I have a lifelong love affair with the cinema.
I remember vividly how, on my 10th birthday, my brother took me to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema with tickets that I'd won by doing a 'Spot The Difference' competition in the local newspaper.
We arrived a few minutes late and the first thing I saw on the screen was the gloriously grotesque face of Bib Fortuna, Jabba The Hutt's tentacled manservant (try getting that euphemistic image out of your head).
I sat inside that modern day cathedral, ornate plasterwork ceiling curving majestically far above me, plush red seats both soft and coarse at the same time, total darkness around me, with a huge, glowing screen reflected in my wide, young eyes.
At once, I was hooked. Whenever possible, I would go to the cinema, ravenously devouring whatever was being shown.
I remember sitting moist-eyed and amazed at the denouement of Carlito's Way; missing half of Tim Burton's Batman because I was too busy fiddling with my date's impressive breasts; getting up and walking out of Made In America because it was possibly one of the worst films ever made; stifling numerous sobs during Babe (that'll do pig, that'll do); and inching forwards on my seat, mouth agape, as I watched a herd of diplodocus mill around the edge of a lake in Jurassic Park, absolutely enthralled and amazed at this new age of digital effects.
In short, cinema is the great love of my life.
Or at least it used to be.
Now, I can count the number of cinema visits this year on one hand. Don't get me wrong, my DVD collection increases on a weekly basis to such an extent that I now have a worryingly large pile of films that I haven't even watched yet, balefully glaring at me every time I walk into the living room, accusation hanging heavy in the air. I still love film and believe it to be an incredible art form, bursting with passion, insight, and pulse-quickening excitement. But I have, at 37, had to make the difficult decision never to go to the cinema again.
Yes, you read that correctly - I am never going to the cinema again.
At the beginning of August, I went to see Christopher Nolan's Inception. I'd read the glowing reviews and my expectations had built accordingly. I then read some bad reviews just to redress the balance and lower my expectations, which I consider to be a sensible course of action.
Arriving at my local cinema, I bought my ticket and my cinema buddy bought hers.
Astoundingly, they actually had staff sitting at the ticket counter which is a minor miracle as, due to shortages, the last couple of times I'd been there I'd had to buy my tickets at the ice cream counter, walking straight past the closed, derelict ticket booth to stand behind an indecisive couple very carefully, very slowly picking which flavours of over-priced creamy confection they wanted to scoop into their gaping, slack maws as they gazed impassively at the screen.
The lift had an 'amusing' sign on it "This R2 unit has a bad motivator!", which was their way of explaining to patrons that the life was out of order. I believe it's been this way for 3 months. Disabled customers are very clearly not being catered for here and I do wonder if they're failing in their duty under the Disability Discrimination Act. I can certainly attest to the fact that they are discriminating against overweight, wheezy smokers who can't be bothered to trog up the stairs.
Because the lift was unavailable, we had to ascend up six flights of steps to get to our screen. My cinema buddy, oblivious to my painful struggle, engaged me in conversation as we climbed - a difficult task as I clambered higher and higher, drawing mouthfuls of air into my withered lungs. Somehow, I managed admirably, although with noticeably shorter sentences than normal.
The old days of a cinema usher with a torch directing you to your seat are long gone. Instead, a bored teenager tore our tickets and pointed us in the general direction of a pitch-black room full of stumbling hazards.
Finding out seats, we settled down for the main feature, after enduring a raft of advertisements for films we had no interest in seeing and which had clearly not been tailored to the viewers of this movie. The 'Piracy is killing the movie industry' segment has replaced the wet-eyed Matthew Horne (a man who, when I look at him, impossibly appears to have the phrase 'punch me' written across his forehead. I know it's not there, but I swear to God I can see it. I don't know how) with a similarly aggravating woman whose name I do not recall nor desire to know.
In the same way that I despise the unskippable piracy ads that I have to watch on a DVD that I'VE ACTUALLY COCKING-WELL PAID FOR, these cinema ads invoke a powerful Pavlovian reaction in me that involves clenching my jaw so tightly that I fear my teeth may explode in my mouth with a noise like a sheet of bubble wrap being trodden on by a clumsy elephant.
I reattached the arm of the chair after I'd wrenched it from my seat in fury and, soon, we got to the film itself.
For the next two hours, my viewing enjoyment was ruined by the chattering, squealing and fidgeting of a dozen barely pubescent teenagers in the second row. They were, so it seems, completely incapable of sitting in silence and displaying a modicum of respect to the others in the room. I can only imagine this is what it would be like to sit in a car at Windsor Safari Park with a troop of baboons skittering across the windscreen, screeching and pressing their scarlet genitalia against the glass.
Major plot points were missed as one of them made an asinine comment at an inappropriate volume causing me to glare in their direction and take my eyes and attention off the screen for a few vital seconds.
In this way, the movie was completely bollocksed for me, my cinema buddy and countless others.
I wistfully remember when a member of staff used to enter the auditorium and sit at the back, on the look out for any noise or troublemakers. If they encountered any nonsense, they would walk to the offenders and either tell them to shut up, or order them out. Of course, that doesn't happen any more. We customers are left to fend for ourselves and risk getting into abusive situations.
I have a particular memory of one film when a couple started smoking in the back row. I stood up, walked over to them and politely informed them that they couldn't smoke here. One of them was male with a neck thicker than his head and, impossibly, his chest too. He fixed me with a steely glare and simply said, "Sit. Down." I regarded him for a moment and, filled with anger at his complete disregard for the other patrons, went and sat down, fearful that he might use my face as an ashtray. And toilet. And doormat for his heavy, muddy boots.
Mindful of hidden weapons and aware that these gibbering apes in the second row already seemed to have adopted the philosophical stance of 'Fuck everyone that isn't me', I was unwilling to say anything to them.
So I sat there and, pathetically, put up with it, as did everyone else.
At one point, some youngsters sitting a couple of seats away from us made a loud comment to which I blurted out "Jesus Christ, is EVERYONE in this cinema fucking talking?!". The look of terror on their faces was quite wonderful and my pleasure was only slightly abated by the fact that they were probably about 9 years old. Sod 'em, everyone has to learn some time.
I left the cinema having enjoyed what little I'd seen of the film, but possessed of a deep sadness because, in that moment, I knew that I would never go to the cinema again. Not just because of those chattering imbeciles, but because the cinema experience has changed irrevocably. That cathedral of dreams, that monument to art, is gone forever, replaced by a dingy room of yabbering simpletons, a broken lift, staff who aren't paid enough to care, playing films that have the artistic merit of a coil of dog shit nailed to a wall. (I don't know if you can nail dog shit to a wall. We'll assume, for the purposes of this rant, that it's entirely feasible).
The film industry, including the cinema chains, bemoans the fact that it is being destroyed by piracy despite the fact that their profits increase year on year.
For me, the film industry is not being ruined by piracy, it is being ruined by the cinema chains. They simply don't care any more. Gone are the days when a visit to the cinema was a deep pleasure; something to look forward to and treat with reverence and respect; an opportunity to lose yourself completely in a thought-provoking masterpiece or an enjoyable piece of action hokum.
Now it consists of disappointment, anger, and wasted money. For that, we have the cinemas to blame. When they put profit above love of the art-form or customer enjoyment, they do us all a grave disservice.
I fondly think back to the ten-year old me, bright-eyed, filled with excited expectation, agog at the spectacle unfolding before him, and I wish those days could be recaptured. But they're gone, never to return.
On the plus side, the 37-year old me gets to watch porn, so on balance I can't really complain too much.