My London Film Education

Source: Julien Allen, ‘My London Film Education’, Reverse Shot, 12 December 2014, http://reverseshot.org/features/1971/escape_london

Text: Ostensibly studying law in London from 1990 to 1992, I was in fact, despite myself, studying cinema — but strictly as a naïve autodidact. I kept up with Dilys Powell’s last pieces in the Times and followed Derek Malcolm (The Guardian) and Nigel Andrew (FT), yet my textbooks of choice weren’t those of Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris but a fat Halliwell’s Guide and Time Out listings. Arrogantly — and wrongly — I doubted I could learn from the page something I couldn’t learn better from the screen. I shunned Sight & Sound because I didn’t trust it; it felt to me like uppity English critics “playing cinema.” For my freshman and sophomore years of film education, London was a vital, liberating platform, but I spent the following two years studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, whose infrastructure was, by comparison, simply awe-inspiring. Paris was a city whose Latin Quarter theaters alone (Action Écoles, Grand Action, Action Gitanes, Champo, Épée de Bois, Reflet Medicis, Pantheon, Studio Galande) had repertory programmes which obliterated London’s entirely, replete with massive retrospectives — all Chaplin, all Welles, all Renoir, all Fellini, all Ozu talkies — relentless, heaving listings, subsidized festivals of film cropping up all year round (e.g. Arabic film, children’s film, slapstick, German expressionist, etc.) and even on one Sunday morning, twenty Tex Avery shorts in 16mm. Emboldened by the known pedigree of French film writing, I also started reading criticism properly in Paris: Trafic, Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, Les Inrockuptibles.

Paris was a homecoming of sorts because I had first succumbed to the idea of cinephilia at age sixteen during a school year in France when I had been struck with admiration at how seriously films were being taken, by comparison to England. By the time I got to college in London in 1990, eager to indulge this new obsession, cinema had become for me an antisocial, self-indulgent, and, above all, solitary pursuit. It was a secret I didn’t feel any urge to share. I got into films neither to fit in (no one I knew was interested) nor to make new friends (the idea of being part of a “film community” would have been insufferable to me then, even had there been one) nor to stand out from the crowd (being a film buff isn’t crazy to civilians, just dull). I wasn’t even particularly keen to talk to people about films, I was just interested in consuming them: greedily and without restraint. Going to the pictures whenever I wanted, without having to ask permission, was freedom. It was also an addiction to something that both felt good and — unlike most addictions — healthy. Going two or three times a day instead of going to lectures or getting drunk in the student union bar seemed not at all abnormal.

In this respect, it was my good fortune to arrive in London just in time. The eighties had bitten down hard, and the repertory scene was on a gurney, approaching the operating table. TV channels had started showing films all year round, VHS rental shops had opened in petrol stations, and more than eighty percent of theaters in Britain had shut down or converted to bingo halls during the preceding decade. I arrived in the capital during a hiatus (which was later to be filled by DVD and the multiplex). In the early nineties, London’s remaining rep cinemas were slashing prices and recycling their stock in the hope of staving off the inevitable. The market followed: an impoverished student with a bus pass, like me, could englut himself.

You can get a sense of the strangeness of early 90s filmgoing in London from one particular experience I had after a long Friday-night journey on public transport. I don’t remember (and cannot find) the name of the venue — an unprepossessing shack below a railway bridge in Acton, no trace of which now remains—but I promise you it existed. I vividly recall three things from my only trip there: first, you could buy beer in the foyer and take it into the screening; second, the image on the screen was from an old 80s LCD projector (an angry walkout-inducing observation today, a shoulder-shrugging reality then); third, I was completely alone in the theater for the entire duration of a double bill of Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. Acton, a West London district straddling the boroughs of Ealing and Hammersmith, had once housed Britain’s largest cinema, the Globe, as well as the equally impressive Dominion — opened by Gracie Fields in 1938. Add to this the Crown in Mill Hill Place, the popular King Street Odeon, and the identity-disorder-suffering Cinematograph in Horn Lane (latterly the Kinema, the Carlton and the Rex), and Acton had been a beacon of London cinephilia right up until the 1960s. In 1990 you could watch a David Lynch double bill alone, on the world’s largest television (the only cinema now in Acton is the nine-screen Vue multiplex).

Further cut-price viewing opportunities were legion. At Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, a modern glass-and-concrete arts center (which also premiered Théâtre de Complicité plays), you could see two films for two pounds (about $3.50 at the time). That’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, in comfortable seats, for the price of a slice of pizza. The double bills were always obvious and alluring: Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose; Claire’s Knee and Pauline at the Beach; Seven Samurai and Rashomon; Raging Bull and The King of Comedy; The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts; Salesman and Gimme Shelter. Occasionally they’d go out on a limb and do two films by different directors, but the main drivers for me were delivery and value, not articulate programming. For two pounds fifty (just over $4), they did us a Nosferatu with a live piano accompaniment from a young local composer. You could see six films in a day if you hadn’t anywhere else to be (I hadn’t). The prints here were almost universally shocking: scratched and faded, all dancing pubes along the bottom and entire lines of dialogue cut, or rudely interrupted. Every time you went, you were reminded how cheap it was and consequently, how lucky you were. (I am certain that this whole experience is what disqualifies me from any deep-seated interest or meaningful contribution to the 35mm vs. DCP debate: the building blocks of my cinephilia were 35mm, but maculate in the extreme, such that the quality of the image became something of an irrelevance, as the power of the great filmmakers’ storytelling burned through. My preference would be to prioritize whatever format people can ultimately most afford to watch.)

