UFA Palast cinema in Dresden

Above: UFA Palast cinema center, Dresden, Germany. Architects: Coop Himmelb(l)au. (Wolf Prix, Helmut Swiczinsky, and Michael Holzer). Credit: Andreas Praefcke.

Aldwych station in the Blitz

Above: Aldwych London Undergound station in 1940; the station was used as an air-raid shelter during WWII. Credit: Ministry of Information/IWM Collection.

Still from Avatar

Above: Still from Avatar, 2009. Credit: 20th Century Fox.


It tends to get presumed that the audiences in cinemas are definitely interested in films. For Virilio this isn't necessarily the case. People need respite from modern life and they simply find their way into the cinema auditorium. It's a refuge for many--in the same way that during the London Blitz of 1940, when the city of London was attacked by the German Luftwaffe (on fifty-seven consecutive nights commencing 7 September), many gathered in the Tube stations underground seeking refuge from the bombing. It is the intensity of modern life that sends many in to the movie houses (AD: 72). Cinemas are disappearing and getting "transformed, significantly, into parking lots (AD: 68)." Cinema audiences are dwindling but the film industry will only enter crisis--and probably cease to exist--if the films on offer become dominated by realism, particularly "intense realism" and in that sense realism is absolutely counter-productive to the survival of cinemas (AD: 73).

The movie-goer is essentially seeking out, not the content of the movie per se but the special hypnagogic effect that cinema creates--something like a trance state; an induced tranquilization. If the cinemas are losing audiences it is because the same mild hypnagogic (or trance) state can also be induced by driving on modern freeways: the view of the road ahead seen through the windscreen of the fast-travelling motor-car produce a very similar effect. Rather than going off to the cinema these days it is often easier to just go for a drive--especially at night on a motorway--if one wants a little peace, respite. That is why it has become commonplace for people to simply drive for no reason and with no destination in mind. The modern auto-driver is a voyeur-voyager, comfortable in the armchair-like driver's seat: here the world passes him by through the windscreen and like the movie experience he remains aloof, disengaged, sealed-off and dissociated from the action (AD: 73). The danger with modern innovations in cinema is that they miss this quality of the trance-like state, and in fact most of the innovations are counter-productive to it--extremely loud Dolby sound, for example. The intention of cinema technology should not be to wake up the viewer from his hypnagogic reverie (AD: 75).

In terms of consumerism, the cinema is par excellence a trade in dematerialization: the customer does not purchase any tangible material object but only the right to observe a sequence of luminous projected images (WC: 41). Virilio quotes Abel Gance's assertion that the essence of cinema is some kind of magical alchemy (AD: 64). And following Gance's logic, in order to retain this factor of wonder and the magical, the familiar cinema auditorium will inevitably give way to overtly immersive audio-visual systems such as 3D, IMAX, and VR. Cinematic digital effects, particularly digital animation techniques, are limited not by the technology, but by the all-too-evident limits of imagination of the animators (AM: 71).