America Day By Day

Source: Simone de Beauvoir (trans. Patrick Dudley), America Day by Day (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1952), pp. 62-63

Text: And how easy it was to take part in New York life! From early morning people on Broadway queued up for the movies. At any time of the day, with an hour to kill, you can go to see animated cartoons or newsreels. But above all it is at night, in crowded Forty-second Street, that the movies have the dual attraction of fairs in foreign countries and national rejoicings. On Times Square you can see the latest Hollywood films; on Forty-second Street they show old Westerns, comedies and pictures that give one goose-flesh: I mean the thrillers. In a small cinema on one of the grands boulevards of Paris they used to show one of these horror films weekly twenty years ago. Now that they have become talkies they have scarcely altered. Once more I watched the murdered mummies finally stabbed through the heart with hunting knives; vampires greedily drinking up fresh blood; robots charged with uncontrollable forces, sowing death and terror …. Every time the mummy appears the audience shouts, not with terror, of course, but with delight, for they no longer believe it.

But the animated cartoons disappointed me; they have become set and mechanical. And the films I saw did not reveal New York to me as I had hoped they would one evening. But they helped to bind me to America. I no longer looked at the screen in the same way that I did at home; the exotic drugstores, the streets, the elevators and the press-bells had disappeared; they were now just realistic details. But this realism had poetry all the same. The screen transfigured everyday objects and reimposed that distance between me and the drugstore which was abolished every time I drank an orange juice, although continuing to exist nevertheless. It was by means of these black and white pictures that I had come to know America, and still they seemed to me to be its real substance; the screen is a platonic heaven where I find my concept in all its purity. The houses built of stone are but doubtful embodiments of it.

Comments: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French intellectual. She visited America over a four-month period in 1947. Her account of her journey was first published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour.

Sporting Notions

Source: ‘Sporting Notions’, The Referee, 12 January 1896, p. 1

Text: This week I saw in Paris a most wonderful presentation of moving, if not living, pictures worked by an electric apparatus bearing the formidable title, the cinématographe. It is a forty-horse-power similitude of the kinetoscope, with which, no doubt, most readers are familiar. Highly delighted as I was with the tableaux, they half frightened me, because, while sitting enjoying the exhibition, I could not but wonder whether Edison and his successors were not a long way on the road towards wiping out a good proportion of the reason our reporting craft may plead for existence. The American magician is already able to show you all the actions of a crowd as you sit at ease in a room. What if he and followers advance so as to bring out newspapers whose moving illustrations furnish their own descriptions? Would self and brethren be wanted to provide accounts of races – boat, horse, foot, and swimming – or details of fights, of cricket, of football, and of all the rest of what used to be, when readers might see the game played for themselves in every detail and action. I am quite aware that we still are a longish way off the time when anything of this sort could be effected at the price, or put in ship-shape so quickly as to furnish a daily supply. But those who can manage o much must hold power to carry out an awful lot more. Only a day or two ago, so it seems, the kinetoscope was an imperfect foreshadowing of what has come. Now the idea has been carried a tremendous way further. If the enterprise were worth the expense, we could have a race of any sort lifted bodily and put on view wholesale, retail, and for exportation.

Here are some of the sketches provided. On a sheet facing the spectators is cast the photograph of a factory’s entrance. Time is up for dinner hour, or to strike work for the day – I may here remark that our friends employed in such establishments set rare example of punctuality by the promptitude with which they turn out to time. On the signal being given out popped a boy or two, the quickest off the mark, and scudded off home. Then three or four girls and lads, finishing putting on their coats as they went. Quickly the workpeople hurried through the portals in batches. A man rode off on a bicycle and a pair-horse van drove from the gate at a brisk trot. The exodus was not illustrated, but made really to happen. The road was quite crowded with the hands trooping forth; a few, not in much hurry, lingered a little before separating and giving the operator with the magic lantern the cue to finish Part One. Later we were treated to the disembarkation over a river steamer’s freight, exchanging greetings with friends on shore as the boat was made fast alongside the stage, bustling up the gangway, knocking each other’s “corners” with their handbags, smoking – you sawt he clouds as they blew them – laughing, shaking hands as they were met on the quay – all to the very life. Best of all was I pleased with a sketch – no, I do not mean a sketch – with some real bathing in real sea, with real combing miniature breakers, real splashes as the men and youngsters dropped in, tumbled in, plunged in on the spring-board, playing tricks on each other, doing fancy plunges, somersaults, clever dives, clumsy half-hearted drops into the sea, and playing follow-my-leader in swimming to shore and racing to make a fresh start along the plank. Doubtless friends who know the kinetoscope will fancy the latest improved edition is not exactly a novelty. They may fancy, but let them wait till they have tried the latter before passing an opinion.

What a field this opens for speculative sporting showmen. In a way Edison is going a lot better than the inventor who proposed to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and bottle them up for use on gloomy days. The showman of the future will be able to travel with a Derby or a Leger, a Cesarewitch or a Jubilee Stakes; with the Gentlemen v. Players match, the Amateur Championships, the ‘Varsity Boatrace, or a big turn with the gloves at the National Sporting Club; to show you the spectators, principals, umpires, referees, judges, horses, jockeys, boats, water, playing fields, and all, and treat you to a day’s sport whenever you want it and wherever you please to have it. This will be a boon indeed for sportsmen unable to be present, and will, I am afraid, lower gates dreadfully, because so many who could assist at the actual competitions, if they so chose, will prefer to save expense and stay at home till the cinématographe comes to hand. When all this comes to pass what is to become of poor SPORTING NOTIONS and Co.? That is what worries your humble servant, who, of course, would grieve for the Co., but most for himself.

Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe had its commercial debut at the Salon Indien, Grande Café, 14 Boulevard des Capucines, Paris on 28 December 1895. It was, of course, an invention of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, not of Thomas Edison (inventor of the Kinetoscope peepshow). This report from the British week sporting newspaper The Referee, in its column ‘Sporting Notions’, is a very early account in English of the screenings which had continued at the Grande Café. The films described are La sortie des usines Lumière (1895), Le Débarquement du Congrès de photographie à Lyon (1895) and Baignade en mer (1895). The Cinématographe was first shown in Britain at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London, on 20 February 1896.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

An American Lady in Paris

Source: Mary Mayo Crenshaw (ed.), An American Lady in Paris, 1828-1829: The Diary of Mrs. John Mayo (Boston, Houghton Mifflin company, 1927), pp. 50-51

Text: One fine morning we went to see the Diorama. This novel exhibition is intended to show correct delineations of nature and art, and differs from a panorama in that, instead of a circular view of the objects represented, you have the whole picture at once in perspective. The interior of the building resembles a small theatre and such is the effect of the various modifications of light and shade that the optical deception is complete. Four different pieces are at present exhibited: The passage of the Alps by Mount Saint Gothard. Nothing can be more picturesque and romantic, it is the most perfect representation of nature that can be conceived. You behold in the distance a part of Saint Gothard, covered with eternal snows, the blue summit of Val Briditto on the left and on the right a part of Monte Piottino. The length seems immeasurable, and now and then an eagle is seen wheeling round and round until it is lost in the clouds, which is done by some sort of machinery which we cannot discover. There is water really falling down the cataract, and you hear the noise of it and see the mist rising from it. I am convinced the reality can be no more stupendous than this representation. The next piece is a view of the interior of a cathedral at Rome, the third is a part of the ruins of the Coliseum, which Mr. Mahan (one of the gentlemen who went with us) said was perfect. He had recently returned from Italy, where he had seen it, and he was struck with the truth of the execution. The fourth and last was a beautiful exhibition of the Place of Saint Mark in the city of Venice. They were all extremely fine, but nothing in my opinion could be compared to the scene in the Alps.

