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25 June 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:59pm

At the movies: the cultural history of cinemas on the big screen

Films that feature actual cinemas in them often combine them with a sense of nostalgia for lost youth, for the picture houses of a bygone era.

By Oliver Farry

Paul Schrader’s latest film – the low-budget, Kickstarter-funded, digitally-filmed The Canyons – opens with an enigmatic credit sequence of derelict cinemas in Los Angeles and its suburbs, shot through a sun-bleached filter. As title sequences go, it’s a bit of a non sequitur – the action swiftly moves to an upmarket restaurant where playboy film producer Christian (played by porn star James Deen) and his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) are dining with Christian’s assistant and her struggling-actor boyfriend, who has just won the role the B-movie that Christian is producing. We see no more of the sad lonely movie theatres in the rest of the film, which is an uneven but diverting erotic thriller scripted by Bret Easton Ellis, and which is now more famous as a case study for what happens when you work with Lindsay Lohan. Schrader’s point in showing the montage of cinemas is rather to lament the cinema of old, vanquished by the new world of digital, crowd-funded filmmaking like The Canyons itself.

The Canyons opening credits

It’s not a terribly original insight and whatever nostalgia there might be in the sequence is undercut somewhat by the rather sordid role cinemas (and filmmaking in general) have played in Schrader’s work. In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (written by Schrader), Travis Bickle decides a porn movie is a good date with Betsy (Cybill Sheppard), the campaign staffer he takes a shine to. Schrader’s own Hardcore, from a few years later, features a memorable cinema scene where God-fearing Calvinist George C Scott is shown a porn movie and finds out what his runaway daughter has been doing all this time. Schrader’s Auto Focus (2002), charts the decline and descent into sex addiction of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), who delights in the new possibilities of video cameras in the late 1970s. In The Canyons, camera-phones are used in the same way to document Christian and Tara’s libertine exploits. Schrader famously never saw a film until he went to college, having grown up in a strict Calvinist community in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the same one featured in Hardcore); though he quickly took to the Seventh Art with an evangelical zeal, particularly for the cinema of Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu, cinemas – and cinema – have clearly remained for him the transgressive zone of his youth, a forbidden place of filthy potential.

Nostalgia for one’s youth forms much of the nostalgia for picture houses, which, in the movies is often elegiac. This stands to reason – the cinema is a place for the young, for people with time and just enough money on their hands, for young lovers, student loners and groups of teenage friends. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show uses the closure of the local cinema in a small Texas town as a totem for the passing of an era, and of burnished youth. Since the advent of television, the obituaries of movie houses have been written many times, yet cinemas still manage to hold on. Television dealt an initial blow but cinema survived, then the advent of VHS spelled doom for cinemas, but they rallied to become as successful as they had been before (French cinema ticket sales in 2012 were as high as they had been in 1967 – and many other countries are in even better shape). Downloading and piracy are having their effect on cinemas, but not near as much as on DVDs, the market for which has virtually collapsed.

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Of course, many cinemas have gone to the wall, as this website, which maps cinemas, both defunct and active, across the world, shows. It was economies of scale that did for many of them, rather than a lack of interest in movies. Large conglomerates consolidated their cinemas into multiplexes, initially in the suburbs, and later in city centres. With distributors often taking up to 90 per cent of ticket sales, cinemas became far more profitable when lumped together, with large revenue from concession sales guaranteed. Small-town picture houses and one-screen downtown cinemas were kept open by subsidies or by unpaid voluntary staff, before in many cases shutting.

The ultimate cinema-nostalgia film is Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, in which a successful film director reminisces about his childhood helping projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) in the cinema in a Sicilian village. The film doesn’t stint on sentimentalism but it does have a pragmatic heart underneath it all. Alfredo encourages the boy, Toto, to leave the village to do something with his life, even obstructing a blossoming relationship with a local girl to do so. The cinema, palatial as it is for such a small town, exists only thanks to good fortune – after the initial one is burned down, costing Alfredo his eyesight, it is rebuilt thanks to the lottery winnings of a local, not exactly the wisest investment, it must be said. Toto’s future career is made possible by a film industry that stays alive, while the cinema, like many others in small towns, falls by the wayside.

Cinema Paradiso trailer

Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1975), a three-hour road movie, follows two men – the brooding, suicidal Robert and a projector repairman Bruno – on an aimless journey along the border between West and East Germany. Though Wenders is, and was even then, well known as an Americanophile, this film takes a more critical approach to Americanisation of post-war Europe. “The Americans have colonised our subconscious,” says Bruno, as he sees shut-down cinemas on his travels and those that are still open showing nothing but Hollywood fare. There is little trace of Germany’s pre-Nazi film culture, the glory of the Ufa days, but the irony is that Wenders and his fellow directors of the New German Cinema were in the process of restoring the country’s film industry to a position of international greatness. The film’s German title Im Lauf der Zeit (‘As Time Goes By’) reinforces the sense of the passing of an era, which, it seems, must always accompany the obituaries of the movie theatre.

Cinemas initially came into existence just before the First World War as a belated response to a new form of entertainment that had been until then exhibited in temporary, often makeshift, locations. The first picture palaces sprung up in the US, vertically integrated by the Hollywood studios into their empires. Even so, for many decades afterwards, cinemas remained rather informal places, where people came and went at will, overseen by bored attendants and janitors like Buster Keaton, an aspiring private eye, in Sherlock Jr, one of the earliest films to make a cinema its setting. Picture houses became a handy (some might say lazy) plot device for screenwriters, a place for characters to disappear into when pursued by police or the baddies. This was lampooned by Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles where the villainous Hedley Lamarr ducks into an anachronistic cinema in the Old West and tries to get a student rate at the box office.

