The last picture show

The likes of Fassbinder, Godard, Pasolini, Tarkovsky, Wajda and Visconti were once seen as essential

In the mid-1980s, the Everyman in Hampstead was the most genteel of the art-house cinemas in London. The Scala in King's Cross was trend­ier, with more of a trash aesthetic. The National Film Theatre, on the South Bank, was more institutional-solemn. The Screens in Islington and Belsize Park were more middlebrow. The Electric on Portobello Road was very west London, in a post-Hawkwind, pre-Richard Curtis sort of way. The Phoenix in East Finchley felt rather suburban, the Curzons and Camden Plaza rather more ritzy (and the Ritzy, in Brixton, more local, as was the Rio in Dalston).

These were some of the places I went to, looking for a job after I left university. The Paris Pullman in South Kensington and the Biograph in Victoria had recently closed but this didn't seem in any way significant. There were about a dozen others, each with its own character and each representing and supporting an idea of film, from the Russian silents and RKO noir to such contemporary or recently departed greats as Fassbinder and Tarkovsky and Scorsese, as a vital part of our culture and (hard to imagine this now) thought.

At the Scala, the demand for jobs was so great that I wasn't even admitted to see the manager; at others, my name was politely added to a list; and at the Everyman, a manager named Gary, who, a little confusingly, told me to call him Wally, gave me a call a week or so later to offer me work as a part-time usher and ticket seller.

Gary, aka Wally, had an air of glamour about him because he contributed film reviews to Time Out. There was also an usher called Gary but he was always known as Edward. Edward was something of an anomaly on the Every­-man staff. He was a Thatcherite Tory in a world where anything to the right of Visconti or Godard was treated with scorn. But the thing that connected us - to each other, to the cinema patrons, and even to Edward - was a love of film. If we hadn't been working, we would have been there anyway.

Some were hard to distinguish from characters in films. Edward had wandered in from one of those early-1960s British movies with Dirk Bogarde, in which no one said what they meant and forbidden passion seethed beneath the surface. The small, round man who ran the concessions counter selling coffee and flapjacks and banana bread (no popcorn; never any popcorn) had the kindness, good nature and lack of guard of someone who was doomed to suffer in a Fassbinder film. And the assistant projectionist, Terry, from Chicago, affected a slightly dangerous manner, looked like a blond Frank Sinatra and wore the sharp, 1950s jazz-hipster clothes of a hoodlum in a film noir.

Before the first showing of each day, as the compulsory Erik Satie interlude music played to the empty auditorium, Charlie Tennis-Shoes would be there in the lobby, hoping to talk. Charlie Tennis-Shoes had the good looks and spry masculinity of a character played by Cary Grant. He was always dressed in grey trousers and a sporty, dark jumper and impeccably white tennis shoes. He was in his fifties, and would walk to Hampstead each day from Hendon, where he lived with his mother. We would take it in turns to have conversations with Charlie Tennis-Shoes and I would affect to be bored by them because that was the form, but secretly I enjoyed our chats. I liked Charlie's aperçus. "Hitchcock," he pronounced one day, before the Notorious/Suspicion double bill started, "was a genius with the mind of a five-year-old."

The Everyman was a repertory cinema with a different programme every day. There were returning favourites: the audience had a bottomless appetite for the Marcel Carné-Jacques Prévert-Jean Gabin double bill of Le quai des brumes and Le jour se lève, with its mood of doomed love and yearning. We would show that, it seemed, at least once every couple of months, along with the Scorsese-Robert De Niro double of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, that Hitchcock Notorious/Suspicion double, the Sam Fuller double of Pickup on South Street and Underworld USA, and the screwball double of Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday.

One quiet afternoon, I was sitting in the ticket booth reading a book by Charles Bukowski. To the chief projectionist, passing by, an acquaintance with Bukowski qualified me to be trained up to become an assistant projectionist.

The projection rooms at the Everyman were a beautiful place. There was a room with sofas and chairs that opened at the end on to a fire escape. Next to it was the booth, which was a long, narrow room with a 16mm projector, two 35mm projectors and an editing desk for assembling and disassembling films. Our lessons would begin with my tutor laying out two lines of cocaine on the back of the light box of one of the grey-green Cinemeccanica projectors. The coke scrambled my senses, made me feel giddy and raw, and diminished my capacity to take in new information. I became a projectionist but not a very good one.

It was an ordeal to show old films that had been patched up so many times that they rattled and lurched through the projection gate, weighed down with the masses of editing tape required to bind their tired frames and sprocket holes together. Sometimes, when we were showing something very rare and precious from the British Film Institute's archive, the reels would arrive accompanied by a stern custodian. Downstairs, a small audience would watch Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky silently declaiming on a shuddering grey screen; up in the projection room, I would be poised at the 16mm projector, willing the film to keep struggling through, waiting for it to break and catch in the gate; if the projector light bulb wasn't switched off immediately, the audience would be watching the starburst colours of celluloid burning as the custodian sternly watched me.

My worst crisis as a projectionist was when I gambled with a too-small take-up spool for Andrzej Wajda's recently released Danton and, as Gérard Depardieu won the French Revolution and then lost the Terror, hundreds of feet of film spilled out around my feet. Then there was the time, shortly before I left to live in New York, when I was showing The Right Stuff. It had an interval, at the end of which I very smoothly faded the intermission music out and the film soundtrack back in. But I had forgotten that the volume for interval music played at seven and the soundtrack at about one and a half. The duty manager who ran up the stairs told me that being in the auditorium was like having your ear pressed to a speaker at a Motörhead concert. He also claimed, less plausibly, that there were members of the audience whose eardrums were bleeding.

But, generally, I muddled through. I learned not to show films out of rack, where the frame is slightly misaligned in the projector gate so the audience sees the top or bottom of an adjacent frame. I remembered to focus the lens on words, rather than images. I wasn't quite as bad a projectionist as Terry. We became friends and if ever Terry messed up at work, he would blame me and I would sort of forgive him.

The Everyman was owned by a family trust and run as a non-profit-making enterprise. The Carnegie Hall Cinema in the basement of Carnegie Hall in New York was owned by Sid Geffen, a real-estate dealer and former used-car salesman from Buffalo. Before moving to the city, Sid had acquired some mild local fame for his TV ads, in which he stood in front of his used-car lot and quoted Shakespeare. Sid looked like a Bolshevik caricature of a capitalist, with his moustachioed plumpness, his tastes for whisky and cigarettes. He had a newish second wife, Jackie Raynal, who was classy and French and beautiful. She'd been an editor for Éric Rohmer and had made her own much-praised avant-garde feminist film, in which she urinated in a room for some length of time. She had recently directed a low-budget movie, with scenes shot at the cinema and in the couple's apartment on Central Park South, in which the culminating shot was Sid walking to his death by stepping into an empty elevator shaft.

I had moved to New York thinking that I had a trade. Manhattan in those days had even more art-house cinemas than London. At the New Yorker (which features in Annie Hall when Woody Allen has his wish-fulfilment moment of summoning up Marshall McLuhan to silence the cinema-queue bore), I paid a visit to the booth, thinking that the fraternity of projectionists would work in my favour. I asked how I would set about getting a job and the projectionist, unfraternally, laughed at me. Unlike in London, the New York projectionists were unionised. I would need to attend classes. And it would help if I knew someone in Local 306 - a family member, maybe, who could speed things up, in which case it might only take a year to get my union card.

So, instead, I found a job as a manager at the Carnegie Hall Cinema. It was middlebrow art-house rather than repertory, appealing to the tastes of midtown Manhattan. Sid's other cinema, the Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village, catered to a younger and more adventurous crowd. Uptown at the Carnegie, there was popcorn in the lobby, Bergman's Fanny and Alexander on the screen and well-heeled patrons in comfortable seats.
Then there were the festivals. Sid ran these to earn him prestige and boost ticket sales. Every few months, a different nation would bring its film industry to the Carnegie. Queens and Coney Island would empty as émigrés filled the cinema for the Russian festival. There was a Greek film festival. At the Dutch festival, the director Paul Verhoeven strode pompously around the lobby in knee-high boots like a Cecil B DeMille of the lowlands, looking for his way from European art house to American blockbuster.

