Movies & cinemas, past & present

To be strictly accurate, this is a gripe about the paucity of imagination among movie makers and distributors, notably the Hollywood clique, and the multiplex chains with whom they conspire.  But first, a love affair with the glorious old cinemas of the past.

Time was when there were a moderate number of small independent cinemas showing a goodly range of films.  Not just the latest blockbusters but off-piste low-budget movies, foreign films, art house, true variety.  In their heyday, particularly the 30s, there were countless beautiful cinemas in every town, many of them deco buildings now listed for their architectural value.  Many closed but the dogged ones continued.  When I lived in the Manchester area, I used to love the Cornerhouse, though even before that there were small old-fashioned movie palaces like the fleapit that was the Hulme Aaben.

Hulme, you may recall, was in the 1970s home to  a modern ghetto of the most appalling blocks of flats, not far from the infamous Moss Side area and the old Manchester City football ground at Maine Road.  Parking your car in the area was taking your life in your hands, but it was worth the risk, firstly because the cinema was a real treasure – an old-time picture house, family run and showing stuff from off the beaten track.  I remember seeing the Nic Roeg movie Bad Timing there, among others, since it was not showing at the Odeon or Studio cinemas in Manchester.  And do you know what, I didn’t care that it was a crumbling building with uncomfortable seats – it had a great atmosphere and showed great movies.  To me, that was all that mattered.

The Rex, Wilmslow, in the old days

The Aaben, like many other glorious old movie houses, is long since closed.  Alas, many became bingo halls in the 70s and fell into disrepair and disuse, or became something else.  The Rex in Wilmslow, my home town, once not only a cinema but also a popular destination on the rep circuit.  The frontage of the Rex is still there but the buildings were long since sold by the brothers that used to own them.  The theatre is now a furniture showroom, which to my way of thinking is a great tragedy but evidence if evidence were needed that living off past glories and sentiment alone is not possible – you need a guaranteed revenue stream to keep these places going, and they are not cheap to run.  The glorious old deco Embassy cinema in Braintree is now a Wetherspoons pub called the Picture Palace and where the old movie screen used to be is now a projected big screen for showing football. O tempora, o mores.

There are independents still going, some of whom have a rich cult following, but they are the exception.  The Everyman chain, including The Screen On The Green in Islington, North London, is dedicated to maintaining the spirit of the independents, though that is some journey from me.  In the wastelands of Essex the only hope you have of finding something a little different is to join a film club, and they tend to be very restricted too.

So what do we have in their place?  Huge warehouses in the American style dedicated to the mainstream movie, and the business of flogging hugely overpriced popcorn, sweets, drinks, ice cream, hot dogs and other merchandise.  Where once cinemas were charmingly fashioned out of love of the movie, now they are charmless temples to extract cash from the punter.

Paradoxically, we have far more screens than ever before… and far less choice!  It’s not uncommon to see several screens dedicated to one kiddie-friendly movie, in 2D, 3D and, for all I know, 4-6D.  A true gimmick and one that has been attempted in various forms since the 50s – and no more effectively now than then.  I for one truly hope that 3D dies a death very soon and we can focus on things that matter in movies, like quality writing and acting! Worse than that, they now seem to take up in their various guises half the screens in the Multiplex – more screens, less choice (see here.)

In fact, it’s remarkable how little choice there is, and how formulaic those choices are to appeal to their chosen market segments.  You can usually guarantee a horror movie, a romantic chick flick or two, an action adventure featuring the latest toothy-grinned hero and clear-skinned heroine, and so on.  They are so incredibly predictable, as are the marketing and trailers that announce their arrival.

The one innovation of which I heartily approve, however, is live screening of plays, shows and even opera on cinema screens, though the technology to enable that is presumably very recent.  I once saw the National’s splendid production of Hamlet beamed to the Odeon in Chelmsford, and including views the audience on the south Bank could never have seen.  More more more, please!!

However, off-beat low budget movies, subtitled foreign movies, anything deemed remotely marginal in interest, is sidelined.  If you’re lucky, the odd one might creep in for one night only.  What is it they have against subtitles?  That audiences are deemed not to like them?  In almost every non-English language country in the world subtitles are expected and welcomed.  Given that I am hard of hearing, I find many movies in English, no matter how much they are amplified by sound systems, almost impossible to hear – mainly due to the actors mumbling and not enunciating their words clearly enough.  I always watch with subtitles and think cinemas should have a subtitle option!  In fairness, some do – though I’ve yet to enquire how that works.

But getting back to the point, it seems strange that the movies often with the highest ratings in reviews are in practice almost impossible to find hereabouts – I would have to drive many miles to see some, and must therefore wait til they arrive on DVD (and then long enough for the price to come down to an affordable level), or scour the pages in the case one venue should have a single screening.  Quite clearly these multiplexes prefer to pile ’em high and sell ’em dear but don’t give a toss what they are or how good they might be.

Should they not be encouraging improved quality as well as movies that fill seats?  I think so, but then again they are often contractually tied to display whatever their distribution partners think they should play.   To begin with, how about encouraging the British film industry by showing seasons of great movies from Ealing Studios or Hammer Film Productions, for example, not to mention having low-priced incentives to see low-budget movies made in the UK and by UK talent, as an antidote to the wall-to-wall American virus that seems to have infected our screens?

In short, there is so much wrong with the movie industry, and we are reaping the effects of that.  We no longer have a choice but have to take that which is force-fed down us.  If we want to exercise freedom of choice, we have to work very hard.  The industry dictates, and our independence as movie viewers died with many of the independent cinemas.  So my request to you is this: support your nearest independent, and be proud to go see the latest crafted films from Iran or France or wherever they happen to be from.

If we all voted with our feet instead of accepting that which the industry deems we should be given, true quality may yet emerge from the depths.  Find them here!  Apart from anything else, if you want to see a particular movie you can ask the management and they may well take you up on it – try that with a Multiplex!!

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