The Irritations Of Modern Life: 29. Arthouse cinemas
Wednesday 10 February 1999
Arthouse cinemas are elite clubs for those "fans" who believe that film is wasted on the masses. Or, at least, unwatchable alongside them. As liberal, Godard-loving types, they'd probably deny it, yet this lot would rather burn their Pauline Kaels than sit through Titanic at their local multiplex.
"People eat popcorn all the time and they always talk," whinges an NFT aficionado who once said he wished that entry to arthouse cinemas could be more rigorous - such as a film-knowledge test for a year's membership.
He last stepped into his local Odeon two years ago. It was such a traumatic experience, he's never been near one since. "It had that awful sickly, saccharine smell in the foyer. And people laughed when it wasn't even funny." Well, it was Hal Hartley. (Note: Arthouse cinema humour has to be ironic, extremely referential and deeply disapproving of films like There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. Until they decide to run a Farrelly brothers retrospective in, oh, about five years' time.)
And so, my friend scuttles back to the film-as-art cocoon that is the NFT; to a worthy diet of Fassbinder retrospectives, carrot-cake and coffee. No Pearl & Dean. No plush purple seats with plastic drink-holders. Instead, there's Scandanavian-style wooden floors, hard seating (to stop you nodding off during that new Eisenstein print, perhaps), carrot-cake and the resonant aroma of stale black coffee.
I can barely drag myself into the foyer of these places without feeling as though I'm back at school and being forced to attend a double maths lesson. Perhaps it's that whiff of "film-as-education" that galls; those limp NFT screening notes that cobble together some outdated reviews. Or is it the lacklustre foyer-chat among earnest trendies in little round glasses and pointy beards? Who'd want to spend a Saturday night with this lot and a load of subtitles?
A certain sort of one-upmanship also comes with the territory. "You must go and see Abel Gance's Napoleon. It's silent, but they had this wonderful pianist..." And then there's the little matter of what they screen; almost always retrospectives; Fassbinder, Hitchcock, Bergman and the like. Classics, maybe. But there's little diversity and even less risk - the recent Carry On season at the NFT, for example, reeked of tokenism.
It's not the choice of films that really irks, but the attitudes that run alongside. For some reason, arthouse cinemas and their audiences just can't bear the American instinct for popular entertainment. It's a sorry contradiction, since these places owe their being to commercial cinema. Yet the arthouse theatre will always be a retreat for purists who believe that comfort and frivolity doesn't figure in film aesthetics. Only the British could reduce something so pleasurable into such an earnest and worthy pastime. Pass the popcorn, somebody, and, please, spare me the carrot cake.
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