In praise of the cinema

I find it impossible to relax. As each minute goes by, I’m forever asking: Is this the best use of my time?

My day goes something like this. I wake up and read a book (usually non-fiction) because I like learning, or at least the idea of it, and I try to keep educating myself. Then I go for a run because keeping fit is important and it helps your brain work a bit better. I catch the tram to work and keep reading my book so that not a single second is wasted. In any downtime at the office, I open Duolingo and continue learning Swedish so that I’m less of an ignorant Brit in Gothenburg, or I read articles on Instapaper so that I can keep up to date with all the latest viral articles, educational long reads, celebrity profiles, thoughts on leadership, listicles of life lessons.

When work’s over, I catch the tram back home. I read. I arrive home. I agonise over the best way to spend the evening. Should I see friends? Friends are important. Or continue writing? I really want to finish that piece I’m working on. Maybe I should continue reading because I’m trying to finish a book a week this year and this week’s one is a real doorstop. Or I could Skype a friend and see how they’re doing. I haven’t spoken to Ben in a couple of weeks. I wonder how he’s finding being back home? I should cook. But cooking takes time! Etc.

It’s not that any of the above activities aren’t enjoyable. In fact, they’re pretty much all enjoyable. It’s just that I choose to do them because I’m focused on goals. Achievements. Lists. I worry that I’m more in love with the feeling of accomplishment I get from crossing something off one of my (self-invented, arbitrary, unnecessary) lists, than I am with the activity itself: running, reading, writing.

The issue is that even once I’ve made a decision about how to spend the next ten minutes of my day, I’m then consumed with worry about whether it’s the best use of my time or if there’s something else that should be taking priority. Then I check my to-do list in my notebook but it’s out of date so I open Trello (yep, I have a personal Trello board) and see if there’s something else I’m meant to be doing. The result is that activities that should be fun, like writing or calling friends or reading a book, suddenly become chores. Tasks to accomplish and cross off an ever-replenishing list.

It’s exhausting.

But there’s one thing that, for me, is always 100% relaxing: the cinema.

The cinema is one of the few places — if not the only place — where we’re told to turn our phones completely off. And in a world where people can’t even get through a short lunch without checking their Snapchat, this is a big deal. There are no distractions in the cinema. Everyone is together in one place, solely dedicated to one task: watching the film in front of them.

Once you’re in the cinema, you’re there until the end. Sure, you can leave if the film really isn’t to your tastes, or I guess you could sneak into another screen — but you’ll probably have missed half of what’s showing there. In an age where we skim read, where we hop from article to article, website to website, where we embark upon a constant rotation of Twitter, Facebook, work email, Slack, Tumblr, personal email, etc. (add your own vices and repeat ad infinitum) the cinema is a refreshing change. You’ve spent your money on the (extortionate) ticket so you want to stick it out. You’re invested. And more often than not, by sticking it out, you discover what’s so good about it — unlike all the notable books, articles, records, TED talks, podcasts, etc. that we give up on after thirty seconds because they failed to grab our attention immediately. As Tom said when I sent this piece to him, “There aren’t many places that we allow ourselves to be slow and endure something difficult — it’s like a visual yoga.”

Sometimes, going to the cinema is a communal experience. You meet with your friends, and although you spend two hours in the dark, not talking to one another, you discuss the film afterwards. Crucially, you’ve all spent the past couple of hours digesting the same piece of art at the same time. That’s a special thing nowadays, when we live increasingly individual lives: listening to the artists that we like, reading the authors that we like — living in our own dark corners of the internet, separate and alone. And even when you don’t go with friends, it’s still a communal experience but in a different way — with strangers. Yes, we watch YouTube with strangers, but the beauty of the cinema is that we permit the stranger to come closer. Close enough to smell them. This is a special thing in a society that’s getting smaller as we curate our friendships to the exclusion of difference and difficulty.

I went to see Homme Less with some friends a couple of weeks ago and we spent an hour unpicking the film in the bar afterwards, analysing the cinematography and soundtrack, the practicalities and logistics of how the documentary was made. It’s rare to have a group of people come together and debate something so intimately because we so rarely enjoy the same ‘content’ at the same time anymore. (The days of being a teenager and buying the latest New Found Glory record at the same HMV at the same time as all of my friends, then all going home to listen to it that evening, before coming into school the next morning to debate the merits of each song, are long gone.)

And sometimes going to the cinema is a solitary event. I took the day off work to celebrate my 28th birthday in July and spent the morning watching Dear White People alone at Hackney Picturehouse. To me, it’s paradise. Pure indulgence. That feeling of entering a darkened room and being transported to another world of thoughts, experiences and ways of seeing for a few hours — forgetting about yourself and your troubles and your to-do list — is one that I don’t get from anything apart from the cinema. There’s something about it that consumes me totally and completely. I’m wholly present.

I’m going to see The Swedish Theory of Love at the cinema tonight. I’m not sure it’s the best use of my time. But I’m going to the cinema because I like it — in a pure, unquestioning, all-consuming way. And there aren’t many things I can say that about.