365 Days of Home Cinema or: How I Learned to Love Films Without an Auditorium

It's been almost one year since Maxwell Tait started keeping a daily record of his worryingly intense film viewing habits. Find out if he has actually learned anything useful from his noble venture of watching lots and lots of movies in his bedroom auditorium.

Maxwell Tait

Ah, COVID anniversaries. Grim, but important reminders of sound decision-making from our superiors. It’s a year and a day that our prudent government assured us there was “zero prospect” of a London lockdown involving limits on movement — thank goodness for that. A year since many friends and former colleagues were laid off by Cineworld/Picturehouse. A shrewd financial move, unfortunately made to look foolish by the announcement of the furlough scheme 3 days later, forcing a u-turn. They seem to be doing ok now.


It’s also just about time to blow out a solitary candle for @living__image, a virtue-signalling Instagram diary I started this time last year to share a daily still of a film I had watched. In the absence of regular human interaction, it gave me a bit more motivation to broaden my horizons and think more about what I was watching. And anything for a morsel of routine. The only greater constant in my life over this period is a 380 day Duolingo streak, otherwise known as a ‘red flag’.


Of course the whole thing is frivolous and vain, but if seeing someone in the street while jogging makes you step up the pace, and that in turn makes you fitter, then it isn’t so much of a bad thing. And maybe even someone out running sees you bomb past and runs faster themselves. Everyone’s a winner, baby, until we’re all out of breath, vomiting, panting, rewatching When Harry Met Sally.

Columbia Pictures

To get to the point, I’ve watched a lot of films in the last 365 days, and only one of them has been in a cinema (shout out to BFI Southbank). Surely I’ve learned something about how to watch films, and how to watch them at home? Irrespective of the answer, I’m going to try and tell you anyway. Feel free to adapt this article into a WikiHow; you’ll thank me when our beloved theatres return, and all that’s screening are Rishi Sunak unboxing videos, pornography, and an exhibitor-funded ASMR black and white remix of The Greatest Showman. It’s probably nothing you don’t know already, but here goes:


Democracy is dead. Choosing a film with other people? A watched pot will come to the boil quicker than you arriving at a group consensus about what to put on. The six worst words you will hear in the English language are “Where do you want to eat?” When the world opens up again, just tell me we’re going to Pizza Express and if I’m that bothered about going there I’ll make a case for Wagamama.


Sensory deprivation is your ally. Unlike at the cinema, home viewing requires you to make certain decisions about how you’re watching a film. You might not realise it, but before the title card has even appeared you’ve chosen a level of respect you’re showing to what you watch, and darkness and quiet really is a game changer. I’m not saying everything you watch demands blackout blinds and noise cancelling headphones, but don’t blame Edward Yang when you’re halfway through Yi Yi zoned out on your doorknob listening to your housemate’s Zoom quiz in the other room.


Criterion

Phones. When meeting a friend, one of life’s great pars is the face-up phone on the table. However sad it is that I’ve started equating films to friends, it’s the same thing here — it’s polite to make yourself uninterruptible. As with the previous point, I’m not decrying the multi-screen experience as such: watching football with a WhatsApp group on the go, comfort watching something while receiving memes. There’s something to be said for lazy, passive viewing, but good films are crafted with a rhythm in mind, a rhythm that is disrupted without active engagement. It’s like following two-hour roasting recipe to the letter, but leaving the oven door open. You’ll probably still enjoy Lost Highway whilst browsing Twitter, it just might not muster the same tension as if you aeroplane-mode it in the other room.


Subtitles. It’s an awful myth that subtitles require anything more than an ounce of extra effort over something without. If you can read, stop being racist and embrace other cultures.


Watch more films by/about underrepresented groups. Yes, you may not be a gay french woman from the 18th century, but trust me, Portrait of a Lady on Fire will still probably make you cry, and you might even learn something.


Give films over 140 minutes a chance. Like subtitles, any decent film will have you forget how long it is within the first 20 minutes.


Don’t be afraid to watch something that you think will make you angry or upset. You’ll probably never be in the ‘perfect mood’ to watch that film about a difficult subject. Over the space of two hours, rarely are these experiences the one-note emotional self-flagellation you fear them to be. I’m guilty of taking a long time to get around to watching I May Destroy You (I know, it’s a TV show), a perfect example of an exploration of incredibly sensitive topics that is balanced, not undermined, with humour and humanity. Needless to say, it’s a separate issue for anyone emotionally triggered by certain content.


Stop neglecting your watchlist. If you took the time to write the name of a film in a note on your phone then that probably means it’s worth watching. Instead of spinning the streaming-giant plastic algorithm roulette and once more being dizzied by Mid 90s, The Prestige and The Trial of the Chicago 7, trust the judgement of past you.


It hasn’t been a good year, but I remain incredibly grateful for what films have given me in that time. I think everyone is, so it goes without saying that you should basically ignore everything I’ve written and just stick with what works for you. Especially in the UK, I think a lot of people have struggled with the incongruity of an almost total societal collapse with utter mundanity. I know I’ve been feeling a lot of things, but at times simultaneously struggling to feel at all.


There remains something magical about the ability of film to captivate you, and having these two-hour long vicarious experiences of ups and downs has been essential escapism. And I’ve become a massive well of empathy to what I watch; it might be due to the horrible feeling that the walls are closing in, or a subconscious attempt to fill in the absence of real world experiences. Neither are great I guess, but either way, Masterchef is making me very emotional.


What am I enjoying at the moment? I’ve gone full circle, basically just watching Kurosawa and Scorsese films. I’m like a Beatles fan, eating all the different kinds of potato — hash browns, chips, Goodfellas, Throne of Blood, potato rosti — going “God, these are just brilliant aren’t they?”, and sort of, in a way, being right. Insufferable.


Here’s to another year.


@mwntait | @living__image