The Everyman in Hampstead was more old-school, with a turn-of-the-century room, intermissions, and a posh café. Here was the scene of at least one lost Sunday: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Once Upon a Time in the West, two films with a combined duration (IMDb confirms) just shy of 200 hours. The Phoenix in Finchley (memorable double: Odd Man Out and The Third Man) and the Rio in Dalston Kingsland (Thief and Manhunter) felt like Alamo-style strongholds in a cultural desert (i.e. North London, which to a South London–based student was only designed to house people who had chosen the well-trodden path of slowly dying of boredom). I mention all these venues first for the simple reason that—in one form or another—they survived. They remain, just as they were 20 years ago, vital repositories of revivalist and art-house cinema: affordable, energetic, devoted. As I write, Riverside Studios is about to close its doors for a major redevelopment.

Less fortunate was the notorious countercultural fleapit, the Scala in Kings Cross, a mythically grimy room with an insalubrious past (the seats could have provided a handy training aid for the Environment Agency). They programmed Pasolini, Warhol double bills, occasional erotica, and, fatally, Stanley Kubrick’s banned A Clockwork Orange one too many times. Warner Brothers’ ensuing lawsuit bankrupted the cinema, and the site now stands as a concert hall, doubling as a ballroom for corporate events — thereby catering to a clientele that would never have gone near the place in the dirty days. The Lumière in St Martins Lane (less a rep cinema than a straight art house) was probably my own favorite place to see a film, even if it was costly and, unlike the Riverside, only showed one at a time. It was a vast, antiseptically clean but actually quite gorgeous modern cinema associated with art-house VHS distributor Artificial Eye (its plush seats were even in the teal green of their logo) that programmed principally modern French cinema, and it was, perhaps most importantly, nearly empty whenever I went. As rents went through the roof it became laughably unviable and closed, to be replaced in the late 90s by a swanky, brutalist hotel.

The older, more established, and unthreatened central London bastions of art house were the grand behemoth of the Curzon Mayfair in Curzon Street (one of the first cinemas to show foreign-language films of any description in the UK), its sister in Shaftesbury Avenue (now the Curzon Soho), and the Renoir (now the Curzon Renoir … you can see a pattern emerging) in the old literary quarter of Bloomsbury, north of Russell Square. These guys knew their onions, seemed somehow connected to continental cinephilia, and certainly programmed more Far Eastern cinema than anywhere else (even if that meant strictly Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, no Hou, Yang, or Imamura). The Renoir memorably showed Kieslowski’s Decalogue over five consecutive days. I visited these cinemas infrequently as they were extremely pricey, with Soho charging as much as £8 (around $14) for a ticket for a new release (no student concessions). The Curzon Group — a corporate success story — has now cornered the market in London art-house cinema projection since scooping up the Richmond Roundhouse (where I was once persuaded to see the Depardieu Cyrano de Bergerac with a glass of champagne for the exorbitant price of a fiver, or nine bucks), the Chelsea Cinema, and opening the Curzon Victoria this year. These venues are reverent, knowledgeable, and energetic, but remain very high end, expensive (£17.50 a ticket now — about $27 at today’s rates), and commoditized—like they have caught a new trendy wave of foreign filmgoing amongst wealthy Londoners—and the Curzon brand has all but said goodbye to any repertory ambitions its “assets” once had.

Two cozy, cheapy destinations for new releases were the Ritzy in Brixton, South London, closest to where I was living (and they did flapjacks, carrot cake, and delicious coffee) and what probably remains the most vibrant venue in London today, the Prince Charles, off Leicester Square. The Prince Charles adopted a radical approach to staving off almost certain liquidation in 1991 by hitting on the instant theater-filling idea of showing mainstream hits you might have missed the year before such as — in my day — Robocop or Field of Dreams, before becoming a venue for interactive events such as sing-along The Wizard of Oz and fancy dress Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings. It has since evolved into something of a role model for independent picture houses: cheap, tatty, simple, confident, unpretentious, packed with listings and big on retrospectives. It harbors a continuing fixation on cult cinema and interactive programmes (Tommy Wiseau recently attended a packed “The Room quote-along”), but has also done full Wes Anderson and Coen Brothers retrospectives. A recent Ghibli Studios triple bill was a more than good enough reason for an Allen family trip into town.

By contrast, purely through childish jealousy, I used to loathe the National Film Theatre — now the BFI — because to me it just represented money (which I didn’t have). Films were a pauper’s pursuit and to my mind, people with money and not much else joined and attended the NFT and watched films they had no business watching, after talking relentless, nauseating crap about them in the queues. I went once to see Frenzy with an introduction by Barry Foster, fantasized in line about the scene with Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, and didn’t return for ten years. When I did, my wife and I were “shushed” for laughing too loud at His Girl Friday, so I didn’t go back for another five. The ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) felt more like the real deal back then, but was unfortunately even more elitist, expensive, and inaccessible. Both institutions are alive and kicking today, unquestionably doing great things for film in the UK, but they still retain that aura which would have kept impoverished beginners like me well away. I go to the BFI more now and feel closer to it, but I remain confused as to what it really represents. I’ll still never forgive them for starting Barry Lyndon before they’d let in half the patrons, who’d been patiently queueing outside. A recent screening of L’argent in NFT2 was introduced by a very prominent British critic who didn’t know the film, didn’t appear to care for it very much and — most inexcusably — offered no valuable insight whatsoever. Who did he think his audience was—and was he right to underestimate them? There are only so many experiences of this kind one can have before questioning just how many of them were off-days.

