Cinema’s 9 Circles of Hell

Dec 13th, 2011

The cinema: paradise, at times, but many are the sins that writers, directors, cinema owners and fellow audience members can commit to bring the whole experience swiftly down to the ground. Dante came up with nine different levels of torture in his vision of Inferno, so allow me to lead you through cinema’s lower depths, from bad to worse.


1) Ads, trailers and anti-piracy policing

Remember the days when they’d show a short film before the main feature? Me neither, unfortunately. The same talented people who would have made short films in the old days are now employed to make commercials. Ads can be entertaining, even beautiful. But most are conformist, trying to convince us that products create happiness. What’s worse, regular cinema-goers are subjected to the same ads for months. Next come the trailers, which typically give away all the best parts of upcoming new releases. So that’s 20 minutes of your life gone. Then, they twist the knife with a moralising on-screen message against piracy. We’ve paid our money, now just show us the film.



2) Gender and racial stereotypes

The roles available to women and minorities are most often insultingly clichéd. Women are chiefly present as sex objects. Female characters are materialistic, sometimes strong on the surface, but weak deep-down, and in need of men to rescue or educate them. Non-white characters are given marginal roles which emphasise their racial background, casting them as cute, weird, exotic and expendable. If someone’s going to die early on, it’s not going to be the white male lead, but the black guy in the supporting role. We’re all paying the same price for our cinema tickets, so why should the majority of the audience be unable to see people like themselves in leading roles? This kind of stereotyping and exclusion is worse still when it starts early, in children’s movies.



3) Film raconteurs

‘You like movies? Then let me spend the next ten minutes giving you a blow-by-blow summary of a great movie I saw last night/last month/15 years ago.’ I’ve seen a lot of great films. I understand the impulse to verbally recreate the experience for another person. It can’t be done. This doesn’t stop people from trying, and it’s so painful for the listener. ‘I might want to see that movie: don’t spoil it for me!’ is unlikely to work on this kind of person. The only possible solution is to walk away, but they will probably follow you.



4) Cinemas with no slope

A lot of people complain about old-fashioned movie houses being replaced by the soulless multiplex. I can sympathise, but one undeniable benefit of many modern cinemas is that they are built on a fantastic pitch: the head of the person in front of you is at knee-level, or even foot-level, rather than right in the middle of the screen or blocking half the subtitles. It’s a credit to the quality of A Separation (2011) that I loved this film even though I had to lean out across the aisle at a painful angle to read the subtitles, at no less respected a venue than London’s Curzon Soho Cinema.



5) Phone addicts

I quite like the new Orange ad which parodies mobile phone addiction: it features interviews with enthusiastic audience members following a pilot screening where the movie is interrupted every 15 minutes for a phone break, allowing people to make calls or surf the net on their phones. You have to be a bit dim to think that if you use your phone to text or check e-mail in a dark room, others won’t be bothered by the bright light.

As for calls, forgetting to turn off your phone is a mistake we’ve all made. Answering your phone during a screening is something else. If mobile phone infringements were treated as seriously as piracy, we’d have proof that the cinemas cared as much about audience experience as about revenue protection. Sadly, it’s not the case.


6) Uncinematic films

I don’t mind films that could work as plays. But I usually feel claustrophobic when a film takes place in one room: it’s a tribute to Hitchcock’s talent that I can count Rear Window among my favourite films even though the camera remains in one room of the photographer’s apartment. Through voyeuristic detective surveillance of the neighbours’ windows, the film maintains a welcome connection to the outside world. The interest of the story, as well as the cinematography more generally all contribute to make this an engaging and absolutely cinematic film. If a film can be easily transplanted to the stage without losing much of what makes it great, it is unlikely to be a great film. It means that the director probably failed to make full use of the medium: not cinema’s ability to master large spaces, but to explore limited ones.


7) Boring films

Not to be confused with a slow film. If the rhythm is right, and the spectator is in the right mood, a slow-moving film can be a beautiful, contemplative, even relaxing experience. A boring film lacks the basic substance to maintain the audience’s interest during the slow-moving parts. Films with artistic ambitions are often suspected of being boring, and sometimes they are. Directors torture us by making us watch uninteresting actions from start to finish: you see a long shot of a character who begins a slow walk across a large space, and your heart sinks as you realise you’re going to have to watch every step. Or you’re subjected to characters who stare intensely into space as shorthand for their inner turmoil (for example, UV [2007] or The Prize [2011]).

Hollywood films can be just as boring, either because they’re so much alike, or because their dialogue is painfully bad. At least in the artistic film, the director intended to create a certain impression, even if it failed. The Hollywood film is boring out of sheer laziness, and this is a crime, considering the amount of money thrown at these films.



8) Egotistical directors

This may seem related to the previous circle of cinema hell: a director thinks his artistic vision is so great that he can get away with being boring. But no, I’m talking of something even more cringe-worthy. The egotistical director is not content with being celebrated as the creative genius behind the film. It’s not enough that people will watch his film: they have to watch the director himself. The egotistical director assumes that their banal personal anecdotes, their sex life, or their troubled personal history hold an innate interest for audiences (Jørgen Leth’s Erotic Man and Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation are particularly painful examples). Get back behind the camera. Please.



9) Dubbed films

English-speaking audiences rarely have to put up with this, but in some countries, foreign language films are routinely dubbed into the local language by voice-over artists or actors. The actor’s mouth is moving on-screen, but it just doesn’t match the sound coming out: they aren’t in synch, or often the voice itself just doesn’t suit the person we’re seeing. Could anything worse happen to a film?




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