For decades it was common for people to watch films in the cinema in a casual way – if you missed the start, you might go in halfway through, sit till the end and then wait for the next screening before leaving at the point where you came in. This informality began to die out in the 1960s, largely thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s stipulation that no latecomers be admitted to screenings of Psycho, to avoid complaints about not seeing the film’s star Janet Leigh. Cinema queues were not exactly a novelty but they certainly became more frequent than before, sometimes putting cinema-goers into unwelcome proximity to the opinions of others, such as in the famous Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall.

Marshall McLuhan scene, Annie Hall

In some countries cinemas remained an informal space however – in Brillante Mendoza’s Filipino film Serbis (2008), three generations of a provincial family run a decrepit cinema in the city of Angeles. The cinema is the glue that keeps the neighbourhood’s informal economy together, which has been badly hit by the closure of a US army base. Its single auditorium shows only soft-porn, and gay and transsexual prostitutes use it to sell their services (whence the title). The sprawling, crumbling cinema functions as a locus for the neighbourhood and is a metaphor for the moral compromises even devout Catholics resign themselves to when they need to make a living.

Serbis trailer

The Taipei cinema that is the setting for Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2004) is not quite so squalid but it too is ramshackle and on its last legs – it is giving its last ever screening before shutting its doors: King Hu’s 1968 wuxia classic Dragon Inn. There are few people in the cinema – the projectionist, played by Tsai’s regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng, the box-office lady, a Japanese visitor cruising for men, and a number of actors from the original film (not that this will be apparent to anyone but Taiwanese audiences). Tsai’s film incorporates quite a bit of the earlier one into its 90-minute running time but it is most interested in the interactions of the handful of people watching. Once again the tone is elegiac and the communal movie-watching experience is one that appears to be consigned to the past. This is a romantic but erroneous notion – cinema-going holds up but it is one-off independent cinemas like the one in Goodbye, Dragon Inn that suffer, while larger, more economically viable multiplexes thrive.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn trailer

The Uruguayan film A Useful Life (2010) is another in the elegiac tone, in which Jorge, the manager of the Cinemateca Uruguayana in Montevideo, does what he can to avert the closure of the cinema when its government subsidy is stopped. Jorge, played by film critic Jorge Jellinek, is a cinema obsessive, who programs Manoel de Oliveira retrospectives, seasons of Icelandic films and even does live translation of the inter-titles in silent-movie screenings. The real-life Cinemateca, where the movie was filmed, has survived, despite its own financial worries, but Federico Veiroj’s film is more a paean to a passing of a certain type of cinephilia than to the death of cinema per se.

A more humorous version of this is provided by Nanni Moretti in his short film The Opening Day of Close-Up, in which Moretti, who owns and runs an art-house cinema in Rome, tries in vain, to convince customers to watch Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up, instead of The Lion King, which has opened that weekend. The callers demur at the prospect of watching a subtitled film, to which Moretti says “I miss those two families that dub all the films!” Like Jorge in A Useful Life, Moretti is in the cinema business out of love, not for financial gain. He is equally powerless in the face of commercial reality and public indifference.

The Opening Day of Close-Up

In Robert Altman’s The Player, cinemas are something peripheral to the movie business, a place for the little people to consume Hollywood product. At the start of the film studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who has been receiving death threats, follows the embittered screenwriter, played by Vincent d’Onofrio, whom he believes to be behind the threats, to a Pasadena cinema. He “accidentally” bumps into d’Onofrio in the lobby after a screening of Vittorio da Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and invites him for a drink to patch things up. The screenwriter sees right through Mills’ ruse, refusing to believe a studio head would bother travelling miles to watch an art-house film. When Mill kills the writer in a drunken struggle, the news is all over Tinseltown. Each time The Bicycle Thieves is referred to in gossipy conversation, it is routinely praised as a great film, so routinely that you suspect nobody has actually seen it but knows to praise. Within Hollywood itself the only cinemas that really count are the screening booths, where producers decide on the fate of a film and often demand changes that will make it easier to sell. It is here where the film’s climax takes place, where British director Tom Oakley (Richard E Grant) capitulates and changes the “real life” unhappy ending of his masterpiece Habeas Corpus for something more crowd-pleasing and ridiculous.

“Habeas Corpus screening”, The Player

Among Hollywood professionals, movies are consumed in private, often as compliments of the studios, for Oscar consideration by Academy members. This is probably one of the main reasons the Oscars tend to reward the wrong films – industry professionals who probably watch no more than two dozen movies per year are not really going to have the most demanding criteria for judging cinematic excellence.

Still, box office remains the number one concern of Hollywood and, even if the studios would probably be as happy selling movies exclusively by pay-per-view or online, cinemas hold on doggedly and the prestige of the first run and the opening weekend endures. Movies that feature actual cinemas in them are often made by people that go to the cinemas far less often than they once did. The nostalgia for picture houses is refracted first through the prism of their youth and then through the lens of their own professional pre-history. Cinemas haven’t quite disappeared but there is always a sense when they appear in movies that they belong to an earlier time, that they are a faded outline in the palimpsest of cultural history.

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