THE VIEW FROM ROW E: Celebrating the social side of cinema [1]

[PART ONE] At a time when streaming has become the officially sanctioned chemsex of self-isolation, our Barker-In-Chief writes a personal love letter to the social side of cinema, that potent ritual of gathering together in darkness to see stories projected on the wall.

By RADIANT CIRCUS

Twitter @radiantcircus | Instagram @radiantcircus

Like almost every member of a certain generation, my cinematic adventures began in the round-the-block queue to see STAR WARS (1978). Aged only in single digits, seeing that film on what will always be remembered as the largest screen in the galaxy was like having my still-expanding skull crammed with ice cream, hot sauce and popping candy. Several insistent repeat viewings – I was always insufferably over-enthusiastic – led to a clutch of mail-away action figures and a lifelong addiction to seeing films in the dark with strangers.

Early stages of my addiction were enabled by a primary years friend whose dad was a cinema manager. That involved one memorable behind the scenes treat to see FLASH GORDON (1980) projected from the booth, an encounter that also bagged me some dog-eared SUPERMAN (1978) lobby cards. As my teenage-self sprouted, early friendships waned and my tastes became more extreme. As an underage horror-head, I remember lowering my voice at the box office to grab an illicit seat for DAY OF THE DEAD (1986), before exploiting ELM STREET 3 (1987) as an opportunity to come out to my wary but tolerant teenage mates (long story…). Seeing films with other people has propelled many of my life’s major moments. It has enabled connections, amplified memories and made the films themselves endure.

When I started to travel, cinema became a cornerstone of yet more adventures… Nights in the dark away from home have become some of the most memorable. Seeing STAR TREK V (1989) near an American armybase in Germany with a vocally appreciative audience transformed an underwhelming film. I walked seemingly halfway across San Diego County to see the all-new STAR WARS SPECIAL EDITIONS shown back-to-back (1997). Audiences started full of delirious joy only to exit after ROTJ as if fleeing a wake where a much-loved relative’s reputation had been irreparably tarnished. Picking a film at random at a small French language cinema in the centre of Brussels, I was relieved to discover that THE ILLUSIONIST (2010) has barely a spoken word in it. Creeping out of a friend’s NYC apartment to pander to my jetlag led to a midnight screening of HOUSE (1977) at the IFC; other customers’ sex acts and snoring adding considerably to the film’s already hallucinatory qualities… I couldn’t get to a cinema in Cuba, but I scoured every inch of Santiago with a local tour guide to find homegrown movies on DVD, eventually purchasing the only one to be had anywhere (!VAMPIROS EN LA HABANA!).

Being a student away from home had fuelled further discoveries, along with endless nights arguing about the gender politics of BLUE VELVET. Being sat too close to the screen for TERMINATOR 2 (1991) was a sensation not unlike being hit by the truck the T-1000 drives over the bridge. Holding a friend’s hand all the way home gave little reassurance after both of us freaked out during the same year’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). My student union film society peddled further repertory delights…. Whilst vague memory suggests everything shown was by Besson or Lynch, I vividly recall evenings spent with friends on bleacher seating watching arthouse films whilst trying to ignore the vile aroma rising up from a pool of last night’s mayhem beneath us (mainly an acrid cocktail of ‘recycled’ Hooch, Newcastle Brown, and snakebite & black…).

Such gateway sensations led to yet harder thrills. Smaller releases of smaller films have often felt the most special, requiring effort beyond London to track down mid-afternoon showings with very few people present. Seeing MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1992) when it was just a new (and possibly dirty…) rent boy movie featuring two of what we would now call ‘Hollywood’s hottest twinks’ was an early exercise in social distancing; the audience of mostly (disappointed…) older gentlemen sat scattered around the auditorium.

Then came the discovery that moving pictures don’t stop at the movies. Art galleries – with their video art and installations – have become favourite haunts for seeking out new fixes. Key to this epiphany was going to see Spellbound (1996) at Hayward Art Gallery, a cross-over show about art and film. Sat on a beanbag to watch Douglas Gordon’s 24 HOUR PSYCHO blew my mind. I vividly recall the sequence where Norman delivers the tray of food to Marion’s room, bearing silent witness to his (now) looooong, predatory walk through the motel. That thrill of spectatorship mixed with an unsettling powerlessness will never leave me.

Common to all of these experiences was a feeling that something shared was about to unfold. For me that has increasingly been fuelled by the transgressive nature of the films I now prefer. But at its heart it remains about the potent ritual of gathering together in darkness to see stories projected on the wall.

That ritual will survive COVID-19 and I desperately look forward to becoming part of the audience again soon. Whilst it is possible to appreciate film at a safe social distance, it’s like sucking a cock through a condom. The flavours just aren’t the same.

> Read our London Venue A to Z to find out how you can support your favourite indie cinema at this time of crisis.

> Submit your #LDNindieFILM Love Story about the film venue, event or tribe you call home to keep the spotlight shining on London’s alternative cinema scene.

See you in darkness,

Richard – Barker-In-Chief, RADIANT CIRCUS


PART TWO: Where I write about some of my favourite things I’ve done in the dark with strangers over the last two years! 


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