Gilbey on Film: Foyer-voyeurs

Cinemas are turning their cameras on the audience.

I visited a multiplex last week. There was a small screen mounted in the foyer wall, next to the ice-cream counter. My daughter and I went over to the screen. We noticed it was showing black-and-white CCTV pictures from inside several of the fifteen or so auditoria. We exchanged a conspiratorial glance, sipped the sodas we had just bought, and watched. I thought of Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr Ripley, spying on Matt Damon spying on Jude Law, and asking him: "How's the peeping, Tom?"

Screen 1 was shown to be so spacious that it required two separate camera angles, one from the left side of the auditorium, the other from the right. It was packed with bodies, all of them dazed and compliant, the faces gawping at a screen that was just out of shot. It reminded me of the footage found in documentaries about sleep disorders, night terrors and so on. Time-lapse photography comes into play in those cases, so that a typical amount of nocturnal movement can resemble a severe epileptic fit. There was something comparably eerie about the in-auditorium film. The general stillness of the audience ensured that the slightest twitch or fidget registered as a jarring disruption. We saw a couple nestle closer to one another under their coats in a "love-seat", that double seating space achievable by raising the armrest. A woman steered a floppy-armed child along a row of knees, each of which bobbed or swerved in turn to allow the sleepwalking escapees to pass. They plodded down the steps, toward the camera, and were gone. Then the angle switched, so we could see them vanishing into the dark corridor toward the Exit sign.

Four or five more screens got the peeping treatment. One was completely empty -- was it between showings, or just a bad movie? In another auditorium, the audience members were scattered across the seats like rag dolls dropped from above: lone viewers in the upper rows, the odd couple here and there, a trio of bored-looking boys in baseball caps slouching down the front. Their eyes showed up as bright, pupil-less spots of white light. They were zombiefied. We can't have looked much healthier, stood there watching a film of other people watching a film, slurping our drinks as the figures on screen did the same. At least they had paid for their pleasure, and were enjoying themselves unselfconsciously. We were not so pure. We were the foyer-voyeurs.

In my childhood, cinemas still showed short films before the main feature -- I saw everything from Balham: Gateway to the South (a spin-off from the Peter Sellers sketch) to a documentary on the medicinal properties of snake venom, which played before Conan the Barbarian. The screen serving live images from the auditoria served the same purpose, I felt, as a pre-movie short. This was an appetite-whetter. As we were going in shortly to see The Artist (my third time; my daughter's second), which features many images of cinema audiences crammed together in the stalls, it seemed an especially apt and vivid taster. Perhaps in an hour's time, another father and daughter would be standing in the foyer watching us watching a movie which invites its audience to watch a cinema audience watching a movie.

Sadly I don't think there were any cameras in screen 15, where The Artist was playing. Perhaps, with the advent of CCTV transmission in cinema foyers, audiences are auditioned just as any other performers would be; maybe it was felt by the management that cinemagoers who see The Artistsimply don't provide the same entertainment value, the necessary voyeuristic thrill, as those glued to The Grey or Man on a Ledge or The Muppets.

I don't know how many of the people caught on CCTV knew that the cinema was in the business of turning its audience into entertainment. There is all sorts of capacity for trouble here (the person who sees their partner snuggling up to an unidentified neighbour in Screen 4 when they had sworn blind they were going to the office today) as well as for increased safety (the eagle-eyed foyer-dweller who spots something afoot in the image, à la Blow-Up or Snake Eyes). It is all very complicated and unsettling and even naughty, and consistent therefore with the sort of experiences you would expect to have in a cinema.

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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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

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

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