn’t name a single one. Instead, he writes a love letter to the cinema in which he reveals that his affair is with the space itself. Without what he calls a ‘particular cultural quest’, his is an intense act of consumption for its own sake, a bodily encounter close to eating, or yes, to sex. Barthes highlights the disjuncture between the outside and the inside; in fact, it is the juxtaposition between the two that produces his intensity of feeling. The cinema’s enthralling effect emerges only in its aftermath as the writer-spectator wanders out of the building, preferably in silence, and is hit by the brilliance of the fully lit world, the pavement, the traffic. Barthes knows what kind of a statement it isthat ‘he likes to leave a movie theatre’ (il aime à sortir d’une salle de cinema)and italicises his pleasurable provocation. The experience is visceral as well as, or rather than, intellectual. ‘Obviously,’ he says, ‘he’s coming out of a hypnosis.’

Nowadays, we are told, film is migrating to the digital screen. The outside refuses to be shut out; we don’t arrive or leave, we just are. The tools of hypnosis encroach beyond the four walls of an auditorium. Even the television relocates to a smaller and smaller box, its historic communality dispersed to multiple, individual screens. Hypnotism becomes an art of distraction. I find myself watching a film on my laptop with occasional glances to some other device, having then to flick back, ten seconds at a time, to catch up. We’re never really multi-tasking. 

The purists fear for the cinema in this age of the digital, contemplating the eradication of the cinematic encounter and what it will do to the way we watch. In May 2017, Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja and Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck are booed at Cannes. These films, by celebrated auteurs, find themselves standing in as the scapegoats for Netflix and Amazon respectively, the streaming services that have begun not only to host and distribute other companies’ films, but to produce their own. Slowly but surely, they are becoming key players in international arthouse cinema and Cannes’s audience is not a happy one. Adding insult to injury, Okja’s first ten minutes are played in the wrong aspect ratio.

In January 2018, the long-running international film magazine Sight and Sound includes a television series in its roundup of the best ‘films’ of 2017 (David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Return). Some readers are appalled; the magazine’s editor-in-chief defends the choice. Just over a year later, the front cover is devoted to an essay by David Thompson, renowned cinema scholar, on the pleasures of television and the art of binge-watching.

In November 2018, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, acquired by Netflix for distribution, begins a limited theatrical run. It will be streaming onlinelegally, more to the pointby December. Steven Spielberg leads the charge against the film’s inclusion in the Academy Awards. The lines between the cinema and the television are blurring. Netflix does not respect the traditional 90-day window between theatrical and home release; it doesn’t report its box office figures. The sums it spends are huge. It is not a neutral player in the game; it is reshaping the game. According to Spielberg and others, the very notion, body, texture, culture of cinema is under threat.

And yet, what ends up diverting Roma’s triumph in the Best Film category at the Oscars is not its mode of dissemination but the nationality of its director, absent in spectacles like Gravity that abandoned his native language on-screen. Roma wins the ‘foreign language’ prize. As we know (enough of us, at least, to constitute a ‘we’), the notion, body, texture, culture of cinema never meant only one thing in the first place. Netflix, like Amazon Prime, has been responsible for some of the most diverse casting and filmmaking choices of recent years. Digital platforms have become just that: platforms, for those so often sidelined. Dee Rees’ mesmeric, charismatic, beautiful, brutal and utterly masterfulindeed, cinematicMudbound (2018) also barely touched the big screen. But it did get made, and seen. Cinema purism is not without its ideology; it is something to afford. The cost of a cinema ticket versus the cost of a screening subscription; the cost of representation.

Google ‘film buff’ and you get a wikiHow page demonstrating ‘how to become a film buff: 13 steps (with pictures).’ And a list, or a dozen, of films you must have seen in order to qualify. The Godfather (Part I. And Part II. And Part III). Citizen Kane. A few Hitchcocks. On the Waterfront. I find immense satisfaction in filling the first page with ticks against each film. I’d have put Double Indemnity further up. I’d have included a woman before page three (The Piano. Welcome to the club, Jane.) Still. I, too, manage to get a better score than 93% of users on this list.

As a child, I would eagerly ask my father, ‘I’m a film buff, right?’, fishing for the compliment to end all compliments. And oh, that pleasurable affirmation when it came. Perhaps, later, I’d have aspired instead to be a cinephile, and pronounced it like the French. But in those early days, to be a film buff would, to me, grant the same satisfaction as being a tomboy, another word I’d try to live up to. I aspired to be a ‘buff’ not only for the meaning but for the sound. There was a satisfaction in the performance of a word, itself short, contained, brisk. It is strong, even arrogant, if a word can be such a thing. And I was urgently and intensely conscious of how it would gender me. I’d become a shapeshifter. I endlessly fantasised that, as a boy, a buff, I would wear a flat cap and braces. This was a stylisation no doubt plagiarised from the movies.