If we judge a religion by its places of worship, temples such as Bell Lighthouse in Toronto, Museum of the Moving Image and BAMCinematek in New York, and the Cinémathèque in Paris feel like confident expressions of — and testaments to — an ingrained culture. It will be a long time before London grows a coherent, identifiable film following that it can relate to as a city. The rents are too high and the public appetite for subsidy too low for its theaters to begin to take up the challenge. But as London — we are told — has become the world’s premier tourist destination, its cultural outlook, which for so long placed film in a corner, is gradually adapting to a more global movement of cinephilia. Social media has transformed the discussion: we see the signs of a genuine film community in Britain now, largely active online and being led by the regions, with notable festivals — Edinburgh, Leeds, Bradford, Cambridge, Sheffield docs, Bristol silents — gaining vital word of mouth from year to year and pop-up screenings such as Secret Cinema, Joanna Hogg’s A Nos Amours, the new ArtHouse in Crouch End, and the devoted Badlands Collective (who recently screened The Long Day Closes with a riotous guest appearance by Terence Davies, and are currently keeping Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D alive on British screens). The improving stature of the London Film Festival (which though based at BFI, uses screens all over the City to showcase its venues) testifies not to a renewal — there was not much to renew — but to the gestation of a tangible, organically proud, and democratically accessible film culture. The time will soon come to revive the revival houses.

Comments: Julien Allen is an attorney and film writer. The unprepossessing shack below a railway bridge in Acton was the Acton Screen (which I remember well). A Clockwork Orange was not banned as such, but was withdrawn from British screens by the director and Warner Bros from 1972 to 1999. My grateful thanks to the editors of Reverse Shot for permission to reproduce this article.

Links: Available at Reverse Shot

Man maced at movie theater for asking woman to turn off her phone

Source: Josh Dickey, ‘Man maced at movie theater for asking woman to turn off her phone’, Mashable, 10 November 2014, http://mashable.com/2014/11/10/man-maced-at-movie-theater-for-asking-someone-to-turn-off-their-cell-phone/

Text: A man who asked a woman to turn off her cell phone at a Monday night screening of Mr. Turner was maced in the face following an awkward confrontation, an eyewitness who was sitting nearby tells Mashable.

The American Film Institute screening of the biopic at the TCL Chinese theater in Hollywood had just gotten underway when a man near the back row asked a woman sitting in front of her to turn off her phone, whose screen was visibly glowing.

“He was saying ‘Excuse me sir, could you please turn off your screen'” over and over, the eyewitness tells Mashable (he had apparently mistaken the woman for a man). After repeating himself several times, and without a response, the man then tapped the woman on the shoulder.

The woman reacted angrily to being touched, and “flipped out” on him, the eyewitness said. “She stands up and starts cursing, saying ‘You hit me, you hit me, I’m going to call the police.” She then turned the phone’s flashlight function on and pointed it directly at the man’s face.

The awkward standoff lasted for nearly a minute, the witness said, and she continued shining the light even as people all around implored her to turn it off and sit down. As the man was calmly defending himself, she then told him she had mace and started digging in her bag.

Without hesitation, she took the cap off the bottle, pointed it directly in his face and sprayed him at point-blank range. The man and the woman sitting next to him sat for a moment in shock as she sat back down. As the couple left, the man slapped the woman on the arm and said something to her, the eyewitness said.

The movie was never stopped, and the woman continued to sit and watch for another 20 minutes or so before volunteers and security with flashlights came to escort the woman, who was not immediately identified, out of the theater. She did not put up a fight as she was leaving, the witness said.

The incident brings to mind a March incident in Florida in which a retired police officer shot and killed another man who had been texting during previews of Lone Survivor.

No one answered the phone Monday night at the TCL Chinese 6, a group of theaters adjacent to the iconic TCL Chinese that’s host to several high-profile Hollywood premieres.

Comments: TCL Chinese 6 is a group of cinema theatres next to the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles which was originally known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Gods, monsters

Source: Extract from Andrew Collins, ‘Gods, monsters’, Never Knowingly Underwhelmed blog, 28 March 2011, http://wherediditallgorightblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/gods-monsters/

Text: To the Curzon in Mayfair for our second go at NT Live, where the National Theatre in London beams one of its productions, live, or as-live, around the whole world. This time: the much-discussed rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by writer Nick Dear and director Danny Boyle. Having already seen and been enthralled by Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet in this format in December, I can honestly say that this experience topped it. Not only was the production something to behold, but Hamlet was in the smaller Screen 2 at the Mayfair – we were moved there to accommodate the gala opening of some new film called The King’s Speech, which sank without a trace as far as I can tell. Anyway, Frankenstein was in the massive Screen 1. Much better. […]

Here’s the deal: people at the National Theatre on the South Bank watch actors do a play. People not at the theatre but in cinemas around the country, and the world, also watch actors do a play, at the same time. It’s a brilliant initiative, and even better if you’re a member of the Curzon and your tickets are discounted. But it’s particularly brilliant if you don’t live in London. I know because people were chattering excitedly about it on Twitter yesterday that it was showing at the mighty Duke Of York’s in Brighton, for instance. […] So, that’s the background. What about the play? After all, the play’s the thing.

Well, Frankingstein [sic] has been running for a month at the National and has been showered with positive notices. (Emma Freud, who stands in the NT auditorium and introduces the live link-up while confused theatregoers take their seats behind her and gawp vacantly into the camera, informed us that people are queuing up for tickets at 1am. I must admit, we booked our tickets for the Curzon showing before Christmas, sensing a sellout, which it was. Imagine a play that not only sells out the theatre it is in, but auditoriums it is not in.) You have to see these things for yourself sometimes. I am not an inveterate theatregoer, as we have established. I’ve seen some plays. Living in London is a bit of a privilege in that sense, but I’ve always felt a little bit ripped off when I’ve seen some men and ladies standing around talking to each other. If I’m going to pay West End prices, I want to see men and ladies dancing and singing. So, bear that in mind when I review this, as I am only comparing it to a handful of other plays I have seen. In many ways, I’m an easy lay, as I am just excited to be watching a play.

