Cinema: A Story of Love and Hate

The “Lewisham Cinema” (demolished 1988) inserted into a modern photograph to show you where it once stood. I saw Spies Likes Us in there y’know. Yes, I know you don’t care. 

Cinema is the only continuity my present has with my past. It’s the only activity that can lay claim to my childhood, my adolescence and the distended anticlimax, adulthood. Well, apart from all the others.

I have a deep affection for the cinema experience, long matured and drinking well now. I am the tradition on two legs. Assuming you don’t live in a provincial backwater, I have no respect for the view that a film can be enjoyed equally on the small screen, no matter how sophisticated your home setup. That’s right, you can take your 5.1 surround sound speakers and your 72-inch 1080p HD television and your 3D French Connection glasses and insert them into your closest neighbour. Go on, I’ll wait.

Those of you that download new movies, thereby defaulting on your simple responsibility to pay your tuppance contribution to the upkeep and longevity of the industry that ignited your interest in that film in the first place, aren’t just degenerates but also thieves and not only that, you’ve junked the part of the experience that matters – the dark, the (if you’re lucky) silence, the auditorium, the unbroken connection between you and the material.

If you’ve ever bought a black market DVD from an illegal Chinese immigrant, forced to sell makeshift copies in exchange for a room under the floorboards in a dank tenement, also home to lice, rodents and spores, plus the occasional bowl of tepid water and pepper which their handlers have the gall to call soup, while said traffickers take the profits and use them to buy heroin, coke, crystal meth and weapons, some of which will end up in the hands of terrorist groups and will be used to murder children, perhaps one day your children, then I hope you enjoyed your “DVD quality” knock off. I also hope that, depending on your gender, your cock withers and blackens to resemble a brittle twig following a forest fire and snaps off just as easily, or your breasts invert and the area around them becomes inflamed and ridden with pus so it looks as if a myopic backstreet surgeon has carelessly lopped them off.

BBC Radio 4’s January Film Season proved to be a honeyed lacquer for the ear canals, not least because it concentrated not just on the movies themselves but the shared experience of going to see them. I listened with great interest because despite my love of the flick house, my actual enjoyment of going there has oscillated wildly over the years. I hardly know what to think anymore. This post explores these conflicting emotions.

Barry Norman’s two-part series on Going to the Flicks, was like a focus pull, sharpening up a few thoughts that had remained in the soft background of my mind for some time. Incidentally Barry, if you’re wondering why your Spitting Image puppet had a boil on its forehead, something you claim not to understand, then you should re-watch a 1982 edition of Omnibus, you know, the one in which you and Bob Hoskins improbably took to the south bank of the Thames to discuss London’s architectural future*. It’s clearly visible on your forehead. Perhaps you had it burnt off sometime afterwards but the archive doesn’t lie.

That aside, amongst the simple observations in the series were things we’d all recognise as inherently true, that often people recall the circumstances of visiting the cinema more than the film they paid to see, that nostalgia for the experience of old can be a lie we like to tell ourselves and that regardless, the game has changed in recent years. That’s right, this isn’t your Father’s trip to the cinema. In fact, as you haven’t seen him in two decades, who’s to say he even goes to the cinema anymore? His girlfriend would know but you don’t know where she is either, do you?

*this programme really exists.

Being There

For me the experience of going was always key. I couldn’t produce a timestamp for my first visit but I’d guess it’d be somewhere around the 1983 mark. My mother, who spent all her time devising ways to keep me quiet and stave off awkward questions like “Mum, why are you putting the cat on my face?” and “why must I live in a cage?” woke up to the fact that Lewisham’s cinema was a mere mile down the road and not only that, but for the duration of the film absolute submission was guaranteed. It remains so. If, to your ears, my voice is the sonic equivalent of Zyklon B, then take me to a movie, you won’t hear a peep out of me (and if you value the structural integrity of your torso, I won’t hear a peep out of you either).

The old cinema at 15 Lewisham High Street sat on the east side of the railway bridge and opposite the bus stop, your most reliable means of escape. It was a two screen auditorium, put up in 1950, not so impressive to modern eyes and now even less so as it was demolished in 1988. The bus stop is still there.

By the time I turned up it was dilapidated and grubby, staffed by two meter tall cockroaches and sporting a tiny corridor with blood red walls that lead from the box office by the entrance to the main screen. It reeked of popcorn and decay; it was quite wonderful. Its old school layout had a central isle and two sets of rickety seats either side. The clientele was loud, young, unsurprisingly, as I was there to see movies for children, and hysterical, not least during a 1986 screening of The Golden Child, in which everything Eddie Murphy said, particularly if it was a little rude, as in the scene when he confronts Victor Wong, calling him “a sneaky little bastard”, was met with hollering and yakking which my Mum responded to with an embarrassed laugh and a ‘what’s wrong with these people?’ look, shot at my face. C’mon Mother, you paid to see Charles Dance kill a dancing Pepsi can, I was just tagging along!

Although I know it wasn’t my first visit, the earliest film I recall seeing at that cinema was probably Ghostbusters, “the supernatural spectacular”, in 1984. History tells us that this was the year when cinema attendance in Britain fell to its lowest ever number, a mere 55 million admissions from a post-war peak in excess of a billion, but if the country had fallen out of love with the experience, and it’s hard to see why when some seats at my local cinema were as much as 75% covered, then I was very happy to come in after the party had ended and fondle the girl who’d passed out in the kitchen. Those early years were good, not the movies necessarily, though there was Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, ridiculously from a modern point of view in 3D, but simply the act of being there.

It’s a Wonderful Life (at least it was)

So what about nostalgia for the cine-visits of old? Was it really better in the past? Cinemas were once palatial and beautifully over designed, the film was the novelty but the theatre was the attraction. Now they’re cold, identikit, utilitarian places with cynical policies like conflating concessions with ticketing, so you’re forced to queue with families of six who came to eat, not to view. Still, that aside there’s no smoke, there’s no intrusive intermission, though the practice lives on in some old cinemas, there’s surround sound and crisp, digital imagery, though I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t miss the whir of the projector, oh and there’s choice at your soulless multiplex, so you don’t need to cover a huge geographical area to stay on top of the latest releases.

Rationally I know it wasn’t better in the past but what it did have in the early days was the unbeatable combination of novelty and awe, now long gone. There are still places where it feels special, The Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, the leather bound chairs in the basement of the Greenwich Picturehouse, the charm of the NFT, but for the most part it’s business as usual, week in, week out.

From a technical point of view, back in days of yore, whether it was Lewisham’s battered auditorium or Catford’s larger but equally run down picture palace, the experience was a shower. It was filthy, the seats were made of sandpaper and the sound conspicuously emanated from two antique gramophone speakers at the front of the auditorium, but then the tinny voices and the slight echo added to the ambience.

No, it did.

To this day attending that cinema is like pounding the past, the provincial moviedrome with the creaky equipment and the child staff. Even in 2011 you can see a film badly aligned, just running through the projector, experience awkward changeovers and not have the lights dimmed until ten minutes into the performance. If you want to know what going to the flicks in the Eighties was like, go to Cornwall. It’s just that, to paraphrase Gloria Swanson, the screens got small. That’s what happens when you try to replicate the business model of the multiplex without building any.

Still, I can recall the cheer that greeted Michael J.Fox in the Royal, St.Ives, as he vaulted over Biff Tannen’s ‘46 Ford and got his tiny, steady hands, finally, permanently, on the Sports Almanac that preoccupied the plot of Back to the Future Part II. How we whooped. The one boy who’d clapped for Biff during the second act was escorted from the cinema and humanely destroyed.

I might have despised the jealous and emotionally unstable girlfriend that stormed out of Ace Ventura at the Greenwich Cinema (closed and revamped in 2006) because she thought I was looking at another girl a few rows ahead but I can also thank her for the felliato that relieved interminable boredom during My Father, The Hero some months later at the Warner West End. Yes, she wasted two years of my life but we’ll always have that film starring the actor from Paris.

Is the obese man who filled his own seat and half of mine during Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix still alive? I doubt it but I’ll never forget him, nor the way he compressed my organs. The obnoxious old fool in the beige mac that shushed me during the end credits of Das Boot: The Director’s Cut lives on in my memory, his glorious intolerance a testament to the commitment of some cinema goers, even after three and half hours. Oh, and I still don’t understand how I failed to notice I’d walked into the wrong screen for A History of Violence once the unlikely supporting short, a cartoon featuring the Madagascar Penguins, began. In fact I’d wandered into the right place for the Wallace and Gromit movie, which made more sense, but for ten minutes I imagined that this good natured animation featuring smart mouthed birds might have some thematic connection to Cronenberg’s drama which wasn’t immediately obvious. My friend Katrina, my companion for this fuck up, didn’t put two and two together either, so we both let it go and made a commitment to stay more alert in future.