My attachment to cinema was performed, stylised, and gendered. And learned. Just as he taught me to play chords on the guitar, to love country music, to make a go-cart, to take a photograph, my father would enrol me in a series of personalised tasks, games, tests induced to confirm inclusion in this special club. How many degrees of separation are there between … ? Who directed … ? What year was … ? The high-brow mixed with the low. We’d keep a list of ‘our’ favourite movies. He’d indulge my juvenile additions and reward me for my precocious ones (my little film buff). He’d flatter me whilst waiting for me to watch more Fellini.

It felt like a test. Too much of one, sometimes. Showgirls, The Accused, A Clockwork Orange. Many years later, on a psychotherapist’s coach, I uncovered a regular theme. Low and high, these were all essential parts of my instruction, with the risk of inappropriateness built in as a worthy price. The film buff tag was calling. I learned to ignore classifications and seek transgressions. Once, long before the year I turned 18, we sat in a cinema waiting to watch a film. It doesn’t matter which one. What came onto the screen was not the promised 12A feature, but Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s knowing and pleading submission is seductive, provocative and unsettling in equal measure from the opening frame. This was not what the audience, the under-12s and their trusting parents, were expecting. I knew something wasn’t quite rightput it down to precocity. But I was delighted with those few moments in the dark, watching a film I was too young to see. Neither of us told the projectionist they’d made a mistake.

Venturing together to the cinema whilst practising my age to buy tickets at the box office became a vital part of our cinema-going tradition. Comfort was promised without hesitation in the wake of possible upset. But I refused to see Last Tango in Paris, no matter how seminal its influence, no matter how repeated the invitation. I wept when, in 2017, the revelations emerged about Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando’s on-set treatment of Maria Schneider. I still haven’t seen it. ‘The Canon’: a placeholder for wisdom, history, guidance. Even in its comparatively meagre hundred-year history, film has instilled a ‘List’ with a capital L, that illusion of objective measurement. You’ll come up with your own list, variations on a theme. Years later, you’ll fill the pages of an essay about cinema with menfathers, critics, directors, philosophers, box office staffall of whom you’ll belatedly realise you’ve inadvertently tasked with your education. Years later, you’ll remember the lingering smell of cigarettes and daytime alcohol and you’ll put into words why you prefer to watch alone.

The first film I ever saw by Woody Allen was The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s avid voyeur delighting me by making fantasy a reality. But look how that turned out; Allen would go on to be one of my favourite directors, before first disappointingly and then destructively distorting my spectatorial pleasures as the years wore on. #Metoo has delivered an imperative and a tool. I’m not the first feminist critic to point a finger, and I’m not the most well equipped, either: I struggle to live by a politics of refusal, too eager to please.

The adjectives Barthes uses in his essay describe not the intellectual engagement with film, nor even an emotional connection, but a bodily state of being. He is ‘a little dazed, wrapped up in himself, feeling the coldhe’s sleepy, that’s what he’s thinking, his body has become something sopitive, soft, limp, and he feels a little disjointed, even … irresponsible.’ Some have identified this as a porn theatre. To my mind, it could be, or not. The darkness of the cinema coaches me to watch, with something close to an erotic intent, regardless of the type of film before me. For a period of ninety minutes or more my eyes don’t leave the screen, leave her dress, leave the close-up of her face. I am a perfectly trained voyeur.

With a sinking feeling, you experiment with what the feminist cultural critic Sara Ahmed calls a ‘crisis in citation’. You re-write the lists. Cinema is going through a crisisthis is what the purists say about the digital encroachment of filmic space. Cinema is going through a crisisfigures and companies and studios and networks are now reckoning with their complicities. Leaving the Cinema finds itself attached to a different meaning. It turns out you can’t not bring the outside in, however hard you’ve tried.

buff, n.2


‘An enthusiast about going to fires’ (Webster 1934); so called from the buff uniforms worn by volunteer firemen in New York City in former times. Hence gen., an enthusiast or specialist. Chiefly North American colloquial

1903 N.Y. Sun 4 Feb. IV. 2/1 The Buffs are men and boys whose love of fires, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic…

I once saw a film reel catch fire. The screen in front of me was suddenly distorted in a psychedelic swirl. Shapeshifting. Like a hot spring in red and orange, burning copper, pools of distorting colour bending themselves in impossible shapes. In the age of digital projection, this anachronistic display of film’s material vulnerability is curious as well as exciting. I was so transfixed by the materiality of the image in front of me it didn’t occur to me to move, to complain, to ask for my money back. A buff: a firewatcher.


The title of Barthes’ essay ‘Leaving the Cinema’ has had many English translations. The most popular English language version of the text was published in 1986: Roland Barthes (1986 [1975]), ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’, in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 345–349.

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