‘I walked out of Avengers profoundly changed’: our writers’ favourite cinema moments

The happiest moment I’ve experienced in a cinema

It is so difficult to pin down a “happiest” moment in the cinema, as opposed to the clearer spikes of fear, amusement or euphoria, maybe because the happy feeling can bubble along more or less unobtrusively all the way through a good film. But for pure directionless, laid-back, sunlit happiness that I remember coursing through me and the entire cinema audience like a wave, I want to nominate the Me and Julio montage in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

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The eccentric, cantankerous and cigar-smoking Royal, unforgettably played by Gene Hackman in a wrinkled, chalk-stripe, double-breasted suit, becomes fixated on the idea that his grandkids – Ari and Uzi, the sons of his angry widower son Chas (Ben Stiller) – aren’t having enough fun. So the old rogue takes them out to get into trouble, an uproarious sequence that takes place to the accompaniment of Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard. He and the boys try their hands at swimming, jaywalking, dressage (in formal equestrian outfits), go-karting, throwing water balloons at passing cars, shoplifting, hitching a lift on a garbage truck and finally attending (and betting on) what appears to be a street corner dog fight – a glorious mix of the plausible and implausible.

What is so great is Gene Hackman’s grinning face. He and the child actors (Grant Rosenmeyer and Jonah Meyerson) genuinely do seem to be having a wonderful time – particularly in the outrageously irresponsible garbage truck bit. All of us in the cinema felt like we were riding along with them.


The most hilarious moment I’ve experienced in a cinema

I haven’t rewatched the stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay since first seeing it in 2008, but I’m sure I won’t find it as funny as I did then. Possibly no one ever will. It was the most raucous, joyous movie experience I can remember, and I hadn’t smoked anything at all. You could call it a context high.

It was the premiere, in the grand old Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. The crowd were excited, intoxicated and on the verge of hysteria before the film even started. When it did, you could barely hear the dialogue over the cheering and laughter. We were a thousand strangers partying together.

It wasn’t just the place; it was also the time. This was the tail end of George W Bush’s presidency and the appalling excesses of the “war on terror”. In their own puerile, knockabout way, John Cho and Kal Penn’s fugitive stoners were a great lens through which to view the era, stumbling across a landscape of paranoia and ethnic profiling that was all too familiar to us in the audience. They even share a smoke with Dubya himself (which brought the house down). I am not going to hold this movie up as enduring political satire, but that night it felt like the cathartic release we all needed.


The most liberating moment I’ve experienced in a cinema

I was in my second year at university when the unthinkable happened. A friend and I had made plans to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Julian Schnabel’s lyrical depiction of locked-in syndrome – at the cinema, and while I was in the queue she texted to cancel.

This left me in a predicament. I have never minded doing things on my own – I’d regularly go to gigs or art galleries alone – but for some reason I saw the cinema as a fundamentally social activity. Going alone seemed like dining solo at an upmarket restaurant: admirable, maybe, but also weird and slightly sad. So I bought a ticket and warily sat down, mortified at the thought someone might see me there, friendless and unaccompanied.

My doubts soon dissipated. For one, no one showed the slightest interest in my seating arrangements. More importantly, it allowed me to disappear into the film: I could focus entirely on my own emotional response, without worrying about whether the other person was enjoying it more or less than I was, and not mentally

rehearsing what my opinions would be as we left. It also meant I could weep as much as I wanted to, which I proceeded to do in great quantities. Going to the cinema alone is now one of my favourite things to do; I can’t wait to go back.


The most devastating moment I’ve experienced in a cinema

Some way into Beyond Hatred, Olivier Meyrou’s 2005 documentary about the homophobic murder of 29-year-old François Chenu in Léo Lagrange Park in Reims, the victim’s sister recounts the events of that terrible weekend in September 2002: her attempts to contact François, the call from the police, the journey to identify his body.

Her calm recollections are played over a static, unbroken, eight-minute shot of the park where he died. It is early evening, still light. The peace is disturbed only by the occasional passing jogger or cyclist. We become so caught up in her words that we may not even notice dusk descending. By the end of those eight minutes, the street lamps are blinking into life, and day has blurred imperceptibly into night.

The effect of surrendering to that in real time, and in the darkness of a cinema, is hypnotic. Our absorption allows for a clarity of understanding that is diminished on the smaller screen, where our field of vision is cluttered, and there are so many other competing demands on our attention. Like all great cinema, Meyrou’s intimately devastating shot requires complete surrender. Only in that state can we fully appreciate what we are witnessing: a monument to a man’s death, as well as a reminder of WH Auden’s observation, in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts, that suffering “takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”.


The most transformative moment I’ve experienced in a cinema

A couple of years ago I went freelance in the exact same week that Avengers: Endgame came out, and I realised I could go and watch the finale while every other idiot was at work desperately avoiding the internet for spoilers, and, crucially, I could be alone while I did it. History’s most genius plan. Except that I did not account for the significant number of adults who would take time off work especially to watch the Avengers with me, and would scream uncontrollably at the screen while they did so.

Watching the five or six hours of that Avengers film was a curious experience: I at once did and did not care about the ultimate shape of the story Marvel had spent 10 years laying the groundwork for; I was entertained enough to want to see the bad guy get his comeuppance but also detached enough to be unmoved when all the superheroes came through those time holes and did their thing. But the crowd around me were hysterical: guffawing, cheering, standing and applauding when Captain America said something about his ass.

I felt complete cultural detachment from these people who had avoided work to watch a superhero movie, while I too was avoiding work to watch a superhero movie. I walked out dazed, blinking in the sunlight, profoundly changed. “All these people are bad nerds,” I realised. “And I am one, too.”


The moment I became a cinema vigilante

The year was 2009. The setting was the Showcase Cinema Dudley. I was 17, slightly too old to be attending a screening of Hannah Montana: The Movie. At the film’s climax, Miley Cyrus (four years before she mounted the Wrecking Ball) sings her breakout hit and karaoke classic, The Climb. It was a powerful performance, and more than a decade on, I’m better placed to understand the woman seated in front of me, and her decision to capture it on her Motorola RAZR. Even back then, I was a staunch defender of the theatrical experience and, having absorbed the persistent “You wouldn’t steal a car” messaging at the start of all of my DVDs, I took it upon myself to protect Miley from Dudley’s pirates.

“Excuse me, you can’t film that,” I said haughtily. “It’s for her,” the woman replied, pointing at her young daughter, and unaware that the music video for The Climb was in fact available on YouTube. Undeterred, she continued to record. In the car home and still incensed, I told my mum what had happened. She was furious, not at the woman, but at me. “You could’ve gotten beaten up!” she said.

After a year without the immersion of the cinema, I am more convinced than ever of its value. To succumb to the moment instead of pausing to return later is the whole point. For that, I’d risk it all again.