There is nothing that emphasises a dry spell more than your upstairs neighbours having near-pornographic sounding sex at 7am on a Thursday. It’s incredibly tricky when that dry spell is government-enforced. In May, the government in the Netherlands told single men and women they should organise a “sex buddy” if they wanted to enjoy physical contact during lockdown. They asked people to consider their sexual partners based on how many other people they might see and plan the safest way to meet up for a shag. Going through someone’s social calendar and organising which position you’ll be in based on how likely it would be to transmit an airborne virus is not precisely foreplay though, is it?
As for in the UK, the government offered no such suggestion – although, having Chris Whitty or Boris Johnson dictating the specifics of my sex life would kill what little libido I have left – and thus, we were told we wouldn’t hug a stranger until 2021. So whether it was organising a sex buddy with the precision of a NASA Space Launch or being forced into celibacy by government restrictions, for most single people, sex has become, well, unsexy.
This has become increasingly harder to deal with when watching movies with sex scenes. The touching, the kissing, the licking, the panting, the sweat; all of which feel both dangerous and off-limits now. Recently, I watched Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannell’s get it on in Joe Mantello’s The Boys in the Band remake. It’s only for a few seconds, but the two beautiful men kiss, drenched in sweat and passion, and all I could think was they’re definitely not six feet apart. I couldn’t find it hot (which objectively it was) because all I could think of was all the germs that might be passed around in their hot breath.
The pandemic has made sex unsexy and has made even watching sex scenes tough because it requires a physical closeness that most of us fear now. We can’t be near people, but when we see actors on screen, in movies filmed sometime last year, getting too close, it’s hard to un-train the brain to not panic at the sight of their touching.
As Raven Smith noted in Vogue earlier this week, it’s not only the closeness but also the current climate stopping us from “feelings super-duper horny” these days. News of Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson, death tolls, tiered lockdown systems, social unrest, racism, violence, and corruption are not exactly subjects that lead to being turned on. It’s hard to spend all day on Zoom taking in news updates, and rumours of impending lockdowns, and still have the mental capacity for sex – if the option is still available to you. Plus, any sex scenes I watch just serve to mock me. Not only because I wince at the touching but because they say to me: Look at all the fun you could have been having if you weren’t in the throes of a major historical event.
I used to see sex scenes as a marker of boldness, especially in queer cinema. Whether that was Jake Gyllenhaal bottoming on a stomach full of baked beans, or Taron Edgerton, as Elton John, getting into bed with Richard Madden, it often signified a film’s willingness to “go there”. Was the filmmaker unafraid of alienating a straight audience by showing queer sex? Rachel Wiess spitting in Rachel McAdams mouth in Disobedience, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu rolling round in the mud in God’s Own Country, or the sandy-handy on the beach in Moonlight set them apart from the “straight-friendly” LGBTQ+ movies that tried to toe the line.
I hope, soon, I can return to that mindset. One in which I’m excited by sex scenes again and take pride in the unabashed sexiness. In fact, I’m just as keen to enjoy sex scenes as I am literal sex. Still, as my neighbours taught me at 7am last Thursday, not everyone is in the same boat.
My first memory of the cinema is the mezzanine. Looking down at rows of empty seats, the art deco fixtures of a time long gone, and all of it lit up by the blueish light from the screen. I was with my Grandma watching a re-release of The Little Mermaid, my hands gripped the brass bar in front of our seats, my knuckles turning white. I was around five years old.
The local Odeon, now transformed into a cultural hub in my hometown, was a place I longed to be. I craved its dusty theatre and shabby, rundown lobby. As a teenager, when loitering around the city centre, specifically outside McDonald’s, as was the social convention, waiting for someone to invite you to a party that night, I used to try and convince my friends that our money was best spent at the cinema. We could catch an afternoon screening and still be out in time to find out which of our friends older siblings might buy us booze for that night but, they didn’t take to it.
I would have similar debates with my Dad, a man who thought of the cinema as an extravagance. To him, it was a place you go when it’s cold or raining, or as a special treat. He saw no sense in spending bright summer days cooped up inside a multiplex when the country parks and the great rivers of our nation were all free and readily available. We argued about it all the time. I begged to spend two hours in the dark instead of doing anything remotely ‘outdoorsy’, and he would not entertain it. I always lost this battle, if you could even call it that. I once wrote him a letter explaining, in ten bullet points, why we had to go to the cinema to see The Incredibles that weekend so I could complete a primary school homework assignment on reviewing. He wavered, unsure if it really was as necessary as my scribbled plea made out. That Saturday however, turned out to be one of those cold, rainy, days and so, mostly because of nature, he gave in.