Danny Boyle is known as a filmmaker, but he started out in the theatre, as everyone will tell you. Well, that’s as may be, but he brought a cinematic eye and sense of occasion to Frankenstein. Beginning with the creature’s birth and following his infantile development – he walks! he talks! he reads Milton! – most of the first act is wordless. It’s just Benedict Cumberbatch (or Jonny Lee Miller – the pair alternate the main roles of Creature and Frank[en]stein) crawling and hobbling around the vast, bare stage, and grunting his way to coherence. Ironically, although this section is a tour de force, it’s made more cinematic when you watch it in the cinema, as you get close-ups and pans, and – something really special for the non-theatre audiences – aerial shots! So, what we saw in the Curzon is not what they saw at the National. They will say theirs was better, because they were in the same hall as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller off of the telly and the films, but I will say that ours was better. Funnily enough, the theatre crowd were still rudely talking when the play started. We were really quiet in the cinema. A huge bell sounds to signal the play has started, and yet, there they were, the big London theatre ponces, still muttering as Cumberbatch’s hand started feeling around inside the womb of his creation.

Unless you can afford to go twice in succession, you’re going to have to play the Cumberbatch/Lee Miller Lottery like the rest of us. Who will it be? It’s like a theatrical Kinder Egg – literally, as the creature bursts out of his membranous shell. Having experienced the full two hours, with no interval (Danny Boyle the bad boy rule-breaker!), I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I’m glad we got the Cumberbatch monster. It is a performance to leave your head spinning with its sheer physicality, nuanced grostequery [sic] and well balanced pathos/bathos. Lee Miller has less to do as the professor, less stagetime, and he had an audible sore throat last night, so heaven knows how he’ll cope as the grunting and squealing monster tonight. Vocalzone to the rescue, one hopes.

It’s actually scary, which is no mean feat for a stage play. The design and the lighting were spare and epic at the same time, with a stunning ceiling light made of hundreds of tiny individual bulbs that could undulate or burst into a retina-searing dazzle, and a revolving circular stage that occasionally gave birth to bits of scenery, and also coped with rain, snow and a roaring fire from below, not to mention a strip of what looked like actual grass that seemed to grow from nowhere. The design and the music – by Underworld – combined to create a fabulously Gothic setting, against which a fine cast could do their best with a script that at times was over-ripe, but on the whole managed to balance the philosophical and the portentous with bawdy and silly humour. You might find, say, the broad Scottish accents of the graverobbing crofter and his son a bit Fraser-from-Dad’s-Army, but it’s a period piece, and you have to take that onboard. There is no trendy modernisation here. It’s all industrial machinery and gaslight and rabbit stew cooked over a hearth. Naomie Harris off of the telly and the films, had a thankless part as Frankenstein’s intended, Elizabeth, until the grisly denouement, but Karl Johnson was fantastic as the old blind man who “sees” past the creature’s ugliness and identifies his soul.

I wonder if Cumberbatch and Lee Miller will share the theatre awards next year? They sort of should. Many critics said that Lee Miller’s monster was better than Cumberbatch’s. But they saw both.

I tried to read Shelley’s novel in my early twenties and gave up, defeated. Maybe I’ll give it another crack. They played a short making-of documentary before the play – risking letting light in upon magic, although the footage was from rehearsals and not the production itself – and Frankenstein was described by some academic or other as a creation myth for the age of science. This is a fascinating idea, and one that’s not fully explored in, say, the classic 1931 film of Frankenstein, which, as Boyle notes, took away the creature’s voice. His version gives it back.

Oh, and despite a full house, the two seats in front of us were empty. RESULT!

Comments: Andrew Collins is a television scripwriter, broadcaster, journalist, and film editor of the Radio Times. The stage production of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein was broadcast at part of the NT Live series on 17 and 24 March 2011. The cast included Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Miller, who alternated in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. The Curzon Mayfair is a London cinema. My thanks to Andrew Collins for permission to reproduce his blog post here.

Links: NT Live website for Frankenstein

I've been spoilt this week …

Source: Extract from Lily Middleton, ‘I’ve been spoilt this week …’, Graduate Life! blog, http://lilymiddleton.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/ive-been-spoilt-this-week.html, 28 February 2014

Text: Last night I headed to the Curzon Cinema in Chelsea to see the National Theatre’s live streaming of War Horse. I’ve wanted to see War Horse for a long time, however looking to go recently the tickets are not cheap. So when I spotted that it was being streamed to the cinema, for a much more do-able price, I was in buying my tickets immediately. I’ve seen a Jamie Cullum gig streamed to a cinema before, which was weird at first but then you get used to it. This was much the same, at first you’re very conscious you’re watching a theatre through a screen, however once the enchanting and heart-wrenching story of War Horse begins I was completely immersed. The play is truly incredible; it’s amazing how quickly you forget you’re watching a puppet and feel affection for Joey. I especially liked how they don’t ever hide the fact that the horses are puppets, the costumes of the puppeteers aren’t particularly hiding them although do match the colours of the horse. With hardly any set, it really is a treat for the power of the imagination, whatever your age. I was transported to a variety of locations from scenic Devon to the horror of the trenches through simple props and lighting – and of course the power of the story itself taking you to these locations.

The story is powerful and heart wrenching. Billy raises Joey from a foal and they build a powerful bond, which we see is unbreakable. Joey is sold to the Army and the two are split, this play tells the story of the two characters individual war experiences and the ending is so emotional I’m welling up just thinking about it. It is a beautiful story and left my Mum and I in tears. As if the performance itself wasn’t special enough, at the end Joey himself entered the cinema! Everyone burst into excited applause; it was a privilege to be there and meet Joey. I think it may be the closest I’ve ever been to a horse! Everyone was commenting on how real he seemed, and as he walked around the cinema amongst a sea of camera phones and people trying to stroke him, he just showed how extraordinary a creation he is.

NT Live is a great idea, bringing live theatre to cinemas. However I didn’t like the interval feature, it was behind the scenes videos, showing behind the scenes footage and interviews. This would be great to see at the end of the show, or a few days later. But seeing this in the middle of the show slightly broke the magic that had been cast over the cinema, particularly as the clips showed parts of the play we had not yet even seen!

Comments: Lily Middleton is a British marketing & PR assistant, theatre reviewer and musician. War Horse, the National Theatre’s 2007 stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the First World War, was broadcast to cinemas in the NT Live series from the New London Theatre on 27 February 2014. The remainder of the blog post covers an actual stage production, The Lion King. My thanks to Lily Middleton for permission to reproduce this extract.

Links: NT Live web page for War Horse

I’ve been spoilt this week …

Source: Extract from Lily Middleton, ‘I’ve been spoilt this week …’, Graduate Life! blog, http://lilymiddleton.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/ive-been-spoilt-this-week.html, 28 February 2014

Text: Last night I headed to the Curzon Cinema in Chelsea to see the National Theatre’s live streaming of War Horse. I’ve wanted to see War Horse for a long time, however looking to go recently the tickets are not cheap. So when I spotted that it was being streamed to the cinema, for a much more do-able price, I was in buying my tickets immediately. I’ve seen a Jamie Cullum gig streamed to a cinema before, which was weird at first but then you get used to it. This was much the same, at first you’re very conscious you’re watching a theatre through a screen, however once the enchanting and heart-wrenching story of War Horse begins I was completely immersed. The play is truly incredible; it’s amazing how quickly you forget you’re watching a puppet and feel affection for Joey. I especially liked how they don’t ever hide the fact that the horses are puppets, the costumes of the puppeteers aren’t particularly hiding them although do match the colours of the horse. With hardly any set, it really is a treat for the power of the imagination, whatever your age. I was transported to a variety of locations from scenic Devon to the horror of the trenches through simple props and lighting – and of course the power of the story itself taking you to these locations.

The story is powerful and heart wrenching. Billy raises Joey from a foal and they build a powerful bond, which we see is unbreakable. Joey is sold to the Army and the two are split, this play tells the story of the two characters individual war experiences and the ending is so emotional I’m welling up just thinking about it. It is a beautiful story and left my Mum and I in tears. As if the performance itself wasn’t special enough, at the end Joey himself entered the cinema! Everyone burst into excited applause; it was a privilege to be there and meet Joey. I think it may be the closest I’ve ever been to a horse! Everyone was commenting on how real he seemed, and as he walked around the cinema amongst a sea of camera phones and people trying to stroke him, he just showed how extraordinary a creation he is.

NT Live is a great idea, bringing live theatre to cinemas. However I didn’t like the interval feature, it was behind the scenes videos, showing behind the scenes footage and interviews. This would be great to see at the end of the show, or a few days later. But seeing this in the middle of the show slightly broke the magic that had been cast over the cinema, particularly as the clips showed parts of the play we had not yet even seen!

Comments: Lily Middleton is a British marketing & PR assistant, theatre reviewer and musician. War Horse, the National Theatre’s 2007 stage production of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the First World War, was broadcast to cinemas in the NT Live series from the New London Theatre on 27 February 2014. The remainder of the blog post covers an actual stage production, The Lion King. My thanks to Lily Middleton for permission to reproduce this extract.

Links: NT Live web page for War Horse

Is Beaming Live Royal Shakespeare Company Performances to Cinema Audiences a Good Thing?

Source: Albert Clack, ‘Is Beaming Live Royal Shakespeare Company Performances to Cinema Audiences a Good Thing?’, Albert Clack’s Blogs, http://www.albertclack.uk/rsccinema.html, November 2013

Text: Like many other people in Britain and other countries, I went to a cinema to watch the first live transmission of a performance of a play by William Shakespeare by the Royal Shakespeare Company at their theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The play was Richard II. I have no intention of reviewing it. This article is about the method which was used to show it to me.

Beforehand, I had reservations about this mode of seeing a play; after all, much of the point of theatre, as opposed to cinema or television, is the immediacy of being in the presence of real, live actors in the shared experience which is what theatre is all about.

Conversely, much of the point of cinema is that, by using a variety of locations, sets, camera angles, and through cinematographic artistry and skilful editing, it can produce realism, escapism, and all sorts of magic in ways theatre cannot.

My anxieties were that this hybrid – live actors on stage in front of a theatre audience being projected through the ether on to a distant screen – would prove to be neither fish nor fowl; that stage acting might look false ‘through the glass’; or that, on the contrary, the actors might feel forced to adapt their style to the presence of the cameras and thereby produce something unsuitable for the stage.

I need not have worried. Although the frisson was inevitably somewhat diminished by not being in the actual physical proximity of the likes of David Tennant, Michael Pennington and Jane Lapotaire, this was compensated by the ability of the transmission’s director to do things such as going into close-up when appropriate, tracking slowly and dramatically in towards a key area of the stage, and following a character as he or she paced up and down.

True, that took away the choice of where to look that one enjoys when in the theatre. I recall once in the National Theatre that while Oedipus was making his long, agonising speech bringing himself ever closer to the appalling truth that none of us wants him to learn, I chose to watch Jocasta’s reaction for most of the time because it was much more interesting.

For a scene or two at the beginning of the experience, it concerned me that I might not be allowed that option; then I forgot about it, which suggests that a sensitive balance was being struck between showing speaker and listener when it mattered; a more difficult task in a live transmission than in a movie, where all sorts of edits may be tried before the final cut is settled upon. Besides, the ability to use close-ups was used sparingly, and for much of the time we saw much of the stage.

I would still prefer to be there in person. Who wouldn’t? But we can’t always be where we want to be; and many people simply cannot afford the cost of admission and travel to such performances; so if live transmissions like this can pack ’em it at one remove, it is surely a good thing in various ways.

For one thing, the economics of running theatres and theatre companies in this country are now so distorted that tickets cost too much for any but the comfortably off to attend with any frequency; however, these transmissions are cheaper to get into (although still more expensive than a film), so they may generate new audiences away from London, Stratford, and other major urban centres.

For another, the experience of attending a transmission at a cinema may encourage new audiences to move on to ‘the real thing’.

There is what I would consider a missed opportunity, at least so far, in this phenomenon. The age profile of the audience in the Stevenage Cineworld was, quite simply, pretty old.

Surely it would make sense to lure the young towards live theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, by offering them very cheap, or even free, admission? The future of the theatre in Britain lies not with audiences of old age pensioners such as myself, but with new generations fired by the excitement of live performance.

If tens of thousands of them had seen ‘Dr Who’ demonstrating his true acting ability – what consequences might that have had for future audience profiles at the RSC, the National, and in our struggling provincial theatres?

Comments: Albert Clack is a British actor and writer. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard II was streamed live to cinemas on 13 November 2013. It included David Tennant as Richard II, Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York, Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Nigel Lindsay as Bolingbroke. It was the first production in the RSC Live series of live streamed plays. My thanks to Albert Clack for permission to reproduce his article here.

Theatre: pass the popcorn

Source: Extract from Andrew Collins, ‘Theatre: pass the popcorn’, Never Knowingly Underwhelmed blog, 10 December 2010, http://wherediditallgorightblog.wordpress.com/ 2010/12/10/theatre-pass-the-popcorn/

Text: More cross-platform arts. This time, Hamlet, live from the National Theatre, beamed into cinemas, in our case, the Curzon Mayfair. What a superb initiative. I will give you my opinion of Rory Kinnear’s Dane in a moment. First, a couple of practical concerns: the Mayfair is a glorious cinema, with a huge, 311-seat main screen, and a more intimate, 103-seat second screen. I saw White Ribbon in Screen One here last year, in the afternoon, and it ensured my experience of the film was about as effective and memorable as it could have been. I also hosted the Lost Q&A here last year, to a packed house of nerds, and the place really buzzes when it’s full. When we booked Hamlet, it was showing in Screen One. Unfortunately, in the interim, a charity gala premiere of The King’s Speech was booked into Screen One, and Hamlet was bumped into Screen Two. Because of the gala, with red carpet, barriers, press and people milling about in the lobby in smart coats, the bar was closed, so we couldn’t get a drink beforehand.

We could have done with one, as we were sat next to a party of three adults, a man and two women, who spent the whole of the build-up to the play playing on their BlackBerries, ignoring the pre-show film about the history of Hamlet, which was very interesting. I had to tell them to turn their phones off, as the bright, torch-like screens were in my eyeline. They did so. And then … after Hamlet had started, during the key opening scenes with the ghost of his father, they got them out again. I asked them to put them away, again. They did so, for the duration this time. What is the point of spending over the odds to see a live theatre production in a cinema and texting people? I can understand it when it’s idiot kids who know no better and have paid a few quid to be somewhere that isn’t outside, but these were grown adults! (During Act II, they munched from a massive box of popcorn. Yes, I know it’s on sale at the cinema, but this was a dramatic play, not a noisy blockbuster. During a knife’s edge soliloquy, you don’t want to hear the mouse-like rustling of hands going into popcorn and the popcorn being masticated. I put up with it.) Anyway, niggles over.

The production itself was magnificent. I speak as someone who has only seen Hamlet on film, never live, so I may be an unreliable witness – although the notices do seem to be positive – but Rory Kinnear really did make me understand the play for the first time. It is Nick Hytner’s production, and much of the appreciation must go in his direction: the decision to set it in a modern police state was very clever, and even Hamlet’s soliloquys were attended by shady men in suits with earpieces in, lurking in the dark. We get a recording device in a bible, paperwork being pushed across desks, camera crews filming Fontibras at the front … on a mostly bare stage, with lights and other props being moved around by the cast, and much of the action lit by torches and spotlights, and Hamlet’s dad’s ghost a truly unsettling grey apparition, this is atmospheric stuff indeed. Kinnear gives a smart interpretation of the Prince – an ordinary guy in a hoodie, with a smiley face drawn on his t-shirt to represent his duplicitously, villainous uncle, feigning madness with lots of comic business, that is both funny and disturbing. I noticed that he and David Calder as Polonious, used pauses very effectively, as if they were mouthing the words before saying them; quite a revelation from the more formal Shakespeares I saw as a schoolboy.

We never studied Hamlet, but it amazes me how much of it you just sort of know: the basic plot, the key markers like the gravedigger scene, and the speeches. I can almost recite “To be or not to be,” without ever having read the Brodie’s Notes. The whole thing made me retroactively despise Kenneth Branagh’s frilly and overwrought film version.

It’s unusual seeing a play, being performed live, at the cinema, with crowd murmuring beforehand, and Emma Freud popping up at the beginning and the end to top and tail it (this was being beamed not just around the UK, but across the world), but, as with Sleeping Beauty, there are advantages to close-ups you would never see from Row G of the National, and to – very sparing – camera cuts, which help to block out the action. I’m sure theatre purists would say it’s a poor substitute, but I am not one. I saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the National in 2004, and was impressed by it – another production on a bare stage with minimal scenery – but I don’t go to the theatre often, unless it is to see ballet or a musical, which I feel are better value for money! I feel rather privileged to have seen Kinnear, and Calder, and Clare Higgins, and Patrick Malahide, fretting and strutting while I sat in a cinema in Mayfair, and other people sat in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and others again in the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston, and elsewhere. Yes, we clapped at the end!

Comments: Andrew Collins is a television scripwriter, broadcaster, journalist, and film editor of the Radio Times. The stage production of the National Theatre’s Hamlet was broadcast at part of the NT Live series on 9 December 2010. The cast include Rory Kinnear (Hamlet), Clare Higgins (Gertrude), Patrick Malahide (Claudius), David Calder (Polonius), James Laurenson (Ghost/Player King) and Ruth Negga (Ophelia). My thanks to Andrew Collins for permission to reproduce his blog post here.

Links: NT Live web site for Hamlet

Live from the Met

Source: John Wyver, ‘Live from the Met’, Illuminations blog, 26 February 2007, http://www.illuminationsmedia.co.uk/blog/index.cfm?start=1&news_id=8

Text: On Saturday night I saw (and heard) the future of arts programmes. Or rather I saw how one strand of what we used to think of as arts television will develop. I went to the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. But I also went to the opera, for this was an evening when the Gate was showing a live transmission in High Definition from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. And it did feel a little (just a little) like turning up at the Met, even if the ticket price was £25 rather than the $300 top-price charge in New York.

As we went in, projected onto the screen were pictures of people filtering into the auditorium across the Atlantic. There was an intermission for drinks and ice creams (and the Gate has a welcome policy of allowing drinks to be taken in – and in glasses too). People applauded after some of the arias and, once they had realised that it was socially acceptable, with even greater enthusiasm at the end. The HD pictures from the stage were stunning and the sound, at least where I was sitting was more than acceptable (friends further back felt that the audio feed was far too thin). But of course the experience for me was was neither exactly cinema nor opera; indeed it might best be described as live television on a big screen with an audience.

The opera was Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with Renée Fleming as Tatiana and Valery Gergiev conducting. The cast and musicians all performed at the top of their game, and there were times, especially towards the end, when the experience was completely involving and emotionally affecting. The immensely experience[d] Brian Large directed the cameras, and did a wonderful job of pointing up the dramatic confrontations, staying back for the spectacles and on occasions getting in close for intimacy. The stage production was very spare, with exquisite lighting by Jean Kalman, and this translated wonderfully to the screen.

Saturday a week ago I watched the repeat of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on BBC4 from Covent Garden. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two experiences, but despite Rheingold being among my favourite two or three operas, I quite definitely preferred the experience of going to the Gate. Even allowing for the HD quality, the pictures from the Met were cleaner and clearer -the lighting at Covent Garden looked shadowy and uneven. There was also a much greater sense of occasion and ritual, even though I tried to clear the evening and settle down before the television with a decent red wine. As for whether I preferred an introduction from Mikhail Barysnikov or Michael Portillo (guess who was where) I could have lived without both, but I much preferred the detailed information about the opera and production on the Met’s website to the scrappy online information made available by the BBC.

One of the intriguing aspects of this initiative by the Met is that it takes “television” back to a moment just after World War Two when cinema chains in America experimented with live broadcasts into theatres. Both Paramount and RCA trialled projection systems in 1947 and in 1949 screenings of World Series baseball were immensely popular in New York, Boston and Chicago. Over one hundred theatres were equipped but the returns were never significant enough to recoup the costs. Then the regulatory authority refused to licence exclusive broadcast channels and television started to become the fundamentally domestic medium with which we’ve all grown up.

Satellites and HD, however, offer the chance to do things differently, and these early sell-out screenings of Met broadcasts (they are doing six this season, although not all are being taken in the UK) suggest that there’s a commercial future for this new experience. Next up is The Barber of Seville on March 24.

Comments: John Wyver is a British writer and producer of arts-based programmes with his company Illuminations. The streaming of live performances of theatrical productions into cinemas (and other venues) appears to have begun in late 2006 with the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series (one of whose broadcasts into the UK is the subject of the blog post reproduced here), though as Wyver notes there is a long history of televised broadcasts into cinemas. The genre of live stage productions shown in cinemas has not settled on a term as yet: streamed theatre, live-streamed theatre, live-to-cinema, simulcasts, live theatre and live cinema have all been used. Picturegoing has settled on the term streamed theatre. Wyver has become a producer of streamed theatre himself with RSC Live, whose first production was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II in 2013. The Met’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was first produced on 27 February 24 2007 and starred Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin), Renée Fleming (Tatiana) and Ramón Vargas (Lensky), with conductor Valery Gergiev. The Gate is one of the oldest cinemas in the UK still operating as a cinema, having been founded in 1911. My thanks to John Wyver for the permission to reproduce his post here.

Astor – Harmonie

Source: Frank Kessler, ‘Astor – Harmonie’, in Arthur Knight, Clara Pafort-Overduin, and Deb Verhoeven (eds.), ‘Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World’, Senses of Cinema, issue 68, March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/senses-of-cinema-going-brief-reports-on-going-to-the-movies-around-the-world

Text: Growing up in the town of Offenbach, Germany, just across the river Main from the much larger city of Frankfurt, my memories of going to the movies as a child and a young teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s are in fact more about the theatres than the films. Or rather, when I do remember a film, I almost always recall the cinema where I saw it, while I do have quite vivid memories of the theatres anyway, even when I only have vague recollections of the films I went to see there.

When I was first allowed to go to the movies without a grown-up by my side, mostly accompanied by a friend from school, I must have been twelve or thirteen years old. We had a preference for films with soldiers in them, ancient Greeks or Romans, but sometimes also World War II battles (Catch-22 [1970], which we saw even though we were under age, turned out to be an utterly disturbing and confusing experience). The cinema we usually attended was an already relatively run-down theatre that has now been closed for many years. It was called the Astor and situated quite conveniently in the centre of Offenbach, directly opposite the bus stop. The somewhat faded charms of the Astor, together with the program consisting mainly of action movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and comedies (Catch-22 was actually shown in the more up-market Universum), had a paradoxical effect on me: alongside the excitement and the curiosity about what the film would bring, there was also a feeling of a certain uneasiness, a tension as if I was about to do something illicit. I am sure that many others will have similar recollections of going to the movies during puberty. There was of course the occasional nudity and, more generally, a confrontation with images that made me wonder, “do I actually want to see this?” — the violence, the sensuality, the things that a child definitely was not meant to behold. And thus there was deep inside a realization that movie-going somehow was related to moving out of childhood into something else that was both attractive and repulsive, both exciting and threatening. The Astor, for me, was a curious place, one that both promised and refused a sense of belonging.

