The screen slides down so silently that you don’t even notice it: if you look away for a few moments and turn back there will be a cinema screen there where before there was just an empty frame. It’s getting dark, and moths and other insects are flashing like tiny meteors through the beam of light from the projector, sitting in a second-floor window. The sky is nearly dark overhead. We know the film is about to start because the bats have begun flying overhead.
They’re Grey-headed Flying Foxes, large fruit-bats with a wingspan of a metre. Though the night sky is full of bats – insectivorous microbats, flitting above treetops in the long summer dusk – the fruit-bats are the only ones anyone notices and the only ones anyone talks about. In 2003 a colony was moved from the Royal Botanic Gardens to Yarra Bend Park, and every night they fly out in their thousands, moving methodically and heading south-west. Their nightly migration takes them directly over the Abbotsford Convent, where in summer one of Melbourne’s numerous outdoor cinemas holds residence.
In its second year of operation the patrons of the Shadow Electric know that bats, like films, only come out in the dark. As the screen descends there’s a murmur of anticipation and excitement, and not infrequently gasps of surprise and delight too at the sight of the bats flying so close overhead. The stream of animals seems never to stop, and just when you think you’ve seen the last straggler another two or three dozen will suddenly appear in tight formation. What’s astonishing is how silent they are: these large garrulous animals, who squabble and squawk during the day as they invade each-others roost space in defoliated trees, who when flying solo crash through branches searching for food and screeching excitedly; when they’re flying out, the flock as one, they make not a sound, and not even the slow beating of their wings ruffles the night air.
As the film begins the cinema audience becomes just as silent. There’d been talking and laughing and the ordering of drinks only minutes before, but now that the screen’s dropped and the images upon it have amplified the growing darkness of the air around us everyone has stopped talking. The courtyard of the convent is quieter than a cathedral, and I think – not for the first time – that a cinema, a good cinema full of attentive patrons, is perhaps the last great place of reverence in our society. Sometimes at a cinema, half-hidden in the darkness, I like to turn around and look at the faces of my fellow audience-members: there’s something stirring, something heartening, about the sight of dozens of people all fixing their unwavering attention on the same thing at the same time. We make our own spaces at home but at the cinema we’re all forced into each-other’s company, and we all experience – as much as is possible – the same thing as each-other, and we’re not even trying.
Tonight, though, I won’t be turning to look at the faces of strangers. I’ve arrived late, and have to take my place at the back of the many rows of seats that are placed out before each film and packed up again afterwards. Though there are several million people in Melbourne all told, in reality it’s a small city, in fact not so much a city as a collection of villages, and you tend to see the same faces again and again. As I take my seat and wait for the film to start I notice that behind me a woman is placing more seats, preparing for a late influx of film-goers. I know this woman, she used to work at another cinema where I was a frequent customer, and I’d take every opportunity to talk to her and for a long time I was infatuated with her to such a degree that I even managed to convince myself, somehow, that it was love. It wasn’t, of course, it very rarely is, and when I asked her out she turned me down – but we’re adults, and we’ve been through this before and we’ll be through it again, and now when I see her – rarely – we’re polite to each-other and nothing really has changed, except that I’ve become more self-aware. Affection lingers, and I’d like to say hello to her – but I’ve changed my appearance since then, and it’s dark, and I’m not sure she’d recognise me, and anyway to what end? What would be the purpose of saying hello? I hope that she’ll notice me but when she doesn’t I decide to leave her be. I’ve bothered her enough in the past. Our lives which briefly intersected have now moved on, and I stay silent, and instead I watch the bats.
Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org