Comments: Mrs. John Mayo, born Abigail De Hart (1761-1843) was the daughter of promiment US lawyer John De Hart and was married to Virginia planter John Mayo. Although her publication is given to be a ‘diary’ there are no dates and really a travel book. The diorama was a visual spectacle presented in an elaborate theatre, able to accommodate around 350 people. The audience would viewed a large-scale landscape painting on a screen 70ftx45ft whose appearance would alter through the manipulation of lighting and scenic effects. A turntable would then rotate the audience around to view a second painting. The Diorama premiered in Paris in 1822 and remained on show to 1828.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Les Choses

Source: Georges Perec (trans. David Bellos), Things: A Story of the Sixties (London: Vintage, 2011) [orig. Les Choses, 1965], pp. 55-57

Text: Above all they had the cinema. And this was probably the only area where they had learned everything from their own sensibilities. They owed nothing to models. Their age and education made them members of that first generation for which the cinema was not so much an art as simply a given fact; they had always known the cinema not as a fledgling art form but, from their earliest acquaintance, as a domain having its own masterworks and its own mythology. Sometimes it seemed as if they had grown up with it, and that they understood it better than anyone before them had ever been able to understand it.

They were cinema buffs. Film was their primordial passion; they indulged it every evening. or nearly. They loved the pictures as long as they were beautiful, entrancing, charming, fascinating. They loved the mastery of space, time and movement, they loved the whirl of New York streets, the torpor of the Tropics, fights in saloon bars. They were not excessively sectarian, like those dull minds which swear only by a single Eisenstein, Buñuel or Antonioni, or even – as there’s no accounting for tastes – by Carné, Vidor, Aldrich or Hitchcock; nor were they too eclectic, like those infantile people who throw all critical sense to the winds and acclaim a director as a genius if he makes a blue sky look blue or if the pale red of Cyd Charisse’s dress is made to clash with the darker red of Robert Taylor’s sofa. They did not lack taste. They were highly suspicious of so-called art movies, with the result that when this term was not enough to spoil a film for them, they would find it even more beautiful (but they would say – quite rightly – that Marienbad was “all the same just a load of crap!”); they had an almost exaggerated feeling for Westerns, for thrillers, for American comedies and for those astonishing adventures full of lyrical flights, sumptuous images and dazzling, almost inexplicable beauties such as (the titles were imprinted on their minds for ever) Lola, Bhowani Junction, The Bad and the Beautiful, Written on the Wind.

They did not go to concerts at all often, and even less often to the theatre. But they would meet, by chance, at the Film Theatre, at the Passy Cinema, or the Napoleon, or in little local flea-pits – the Kursaal at Gobelins, the Texas at Montparnasse. the Bikini, the Mexico at Place Clichy, the Alcazar at Belleville, and others besides, around Bastille or in the XVth arrondissement, graceless, ill-equipped cinemas frequented by the unemployed, Algerians, ageing bachelors, and film buffs, where they would see, in atrociously dubbed French versions, those unknown masterpieces they remembered from when they were fifteen, or those reputed works of genius (they had memorised the entire list) which they had been trying in vain for years to see. They would always remember with wonderment the blessed evening when they had discovered, or rediscovered, almost by chance, The Crimson Pirate, The World in His Arms, Night and the City, My Sister Eileen, or The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T. Alas, quite often, to tell the truth, they were horribly let down. Films they had waited so long for, as they had thumbed almost feverishly through the new issues of the Entertainment Guide every Wednesday, films they had been told by almost everyone were magnificent, sometimes did finally turn out to be showing somewhere. They would turn up, every one of them, on the opening night. The screen would light up, they would feel a thrill of satisfaction. But the colours had faded with age, the picture wobbled on the screen, the women were of another age; they would come out; they would be sad. It was not the film they had dreamt of. It was not the total film each of them had inside himself, the perfect film they could have enjoyed for ever and ever. The film they would have liked to make. Or, more secretly, no doubt, the film they would have liked to live.

Comments: Georges Perec (1936-1982) was a French experimental novelist and essayist. Les Choses, his first novel, is a portrait of French life in the 1960s, seen more through things (choses) the characters own than the characters themselves.

Twenty Minutes from Before the War

Source: Extracts from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘Twenty Minutes from Before the War’, in The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939 (London: Granta, 2004), pp. 175, 177-178. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 11 June 1926

Text: In a Parisian cinema they are showing old newsreel footage – infinitely past, because sundered by us from the war – of such dusty novelties as the fashions, dances, the five o’clock teas, of an era that waltzed straight out of its pathetic whimsicality into a bloody horror; an epoch so deceitful that it didn’t even experience the truth of its own demise. It was already dead by the time it died. Its children were living ghosts, having been molded from papier-mâché in, oh, let’s say, pergolas.

These old films, changed every time there’s a change of program, appear under the heading “Twenty Minutes from Before the War.” It’s because of them that the cinema is sold out every day, and sometimes full to bursting. The sons all want to go, to laugh at their fathers. The great family album of the past is opened up before their eyes. It is made up of graves that elicit not shudders of horror but irresistible mirth. The effect of the pictures is like that of twenty top hats at a funeral: The hats are so ridiculous that they rather take the edge of the coffin. The result is a rather peculiar sort of dread that touches not the soul but the funny bone.


These are the sort of shocking displays we now put ourselves through, we, the children of the present day, we, who have gotten over Darwin and Ibsen, give ourselves over to the exotic woman with the “pleureuse” veil, the suffragette, the parade uniform, the umbrella, the large man with the goatee, , the train, and the towering hairdo made of pigtails and spikes; we, who go to Negro revues and watch naked girls, we toughened and bred in drum fire, scornful of beautiful lies, we devotees, as we would have it, of the ugly truth.

We sit in front of the whole deceitful misery of our fathers, who appear to have invented the cinema purely to show us themselves in their full absurdity, and we laugh, we laugh. We have prizefights and sports fans, America and endurance runners, girls drilled by preachers, a whole internationale of Sunday windbreakers. But we don’t have bodies instead of breasts, feather boas instead of necks, curtains instead of legs, and top hats in place of mourning! Where the goose-step is still practised, we know it’s dead; really, at the worst, the parades of our times are to celebrate living memorials (not dead ones). We know that once we had the “pleureuse,” the steel helmet was only a matter of time, that there’s a straight path from the modest veil to the gas mask, and from the pergola to the trench. And those unarmed reservists who plowed the fields of honor and sowed us there with their pathetic blessings – that deceitful eve of the war is something that makes us laugh our heads off every evening, for twenty minutes, and no longer.

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The full article describes the various newsreel scenes shown: military parades, Parisian crowds, an instructor illustrating the latest dance craze, the latest creations from a fashion house, and pre-war fiction films.

My London Film Education

Source: Julien Allen, ‘My London Film Education’, Reverse Shot, 12 December 2014,

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


Source: Diana Vreeland (ed. George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill), D.V. (New York: Harper Collins, 2011, orig. 1984), pp. 48-50

Text: One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German movie called L’Atlantide, with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.

We sat there, the movie started … and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! I have no idea if I actually saw the movie I thought I was seeing, but I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes … they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration … And then you see the fata morgana. That means if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.

Then … a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm … and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine-looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…

And et cetera.

This goes on and on, I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand … to here … where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was simply sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who ever lived … and her cheetahs! The essence of movie-ism.

Then … the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down — and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!

“Oh,” I said, “you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s exactly what I did.”

She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed. She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt — no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and of course the great thing was to get out of the theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.

Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed … and they were off!

Ah! What a gesture! I’ve never seen anything like it. It was speed at its best, and style. Style was a great thing in those days.

Comments: Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was a fashion writer who worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, where she was editor-in-chief. Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who gained great fame in France. Her pet cheetah’s name was Chiquita. L’Atlantide (Germany/France 1932) was directed by G.W. Pabst. My thanks to Artemis Willis from bringing this unique passage to my attention.

The little Madeleine

Source: Mrs Robert Henrey, The little Madeleine: the autobiography of a young French girl (New York: Dutton, 1953), pp. 199-200, 204-205

Text: Mme Maurer, grateful and generous, found a charming way to say thank you. Immediately after lunch on my half-holiday she, my mother, and I would go to the cinema in the Avenue de Clichy, where the programme included a film in several episodes, with Pearl White, and a Max Linder comedy. The programme started at two, and as soon as I heard the bell announcing the approach of the great moment my excitement was immense. Pathé Journal began with a flickering news-reel. Weary soldiers in long files marched down the lines. Lloyd George and Clemenceau danced across the screen with unbelievable speed. King George V and his good-looking son, the Prince of Wales, shook hands with soldiers and climbed over trenches and barbed wire. The cinema seemed to soak all these famous men and incidents with an oblique and incessant rain.

My mother found in these visits to the cinema her first moments of genuine pleasure. We would discuss what we had seen, thinking all the week about the next episode. A little later the great Gaumont Palace was opened in the Place Clichy. Then it was a different matter. The most famous cabaret singers in Paris were engaged to appear in the intervals, and the auditorium, full of soldiers and officers of every nation, made our hearts beat with patriotism.


When my father was on a night shift my mother, Marguerite Rosier (we had now forgiven her for running away from the man with the knife), and I went to a cheap cinema in the Boulevard National, arriving half an hour before the performance started, to be sure of having the best seats.

Our cinema smelt of garlic and peppermint drops. Palm-trees stood on either side of the stage, their branches casting uneven shadows on the white screen like giant spiders. Excitedly we waited. In spite of our love for Pearl White we had not quite cured ourselves of thinking of the cinema in terms of the age-old theatre, and we had gone instinctively to the front of the stalls where, after a while, we would see appear from behind a curtain a little hunchback woman with a big white head surmounted by a number of diamanté spangled combs. She would slip her rheumatic knees under an upright piano and begin a Strauss waltz. The apache boys from the fortifications who were here in large numbers whistled the accompaniment, while putting an arm round the shoulder of a girl, getting into position to unbutton the blouse and fondle her breasts. These were the girls who worked for them as prostitutes on the outer zone, drawing men with alluring gestures, like Circes, near to the wall where the apache lay in waiting with his knife. All the boys wore their caps and sometimes their red scarves. A few moments later came a small dark man holding a violin case tightly under his arm, and as he made his way towards the hunchback his journey was followed by loud whistles and exclamations of ‘Hurry up, maestro! You’re late, brother! Let’s go and sleep with his wife while he scratches a tune on his fiddle!’ The fiddler, pale and without any sign of fluster, removed a black hat, placing it carefully on the edge of a chair, folded his overcoat, took up the hat which he would then place on top of the folded overcoat, and delicately brush the dandruff from his narrow shoulders. At last he opened the case, holding the violin under an arm whilst he put a handkerchief under his chin. The audience invariably cried out: ‘The little old man is going to weep!’ Then dolefully: ‘Don’t worry, daddy, you’ll see her again, your girl friend!’ Now at last, with a sign of his bow to the hunchback, he would begin to play. The lights would go out. The screen flickered.

By the time the big film started this chaffing audience was settling down to the charms of Mary Pickford with her blonde curls. The love-story was getting the better of these boys and girls from the fortifications who, for all their naughtiness, were just sentimental children. At this magnificent moment, after all the fatigues of the long day, after school, after queueing, after playing in the street, exhausted, I fell fast asleep on my mother’s shoulder! This happened every time we went to the cinema. Before setting out in the evening I would say: ‘If I go to sleep you will wake me up, won’t you, mother?’ She promised. Indeed she did wake me, but after rubbing the sand out of my eyes and trying to unravel the plot, I fell asleep again, and my mother, transported to a land of make-believe, was far too interested in the romance to keep on pinching my arm. I would sulk on the way home, and childishly threaten to tell my father where we had been. My mother answered patiently: ‘To-morrow I will describe the whole episode to you while you are sewing, and next time you really must try to keep awake!’

Comments: Madeleine Henrey (1906-2004), who mostly published as Mrs Robert Henrey, was a French author of popular memoirs. Her son, Bobby Henrey, played the child lead in the film The Fallen Idol (UK 1948). The Gaumont Palace, located at Place Clichy, Paris, opened in December 1907, ahead of Henrey’s First World War period memories. It was the largest cinema in Europe, seating over 6,000.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

My Life and My Films

Source: Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films (London: Collins, 1974) [translated by Norman Denny], pp. 16-18

Text: My first experience of the cinema was in 1897. I was a little over two. My mother had decided to buy a whitewood wardrobe for Gabrielle’s bedroom. Gabrielle, who was to become Renoir’s model, was born at Essoyes, a village in Burgundy. She was my mother’s cousin, and when I was born she came to live with us as a ‘help’. The help consisted chiefly of looking after me and taking me for walks. She was then sixteen. I could not get on without ‘Bibon’, the nickname I bestowed on Gabrielle, which emerged from my vain efforts to pronounce her name …

… Our destination on this outing was the Dufayel department store. I can only repeat was Gabrielle told me when, at the end of her life, she came to join us in Hollywood. But my memory goes far enough back for me to be able to recall that the world in those days was divided for me into two parts. My mother was the tiresome part, the person who ordered me to eat up my dinner, to go to the lavatory, to have a bath in the sort of zinc tub which served for our morning ablutions. And Bibon was for fun, walks in the park, games in the sand-heap, above all piggy-back rides, something my mother absolutely refused to do, whereas Gabrielle was never happier than when bowed down under the weight of my small body. I was a spoilt child. Our family life enclosed me in a protective wall softly padded on the inside. Beyond this wall impressive persons came and went. I would have liked to join them and be impressive myself, but unfortunately nature had made me a coward. Whenever I discerned a breach in the wall I uttered crises of alarm.

All went well at the beginning of our visit to Dufayel. The streets had a peaceful look – no sign anywhere of the villains who steal children who wander away from their mothers. At the entrance to the store a man wearing a braided cap asked us if we wanted to see the ‘cinema’. His cap was rather like the uniform cap of the Collège de Saint-Croix, where my brother Pierre, the future actor, had been sent as a boarder to make room in the home for my cumbersome self. A man wearing such a cap could only be on the side of the ‘good’, that is to say, those dedicated to safeguarding the small fragment of the world which was the only one I knew. It was therefore in a spirit of comparative confidence that I allowed Bibon to take me into the projection room.

The Grands Magasins Dufayel were in the forefront of progress. They had been the first to sell on credit. The building, with its walls of real stone and large glass windows shedding their light on imitation Henri II sideboards, gave to those privileged to enter that temple of mass-produced goods an impression of solidity capable of withstanding anything. The free cinema was another of their daring innovations. Gabrielle’s account of the incident was terse and lacking in detail. Scarcely had we taken our seats than the room was plunged in darkness. A terrifying machine shot out a fearsome beam of light piercing the obscurity, and a series of incomprehensible pictures appeared on the screen, accompanied by the sound of a piano at one end and at the other end a sort of hammering that came from the machine. I yelled in my usual fashion and had to be taken out. I never thought that the staccato rhythm of the Maltese cross was later to become for me the sweetest of music. At the time I did not grasp the importance of that basic part of both camera and projector without which the cinema would not exist.

So my first encounter with the idol was a complete failure. Gabrielle was sorry we had not stayed. The film was about a big river and she thought that in a corner of the screen she had glimpsed a crocodile.

Comments: Jean Renoir (1894-1979) was a French film director, whose films include La Règle du jeu, La Grande illusion and Une partie de campagne. His father was the artist Auguste Renoir. Les Grands Magasins Dufayel was in Paris.