When semi-independence reared its head around sixteen, and I got my first job at a retail chain, I spent every weekend (and most of every payslip) at the cinema. Myself and three friends formed a small troop of cinemagoers who would forgo some of the adolescent evening festivities in favour of film. Our taste was, well, to be polite, mixed. We saw The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on opening night, Revolutionary Road one blurry Sunday afternoon, TheStrangers on a dark night that would make us terrified waiting for a ride home, Inception in a packed theatre, and Australia on an icy New Year’s Day. We saw whatever was new that week, with no real idea about reviews or aggregate websites. It was just the three of us, joined by the mutual love of cinematic escape.
When I lived in London in my early twenties, that escape became crucial, a tool to wield against the loneliness that comes with large cities. As long languid winter nights passed by, as taxi cabs waited, and bike messengers whizzed past, gliding through puddles made of endless rain, I would want to be anywhere other than in the city. The two hours I was able to spend in a different life kept me sane, kept me from giving in to the crushing isolation that felt so heavy. I would leave reality and enter into strange the German humour of Toni Erdmann, the escapist pleasure of La La Land, the close tension of Personal Shopper, the dark, sexy magic of God’s Own Country, and the beautiful calm power of Moonlight.
Yes, my love affair with the cinema has been a long one, and it is, and likely always will be, my favourite place to be. So, during this period of lockdown, it’s been hard to focus, to find any kind of experience to replicate this absent one. So far, the only thing I’ve taken solace in is that the last film I saw in the cinema pre-lockdown was Portrait of a Lady on Fire and, with its French restraint and love blooming in relative isolation, it feels like a fitting final film.
Of course, it’s not possible to recreate that cinematic experience at home. It’s too light out, the cat walks in and out of the room having a sneezing fit, and my housemates check their phones, send texts, or scroll on twitter while we watch. I am not innocent of this either, distraction happens so easily when not communally frowned upon. Last week, we made some microwavable popcorn and gobbled some store-bought sweets while watching a new release, available via streaming, but it couldn’t quite live up to the classic cinema experience. Still, it added a little zest to watching a new film at home and new releases are still coming, though at a slower pace.
Maybe this pandemic will alter how we think about film distribution, now that it’s somewhat levelling in terms of access. I find it hard-pressed to imagine any of the chain cinemas near me, who favour larger blockbuster fair near exclusively, would screen Eliza Hittman’s starkly subtle polemic Never Rarely SometimesAlways, yet it’ll be available to rent from May 13th. The same goes for BFI Flare’s ‘online festival’, making up for the cancelled event, including Sam Feder’s essential documentary Disclosure or Liza Xi Xiang’s regulated and mesmerising A Dog Barking at the Moon. These were all films that would likely have required considerable travel and money, on my part, to see. That’s if they screened near me at all.
There are cinephiles, the urban city types, who love to talk about male auteur filmmaking, who consider the likes of Netflix to be the ‘death of the cinema’. Even prominent name directors like Steven Spielberg find the streaming sites to be a real thorn in their arty sides. Except they don’t look at the reality; most people don’t have access to arthouse films on their doorstep. Leveller’s like Mubi, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, and others have made it a great deal easier for most people but is ease even the issue? What it comes down to for most people is money. So many people are priced out of the cinema-going experience, with tickets well over £12 these days and travel to be considered too. If you can rent a film at home, for £15.99 and three or four of you can sit down together, snug on the sofa, at watch together for around £3.99 each, who’s to say that isn’t the best option?
Sure, I love the cinema. I love it more than eating a good meal, more than getting the weekend papers and reading them in bed. I love it more than fish and chips on the beach in some seaside town as the sun sets, more than napping, more than finding a tenner you didn’t know you had in your jeans pocket. Hell, I love it more than sex. I would even go as far as to say I love it more than good sex, than mid-blowing sex. It’s a vital part of my identity, of my routine, and, like so many other things right now, it’s not available to me.
It’s a great privilege to be able to go to the cinema regularly, as is the ability to miss it. People who are worried about job losses, financial hardship, or the vulnerable groups who are most susceptible to this virus have more substantial things to worry about during this pandemic. That this is one of my more significant issues with lockdown is a symbol that, really, I’m not all that affected.
When lockdown is lifted, and businesses reopen will I be heading to my local cinema with bells on? Yes, I will but maybe the way I approach it has changed. Last week, my housemates and I split the cost to rent the new Juliette Binoche thriller, Who You Think I Am and the South African military drama Moffie (both on Curzon Home Cinema). We’ve never done that before but liked both films and paid around £3 each to watch them. So, I couldn’t help but wonder*, maybe it really is time for us to reassess our viewing habits?
*Sorry, it’s the first column, and I couldn’t resist.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.