Your friends never learn. No matter how many times you tell them you don’t look on going to the cinema as a social activity, they still insist on dragging you along with them. And even though you’ve told them a hundred times that, after a hard day’s writing about Béla Tarr the only film you can even consider watching afterwards is District 9, they still call up and say things like, “Hey, let’s go and see the latest Michael Haneke,” or, “What do you say to Hunger?” or, “How about that new Iranian film?”
The usual arguments ensue. They say, “But Mr McCritic gave it five stars and four smiley faces,” to which you counter with, “Yes, but it’s about a man smearing shit on his walls and starving himself to death, and I don’t feel like watching that right now.” Then you move in for the kill: “But did you know there are alien guns in District 9 which make people’s heads explode?” They are not impressed. After much lively discussion along these lines, you finally settle on a compromise and go and see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
Even supposing your friendship survives the epic decision-making process and logistics of arranging for, say, four different people to agree on a time and venue to suit everyone’s working hours and whereabouts, there’s that inevitable moment inside the auditorium when they cluster in the aisle, blocking everyone’s path, locked in a fruitless debate over where to sit. It’s a delicate decision, complicated by every single person in the cinema audience, except you, wanting to sit in the exact same place: right in the middle.
And it’s this, more than anything else, that separates you from the masses, who really just want to huddle together and whisper comments to each other and guzzle evil-smelling popcorn while the film unspools on some postage stamp-sized rectangle in the far distant yonder. Because, rebel that you are, you prefer to sit in the front row. On your own, with only your two cinema-viewing fetish objects for company, those precious talismans without which no screening can be complete: a small bottle of mineral water for that sudden, unexpected onslaught of thirst (which, oddly enough, afflicts you only when you forget to pack it) and a moth-eaten pashmina. Because even in mid-winter, air conditioning can be brutal.
There are many advantages to sitting in the front row. Even if you arrive at the last minute, it’s hardly ever full, so you nearly always get the seat you want. You can stretch your legs out. In the event of the cinema catching fire, you won’t find your route to the exit blocked by a crowd of slow-moving people. With luck, the people who like talking or texting or kicking the back of your seat during the film will be sitting in the middle of the cinema, out of earshot and kicking range.
And, speaking as someone who invariably finds herself stuck behind men of basketball-playing stature or women with Amy Winehouse hair-dos, there are no distracting head-shaped silhouettes between you and the screen to turn it into some ghastly form of Mystery Science Theater. Plus you don’t get friends asking, as soon the credits start to roll, “So what did you think of that then? Where shall we eat?” and trying to hustle you outside before they’ve finished, thus depriving you of Samuel L Jackson’s surprise cameo appearance at the very end of Iron Man.
Certain adventurous chums have braved the front row experience, just for the pleasure of being by my side, but few have been willing to give it a second go. They complain that they can’t follow the action, or they can’t focus on both sides of the screen simultaneously, or that the Battle of Helm’s Deep has given them a headache. I think they are wimps, particularly when they subsequently show themselves willing to sit in, say, the second or third row, which have all the so-called drawbacks of the front without any of the concomitant advantages. The difference between us, I think, is that my friends want to control what they see on the screen, keep it at a safe distance, while I want to be inside it.
Of course there are drawbacks. If the screen is too high, it can make your neck ache, though after years of experimenting with angles and spinal tilt, I have learned how to avoid this. Sometimes you’re so close you can see the texture of the screen itself, which can give large expanses of even the most flawless film-star skin a mottled appearance. But 20 years after I first started taking my place in the front, I read the Surrealists liked to sit there as well, which makes me me feel vindicated.
Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut met in the front row of the Cinémathèque; sometimes, when the cinema was full, they would lie on the floor right in front of the screen, staring up at it from a supine position, and you can’t get much closer than that. They liked to be dominated by the image, and so do I. Brooke Shields famously declared there was nothing between her and her Calvins. Well, I want nothing between me and my movie.
This article first appeared on theartsdesk in October 2009.
Screengrabs from (top to bottom): Scream 2, Burn After Reading, Matinee, Sullivan’s Travels, The Purple Rose of Cairo.