Source: Jean-Paul Sartre, Words [Le Mots] (London: Penguin, 2000 – orig. pub. 1964), translated by Irene Clephane, pp. 75-79

Text: I challenge my contemporaries to tell me the date of their first experience of the cinema. We entered blindly into a traditionless century which was to contrast sharply with the others by its bad manners, and the new plebeian art anticipated our barbarism. Born in a robber’s cave, classified by the authorities along with travelling entertainers, it had certain vulgar qualities which shocked serious people; it was an amusement for women and children. My mother and I adored it, but we hardly ever thought about it and we never mentioned it: do you mention bread if there is plenty of it? When we became aware of its existence, it had long since become our major need.

On rainy days, Anne-Marie would ask me what I wanted to do, and we would hesitate a long while between the circus, the Châtelet, the Maison Électrique, and the Musée Grévin; at the last moment, with deliberate casualness, we would decide to go to a picture theatre. My grandfather would appear at the door of his study when we opened the door of the flat; he would ask: ‘Where are you children off to?’ ‘To the cinema,’ my mother would say. He would frown and she would add hastily: ‘To the Panthéon cinema, it’s very near; we only have to cross the rue Soufflot.’ He would let us go with a shrug; the following Thursday, he would say to Monsieur Simonnot: ‘Look here, Simonnot, you’re a sensible fellow, can you understand this? My daughter takes my grandson to the cinema!’ and Monsieur Simonnot would say in a conciliatory tone: ‘I’ve never been but my wife sometimes goes.’

The show would have begun. As we stumbled along behind the attendant, I felt I was there surreptitiously; above our heads, a beam of light would be shining across the hall, and dust and smoke would be dancing in it; a piano would be tinkling, violet light-bulbs would be glowing on the wall, and I would catch my breath at the varnish-like smell of a disinfectant. The smell and the fruits of that inhabited night mingled within me: I was eating the exit lights, filling myself with their acid taste. I would scrape my back against people’s knees, sit on a creaking seat. My mother slipped a folded rug under my buttocks to raise me up; finally I would look at the screen and would see fluorescent chalk, and shimmering landscapes streaked with rain; it was always raining, even in bright sunshine, even inside a flat; sometimes a fiery planet would cross a baroness’s drawing-room without her appearing to be surprised. I used to love that rain, that restless disquiet which tormented the wall. The pianist would strike up the overture to Fingal’s Cave and everyone would know that the villain was about to appear: the baroness would be crazed with terror. But her handsome, dusky face would be replaced by a mauve notice: ‘End of first part.’ Then would come the abrupt sobering-up and the lights. Where was I? At school? In a government office? No ornaments of any kind: rows of tip-up seats, which revealed their springs when pushed up, walls smeared with ochre, and a wooden floor littered with cigarette ends and spittle. Muffled voices would fill the hall, words would exist once more; the attendant would offer boiled sweets for sale and my mother would buy me some; I would out them in my mouth and I was sucking the exit lights. People would rub their eyes and everyone would realize he had neighbours. Soldiers, local servants; a bony old man would be chewing, hatless working-women would be laughing out loud: all these people were not of our world. Fortunately, dotted here and there, large bobbing hats brought reassurance.

The social hierarchy of the theatre had given my late father and my grandfather, who used to sit in the upper circle, a taste for ceremony: when a lot of men get together, they have to be separated by rituals or else they slaughter each other. The cinema proved the opposite: the very mixed audience seemed to have been united by a disaster rather than by a show; once dead, etiquette finally unmasked the true link between men, their adhesion. I came to loathe ceremonies but I adored crowds; I have seen all kinds, but I never recovered that naked awareness without recoil of each individual towards all the others, that waking dream, that obscure awareness of being a man until 1940, in Stalag XII D.