I’ll never forget the genius of the Curzon Soho patron who, following a screening, gifted a catchphrase when he declared to his entourage “it was good but it was missing just one scene.” More beautiful shorthand for the arty Curzon/NFT/ICA crowd that I love and loathe in equal measure would not be possible.

From the autistic man that answered his mobile phone in NFT 1 and had an eternal conversation with his girlfriend, to the Twilight: New Moon screening that my friend and I enjoyed with a Odeon full of screaming teenage girls, to the single member of staff at a now defunct cinema off Piccadilly Circus who appeared to do everything from manning the box office to vacuuming the carpet during a screening of Boogie Nights, as well as our terrifying proximity to Mark Walhberg’s prosthetic penis, no two visits were identical. That’s something that’s occurred recently; multiplexes plasticising the experience. What Weatherspoons is to the pub, so the multiplex is to cinema.

The Sorrow and the Pity

Cinema attendance is schizoid bliss. On one hand you’re there to share the pleasure with your friends, family or, if you’re fortunate, horny half; on the other hand there’s the meat of it, the noble and higher purpose of being there, what the critic David Thomson called “beautiful solitude”. In film theory it’s spoken of as the process of “suture” whereby we’re ‘stitched’ into the narrative; enraptured, so that we’re indivisible from the unfolding drama on screen. The sub-conscious mind drinks in the atmosphere, the darkened room, the silhouetted heads, but when suture works we forget where we are and become involved.

For me this has always been what going to the flicks is all about. In recent years, however, I’ve become acutely conscious of the fact that those values are not shared and worse, many of my fellow patrons are actively engaged in trying to sabotage my enjoyment. I caveat what follows by pointing out that much of what I’m going to talk about has always existed, it’s simply that as you grow older and less fidgety, you become more aware of those being fidgety around you and that, inevitably, is the moment you make friends with your homicidal tendencies.

I have many pet rants, I like to keep them and nurture them and bring them out when conversation is wilting on the vine. Amongst my favourites is the now deathly dull to those who know it by rote, “fucking people who go to the cinema” diatribe, in which I lament the fact that no matter where I go and no matter at what time of day, it seems impossible to escape the spectre of imbecilic and thoughtless movie patronage.

I think about my childhood and teen film experiences and wonder if it was really ever any different. People have always talked, haven’t they? Always. But maybe it wasn’t always tolerated. Nevertheless I’m certain that the worst aspects of movie going have become a dominant part of the cinema culture throughout the Noughties, whereas the distractions of old, the ones you might have enjoyed, couples fucking in the back row for example, are seldom seen. Something has changed in the last ten or so years, I feel it in my reels.

Absurdly, there are very few films made for adults these days and consequently the average age of your fellow attendee is low. Yes, blame Spielberg and Lucas for filling cinemas with children and the greedy suits who’ve conspired to keep them there. All art matures and changes, just as we humans do, yet cinema is unique because it’s the first artform to grow up, then consciously and deliberately infantilise itself. When it began it was literally dangerous, in as much as the volatile nitrate stock could enflame and kill you, but the content was benign and childlike to modern eyes. It matured in waves, first in the Twenties, then in the Forties and most recently in the Seventies, materially safe though anything but on screen. Now we have the worst of all worlds, safe all round with stories made for an imagined constituency of undemanding young.

These teens and twenty-somethings, too young to remember a time when movies still had some exclusivity of content and a distinctive theatrical atmosphere, don’t regard the flick house as a special place, it’s just something to do, something disposable. To them, though they’ve travelled to see the film and paid for it, they don’t recognise a separate culture governing the place. They download movies with their mates and talk through them, they watch a flick on their Murdoch Box and they talk through them, they have a film on in the background while they beat themselves off to porn on their laptop…and they talk through it. So why, when attending a film at the cinema with their equally insensitive and thoughtless peers, should they act any differently?

