The Curzon redesign is either a comment on fragile society, or a gimmick. Photo: Flickr/Camilo Rueda López
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Pink concrete, optical tricks and ferried olives: inside the redesigned Curzon Bloomsbury

Cinematic changes.

To Russell Square in London last Thursday evening for the launch of a new six-screen cinema, the Curzon Bloomsbury, on the site of the old Renoir. When a rebranding was first mooted cautiously back in 2008, I wasn’t a fan of the idea. I’m still not. But having explored the spectacular £4m redesign job, I’m an admirer of the building itself. It is now one of the few cinemas in London where the experience of watching a film will actually be enhanced by the surroundings. Let’s refer to it as Renoir: Fully Loaded.

The designer and architect Takero Shimazaki hosted a short presentation in which he shared the inspirations behind the radical new look. The first image he unveiled was a still from Stalker - a dank, peeling, dripping room in which several disconsolate figures are clustered. This, he said, was what he showed the Curzon management when he took on the job. Nervous titters all round. What Shimazaki was doing here was highlighting the mix of sobriety and playfulness that is discernible in his designs, as well as making us the first-ever witnesses to Tarkovsky-based humour. It’s a niche area but it works. Not unlike the cinema itself.

He showed several photographs of the building in various states of disrepair and construction. Why, he wondered, pondering over an image of scaffolding and ladders and plastic sheeting, could an audience not watch a movie in a setting like that, with a screen hung at one end? Ah, a man after my own heart. Anything to stem the flow of servers ferrying bowls of olives and flutes of champagne to cinemagoers who have mistaken their local cinema for dinner theatre or something on the chicken-in-a-basket circuit.

Shimazaki didn’t go as far as to put the auditoria in the midst of a building site but there is a hint of the austere to the Curzon Bloomsbury, plush as it is. Grey mottled high-ceilinged corridors lead you in a curve around the side of the largest screen. The one named “Renoir”, that is; the one with the word Renoir hung on the back wall in white letters. None of that “Screen 1” and “Screen 2” business. Each one here is named after a London cinema - Minema, Lumiere, and so on. One exception is the Bertha Dochouse screen, which will be devoted permanently to a programme of documentaries.

There is also pink concrete in evidence on the stairs. You don’t see much of that around, do you? And an optical trick in one of the corridors as you pass a series of glass panels, staring into them in a search for your reflection - vainly in both senses of the word, it transpires, since these are windows that look onto the parallel corridor. You may see someone you know in there but you can’t reach them because the glass is in the way. You have to go to the end of the corridor and double-back instead. This is either a comment on the fragile divides which separate one human being from another, or a gimmick that is going to get very old very quickly. I’m going with the former, even if it does suggest the makings of a Paul Haggis film about how we should all just get along and, you know, connect.

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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I assumed the elephant orchestra was a gimmick. But those pachyderms can play

Training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice is quite another.

When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a gimmick; which says much about human prejudice, I suppose. Still, I like to think that my initial scepticism was founded, not on some anthropocentric impulse, but upon its precise opposite.

Of course, I know that animals make music, but an elephant orchestra, complete with drums, gongs and harmonicas? Playing pieces that humans would consider pleasing to the ear? That proposition took me back to the early nature programmes, where the animals had distinctly human personalities. The grumpy pelican. The shy hedgehog. The mischievous chimpanzee. When humans argue about whether, or to what extent, animals have feelings, what they usually mean is: do animals have human feelings? To which I think the answer is: no – and why should they?

No surprise, then, that when a friend offered to play me a CD recorded by the Elephant Orchestra of Thailand, I was as wary as I was curious.

The orchestra began as a side project of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in 1999, after Richard Lair, a zoologist and artist (who had already begun teaching elephants to paint) met the experimental composer Dave Soldier and they decided that, if elephants could enjoy making pictures, perhaps they might also enjoy making music.

That word, enjoy, makes all the difference, of course: training an animal, Pavlov-style, to do human-designed tricks is one thing, but to have it come, voluntarily, to music practice on a damp Wednesday afternoon is quite another. Still, as the music began, I was aware that I had no way of knowing whether these majestic animals were being manipulated, merely to entertain humans – though as Lair has remarked, it isn’t that easy to manipulate an orchestra of around 12 players who, together, weigh three times as much as the entire Berlin Philharmonic.

Knowing that sales of the CD would benefit the Elephant Conservation Center itself didn’t altogether dispel my suspicions. Yet, listening to the various recorded performances, I began to feel that the elephant musicians really did get a kick out of banging drums and gongs, playing a thunder sheet, or wailing on a harmonica (a sound that is beautifully wistful to the human ear, though we can only speculate as to what it expresses for an elephant). There was an energy to the playing that I like to think betokened more than just a desire to satisfy a taskmaster.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra was started to raise funds to keep the animals in decent conditions after logging was restricted in Thailand in the early 1990s – and what better story than that of a community that learns how to survive by making art? As for the music, it seemed to fall into two categories: one where it was clear that the players had been directed to approximate existing orchestral works (there is a wild performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example) and these performances I could take or leave. Yet where the music arose more spontaneously, where it was allowed to be just elephant music, I was enthralled.

Dave Soldier has said that, “When you hear the elephant music you’re hearing what they mean to make” – and I find that idea infinitely intriguing. How does he know this? How can I know, just by listening? The fact is that I can’t, and yet, for long moments, I felt it in the marrow of my bones, like the resonance of a gong, or the eerie call of an elephant harmonica.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game