The real glamour of the cinema is not the glow of lights at night, but closer to the dusty stateliness of afternoon tea, or a tiny secret room discovered at the back of a second-hand bookshop. Go to the cinema to be alone, and to feel, temporarily, as if the world outside has stopped. The breeze, the crowds, the birds — all pinned against silver film like beetles on display.
Seek out cinemas with slightly ramshackle façades: the sand-filled square of Albèniz Plaça, or the apologetic swing-door of the Arts Cinema, pressing itself against the brick wall to let the pub-goers pass. I like Ocine because of its stunted, pointless escalator, a futile gesture at grandeur that seems out of place between the plastic Iron Throne and the cardboard cut-out Bond.
Look for cinemas that smell of the ghosts of buttered corn kernels, popping into the air and looking down at their bodies with shocked Os of mouths. The smell of pick-and-mix that has stuck to the bottom of the paper bag. Keep an eye out for oddly-shaped rooms, and seats: at the Truffaut, the floor slopes dramatically up towards the screen. At the Albèniz, you can lean your elbows on the tray-like armrests and fling your feet out in front of you, like a hospital patient with every limb in plaster.
Going to the cinema alone is a guilty pleasure. Province of spies, homeless people, incorrigible nerds, perverts, loners. I like these people for their decisiveness: why not go to the cinema? There is no need for a blockbuster, Friday night, date, mate, place to be. Just go.
Just walk straight in. March up to the desk and choose your film on a whim. Peruse the snack options; consider them slowly. Enjoy the lone decision. Perhaps you will have nothing at all; perhaps you will try those artisanal mint julep marshmallows which have been languishing on the counter since the Great Gatsby came out.
Speak softly, and smile at the attendant. They will probably look at you funny. Who goes to the cinema alone on a Wednesday afternoon? Tell yourself that they think you are an international agent, making a dead drop in Screen 11. Walk away with the casual stride of the seasoned MI6 operative.
Choose your seat. Ideally, you’ll be all alone, but this is rare. Either way, just choose the best possible vantage point: take into account your sight, height, hearing and jump-scare reflex. Remember, this experience is all about you.
An empty cinema is the shy egotist’s paradise. You are the only person in the world, but you are not the focus of attention. The screen does not look back, or laugh quietly when it sees you, or tut if you fidget. The screen, being inhuman, is forgiving.
Eat your snacks with relish. Fall asleep if the movie isn’t any good. And when it ends — when it ends, and “when” becomes a meaningful idea again — go outside. Go out into the unexpected light or darkness and feel the unexpected cool or heat on your skin.
Retrieve your bicycle, still moving thoughtfully, as if in time with the dreary credits song. Blink in a startled way if anyone catches your eye. The world, suspended for a time, will start to run again.
But you can always come back. On Wednesdays, the Albèniz is half-price.