The Palace and the Bunker
In the late 1970s, my very first batch of cinema students said to me, on their very last day at university: ‘In 25 years time, somewhere on this planet, we’ll be sitting in some movie theatre, and we’ll hear some guy laughing his head off, up the back. Then we’ll know to turn around and exclaim: “Hi, Adrian!”’
The Palace or the Bunker: these are the two extremes of my moviegoing life. The big-screen experience, as Hollywood likes to fetishise it, at the one end of the continuum; and, at the other end, the makeshift sheet-on-a-wall in some basement. I cannot rightly say that, for me, either is more meaningful or intense than the other; both carry a specific thrill.
I associate the grandest Picture Palaces of my life not only with the nostalgia of childhood in the 1960s – places like the Forum in Melbourne where I saw, in complete, dazzled bewilderment, the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Fantastic Voyage (1966) – but also adult travels to film festivals in (to me) exotic places like Vienna or Amsterdam.
Watching Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) or the restored version of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) on the huge Pathé screen at the Rotterdam Film Festival in the late 1990s was like swimming right into a vast, uncontrollable vortex of images and sounds. Immersion, escape, ecstasy: everything the multi-million dollar blockbusters want to give us (but so rarely achieve), I found them on the Festival circuit discovering breathtaking films by Claire Denis or Youssef Chahine.
Very early one morning in Brisbane – this, too, was an exotic city for me – the Director of the Festival there allowed me to have a private screening, at the dawn of the 21st century. In a near-empty cinema of the city’s most eminent Picture Palace, I watched Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? unfold for me, just for me. The film was great, but my privileged situation made it greater.
The Picture Palace is never only a matter of ornate decoration and sweeping architecture, staircases and levels, grand projector beam ‘throw’ and Dolby Stereo sound. Almost anywhere big enough and dark enough can fill this bill – particularly if the screen itself is large enough, and/or I am seated close enough to it.
In times of intense insecurity and loneliness – such as having just moved to a new city to live – I hug these cinema spaces. Such as the Chauvel in Sydney in the mid 1980s, screening fractured Orson Welles epics and raw New York No Wave independents. I believe I joined the editorial group of the magazine Filmnews then because its office was right next to the cinema, and I could transit ever more easily from writing about film to viewing it, spending as little time as possible in my tiny, cold share-house room.
The Bunker, unlike the Palace, resists generic description. Each time, it is always new, always specific. Sometimes, it is simply the video monitor in the corner space of a film distribution office, or a cultural events group headquarters – but in these unassuming corners, I have viewed many of the greatest avant-garde films in cinema history, from Werner Nekes to Chantal Akerman.
The Bunker can also be a backyard garage, a church hall, an uncomfortable classroom, an after-hours library, an abandoned warehouse, someone’s lounge room (where I saw Robert Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar! on 16 millimetre) – or even a sterile, government-funded art gallery, especially when customised by some renegade film-culture cabal. Another shot of tropical Brisbane: crammed in with a hundred sweaty, young bodies to watch a rare celluloid projection of Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967), the whole room seemed to haze over in a timeless, collective delirium.
In between the Palace and the Bunker: the Drive-In. This was a rarity in my childhood and teen years; I must have been taken there less than half a dozen times, since it was a largely ‘outer suburbs’ phenomenon and I was an inner-city kid. But every detail of these trips – the audio speakers, the gooey half-time refreshments, the sometimes noisy and violent crowds (occasionally erupting from their cars), the drive there and back – is etched in my memory. Not to mention the super-weird films, like Zachariah (‘the first electric Western’, duelling guitars replacing guns) or The Case of the Smiling Stiffs (don’t ask). When some smarty-pants curator, in the twilight moments of the Drive-In phenomenon, tried to stage an art event in one such spot, the local audience revolted, assembled, and rocked the projection booth back and forth. A fitting swan song for proletarian moviegoing.
Something a little more specific to a film critic’s life: the Hotel Room. Where, during a Film Festival, you might be allowed to watch (or stream) the ‘screeners’, or you download the files for later use. No longer the Big Screen, only the TV screen, or the laptop. Avoiding the crowd, eschewing the spectacle, ignoring your fellow professionals: true chamber cinema, cinema in the boudoir, allowing other, more corporeal pleasures to be mixed in …
And finally, the strange Little Cinemas, with their very particular, regular sessions: kids and young teenagers packed into every available inch of a small Parisian theatre, one afternoon, to watch (of all things) Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1993) – swooning each time Johnny Depp appeared, but roaring their applause whenever Jerry Lewis entered the frame. Or the pokey, disarming place in Vienna that showed mainly Goldie Hawn comedies of the 1970s to a crowd of faithful, very elderly patrons: the natural odour of this place, arising from the accumulation of bodies, was such that (I’m not kidding) at half time, an usherette would walk imperiously down the aisle spraying air freshener.
The Ritz Cinema, running in a handily equipped room of the North Melbourne Town Hall council building during the 1970s and ‘80s, was a special combination of Palace, Bunker, Little Cinema – and subcultural habitus. There were sessions where – having bought my ticket from the learned cinephile in the closet-like booth and collected the Roneod one-sheet of microscopically typed program notes – I feared for my physical safety, and never more so than the time that Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) was projected. There were mild-mannered cinephiles (like me), queer film fans, connoisseurs of experimental and underground arts in attendance, naturally – as well as contingents from two opposing biker gangs, who each took up seats on one side of the theatre, and proceeded to snarl at each other before, during and after the film (and what on earth did they make of what they were seeing and hearing?).
One more: a Little Cinema – this time, of the type that sprang into existence as veritable afterthoughts after the rest of a Multiplex had been built – in Las Palmas on the Canary Islands, during a film festival near the end of the 2000s. I am watching a 1960s, black-and-white documentary about radical psychiatry and communal living. There is only one other person in the cinema, and he chooses to sit not far along from me: he is clearly a homeless ‘bag man’, stinking to high heaven, and he fills several neighbouring seats with his plastically-wrapped belongings. How did he find his way to this movie? His relation to its scenes is particular, and systematic: each time we see the clinic’s patients running or dancing, this spectator leaps out of his seat, hurls himself around, yelps with delight, and keeps looking over at me as if to say: ‘Great, isn’t it?’ And whenever a doctor or some other bespectacled authority figure appears, he slumps in his seat, cups two hands around his mouth, and begins to make a low noise, growing louder: ‘Boo! BOO!’
The thing about cinema is: it welcomes us all.
© Adrian Martin 29 August 2014