Cinema, as an art, gets plenty of love… but cinemas themselves? Not so much.
Buildings notwithstanding – most modern cinemas resemble shopping centres and probably don’t deserve much, if any, praise – the poor cinema screen, regardless of whether it’s in a multiplex, a grand ol’ picture palace or an independent, is a hallowed site that’s desecrated pretty much every time it’s in operation.
Strewn with litter before the credits have rolled… seats in disrepair… frisky teenage couple at the back getting their proverbial cookies… mysterious pool of liquid encroaching on your feet… we’ve all no doubt had a cinema-based nightmare, or, let’s face it, been the cause of someone else’s cinema-based nightmare, at some point or another.
So, to reset the balance a bit, here’s some films that look upon these put-upon locales with fondness and wonder.
Without further ado…
BUSTER KEATON, SHERLOCK JR. – 1924
Guiding us to our seats is ol’ Stone Face himself, Buster Keaton, with the superlative silent classic Sherlock Jr.
Never one to complicate his pictures, Buster swerves a convoluted narrative in favour of hilariously-inventive sight-of-hand gags, fourth-wall-shattering hijinks and death-defying stunts, the most famous of which sees Buster breaking his neck after grabbing a water spout while walking on a moving train (he wouldn’t realise the severity of his accident until nine years later by the way – the mad head simply ignored the blinding headaches he suffered for months afterward).
The film isn’t only notable for its nape-smashing hijinks though – this is, to my limited knowledge at least, one of the earliest examples of forth-wall-breaking in cinema (the only other thing that comes to mind is the ending of The Great Train Robbery (1903). Buster, rejected by his beloved after being framed for theft, dreams himself into the film he’s projecting, as a means to escape his lovelorn reality. I could write something here about the ‘transmutative quality embedded in celluloid’ or the ‘sublime transfigurations enabled by an exquisite surrender to cinema’, but I’m not a bore (at least, I don’t think I am: willing to be proven wrong however), so I won’t.
What I will say is this – Buster Keaton breaks his bloody neck in this. You owe it to yourself to witness that level of artistry with your own two peepers.
MARTIN SCORSESE, TAXI DRIVER – 1976
Do porn theatres count as cinemas? Can porn be art? Is it a wise idea to bring your date who’s already slightly perturbed by you to see a film called Swedish Marriage Manual? Some food for thought there… anyway, here’s Robert De Niro being a creep in Taxi Driver.
A bonafide silver screen classic, Taxi Driver is the upbeat tale of plucky anti-hero Travis Bickle and his righteous campaign to… errr… clean up the streets of New York.
If my memory serves me correctly, there’s three scenes that take place in cinemas, and all are as pivotal as each other. The first sees Travis trying and failing to woo a confectioner before watching a porno. The second is arguably the most intrinsic to the film – after blagging a date with the beautiful Betsy, he immediately soils the proverbial bed by taking her to see a porno, pushing himself further into an isolated, atomised funk. The third shows Travis alone, again watching a porno, while mimicking a gun with his fingers and pointing it at the screen.
In the opinion of this humble writer, it’s this third scene that’s the most harrowing. No matter how misguided his attempts are, the first two scenes are about Travis desperately trying to reintegrate himself into normal society. But by the third, we see Travis wallowing in the depravity and decadence he’s purported to be morally repulsed by. Of course, the hatred hasn’t gone anywhere – in fact, now there’s nary an opportunity in sight, that hatred soup isn’t on the back burner any more; it’s on the massive hob, and it’s primed to bubble over.
No matter how misguided his attempts are, the first two scenes are about Travis desperately trying to reintegrate himself into normal society.
Which, of course, it does.
There’s something to be said for the dangers of escapism here, how it’s an unhealthy response to turn away from the bleakness of the present in favour of media that carpet-bombs your dopamine receptors with easily-digestible ephemera (if I’m being honest, low-end porn is far less insidious than the kind of simplistic morality tales playing on most multiplex screens these days) but you’re presumably a busy, stressed-out humanoid like the rest of us, so I’ll save you the ear-bashing.
That being said…
JOE DANTE, MATINEE – 1993
Escapism isn’t inherently a bad thing – when done correctly, it can be a healing elixir against the world’s many woes, as long as it’s courageous enough the woes it’s trying to cure.
Joe Dante’s Matinee is one such example of escapism done right.
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, Matinee follows a group of teens who, in an attempt to take their minds off the impending nuclear holocaust, frequent a monster movie matinee, brought to town by the charismatic, Willaim Castle-esque huckster Lawrence Woolsey.
Dante’s thesis here seems to demonstrate that the best kind-of escapist art – usually frowned-upon, schlocky b-movies – needn’t turn away from the horrors of the present moment, but rather examine them, and are by-and-large more successful at bottling up the zeitgeist than serious films are. I have to agree with this thesis – I think I’ve learned a lot more about the world at large from “trash” than I have through prestige films that everyone forgets about after Oscar season is done.
Some people could argue that taking real-world horror and moulding it into entertainment isn’t escapism, but exploitation… but this is a very boring, reductive way to look at the world.
What I’m essentially trying to say here is: cinematic escapism is A-OK as long as it’s a film I like.
QUENTIN TARANTINO, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS – 2009
Screening just before the final feature presentation, it’s the original bad boy of cinema, Quentin Tarantino, and his only masterpiece – it’s time we all grow up and admit to ourselves that Pulp Fiction is a bit of slog – Inglorious Basterds.
Inglorious Basterds charts an alternative history of the second world war, where a young Jewish cinema operator and a group of Jewish soldiers plot to assassinate the Third Reich’s entire leadership during the showing of a propaganda film called Nation’s Pride.
In case that plot description didn’t make it glaringly obvious, cinema, and the cinema, play a very important thematic role here. And that’s not the only instance of cinema having a marked impact on the plot – most notably in the tavern scene, where the Basterds play a tense game of Guess Who, and discuss the hidden meaning of King Kong (1933) with a Nazi baddie.
And because it’s a Tarantino joint, there’s reels upon reels of cinematic references too. Listing them all here will take all night, so I’ll leave you with one – the title is a direct rip of The Inglorious Bastards (1978), directed by Enzo G. Castellari, who’s birth name, Enzo Gorlomi, is used by Brad Pitt as his Italian director alias near the end of the film. Quentin, you smart cookie you!
In case that plot description didn’t make it glaringly obvious, cinema, and the cinema, play a very important thematic role here.
Oh, our mate Enzo also directed a film called The Heroin Busters (1977), which is well worth a watch.
TSAI MING–LIANG, GOODBYE DRAGON INN – 2003.
And now, the feature presentation – one of my favourite films of all time, Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn.
Eschewing boring things like narrative and dialogue, Goodbye Dragon Inn is a straight-up shot of unadulterated vibery. The film takes places in a derelict movie palace on the eve of its “temporary” closing (it’s implied that the theatre will never open its doors again) during a screening of King Hu’s seminal wuxia classic Dragon Inn (1967).
Over the course of the film, the cinema’s employees and patrons skulk about, all seemingly too lonely to concentrate on the film, while two of Dragon Inn’s ageing actors mourn the passing of an era while watching their younger selves on screen.
This is a highly-potent filmic brew of the agonies and ecstasies of visiting the kino – irritating people by chewing loudly on snacks, watching a film so powerful you’re moved to tears, the oxymoronic but incomparable feeling of being a part of a solitary-yet-shared experience with your fellow moviegoers, having someone’s stinky feet shoved in your face, trying to get your rocks off with any of the other lonely men cruising the premises… everything you dread and look forward to when you’re heading off to the multiplex. In my humble opinion, no other film has been able to capture these ephemeral emotions and situations quite as elegantly as Tsai does here.
If you take one thing away from this list, let it be Goodbye Dragon Inn.
That should just about do it. Support your local picture house. Cheers.