Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Double Bill Me

Seeing Deerhunter – the band, not the movie – at the Scala in King's Cross recently bought back nostalgic memories of watching all-night Kenneth Anger movies there when it was still a cinema. London's repertory cinemas are now all but non-existent. Even if a few remain open as cinemas, they are but shadows of their former selves: the Everyman in Hampstead Heath now shows the latest Harry Potter but back in the early 1990s we watched Ai No Corrida twinned with Woman of the Dunes there – two Japanese erotic classics. Likewise, Brixton's Ritzy now shows popcorn fodder but I remember going to a 'blue' all-nighter – that is, Blue Velvet, Betty Blue, Blue Sunshine and the Big Blue.

That was the best thing about the repertory cinemas – their imaginative programming. The Scala in particular had a bizarre mix of horror, porn, foreign and arthouse – and great programme flyers*. Nestled amongst double bills by heavyweight directors such as Kubrick, Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Polanski, Rohmer, Scorsese, Godard, Pasolini, Cronenberg and Herzog would be all-nighters by sleazier house favourites such as John Waters, Walerian Borowczyk, Russ Meyer and Dario Argento. Then an all-day Disney matinee would be followed by an S&M Triple Bill (actually pretty good with Barbet Schroeder's then quite hard to see Maitresse), or a Lesbian Vampire Triple, Triple Yuck (Society, Frankenhooker and Basketcase II), Camp Literature, or, scariest of the lot, all night Keanu Reeves. Other imaginative pairings included Hallucinating Hacks (Naked Lunch and Barton Fink), Rural Ravage (Straw Dogs and The Wickerman), Rent Boy Double (My Own Private Idaho and Midnight Cowboy) and, somewhat cryptically, as a tribute to Francis Bacon: The Last Tango in Paris and Polanksi's The Tenant.

Often the audience was a bizarre mixture too – an assortment of raincoat brigade, students, punks, trendies and the homeless. There was a nice cafe too, which served coffee and carrot cake – so much more civilized than popcorn and Coke. Things were cheap back then too. In 1991, an all-nighter of four films would cost about £5. I guess it was appropriate that the Scala closed over the showing of a (then) banned, cult, violent and misogynistic film: A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick sued and the Scala lost. I miss the sleaziness of the Scala, and its resident cat, who acted like it owned the joint.

Other repertory cinemas had to close down or go mainstream. It's like choosing between being kept alive as a vegetable by a machine or having the plug pulled – I'd choose death any day. Some survive. The Riverside in Hammersmith still has imaginative doubles (we saw The Passenger and Radio On a while ago) and great views of the Thames from its cafe. Of course there's always the stuffy NFT, and the Prince Charles off Leicester Square shows older films for £1.50.

This was before the age of Everything At Your Fingertips (DVDs and the web). If you wanted to see something obscure like Bunuel's Land without Bread, Polanski's early shorts or Flaming Creatures (we did, for some reason), the cinema – and this usually meant either the Scala, the Ritzy, the Everyman, the Electric, the NFT, or the Riverside – was the only place to see them. I know – this was only the 1990s, not the 1890s, but a lot wasn't on VHS and yes, Channel 4 and BBC2 (Moviedrome!) did show some interesting stuff but back then going to the cinema felt like a ritual and an adventure. In the case of the Scala, a real experience.
* One of the Scala's programmer's was Stephen Woolley who went on to set up Palace Pictures (Diva, the Evil Dead, David Lynch), then produced plenty of really good British films including A Company of Wolves and The Crying Game. He directed his first film Stoned, about Brian Jones, in 2005.


raven said...

You didn't mention the Phoenix Cinema (East Finchley) which endured longer than most in showing decent cinema, mainly due to it's loyal local following. It also had (when I lived there about ten years ago) one of the most beautifully restored interiors of any cinema I'd seen in London. I'd be interested if it's still running or whether it's succumbed to a similar fate as the others. Kate

Barnaby said...

Lucky I'm not paid for this so I'm allowed to have glaring omissions. A quick Google reveals the Phoenix to be alive and well, and still showing decent cinema – though only a handful of films a month. The Guardian calls it "the best independent cinema anywhere". It's a Grade-II listed, art deco building, well worth a visit. Thanks for that Kate, I had vaguely heard of it but never went there.