A few years later, when the Astor had probably already closed down or was about to do so, my taste in films had changed considerably. I was a student by then at the University of Frankfurt, had managed to live through fifteen months of military service, had my driver’s license and could use my parent’s car in the evening. This newly acquired independence and mobility took me regularly to a cinema that was the first art house in Frankfurt, the Harmonie. Once a neighborhood theatre, it had ended up showing X-rated movies before being taken over by a cooperative of five young cinephiles. So it was not only a place where one could watch an ambitious mix of newly released art films and classics from the repertoire, but it was also perceived as something like a political experiment, a collectively owned cinema where people associated with what was then called “the non-dogmatic left” went to see films that often told stories about unconventional lives. Among the most successful films, which had runs of several months and re-appeared regularly in the program afterwards, were Alain Tanner’s Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 (Jonas Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976), Coline Serreau’s Pourqui pas! (1977) and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971 — it must already have been a re-run when I first saw it) — and, not to forget, the almost always sold-out Saturday night cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The Harmonie had (and still has) a balcony where one tried to get a seat, preferably in the first row. The Harmonie was also a door to something else, to another way of life maybe, even if that only happened on the screen. However, there was nothing threatening about that. Going to the Harmonie clearly was about “belonging” as well, but this was where one wanted to belong.

In the end, of course, the difference in my experiences of movie-going at the beginning and at the end of the 1970s was only partly due to the cinemas as such. Obviously, the Harmonie could not have existed in Offenbach in the early 1970s, but even if it had, it would have been as ambivalent a place to me as the Astor. At that point in my life, it was the age much more than the films or the theatres that determined the way I felt about going to the movies — as something both alluring and frightening, or, later, as something I wanted to be part of. So when, and where, exactly does one become a cinephile?

Comments: Frank Kessler is professor of media history at Utrecht University. His recollections of cinema-going in Germany in the 1970s were originally published in a special issue of the online film journal Senses of Cinema. I am grateful for his permission to reproduce the piece here.

Links: Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World

Movie-going as Resistant Community

Source: Verónica Feliu, ‘Movie-going as Resistant Community [Chile]’, in Arthur Knight, Clara Pafort-Overduin, and Deb Verhoeven (eds.), ‘Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World’, Senses of Cinema, issue 68, March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/senses-of-cinema-going-brief-reports-on-going-to-the-movies-around-the-world

Text: Going to the movies in Chile in the 1980’s was a fundamental experience in my life, one that has certainly shaped not only my perspective on cinema, but also my aesthetic sensibility by and large. During that time in Chile all aspects of life, including every cultural expression, were molded by a military regime that had already lasted a decade. Nothing functioned outside the scope set by a permeating system of thought, order, and raison d’être. Conversations, movements, even clothes and hair styles were reflections of a time in which cultural identity was constantly harassed, questioned, prohibited, distorted, detained.

I was young and part of a generation that was avid and hopeful, yet hopelessly realistic – we had seen too much, we demanded the impossible.

The impossible turned out to be more than we expected, and definitely more than we can imagine retrospectively. In Santiago, the capital, we had five art theaters: Cine Arte Normandie, Teatro de la Universidad Católica, El Biógrafo, plus the theaters of two international cultural centers, the Goethe Institute and the Chilean-French Cultural Institute. These cinemas were created in the 80’s and they powerfully counterbalanced the absence of cultural production originated by the state. They were also vanguard endeavors whose contribution to the cultural scene could compete with that of the most advanced democratic societies in the world. The most memorable movies of my young adulthood will be forever linked to these theaters.

Being at one of these alternative cinemas was a whole event in itself. Except for Cine Arte Normandie, which was located in a big old building, they were all small theaters situated in bohemian neighbourhoods and did little to advertise themselves. They displayed classical or rare posters from acclaimed or avant-garde productions, some of which were for sale. There was no popcorn smell, nor sodas to buy. People would bring candies or ice cream bonbons bought elsewhere. There was always smoking before and after the movie. By far, the best part was the gathering of people at the end when everybody exchanged comments about the film. Moviegoers shared a sense of satisfaction that was triggered by the thought-provoking movie, and were thrilled to be surrounded by others they felt a strong connection to. It was this sense of belonging, of sharing a worldview with others, of living for some minutes in a space without enemies or threat, that made going to these theaters so special and remarkable. Even if the movie was disappointing or too obscure, the act was complete by just recognizing some faces and glimpsing others who would most likely be at the next demonstration in the main Plaza.

But there was something else that has remained with me after all these years. It was the subtle and yet firm conviction that movie-going was not really about fun. At least not what fun means nowadays. There was certainly a sense of cult, of something you share only with people you feel intellectually close to. But there was also the aesthetics of the small space, elitist if you want, secluded, almost prohibited, that made it so exhilarating. We knew we were doing something that was only partially permitted by the authorities, regarded as some sort of a safety valve for our political desires to change the system. In a way, we knew we were observed. That double sense of being part of something and feeling renegades at the same time transformed this into a unique act, almost a performance.

After dictatorship ended in 1990 and Chile was incorporated into global markets, most movie theaters became part of the big multi-cinema chains in which little room is left for the individuals to feel their own breath, let alone to reflect upon what the movie has left in their minds. However, wonderfully enough, all the 80’s art theaters not only remain, but have become essential to a new generation of moviegoers. These youngsters no longer fear that culture could be something that puts their lives at risk, but they nonetheless have inherited the sense of complicity and excitement that a small theater and a somewhat complicated movie with an open-ended resolution gives to the restless mind.

Comments: Verónica Feliu is a professor in the Foreign Languages Department at City College of San Francisco. Her recollections of cinema-going in Chile in the 1980s were originally published in a special issue of the online film journal Senses of Cinema. I am grateful for her permission to reproduce the piece here.

Links: Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World