My mother even went so far as to take me to the Boulevard cinemas: the Kinérama, the Folies Dramatiques, the Vaudeville and the Gaumont Palace, then called the Hippodrome. I saw Zigomar and Fantômas, Les Exploits de Maciste and Les Mystères de New York: the gilding spoilt my pleasure. The vaudeville, formerly a theatre, refused to yield up its old grandeur: up to the last minute, a red curtain with gold tassels hid the screen; three knocks would announce the beginning of the performance, the orchestra would play an overture, the curtain would go up and the lights out. I was annoyed by this incongruous ceremony, by the dusty pomp which achieved nothing except to remove the characters to a distance; in the circle, in the gods, impressed by the chandeliers and by the paintings on the ceiling, our fathers could not or would not believe that the theatre belonged to them: they were received there. I wanted to see the film as close as possible. In the egalitarian discomfort of the local halls, I had realized that this new art was mine, was everyone’s. We had the same mental age: I was seven and could read; it was twelve and could not speak. They said that it was just starting and that it would improve; I thought that we would grow up together. I have not forgotten our mutual childhood: when I am offered a boiled sweet, when a woman near me varnishes her nails, when I breathe a certain smell of disinfectant in the lavatories of provincial hotels or when I star at the small violet night-light on the ceiling of a night-train, I recapture in my eyes, in my nose and on my tongue, the scents and the lights of those vanished halls; four years ago, at sea off Fingal’s Cave, in heavy weather, I could hear a piano in the wind.

Inaccessible to the sacred, I adored magic: the cinema was a dubious phenomenon which I loved perversely for what it still lacked. That stream of light was everything, nothing, and everything reduced to nothing: I was present at the frenzies of a wall; solid objects had been robbed of a massiveness which bore down even on my body, and the young idealist in me delighted at this endless contraction; later on, the lateral and the circular movements of triangles reminded me of those shapes gliding across the screen. I loved the cinema even for its two-dimensional quality. I made primary colours of its white and black, comprising all the others and revealing themselves only to the initiate; I loved seeing the invisible. Above all, I loved the immutable dumbness of my heroes. But no; they were not mute because they knew how to make themselves understood. We communicated through music; it was the sound of what was going on inside them. Persecuted innocence did better than to speak of or show its woe: it stole its way into me through the tune which issued from it; I would read the conversations, but I understood the hope and the bitterness, and caught a whisper of the proud suffering that did not proclaim itself. I was committed; that was not me, that young widow crying on the screen, and yet she and I had but one soul. Chopin’s Funeral March; that was all it needed for her tears to moisten my eyes. I felt that I was a prophet unable to foretell anything: even before the traitor was betrayed, his crime would steal its way into me; when all seemed quiet in the château, sinister chords would betray the presence of the murderer. How lucky those cowboys, musketeers and policemen were: their future was there, in that foreboding music, and it determined the present. An unbroken song mingled with their lives and led them on towards victory or death, as it moved towards its own end. They were expected, these men: by the young girl in peril, by the general, by the traitor ambushed in the forest and by the friend tethered near a battle of powder as he sadly watched the flame run along the fuse. The course of that flame, the virgin’s desperate struggle against her ravisher, the hero galloping across the steppes, the interweaving of all these images, of all these speeds and, underneath them, the hell-bent movement of the ‘Race to the Abyss’, an orchestral selection from The Damnation of Faust adapted for the piano, all meant one thing to me: Destiny. The hero would jump down, put out the fuse, the traitor would go for him, and a duel with knives would begin; but the hazards of this duel would themselves become part of the strict musical development: they were false hazards which poorly concealed the universal order. What joy when the last knife-stab coincided with the last chord! I was satisfied, I had found the world in which I wanted to live – I was in touch with the absolute. What uneasiness, too, when the lights went on again: I was torn with love for these characters and they had disappeared, taking their world with them. I had felt their victory in my bones, yet it was theirs and not mine: out in the street, I was a supernumerary once more.

Comment: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, novelist, playwright and public intellectual. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of screenplays. Le Mots is his autobiography. Anne-Marie is his mother. He was imprisoned in Stalag 12D during the Second World War. Zigomar was a 1911 French adventure film series. It was adapted from a serial novel, as was Fantômas (France 1913-14). The character of Maciste first appeared in the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, with numerous follow-up films featuring the character appearing from 1915 onwards. Les Mystères de New York was the French title of the American serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914). My thanks to Guido Convents for recommending this extract.