The Pictures Get Bigger

Sarah Slade muses on community and communality in cinemagoing in the era of digital exhibition.


A long time ago, I r̶a̶m̶b̶l̶e̶d̶ wrote about the digital film experience in a review of Side by Side, the Keanu Reeves-fronted documentary on the rise of digital film-making. In it the interviewees talked an awful lot about the communal experience of film, and how the convenience of digital did away with that, turning movie going into an atomised, insular activity. At which I (politely) cried bollocks.

Far from atomising film-watching, digital has opened up a whole new way of watching films, of making an ordinary movie into an occasion, feeding the millenial craving for novelty while providing an extra dimension to the film itself. Of course, there is a lot to be said for munching your way through a £4 box of popcorn in front of Spectre while wondering just what is it that makes the carpet in the Peckham Plex so…sticky…but there are alternatives. I decided to take a look at a cinematic experience that fell somewhere between arthouse and multiplex, and then go beyond all that into total immersion.

In the olden days if you wanted to see a film outside of a cinema, there was the film society, licensed to show films still officially in distribution, and in our case, cornerstone of university cultural life – though to be honest, if you had been stuck on the north west coast of Ireland in the 1980s, your options for cultural enrichment were limited to drinking, discos and fillums. Every week during term time the Film Soc would show an eclectic programme of on release and classic films in a lecture theatre equipped with a professional projector. Would-be projectionists had to go on a special course yet every week, the projectionist would trap the film in the gate, the film would catch fire, the audience would groan and head for the bar while the film was rethreaded. But there was no cinema or video store in a three mile radius, so your only other chance of seeing anything not on telly was to cadge a lift to Derry, which raised your chances of getting shot, blown up, arrested or a combination of all three.So the idea of trying out a local film society in south London didn’t fill me with keenness.

The Bigger Picture follows the basic principles of the traditional film society but the technology means that they can push the group experience a little further with themed evenings (a recent screening of The Big Lebowski offered free cocktails and people were encouraged bring their dressing gowns) or building programmes around the films they want to watch rather than what the distribution companies are churning out.

We missed the free cocktails but managed to catch Whiplash, a film about jazz drumming that my grumpy jazz musician husband had wanted to see but being parents with a Spurs-supporting babysitter, we had missed it while it was on general release. The prospect of listening to endless drum solos wasn’t particularly tempting but I was told there would be burgers and beer, and a sofa. A big, comfy sofa.

That’s Christmas sorted…

The Bigger Picture’s latest venue is a spacious upper room at the East Dulwich Tavern, furnished with a bar, tables and lots of lovely big, comfy sofas, arranged around a big pull-down screen. There were gastro-pub burgers, and good beer and a warm, friendly welcome from the Film Society members on the door. The film was good, and the tasty food ensured that I didn’t do my usual dozing off during the extended periods of frenetic sweaty drumming. After the film came a Q&A session with a locally based pro drummer who had been on Top of The Pops and everything. Thinking about it afterwards, it was charming and ever so slightly educational, though we got some good Eurovision gossip. As an evening at the flicks, it was about as perfect as you could get: relaxed, informal, but still achieving the buzz and excitement of a communal experience.

The next showing is Christian Petzold’s Phoenix on Thursday 21 January. Tickets are £7 in advance and on the door (space permitting). Buy advance tickets from the nice barfolk at the East Dulwich Tavern or online.

Pub screenings are lovely, but what if you’ve been mildly obsessed with a movie since you were…say…14 and you’ve always wanted to be not the star, but maybe an extra, a Hitchcockesque shadow hopping on a bus behind the hero, or a bit of background colour in the bar? That’s where Secret Cinema comes into its own. Secret Cinema takes the group experience from static to total immersion.

It starts shortly after you fork out an astronomical sum for the ticket. A sum so large that you only admit its size to fellow obsessives. Normal people shout “‘Ow much?!”, but your friends – true friends – know that you’d happily pay double for the privilege. Then a few days later, you get a mysterious email that doesn’t look like the usual viagra spam and you’re off. Within hours you become part of a massive underground community, well, if it wasn’t for the public Facebook group anyway. You trade tips with other conspirators about what to find, what to trade, and where to go. Finally the day arrives and you meet at your prearranged spot, dressed in your costume and trying to look both cool and inconspicuous. I would like to say that this is totally not possible on a Tube train full of people dressed like this:

At the secret rendezvous you are hustled into a slightly dodgy old spaceship and taken to the desert world of Tattooine. There are Jawas to trade with, stormtroopers, mysterious elderly gentlemen in flowing robes and a bar. The mysterious old gentleman directs you to a shack where you find an entire family of Jedis from Middlesex learning ancient meditation skills. You witness the stormtroopers arresting a young man for speechifying about freedom and rebellion. You buy a t-shirt.

Later, everybody is herded through a maze of corridors full of half-glimpsed rooms and half-heard sounds, ending in an enormous hangar, where you witness a live feed of an dogfight between the orange-clad people’s comrades and the imperial tie-fighters. A fighter flies in above your head. Your mate Becs starts to sob with joy and the film hasn’t even started yet.

Actually, the film itself was a bit of a let-down after such an intense buildup. We sat in rows and watched it on a big screen, cheering in appropriate places and then it was all over, bar the aftershow party, but by then we were tired of playing and got the bus home, back to normal life?

Secret Cinema is already recruiting for its next big thing. Can’t tell you what it is. It’s a secret.

About Sarah Slade

Middle-aged, middle-sized and reluctantly middle-class Learning designer, based in London. Wife to Mr Perfect, Mother of Little Miss Perfect. I write a lot of learningy businessy stuff for a living, and as a consequence am very lazy about writing for myself. I occasionally write my own blog about living in London and sometimes I’ll find something interesting to say about my professional life. I sew a bit, paint a bit and I sing very averagely and play a terrible game of badminton.

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