The Death of Early Cinema I

I woke up somewhere between the seventeenth and eighteenth row, with a numb leg and with popcorn sticking to my cheek. The feeling came back progressively as I sat up in the darkness, and a few shakes got me on my feet, where I was greeted by the white light of a blank cinema screen, seventeen or eighteen rows away from me. Yanking the popcorn off my face, my cheek stung. I was in pain for only a brief moment. The red carpet crunched, and the fibres of the fabric breathed under the weight of my body.  

The aisle seemed like a safer place to stand.  It was and it gave me chance to fully assess the situation. I took solace in waking in an empty cinema. The only disturbance was my deliverance, my mode of transit to this place, and the events that led me to being unconscious. It doesn’t matter, nothing matters when have reached an extreme sense of calm, and when your body and mind have been separated by time. What did she always say to me? You look like you are asleep with your eyes open.

Walking down the stairs towards the screen, I was definitely alive. The white light painted the first two rows with floating dust that I glided through, dirtying my exposed hands. I thought of my grandfather and the way he would use his cat, Prescott, to clean the kitchen sides, the cat meowing in delight as he did so. At the bottom of the stairs, the screen towered over me like I was the Earth before the Sun. I reached out to touch the screen, pressing my fingers into the material, and sudden scratches of sound escalated upwards, as though I had disrupted a resting animal. 

Electricity ran through my arm to my shoulder. I released my hand. Two conflicting truths appear without warning. I have been here before, but this is all new. More investigation was required to understand my placement here, though my placement anywhere is still unclear. This empty cinema is a respite, where there are no requirements to think about the future or the past, which is naturally unreal and cursed, each fragment of memory connected by persistent remorse. Here, I can discover the answer to a burning question: where have all the films gone?

She once said, I don’t think I can accommodate you here anymore. I walked along a narrow corridor, and through a door to bright artificial light.  Somewhat queasy, I hung onto the walls as I edged around the corners of the building, in search of another screening room. Is this the right moment to lose focus? Because my head is so full, and this cinema is so empty. I’m talking about getting out of bed early and reading as much from a classical literary work as I can, and subsequently yearning for a film in the afternoon, ninety-seven minutes will do, hopefully with humour and enough absence to allow napping, rising to see the denouement. 

Last interviews are hard to obtain, and translating Proust is even harder. I take pride in my cascading emotions and my astute mapping of somewhere I have just arrived. Put a blank page in front of me and watch as I draw a scientifically accurate blueprint of this cinema. I am a debut worshipper of this place, and yet, I need to get back into the dark. Taking endless steps around and around, I am surprised by shortness of breath, and a screeching halt to the proceedings, represented by metallic shutters that confirm that I am indefinitely locked in. It turns out silence has a voice, and it says, you do not have to look away every time that you see me.  

An epiphany holds on longer than you would expect and points me in the direction of a heavenly creature. I am transported below ground, interrupted by the sound of a passing train that breaks the vow of the quiet. It is a theatre now, a stage above the chairs, a gallery above the stage, golden curtains concealing a familiar white cinema screen. The room slants downwards, and if you are not careful, you will trip over and bloody your nose. I am reminded of my grandfather’s decision to believe that he performed heroic acts and not cowardly ones.

The silver numbers that label the chairs glisten under the screen, projecting stars onto the ceiling. It is quite the invitation to become melancholic, and fighting misery, I choose a seat on the fifth row, casting my feet on the chairs in front, and arching my neck back to look north. Blissful seconds move along, until a door creaks open in the northeast. I move my eyes to look and see piles of film cans looking back. With haste, I scurry over like an infected sycophant and leap into the reels of film, imagining them as a bed of pillows. Emerging, in agony, a maroon reel has attached itself to my forehead, using my excited sweat as an adhesive. 

It played on its own from there, flying with angel wings to the projection room, neatly slotting into position. The ticking began and I returned to my seat.  Blotches of ink splashed in the corners of the screen, signifying a beginning, and the title card read: THE JUNGLE. Then came the actors, choreographed in dramatic composition and dressed in the fashion of the 1890s. These people were poor and desperate, but in a particular way, they had comradery and commitment, maybe they were naïve, maybe they were unaware of their incoming desolation. It was a silent film with purposefully removed intertitles, meaning I only had the actions to rely on, and I expressed gratitude for the lack of plot by applauding completely alone. I closed my eyes to sleep.  

My isolation was rudely ended when I had my second awakening. Two rows ahead of me was a man in a bowler hat that stretched tall to cover most of the screen. The film was still ongoing, depicting a scene in a slaughterhouse, where the protagonist was mopping up pig entrails. I tried to get the man’s attention but after three hey’s and three excuse me’s, he didn’t shift an inch, so I approached, hopping over the chairs. Sitting next to him he turned and instantly removed his hat. “Thank you,” I said. “That’s all I wanted.” The man smiled. He had a black pencil moustache above his mouth and thin grey hair that was combed back over a taut skull that made his eyes look incredibly fragile.  
“Wait,” the man said. “Aren’t you going to let me introduce myself? I’m Prescott.”
“You’re my grandfather’s cat?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He died years ago, but it is peculiar that you decided to name him earlier.”
“Well, I thought that calling my grandfather Prescott would be obscene.”
“That’s true. Do you know anything about this film?”
“Not really, do you?”
“I know that it is one of the casualties of early cinema, that the director took the one reel of the film across the country to show to modest crowds. Then he lost it, and it was gone forever.”  
“Someone must have found it.”
“I think that someone is you. Perhaps you’re the great filler of history, come to plaster over the black holes.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“Remember what she used to say? You anaesthetise your thoughts with habits to avoid sad things.”
“She did use to say that. It doesn’t apply here though, does it?”
 “You tell me. Are you ever worried that you have too many questions in your dialogue and not enough answers?” 
“I’m going back to my seat now.”