We’ve all experienced this inane gibbering, the nudging of friends, the inappropriate laughter that’s belched out, irrespective of the tone the filmmakers had hoped to convey, the unwelcome editorialising, whereby some degenerate feels compelled to provide a commentary at select moments, usually of the witless variety and of course we have the pre-empt posse, that gaggle of wretches who think themselves clever for anticipating the bleedin’ obvious but who also have no internal monologue and consequently bleat out their every eureka moment to an unimpressed house. I’ve characterised this as a symptom of delinquency but that would be unfair. Adults too, though less likely to speak, do and their contribution is no better. So much for growing up.

We have screenings these days for the elderly, for breastfeeding Mums, for the sprogs, why not for the mute? I’ll attend those and in the meantime repeat offenders can be housed in specially adapted cinemas that only play nitrate prints. The hope would be that this notoriously volatile film stock, once the standard during the silent era, would catch alight and cause an inferno that’d burn those bastards to death.

The scourge of our age however, and enemy of serious cinema attendees, is the mobile phone. It’s now routine, since everyone in the country except my aforementioned friend Katrina got one, for cinemas to run trailers that politely and sometimes humourously, tell you to turn the fucking thing off. Orange tried to atone for their part in killing the experience stone dead, by giving us a long and sometimes very funny campaign in which their ‘Orange Film Board’ ruined the pet projects of famous Hollywood stars by cynically adding product placement to their films. “Don’t let a mobile phone ruin your movie. Turn it off” went the slogan, and what a nice message, it’s just a pity that no one took any notice.

Phones aren’t just left on, they’re used for texting, calling out, receiving calls and checking the internet, and every time this happens the devices light up in the auditorium and it’s effectively like some bastard shining a torch into your eyes. Not only does this unsuture you from the movie you were enjoying, snapping you back to the awful company you’re keeping, but it signals that the user wasn’t too interested in the film in the first place, begging the obvious question, why are they there? Well, WHY?

The problem with the Orange campaign is that it wasn’t nearly aggressive enough. Forget jokes, a short to camera message would have done the trick and it should have read thus:

“Right you cunts, listen. Turn off your fucking phone. Don’t check it, the light will annoy those behind you, don’t take calls on it, don’t tweet, you’re in the cinema now and no one paid to hear you speak or watch you type. There are two members of staff seated to the front and rear of this cinema. Under the terms and conditions that govern the sale of your ticket, the cinema reserves the right, in the event of you using your phone for any reason, to rip it out of your hand, pull it apart and insert the SIM card into either you or your partner. The film will now start. Keep quiet, stay still, face forward and turn that fucking thing off. We mean it, turn it off or this could be the worst day of your life.”

Equally draconian forms of punishment could apply to self-involved idiots that prod, shove and exchange volleys of food with each other, latecomers, those that get up during the film, seat kickers and munchers.

Back to the Future

The future worries me, not just because I’m going to die in it, but because I think the current crop of indolent minded sheep will transmit their thoughtless nature to their young. They’ll be perpetual film disruption. I also have a suspicion that once my generation gives up on the experience, they’ll be no one to replace us, precipitating a rapid decline. It’s already happening out there. You’re in love with your Blu-ray player aren’t you? In love with watching your favourite films naked and breaking off every five minutes to help yourself to a new tube of Pringles. The likes of you will destroy cinema y’know. Not the films, which will continue to be made, but the experience of them being consumed in their natural home, rather than your home. I never cared for your home.

I don’t want the movies to die, I love them too much. All I want is to live out my days enjoying them in a darkened theatre with comfy, preferably reclining seats, plenty of leg room, no noise and no distractions. That is all I ask.

Society owes me this pleasure. It doesn’t share my values, it refuses to provide me with any status or security, it’s not interested in my skills, it doesn’t care for my attitude and it seldom throws up individuals that enhance my day to day existence. Cinema, for all its problems, nurtures me in good times and bad. It says, “don’t worry Ed, I’ll look after you, you’re alright with me. I’ll never lie to you, or hurt you, or fill you full of dread – I mean, I will, but safely.” It’s amongst the best of the 19th century, saving me from the grind of the 21st. If the magic dies then so do I. Please remember that if you’re sitting next to me and please, I beg you, turn off that fucking phone.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. And we still pay about £7 for the privilege of attending the Penzance Savoy

  2. I wonder why johnson had shrivelled up and gone all Soul Man.

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