Yesterday, I happened to set eyes on one of those Facebook messages telling us what out “friends” have “liked” and I noticed a post about the Castle Cinema. A new independent screen not too far from me in East London. So I got very excited!
To be fair, I am rather blessed with independent and alternative cinemas. There are pop up cinemas, open air cinemas, barge cinemas, single screen independent cinemas and some “art house chains” like the Curzon, Everyman and Picturehouse, all within 20 minutes from me. How could I possibly complain? I have the best London has to offer in terms of silver screen.
Last week I had some free time during the day and I decided to do what I like best. To my dismay, I discovered that despite the wealth in alternative cinemas, my choice was between La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2017; pictured above) and… La La Land, which also happened to be the opening night’s choice at the new Castle Cinema. Well, that’s not entirely true: there was also Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) and the odd American indie. What I can remember, however, is that I did something I rarely do: I decided NOT to go to the cinema.
I understand that the cinema world is very competitive, that it is difficult to survive as an independent house. The Curzon is faced with the closure of some of its landmark cinemas (including its emblematic Soho theatre) and Picturehouse is owned by Cineworld and some staff are on zero-hour contracts. I also understand that blockbusters pay for variety. But on that particular day, La La Land was showing in every central London Curzon cinema. As was Manchester by the Sea. It was no different at Picturehouse, Screen on the Green and some others I looked at before giving up.
I also understand that most people are not as picky as me. I prefer to sit through a really obnoxious French film (as I did this Sunday) than to see an American blockbuster. But does Curzon have to show La La Land in all its central London branches at the same time? Does Everyman have to feature a blockbuster every week in its one screen in Islington? I have only been to Screen on the Green once in six years, precisely because they mostly tend to show blockbusters. Yet it is one of my closest ‘independents’. Rio, in Dalston, fares a little better.
Head south for choice!
What a contrast to my hometown São Paulo, a southern capital in the so-called periphery, one of the chief cities in the US’s backyard. I arrived here last week, and I have been spoilt for choice. There is a large variety of state and bank sponsored art house cinemas, as well as local Brazilian chains. I could see Latin American films, several French and other European films, a Korean, a Palestinian and an Iranian film – and some for free! This and throughout the week and not just at some inconvenient session at some impossible time.
London does have its film festivals, they are frequent and good. But unless you are a film professional or retired, it is unlikely that you will be able to see the films you want. The chances of finding the right film at the right time are very low, as they are normally screened only twice and are often overbooked.
Perhaps more worryingly, particularly in the light of Brexit, is the dearth of foreign language films. London, the second capital of the capitalist world and the free market (after New York), is unable to compete with non-English speaking countries when it comes to films. More and more we are fed a diet of English-speaking, big-budget films as the competition pendulum swings towards the monopoly phase of the capitalist cycle. Not good news, considering the growth of xenophobia in real life.
So, it is a shame that London, unrivalled in its cosmopolitanism, a city where hundreds of languages are spoken regularly, has so little space for foreign language films.
Salty caramel world
So here goes my message to the art house chains:
The reason why I and many other people like going to independent and repertoire cinemas is because of the film choice. It is not because of your beautiful décor and nice bar/restaurant area, posh sea-salt and salt caramel popcorn, wine and plush seats. That’s all nice, but not essential.
When I want to see a blockbuster, I have no problems going to a ‘normal’ cinema and why should I want to choose to go to an “art house” screen to see something I can see somewhere else? Unless, of course, the idea is to divide our cinemas by class, “cool and comfortable” for the middle-classes and “rowdy and loud” for the hoi-polloi.
It is time for London cinemas to raise their game. As the world moves in the direction of polarisation and intolerance, perhaps cinemas could show us the way of diversity and tolerance!