Sid took a shine to me, maybe because of my literary aspirations, and decided to make me his protégé in business. "Today, Davey, my boy, I'm going to show you five ways to skin a cat," he'd say, rubbing his hands together at the beginning of the working day, during which I would listen to his deal-making on an extension phone and learn how to get an edge over suppliers and customers.

The charm of this faded after a week or so and I escaped downtown to manage the Blee­cker Street Cinema (which was technically the Bleeker Street Cinema, because Sid had misspelled it on the incorporation papers). This was a happier world, where I wasn't overseen by my employers. Before I left the Carnegie, I installed a cinema cat. The Everyman had a cat; cinemas, like ships, should have a cat. I rescued her from an animal shelter and pretended she was a stray, and we named her Lulu after the returning heroine of Jackie's films. A few months later, Lulu was written up in the New York Times, an amused report of her making her way to the front of the Carnegie screen, casting a giant cartoon shadow at the climax of Visconti's The Leopard.

I revisited the Everyman shortly after I returned to live in London. The scheduled film, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, had just started and Terry was in the lobby talking to Gary, aka Edward. A young man came out of the auditorium to complain about the picture. He was tall, and he wore glasses and the familiar, earnest expression of the aficionado.

“The film's out of rack," he said.

“The film's not out of rack," said Terry, always alert to cover up any possibility of his own ineptitude.

“It's very slightly out of rack," the young man said. "Maybe other people wouldn't notice, but I'm a photographer and I'm very sensitive to the image."

Terry tried to better the young man with some technical-sounding language, which didn't take, and then he went up to the projection booth. He returned a moment or so later.

“Yeah, I've fixed it," he said.

The young man went back into the auditorium and quickly came out again.

“No," he said. "It's still out of rack. I'm a photographer and I'm very sensitive to these kinds of things. Maybe if . . ."

But he didn't finish his sentence, because Terry had taken three steps towards him and punched him on the side of the head. The tall young man fell to the ground. His glasses were hanging off his left ear. He shook his head and clutched his glasses and very slowly tried to get to his feet but he couldn't do that because Terry was now kicking him, sending him sprawling again, and Terry was continuing to kick him.

Which was when I managed to overcome my own immobilising shock. Gary aka Edward and I had frozen - the result, I think, of being cowed not so much by the violence as by the mad incongruity of it: a projectionist beating up a customer in the lobby of London's most genteel art-house cinema. Finally I moved, managed to grab Terry, pulled him off the young man, and bundled him up the stairs and into the projection room. I relaxed my grip, but grabbed him again when he tried to get back down the stairs to renew the assault.

“The guy's a fucking asshole. Am I wrong? Tell me, am I wrong?"

I left Terry in the projection room. He promised not to come out again. The tall young man had failed in his search to find the manager and had gone to the police station. Maybe his fear of Terry was stronger than his desire for retribution or justice, because he never returned and the police never came. Touch of Evil finished. Chimes at Midnight started.

The repertory cinema hardly exists any longer. It was killed off, first by video and then by DVDs, and by the taste for emptily large cinematic spectacle fed by Spielberg and Lucas and their successors such as Verhoeven and James Cameron. It is an act of sentimentality to remember a time when it seemed to be so important, to contain so much meaning and possibility. The subsidised NFT is still going, but most of the new generations of aficionados feed their habit with DVD box sets or illegal downloads. Sid Geffen died many years ago. The Carnegie Hall and Bleecker Street Cinemas are closed, as are the New Yorker and many others. The Everyman swallowed up the Screens and is now part of a profitable chain that shows first-run films on digital projectors. The cinema cats are dead. The last I heard of Terry, he was running an art gallery in Santa Monica. I don't know what happened to Gary, or Gary.

David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "A Film by Spencer Ludwig" (Fourth Estate, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...