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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism