Editors’ note: In response to the current crisis that threatens the existence of so many cinemas around the world, and the shuttering again of many cinemas in the UK and Europe, Sight & Sound has launched an editorial campaign that celebrates these spaces, #MyDreamPalace.
We believe that watching a film on the big screen is a singular experience. With so cinemas under threat we want to draw attention to the wonders of movie-watching and start a communal celebration of it. Here filmmaker and film lover Edgar Wright takes us through his life at the movies.
I’m no snob. Though sometimes I’ll affect being the sophisticated cineaste at an arthouse cinema with a green tea and vegan yummies to hand, I’m equally happy slumped in a seat at a multiplex with a big packet of Revels. However, I’m not one to rank the Revels themselves because, while I may have my favourites, I also just appreciate the variety.
Similarly, as a cinema-goer living in central London I have felt very fortunate that, until recently, I’ve been able to see a wide range of films, old and new, in an equally wide range of venues, comfortably old and luxuriously new. In 43 years of movie going I have had several favourite cinemas all over the world; a few now defunct; some currently shuttered; others still with us, keeping images flickering as I write this.
I can chart my time on this Earth through the places I’ve frequented as a cinema junkie since the age of three, starting with my earliest cinema jaunts in Dorset as my mum and dad dragged me (or did I drag them?) all over Westover Road in Bournemouth to see most of the sci-fi or fantasy films released between 1977 and 1981.
At that time my parents ran a stall at craft fairs, and in lieu of a babysitter my dad would dump me and my brother in a double feature so he might have five hours of peace. Probably not acceptable by modern parenting standards, but much appreciated by his two silver screen-eyed sons.
A later family move to Somerset made the Regal Cinema in Wells my local into my late teens, where I subsisted on all the major releases that came that way, though perhaps four to six weeks after opening.
As soon as I could drive at age 17, my friends would pile into my Vauxhall Chevette to faraway-seeming and exotic-sounding arthouses like the Watershed in nearby Bristol, where we watched Akira (1988), Barton Fink (1991) and Delicatessen (1991), all while downing black coffee, eating carrot cake and trying to pretend we were adults.
Moving to London in the mid-90s I went a little Time Out crazy and would scour the listings and Tube all over the city in pursuit of the bottomless buffet of films to see. I eventually settled for nearly 20 years in Islington, which meant the gorgeous marquee of the Screen on the Green was a mere stroll away.
Work then took me around the world, which meant I savoured the delights of the New Beverly in Los Angeles; the Bloor [now Hot Docs Cinema] in Toronto; the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand; and many more.
Having lived mostly in central London for the last four years, I narrowed my cinema habits down to four ‘locals’ that I could walk to. The wonderful BFI Southbank feels likes an extension of my sofa at this point; I’ve never seen more films on my own anywhere else and would do so happily for the rest of my life.
The wonderful Curzon Soho is the epitome of the perfect arthouse.
The Regent Street Cinema is a new favourite – ironically, as it is technically the oldest cinema in London, a delightful spot to sip red wine and watch an old classic.
Finally, something of an anomaly, is Picturehouse Central, which sits on the site of an unloved old multiplex, one that was rat-infested and which you had to enter through the hellish 90s entertainment plex that was the Trocadero. Then, a miracle… Through renovation, it became a cinema you wanted to spend time in beyond the movie itself, with its café and two bars, and more varied snacks and drinks, as well as the delicious assortment of blockbusters, arthouse films and classics. I felt so at home there that I programmed a whole season of favourite movies in 2016, mostly as an excuse to hang out with pals in the bar afterwards.
I’ve long thought the worst cinemas are ones that you don’t want to spend another second in once the credits roll. Many of the escalator-centric venues feel like a conveyor belt to get you in and out as quickly as possible. So, Picturehouse Central was suddenly a rare beast; the central London multiplex that was a joy to visit.
It also became the first cinema I went back to after the initial lockdown, wandering in solo with my mask on and a big bag of Revels. It felt safe, too, the staff bending over backwards to look after the customers. Friends asked me after I went: “How was it?” “Just being back in a cinema?” I replied. “I felt safer in there than pressing the touch screen at Tesco.” As a cinema fan first and foremost, I was happy to see moviegoing slowly coming back.
But then in October, with the exhibition industry caught in a catch-22 of nervous studios and cautious audiences, the Picturehouse Central was one of the many casualties of the Cineworld chain having to shutter. I felt immediate grief that my local was about to close up shop for an indefinite period. In its last week, wanting to support it one last time, I went with my brother to see Akira once again on the big screen, for old times’ sake in more ways than one.
Expecting a sad scene, I was surprised to see that this 7pm Wednesday screening was busy, though socially distanced. The masked crowd was rapt and awed by the anime classic. It was a great screening, but bittersweet. I looked at the crowd. Here were my fellow film fans, eager to escape real life. And then we all wandered, blinking, back on to the streets, unsure if that was the last picture show for a while.
Sitting in the dark with strangers is a communal experience that no platform streaming to your living room can provide. Don’t listen to the endless opinion pieces from doomsayers declaring that the big screen experience is over. Most of them haven’t watched a film in the cinema with paying audiences for years. Cinema on the big screen is for the people. It will be back and so will I. The Revels have not ended.