The film continued and somewhere in the third act the man, sorry Prescott, disappeared. He was aimless in finding a resolution to what seemed so simple when he began the journey, and with acceptance, he leant back in the chair as the credits rolled.  Attached is a snippet from a review of The Jungle, written by Prescott in 1907: 

The problem with the film is not in the lack of bindings or its inability to capture the brilliance of the novel, it’s in the constant need the director has for attention. Instead of letting go of the process and giving the film a room of its own, he keeps it trapped inside his psyche.  

I thought it lacked depth too. Someone is nudging onto my arm, a teenager with a spotty face. Yes, I’m leaving now, does nobody watch the credits anymore? Are we so accustomed to the auto-play next routine? I can’t even get out of this wretched room because there is an array of elderly racists blocking the door, and part of me wants to barge through and let the circumstances of brittle hips present itself. Carefully I squeeze through them and keep tight to the railing as I head up the stairs to another group of doting customers to this historical and repulsive establishment. What did I just watch? I can barely remember as I push open the fire doors out onto the street, the sunlight hurting my eyes.  

Five Inspiring First Watches of July

A few words on a few things that have inspired me in July…

 

Face PlacesAgnes Varda

Came out in… 2017

Watched on… Netflix

The first of two Agnes Varda films on this list, and truly a beautiful movie.  I will talk of my affection for Agnes later in this piece, for now, let’s focus on the film.  It is a categorically French documentary, blending soft reality techniques with staged narrative-driven set pieces, guiding us through small-town France meeting the people that actually live in this world.  Agnes and co-creator JR paste large photos on walls, building an adorable relationship, touching on aging, fame, art and the oh so sweet simple life that I am eternally jealous of.  The film is on Netflix, a French stroke of genius, that is incredibly watchable and universal right there waiting for everyone.

 

The Elephant Man

Came out in… 1980

Watched on… Mubi

I have had a level of trepidation about watching The Elephant Man for a while, mostly out of fear, and films don’t scare me easily, but David Lynch does.  He is one of my favourite filmmakers, because of his attitude to the process and the allure of his personality rather than his actual output, so why was The Elephant Man so intimidating to me?  Perhaps due to the image of the disfigured man, that everyone has seen, or the inevitable dull melodrama that a story like this brings.  I was wrong on the second point, and in the end this film might be Lynch’s greatest achievement as an artist, pragmatically at least.  He took the predictable tale of an abused misfit taken in, cared for, and transformed, and made it into a magical experience that is as strange as it is uplifting.  Legendary film critic Pauline Kael praised the film because Lynch created something marvellous from a zilch script, and of course I agree, however I would not recommend watching this at 10am on a Tuesday, it was a teary morning.

Midsommar

New release in cinemas

I wrote a full review of this here, so I’ll keep it brief.  The film is a fishless aquarium, with a breathing ecosystem waiting for it.  Sign me up.  Take your well-rounded characters and structured plot and throw it away, give me the green plant wrapping around the throat of the unsuspecting audience.

The Edge

New release

Rented on… Amazon, also available on YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

It’s very hard to write this without being incredibly biased.  This documentary is about the 2009-2013 England cricket team, a side that was the best in the world for a short time, a side that gave a lot of their life away to get there.  If you are a cricket fan, you will enjoy the film, because it highlights what makes the game special.  I love cricket, and I love that particular era of English cricket even more, so obviously I was gripped throughout.  However, there is space for the non-cricket fan, with the film focusing on the mental toll that the sport takes on a player, showing what it takes to achieve greatness.  Director Barney Douglas does a good job of presenting the mind games and struggles that many of that team went through by going away from archive footage to shoot staged scenes with the actual players.  The film leaves a lot out, and it’s tight in its execution, working for the uninitiated as well as the fanatic.

Varda by Agnes

New release in cinemas

Also available to rent on the BFI Player

agnes varda 2

Started with Agnes, and now finishing with her, as she ends her career by creating a retrospective of her own work.  The film is basically the legendary director talking to crowds about her output over the years, and the process, whilst she plays around a little.  What is instantly striking is her genius as a filmmaker, someone who was always messing with the form, trying a new thing with each film.  She is an artist who makes me happy and now that she is gone, this film will stay as a reminder for how wonderful she and her work was.  The sweetest parts of the film are when she talks of her late husband, another French filmmaking hero, Jacques Demy, a man who after decades is still the most important thing to her.  Her friendships and collaborations are also striking, showing that human interaction and love will never be beaten by a camera lens or the relentless passing of time.