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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder