Gilbey on Film: are you sitting comfortably?

Our film critic on the pitfalls of a visit to the cinema.

 

I once foolishly attempted to joke with a fellow critic who made a habit of keeping his bag on the seat next to him at film previews, removing it only when the lights went down. "I bet you're the sort of person who buys out the entire row when you go to the cinema," I said. "I don't go to the cinema," he sneered back. Had it been possible to bottle his facial expression, you could have splashed it on your chips.

That anecdote epitomises a (hopefully fading) streak of elitism that once prevailed among critics. It also allows me to come out looking rather good, like some champion of the common punter. Recently, however, I have started to feel a twinge of sympathy for my former colleague's snobbish point of view.

Not that I would ever swear off visiting public cinemas. But for a while now I have found myself tensing slightly in the foyer, knowing full well that, for reasons unconnected with whichever film I am seeing, it will be a miracle if I leave a few hours later having had a satisfying experience. More likely, I will have paid a tenner to listen to other people's conversations, phone calls and heckles. On the rare occasions that I actually voice my objections, I then spend my time alternating between feelings of unhealthy self-righteousness and vague fantasies that I'm about to be "shanked", as I believe the modern parlance has it.

I wasn't surprised to hear this month of a 16-year-old boy imprisoned for attacking (with bleach) a woman who had asked him to pipe down during a screening of the latest Harry Potter film. The shock is that hostility doesn't erupt more often. Anyone who frequents multiplexes will know them to be often lawless domains where you always take your viewing pleasure, and sometimes your personal safety, in your hands.

(That said, I've never actually experienced violence in the cinema. Outside is another matter. In 1988, I got a black eye on the steps of the Woodford ABC after seeing Beetlejuice. I'm not sure what lessons I can take away from that, aside from "Beware of men in pastel knitwear and tassled leather shoes". But I didn't need a punch in the face to know that. If David Cameron had been lobbying for votes back then, he could have extrapolated a helpful lesson about Broken Britain.)

 

Down at the saloon bar

Reports last week that cinema admissions in the UK and Ireland have hit a seven-year high are encouraging, particularly given the competition from piracy, DVDs and subscription channels. But there is a disparity between this news and the often frustrating experience of watching films in the company of other people.

Is the answer to avoid multiplexes? These are, for most people, the most convenient sites, and in the best cases provide the only opportunity for viewers outside major cities to see the occasional foreign-language title or Bollywood spectacular.

One of the obvious problems is that not everyone has come to see the film; and if an audience is comprised of those who want to watch the movie and others for whom the on-screen action is a tiresome impediment to socialising, there's no compromise to be reached. Cinemas also make fairly cheap and convenient pit-stops at which children too old for actual crèches and too young yet to be sent up chimneys can be deposited while their parents or guardians get on with, I don't know, futures trading.

Not that I'm dissing the kids -- how could I, when I'm so down with their lingo? On the contrary, my own experience is empirical evidence to show that disrupting a movie is an equal-opportunities pursuit. Besides, the clientele is irrelevant. It's up to the cinema management to ensure that customers can watch the films in peace. After all, no restaurant in the land would tolerate patrons picking at fellow diners' plates.

The sorry truth for anyone who cares is that cinemas often don't (care, that is). The problem may be a cultural one rooted in the elision between public and private space. The absurdity of the extravagantly loud public phone conversation has already been milked dry by second-rate stand-up comics. (It's the new equivalent of: "Does anyone remember space hoppers/Spangles/Jamie and the Magic Torch?")

Suffice it to say that the same widespread erosion of discretion that allows people to make phone calls on crowded trains, broadcasting details of their recent test results, is also responsible for bringing to many cinemas the atmosphere of the saloon bar.

My local Cineworld already operates a zero-tolerance policy on food purchased off-site. However, an adjacent donut emporium makes it well worth investing in a Carb Coat -- that is, a deep-pocketed mackintosh that you don't mind getting smeared with maple frosting, or leaking jam.

Customers bringing their own grub, and bypassing the concessions counter, are a big concern because their habits eat into profits. Antisocial or inconsiderate behaviour that eats into our viewing pleasure is less problematic to the cinema chains . . . unless those of us who care make a point of going elsewhere.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia