Thrilling and Strange Tales from the Front Row!

Our contributors recount the stories of their most memorable cinema going experiences.

Max Cady goes to see Antz. He smokes and loudly opines it is better than any film woody Allen has directed in the last 30 years.
Max Cady goes to see Antz. He smokes and loudly opines it is better than any film Woody Allen has directed in the last 30 years.

Indy Datta goes to see Antz

I was working in Prague, not yet ten years out from the Velvet Revolution, well before Easyjet turned the city into stag weekend central (although it remains the only city where I’ve been given a flyer for a live sex show during my lunch break). I didn’t have a lot of friends in town, and so, as the long cold winter drew in (stealth-grey skies, month-old pack ice on the ground, minus 30 outside and plus 30 inside my overheated communist-era apartment, with hardly any English language TV channels other than CNN and Cartoon Network – hence my deep and enduring expertise in both the Clinton impeachment hearings and Cow & Chicken), I went to the movies a lot. Fortunately, Hollywood was going through a bit of a purple patch at the time, so I got to see films like The Big Lebowski at a newfangled suburban multiplex, laughing a split second after everybody else who was reading the jokes off the subs, and Saving Private Ryan at the Kino Lucerna, a beautiful art deco theatre in a lavish arcade off Wenceslas Square, owned by the Havel family. I also vividly remember seeing The Last Temptation of Christ, finally unbanned in the Czech Republic – a film I’d never seen before, but whose soundtrack I knew every note and sigh of.

But the screening I remember the most was Antz – the story of the plucky young ant Z (Woody Allen!) learning the value of asserting his individuality, saving his nation from an authoritarian military coup, and winning the heart of the lovely princess ant (Sharon Stone!).  Now, Antz is not a film people talk about or think about much these days – it’s the non-Pixar ant movie, fairly or unfairly, and I’m not about to claim that its politics are sharp or sound (I have solemnly sworn never to say fucking “rigorous”), but dear reader(s), the crowd went mental. I have honestly never felt a bigger laugh erupt from so deep inside an audience’s collective gut, such a sense of ecstatic release, as when, at the riotous climax, one ant exclaimed, “the workers control the means of production!”

It’s hard to imagine a mass market film having the same effect on any audience in London in 2015 – we don’t have the same vividness and urgency of communal experience, and we’re a huge market, studios won’t get to push our buttons by accident that way. I was grateful for it anyway, that winter was probably the only time of my life when I was frequently lonely and bored, and that evening I felt less of both, for a moment.

Danni Glover and the Curious Case of Curly Skullet

'Just so we're clear: you fancy me more than that talkative dude in the audience, right?'
‘Just so we’re clear: you fancy me more than that talkative dude in the audience, right?’

I wonder how David Fincher would feel if he knew that I consider The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be his most memorable film. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I remember almost nothing of the film, but I remember the screening itself more than any pornographically choreographed punch in Fight Club or stylishly dispassionate monologue in The Social Network. I saw Benjamin Button an unenthusiastic two weeks after its release. I wasn’t that into it. I had exhausted all the other options in the annual post-Oscars slump. I sat in an empty row in an almost empty screen, and was soon joined by a tall man with a curly skullet who decided to sit right next to me. I would have moved seats but I was on the aisle and figured he looked slightly too vacant to be predatory, although it is established that anybody who sits next to a stranger in an empty room is probably a weirdo or the star of a advert. As long as he didn’t text or steal my peanuts, I didn’t care.

He didn’t text or steal my peanuts. Turns out, Skullet loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. If you’ve ever been to a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room and struggled to keep up with the hardcore fans’ dialogue with the screen you’ll have some idea of what it was like to be with him for that film experience. Whenever Cate Blanchett’s character spoke, he replied. He professed his love to her several times growing more and more incensed when she responded inappropriately because she was preoccupied with her husband’s bizarre biological anomaly. Skullet was watching a totally different film, in which he was desperately trying to win Blanchett back from her marriage to a man who was about to turn into a baby. Actually I quite enjoyed his film. So much so that when the credits rolled and he sprang to his feet in rapturous applause and ecstatic tears I joined in. I’d enjoyed the performance.

Matthew Turner and Malcom X

Blue. Not purple.

I’ve had a large number of memorable cinema experiences over the years: the triple bill of the Apu Trilogy at the Curzon Soho;  the five hour showing of 1900 at the BFI; a packed house in an L.A. cinema on the opening night of Scream 2 (there is, I am certain, no better way to see Scream 2).

One particularly memorable experience was an advance screening of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X while I was studying at UC Santa Barbara in 1992-1993. My friend Phil and I had spotted someone doling out tickets on campus and though we possibly weren’t the demographic they were looking for (judging by the fact that we ended up being the only two white people in the audience), we secured our tickets and went along to the screening. It was our first experience of a film where the audience responded vocally to the events on screen and though it was initially unsettling (the urge to shush is strong with me – I once shushed Clive James in a screening of Australia), we quickly began to enjoy it. The high point came early on, when Denzel-as-Malcolm and Spike-as-Malcolm’s-buddy-Shorty appeared on screen in full-on zoot suits (were they purple? In my head, they were purple) and started strutting down the street, at which point someone in the audience yelled, “HE’S PIMPIN’ NOW, MUTHA!” Cue hysterical laughter and the birth of a catchphrase that has lasted longer in my memory than anything about the film, except that scene.

Paul Duane IN Old Men Don’t Wear Birthday Party T-Shirts

'What am I doing? I'm playing to this crowd, honey.'
‘What am I doing? I’m playing to this crowd, honey.’

In the Autumn of 1983, I was a young man with all the freedom a young man could ask for. I had a bit of money in my pocket, I could wear a ripped-to-shreds The Birthday Party t-shirt without being told off, I was away from home, I was in Art School. To this day, the memory that most clearly, most emblematically, sums up that feeling is that of walking down Westmoreland St in Dublin, a vinyl copy of Violent Femmes by the Violent Femmes under my arm, just bought in Freebird Records, on my way to a double-bill of movies by the darling of the NME’s film critics, an obscure and edgy auteur by the name of Steve Martin.

Hard to believe now, but The Jerk & Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, though they’d seen US release, were near impossible to see in the UK or Ireland. So when the Astor Cinema, on the North Quays of Dublin’s city centre, advertised a double-bill, I hopped on a 46A bus feeling I was off on an adventure into uncharted territory. I was just up from the country. I’d read Burroughs, Bukowski and Hunter S Thompson. I knew everything, I knew nothing.

The Astor, you see, was usually the home to what would now be called ‘softcore’ but then was usually called ‘blue’ or ‘dirty’ films. No Two Girls, One Cup here – you would be more likely to see Night Shift Nurses/Swinging Stewardesses, the sort of film that is now lovingly restored & re-released by boutique blu-ray labels. But back then, there was no cognoscenti, no cineaste that would go to the Astor. I was walking an uncharted, sticky carpeted trail to God knows where.

I paid my money and settled in to enjoy what the NME probably called ‘a beatnik extravaganza of surreal punk-rock gags straight out of Lenny Bruce via Lord Buckley’. The Jerk, as I recall, passed more or less without incident. Maybe the fact that it was in colour and contained some fairly audience-pleasing gags (Iron Balls McGruder, anyone?) kept the audience quiet. The guy sitting directly in front of me got unusually worked up about Steve Martin’s carny girlfriend in her latex bodysuit, but (being seventeen) I was probably feeling similar, though maybe not expressing it as, well, as forcefully as he was.

But when Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid started up, a ripple of surprise & shock went through the audience. It was in black & white! I hunkered down in my seat to spot all the references, the cameos from Alan Ladd, Charles Laughton, Bogie, Veronica Lake.

The guy in the seat in front of me turned around to look at me. He grinned at me. “It’s not much good,” he said, making lots of eye contact. I avoided meeting his rheumy eyes, but noticed the pupils seemed fixed on two widely divergent axes. Maybe he wasn’t really trying to make eye contact at all!

He eventually returned to his seat. I continued to watch, hoping the black-and-whiteness would drive him away. But the scene where a dog poops, and Edward Arnold forces Steve to pick it up in his handkerchief, made my new friend laugh til he almost fainted. I wasn’t finding it quite as funny so he forced the issue, looking at me and saying “He picked up dog shit and gave it to her!” I felt the best thing to do was to move. Just as well, as the next scene involved Steve putting his leading lady’s breasts back in whack. God knows what would have happened.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I moved to the other side of the cinema just in time for the elderly couple in the row behind – who’d just arrived in with their winnings from the fruit machine in the casino next door – to drop their bag of coins. So, the remainder of the film was punctuated by two very old and quite fragrant people scrabbling around on the floor, up and down the aisles, between the seats, picking up coins and God knows what, and arguing about whose fault it was.

I still enjoyed the films. The cinema, after a brief period as a video store that rented out ‘personal video booths’ for watching films in privacy (I can’t imagine why), is gone. We won’t see its like again.

Blake Backlash and The Devils

'Wait. Is that Paul Gambaccini over there?'
‘Wait. Is that Paul Gambaccini over there?’

A memory from the National Film Theatre in the days before it was rechristened BFI Southbank. In 2004, I had gone to see The Devils there – the film had just been released in a restored version which included some scenes that Ken Russell had been forced to cut at the time of the original release.

My friend and I found ourselves in a packed NFT auditorium, sitting in front of man who was complaining to his own viewing companion about the day he had at work. When you go to the pictures, it’s not unusual to be able to eavesdrop on someone moaning about how their job sucked that day. In this instance though, the man with the grievance was pop-scholar Paul Gambaccini, who was unhappy about a decision made by the producer of  the show he was working on. I can’t remember the exact nature of his complaint – and I hope my memory is not gilding the lily – but I am almost certain it was something particularly Gambaccini-esque: like being angry at the exclusion of The Marvelettes from a rundown of the Top 10 Motown Girl Groups. What is vividly imprinted in my memory though is Gambaccini’s turn of phrase when describing how angry he was. ‘I was incensed’ he told the man sitting beside him, ‘I was… I was Vesuvius.’

The film was amazing and after it was over Ken Russell himself strode into the auditorium, clutching his hat in his hand and waiving it above his head. I’ve always thought Russell resembled Oliver Reed, his favourite actor and the star of The Devils. The film is a story about making a stance against repression – and seeing the film uncensored felt like a triumph for the libertines (those of us in the audience, Ken Russell) over the prudes. So it almost felt like the hero of the film had been resurrected by the audience’s rapturous applause.

Russell was there with the film’s editor Michael Bradsell. Bradsell was more subdued that Ken (one would have to be, I imagine), he seemed like he had eye for the little details where Russell focussed on the big, lurid picture. Mark Kermode – a passionate defender of the film – was the perfect chair of the Q&A. At one point, Bradsell talked about restoring one of the missing scenes – an eye-openingly memorable one where Vanessa Redgrave uses a conveniently shaped charred femur-bone as an aid to masturbation. Bradsell spoke of how much of the footage had been lost  – but he had been able to find a shot from another scene that captured Redgrave’s face in a moment of appropriate ecstasy. ‘… which was a stroke of luck,’ Bradsell said as he concluded his story.  ‘It wasn’t luck,’ said Russell, ‘it was your bloody hard work and great craftsmanship and you should be bloody proud.’ Bradsell smiled and looked at the ground and it seemed to me that you saw a glimpse of how they worked together, the way they loved each other, a bit.

Writing about this now, remembering it all, I was… I was the Bridge of Sighs.

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