I can still remember the first time I went to the cinema on my own. The year was 2004, I was 19 and living with my parents in Adelaide’s southern suburbs, and the film was a middling Australian drama called Peaches. I recall almost nothing about the film, except that it was South Australian and had a post-Lord of the Rings Hugo Weaving in it. What lingers in the mind is the experience itself.
It was uni holidays and I was at a loose end, hankering to sit in the dark for two hours with problems that were not my own. Perhaps I’d rung around a few friends and found them all busy. Perhaps nobody wanted to see a middling Australian drama set in a regional fruit cannery (Google informs me that Mean Girls, The Notebook, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were all released that year). Whatever the case, I remember something inside me snapping. Who cares if no one can or wants to come? I’ll just go on my own.
Thus decided, I trudged down the street to the bus stop, feeling faintly shameful. The cinema was, surely, a space for families and couples, not listless undergrads with no one to go with. As I settled into my seat in the nearly empty cinema, though, my discomfort began to fall away. Perhaps the gloom, veiling my aloneness, helped. But there was something else: a sense of liberation from anyone else’s expectations. I could sit where I liked — these were the days before assigned seating in cinemas — and take comfort in the fact nobody would talk to me during the film (my best friend at the time was notorious for doing this, in a voice only he thought was sotto voce). I looked forward to not being grilled as to what I thought of the film once the credits rolled, a detestable thing for someone who prefers to avoid rushed judgment.
Despite my discovery of its pleasures, I never made a habit of going to the cinema on my own. The experience remained in my mind a stigmatised one, and it seemed if anything to become more difficult to forgo company, especially after I entered into my first serious romantic relationship at 21. Recently, though, I’ve found myself doing so again — partly out of necessity and partly by choice — and being reminded of why it must rank among life’s more underappreciated experiences.
Late last year, my wife and I relocated from Adelaide to Melbourne’s eastern suburbs with our toddler, leaving behind two supportive families and most of our friends. With no one else to look after our baby even for a few hours, the idea of just the two of us going to the cinema — or, indeed, anywhere — simply dropped out of the realms of possibility. That the move coincided with the local release of a slew of films I wanted to see only compounded my sense of being cut off, not only from our loved ones but also from certain experiences we had once cherished. Still, I thought, we could always go on our own, or even to the same film at different times so as to be able to compare notes afterwards.
On a Sunday afternoon a few months after the move, I went to see Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-nominated tragicomedy The Banshees of Inisherin at one of those unassuming suburban cinemas which have somehow not only survived the advent of the megaplex but also seem to have been frozen in time (eight dollar tickets!). In retrospect, I couldn’t have chosen a more apt film with which to revive my appreciation of solo cinema-going.
Set on a windswept island off the west coast of Ireland during that country’s bloody civil war, the film portrays the seemingly inexplicable breakdown of a friendship between lifelong drinking buddies Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) and Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell). On one rather conspicuous level, the film is an extended metaphor for war and the violent, often perplexing divisions which drive it. On another, it’s a deeply affecting study of male loneliness and emotional inarticulacy.
As I left the cinema, the air cold and the sky a trademark shade of Melbourne grey, I felt the film’s hooks sink deeper. Its spell — of melancholy and rupture, of an almost mythical forsakenness — had not yet been broken by the verbalisation of its merits, by the quotidian blather by which we get back to our cars, our lives.
According to one recent survey, around a quarter of Britons go to the cinema alone at least three times a year. It’s not hard to find discussion threads online which also suggest seeing a film on one’s own is by no means an uncommon experience. It is, of course, impossible to tell how many of these people are doing so by choice, and how many simply have no one else to go with. We do know that, at a time of immense alienation, around 25 per cent of Australians report feeling socially isolated and lonely. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives.”
Most articles celebrating solo cinema-going gloss over this, presenting in sharply neoliberal terms the choice (if, indeed, it is a choice) of seeing a film alone as a triumph of individualism. You get to choose the film/snacks/seat and watch without interruption or judgment, no compromises! While these are all, in their way, desirable, I prefer to situate going to the cinema alone in a lineage of solitary pastimes stretching back at least as far as the ruminative wanderings of the flâneurs of 19th century Paris. For this reason, I don’t think the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is best suited for individual consumption (I have no doubt, too, that collective experiences have renewed appeal after the enforced, and in Melbourne’s case prolonged, social isolation of the pandemic).
A few weeks after seeing The Banshees of Inisherin, I sought out another critically lauded film on my own, Todd Field’s Cate Blanchett-starring Tár. It’s the kind of film that, with its maverick protagonist, #MeToo themes, and morally ambiguous screenplay, cries out for a post-credits debate from its audience. I almost immediately texted my brother and two friends, urging them to see it so that I might have someone to talk about it with. That night I drove home in silence, my mind in dialogue with the various reviews I’d read beforehand, working out how I’d answer my wife when she asked the inevitable question: so, what did you think?
The next time I go to the cinema it will most likely be to watch Cocaine Bear, a horror-comedy about . . . a cocaine-eating bear. In this instance I’ll be asking a friend or two to accompany me but I know that, once the right film comes along, I will return to the cinema by myself and sit, in the tradition of another 19th century concept, in splendid isolation. It’s a measure of the extent to which aloneness remains unjustly maligned that doing so would in all likelihood entail more shame than going to see a film about a 500-pound black bear’s drug-fuelled rampage.
Ben Brooker is a writer and critic based in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. He is working on his first book, a cultural history of psychedelics in Australia.