Banish the truffle oil!

Luxury cinema is an insult to film, and our wallets - we should resist its pretentious temptations

Until the advent of luxury cinemas, I never realised that the moviegoing experience could accommodate quite so much pretentiousness. Having avoided such venues since an unhappy visit to the then-new, swanky-model Screen on the Green a few years ago (from punk to plush in just over three decades—that’s progress), I hadn’t allowed them to impinge on my life. But finding myself at a multi-screen London cinema a few weeks back, having set out to see This Must Be the Place without realising that it was showing in the venue’s sole razzle-dazzle auditorium rather than in one of the sticky-floored, rat-infested ones, I swallowed my pride, coughed up the premium ticket price and stole shame-facedly into the darkness.

The bar at the back of the auditorium glowed faintly, and the usher-turned-temporary-barkeep bade me a good evening. That was, for me, the first entertainment-killer. I don’t like being pampered: all it does is induce waves of guilt in me. I don’t like it in hotels, on planes, and certainly not in cinemas. It gets in the way. But that’s my problem. The real issue with the usher-turned-temporary-barkeep is that he had to stay on duty, sitting at the end of my row, throughout the screening, just in case I required an emergency mimosa with accompanying salted pretzels.

At one point, his walkie-talkie buzzed into life and he had to dash off, no doubt to mop up something unspeakable spilt by a low-ticket-price-paying ruffian in Screen 3. At all other times, there were three people in the cinema, and he was one of them. Consequently, I kept fretting about him. Was he enjoying the film? Was he wishing, as I was, that he was watching The Hunger Games instead? Did he find anyone in This Must Be the Place for whom he could muster the tiniest scrap of interest or empathy? Or did he, like me, find the whole movie insufferably winsome, painfully zany and without discernible purpose or direction? Sat there in my triple-cushioned, sofa-size seat, I almost wanted to order something from the bar menu just to give him a reason to divert his attention from the screen. But I couldn’t. You see, olives and focaccia and balsamic vinegar in cinema don’t go.

Cinema is all about what’s on the screen. Start introducing distractions, augmentations and embellishments, be they in-chair dining or mid-film full-body massages, and the emphasis is tipped away from what’s on screen to what’s happening in front of it; that way lies the indignity of the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, or dinner theatre. I’m not talking about the Secret Cinema screenings, which turn a film into an event in a way which honours what’s on screen. I mean the capitalist credo at the heart of luxury cinema. Buried beneath all the PR blather and the pampering is the realisation that while they’ve got you in that cinema seat, the cinema owners may as well play on your prejudices and milk your wallet.

It’s a little like the “Priority Boarding” idea hatched by the budget airlines: make conditions as grotty as possible for ordinary passengers and they won’t mind paying a surcharge on each leg of the journey in order to be treated like something approaching a human being. (Hilariously, this has backfired on the Priority Boarders: everyone clicks the “Priority Boarding” button when they’re booking, so the airlines will soon have to introduce a “Super-Duper-Priority Boarding” category to stoke our all-important feelings of smugness.) Luxury cinema represents the exhibitors mocking us for all the crap we’ve put up with in their establishments over the decades.

To use another analogy from air travel, luxury cinema is doing well because its patrons know from experience that a rum deal lies in wait for them at common-or-garden cinemas. Just as it’s considered hard to go back to economy class once you’ve flown in any other section, cinemas are banking on hooking customers for the long haul after the merest taste of luxury. Although to fully exploit the feelings of superiority that bring the airlines so much money, cinemas need to find a way to make the luxury cinemagoer’s pleasure visible to the cheapskates in the other screens, just as the major airlines’ pamper packages (which go by names such as World Traveller Plus and Prole-Hater Deluxe) force the plain old economy dwellers to trudge past the pseudo-exclusive seating area, marvelling at the extra few centimetres of legroom, the mealtime napkins in Egyptian cotton and the complimentary copies of What Snob? magazine.

But, to continue the analogy to breaking point, if the plane goes down, you haven’t really bought yourself access to a better class of fireball. And no matter how many courses are available to the cinemagoer, nothing can disguise the fact that you have chosen, in your foolishness, to spend the evening watching, say, Battleship. Or This Must Be the Place. Luxury cinema makes the choice of the movie even more precarious. My Screen on the Green experience a few years ago at least hinged on a film which suited the plushness—Tom Ford’s A Single Man—to the point where half the audience seemed to have come dressed as characters from the movie. There needs to be as small a disparity as possible between the images on screen and the comfily upholstered, truffle-oil-drizzled reality of the auditorium. To watch Shoeshine or the Dekalog or Tyrannosaur in that setting, while a tiptoeing waiter serves you halibut, would be to open up an irreparable chasm between art and life.

I don’t think any of this has occurred to the architects of luxury cinema. And even multiplex cinemas are getting in on the boutique business, ploughing money into fancy-pants auditoria that are off-putting to the riff-raff. Those funds might be better spent improving the piss-poor facilities that most of us have to endure if we want to see films without trekking several hours beyond our postcodes. Pay an extra member of staff to stand sentry in one of the lowly non-exclusive, non-bruschetta-serving screens, the better to root out anyone disrupting the movie, or to curtail the mid-movie mobile phone conversations that still persist, and fewer potential audience members would be giving multiplexes a wide berth.

But that won’t happen because the cinemas, chains or otherwise, have got a whiff of the money that’s theirs for the taking. The films themselves are incidental. This sector is selling the snacks, the meals, the beverages; the reclining, gadget-festooned, Bond villain-esque armchairs; the thick carpets in which you could lose a relative. Should cinemagoing really be so laboured-over, so sculpted? One of the great things about it is its immediacy and casualness. Max Cherry, the bail bondsman played by Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, puts it best when asked what he’s going to see at the local multiplex: “Something that starts soon and looks good.”

Too posh for popcorn: a luxury 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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser