Ura Firth at Hillswick Hall

Making memories in Shetland

Hillswick Public Hall sits between the A970 and the Ura Firth. It was built in the 1930s, replacing an older hall which had been a surplus Air Force pre-fab hut, bought and assembled by the community in 1921. According to a poem published in Feburary that year in the Shetland Times, the hall had become a necessity since the school authorities had started to take a dim view of the dances held in their premises. The new hall, which “holds a throng/ Who care for naught but dance and song”, was a demonstration of how “Without a doubt, in different ways/ We’re gayer than in pre-war days”. By then, the nearby St Magnus hotel had already been attracting tourists from all over the UK for twenty years, with the promise of loch and sea fishing, scenic cycling routes and cliff walks. The hotel, established by a steam-boat company, was only open in the summer, so something was needed to pass the winter evenings. The old hall sat on a gentle slope, on its own, between the two villages it served till it was replaced by the new, purpose-built structure.

On a Saturday afternoon in 2017, the water shimmers beyond the cliffs and three furry pigs graze on somebody’s lawn across the road. A couple of cars are parked outside the hall, and Graeme Howell is leaning on the access ramp bannisters, enjoying the fine summer evening. Graeme moved up from England in 2015 to take up his job as general manager of Shetland Arts, the organisation that runs the Mareel arts centre in Lerwick, which is also the base for ScreenPlay Film Festival.

Engine room of the North Star cinema, built long before Lerwick had public electricity. Many more images of the cinema and its advertising slides can be found in the Shetland Museum and Archives website.

When it opened in 2012, Mareel became the first permanent cinema venue in Shetland since the closure of the North Star, which had operated since 1913 and became a (much remembered) nightclub in the 1990s. ScreenPlay has been going for 11 years and it offers an appealing mix of international features and a platform for local filmmakers (the programme this year includes a film about the North Star cinema!). The strength of the festival is in part rooted in a longer lineage of volunteer film exhibition and community filmmaking, but also in external connections to industry professionals like Mark Kermode. There is perhaps something characteristic in this modern port town’s appreciation of the homemade and the foreign, oil rigs and knitting.

Inside the hall, a volunteer team are setting up two 16mm machines and a video projector for backup. Liam, a young technician from Mareel, hopes he can remember the instructions and timings for the changeovers, as the film does not have cue marks. He has been learning the craft of analogue projection from Stuart Hubbard, who with Kathy Hubbard – also of Shetland Arts – have been doing community screenings as the Shetland Film Club since 1990. The Club is less active now that there is again a permanent cinema in Lerwick, but they collaborate with Shetland Arts to take screenings to village halls in other parts of the archipelago. The portable screen, now flanked by a Shetland Arts banner on the Hillswick Hall stage, is often packed in the back of Stuart’s car, but it has been a long time since the 16mm projectors were used.

16mm projectors awaiting the audience at Hillswick Public Hall

16mm projectors awaiting the audience at Hillswick Public Hall

The Hall was completely refurbished in 2012. The casket-like shape of the auditorium is fully encased in light-coloured wood, which calls to mind the Nordic intimacy of a sauna. On the shore side there is a function room with a bar and large picture windows framing views of the Ness of Olnesfirth across the water. The other room is a big catering kitchen, where members of the Hall Committee are slicing homemade fruit cake and setting out the tea service for the post-film discussion. The Buena Vista Social Club album plays quietly, incongruently in the background, and is later replaced by Scottish traditional tunes. It is a well-used hall, hosting various clubs through the week, Sunday teas in the summer, and music sessions that nurture local talent. Films are a less frequent occurrence.

They were more regular 70 years ago, when the Highlands and Islands Film Guild was formed to provide cinema entertainment across this vast area. The screening at Hillswick is part of the Major Minor Cinema project, which brings together researchers from Stirling and Glasgow universities to explore the history of the Guild and its audiences. The project builds on Ian Goode’s previous work on the topic, during which he received letters from people who remembered going to the film shows organised by the Guild’s travelling operators, or later on by trained local volunteers, in village halls around the region. Embracing cinema memory as a form of enquiry in its own right, rather than a straightforward data source, the current project is nurturing creative writing that takes these non-theatrical cinema experiences as a possible subject.

Between the closure of the North Star and the opening of Mareel, various venues were used for screenings, including the Garrison Theatre

Between the closure of the North Star and the opening of Mareel, various venues were used for screenings, including the Garrison Theatre

Plenty going on

Plenty going on

Cinema memory is a thriving research area, in the overlap between memory studies and historical spectatorship/audience studies. Scholars in this field reference Jackie Stacey and Annette Kuhn, whose pioneering works continue to influence methodology and to generate research questions. A special issue of the journal Memory Studies [unfortunately paywalled, except for the introduction] published in January 2017 includes accounts of ongoing research projects using oral histories in South Africa, Texas, the Czech Republic, Italy, and the UK, making the case for the specific contribution that cinema-focused memory studies can make to the broader field. The heightened sensory and affective stimulus of film, and the social aspects of cinemagoing, can conspire to make cinemagoing a memorable experience, which then serves as an anchor for other personal or cultural memories. The resulting interviews, letters, or narratives are very rich texts, open to re-interpretation as they recede into the past. Reframing the autobiographical as explicitly ‘creative’, in the way that the Major Minor Cinema project is doing, adds another layer of complexity to any presumed evidentiary reading of these memories. It places subjective experience at the centre and postpones the moment of academic interpretation, allowing the owner of the memory to process it and express it in their own way.

In order to support this process, the Major Minor Cinema project have arranged creative writing workshops and pop-up screenings. Both are liable to awaken a more experiential connection to cinema memories, and to do memory work through these intuitive responses. The screening at Hillswick Hall was one such event, showing a programme of cartoon, newsreel and feature (Scott of the Antarctic), all on 16mm, as would have been the case at a Film Guild screening. This partial restaging (no hard wooden forms to sit on, nor the coldness of a damp hall in a winter night) was possible because the hall still exists and is still a public hall; because the Film Club still has and can operate 16mm projectors; because it is possible to buy old films on eBay; because there is a film festival supporting and advertising the event, but also a variety of local media from radio to noticeboards. The conditions of possibility of this re-enacted screening are radically different from those of its predecessor 70 years ago, but a mix of institutional support, individual initiative and community organising plays a part in both.

Historical re-enactment is the bread and butter of immersive cinema. All sorts of exhibitors, from early cinema festivals to Secret Cinema extravaganzas, draw on the novelty or nostalgia of anachronistic exhibition practices. Organisations that work with dementia patients have noticed that cinema – not just the films, but also other approximations of classical cinemagoing – can have a mild therapeutic effect. Projects like BBC RemArc or the GFT’s Movie Memories are part of a much-needed effort to improve quality of life for people with dementia. Research conducted by Ana Salzberg (Dundee), Jenna Breckenridge (Edinburgh), Thilo Kroll (UC Dublin) and Gavin Wylie (Dundee) found that care home residents enjoyed a series of screenings of classic musicals, which triggered pleasurable memories of a favourite actor or a cinema date, and also provided a context in which to connect with others. The researchers emphasised that this wellbeing effect in the present is as important as any connection to the past that the films can provide.

An engagement with cinema history, however, requires an approach to the past that goes beyond nostalgic and therapeutic uses of memory. It needs to be more open and unfinished than the former, and more dialectical than the latter. Last year, researchers at De Montfort University experimented with an immersive 1960s cinema screening as a means of communicating and sharing their research, and a connected project at UCL is also using re-enactment to disseminate results from a wide-ranging cinema memories project. In Shetland, the re-staging has a different purpose, as it takes place halfway through the project rather than at the end. The screening served as a public introduction to the community for the project’s researchers, as people were invited to keep an eye out for them and tell them their memories of the Guild, but it also demonstrated some of the existing knowledge of how a show would have been like. This is an exploratory sort of knowledge sharing, as people can respond to this reconstruction by validating, expanding, or challenging the story of the Film Guild that is being put forward. It also creates some minimum common ground for those of us who never went to a Guild screening.

It was at this point that the experience of this re-enactment bifurcates, between those for whom it evokes memories and those for whom it is new information to take in. I had already spent the day in the archives piecing together a scattered understanding of cinema practices in the area. At the screening, instead, I tested the boundaries of my empathy by trying to imagine what it would have been like to go to a screening like this, here in Hillswick in the 1950s, and came up with nothing: I am not from there and then, I am not them. This failure of my own imagination makes the creative writing all the more important, as reading can be much more ‘immersive’ than any hyperrealistic simulation. Hear, for instance, Alison Miller read her short story commission for the project, an Orkney tale of teenage cinemagoing and furtive excitement set during World War II.

https://vimeo.com/211669906

Creative writing offers an elegant solution to the epistemological abyss of memory studies. It is a truth that does not claim primacy nor exclusivity; a way to tell the past that assumes there are multiple perspectives, but does not make a postmodern fuss.

While I’m thinking this, on screen Captain Scott and his companions are freezing to death. The film is a re-telling of a classic tragedy from history, full of details that no-one can have known, crystallised as facts through its many versions. Jingoistic as it may be, the struggle against the elements is still compelling to watch, the music soars, and everybody sits tight. The reel changeovers are smooth and the picture is very steady, although the print is hopelessly faded to pink, and covered in dirt and scratches. It ends, the lights go up, and trays of cakes and biscuits are brought in from the kitchen. All over the room, conversation blossoms, and the fate of the Antarctic explorers becomes – if you forgive the pun – an ice breaker. Then there are cups to wash, equipment to pack, the screen to fold down, emails to be collected and festival brochures distributed. The next day the Hall hosts a fish auction.

 

Special thanks to Sarah Neely, Ealasaid Munro, Ian Goode, and Nalini Paul for allowing me to join their research trip for a bit. Thanks also to Roseanne Watt, Ryan Sandison, Stuart and Kathy Hubbard for providing information and explaining things to me. Any errors are my own and I would be grateful for corrections or comments.

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MOVE

On Saturday 18 February 2017, as part of Glasgow Film Festival, the eighteen students enrolled in the Film Exhibition and Curation Masters at the University of Edinburgh presented “MOVE: A pop-up audio visual experience”. The event was part of coursework in their Applied Learning module. But it was not mere homework – it was an ambitious and inventive evening, taking more risks than any of the other pop-up screenings in the ‘Special Events’ strand. Instead of starting from a well-known feature film title and arranging the space and ancillary events around its plot and theme, the curators here started with a concept (move!) and experimented with its expression in and around film. Or rather – they dealt with the realities of putting on a show, collectively, over the holidays, on a tight budget, and with a big change of plans halfway through. As a learning experience, this is invaluable. I have had the pleasure to read some of the reflections produced by the students, which are nuanced and thoughtful and full of rich connections between the curatorial and film theory and their concrete project.

I had a chance to chat with about half of the group after their final lecture. They asked me to give collective rather than individual attribution to their remarks, and I have also paraphrased for clarity.

The Space

“This was one of the biggest challenges of the project, because we started with the idea that it was going to be happening at Waverley station, it was going to be a very different event. Then midway through the winter holidays that place fell through. and we had to completely reconfigure the way we thought, what this thing is, what the audience is going to do, what we are going to do, and Joytown found us”

One of the attractions of the event was its setting. Joytown is a new venue in a very old building. It is not, however, one of those obvious pieces of Victorian Heritage; it is, and has always been, an unassuming warehousey block where the attraction is inside. It is located on the North-Eastern edge of Glasgow’s city centre, a corner of the city that was badly mangled by the construction of the Glasgow Inner Ring Road in 1971. In the late 19th century, the Cowcaddens area had been notorious for its slum housing as well as its abundance of cheap music halls, theatres, and circuses. The building opened in the 1890s as part of the vast Olympia Hall, leased and transformed over the years by various entertainers who put on Wild West shows, pantomime, and variety. Most famously, it became the Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus in 1897, when legendary showman E. H. Bostock not only brought in exotic animals, but also the latest novelty – moving images.

Joytown Street View

After the First World War,  the building was put to various unglamorous uses, and languished for a while. In the 1990s, that corner of Cowcaddens was re-developed as ‘Chinatown’, with the opening of shops and restaurants to serve the Chinese community. The ground floor of the building now houses the Chinatown restaurant, a large cash-and-carry business and a seafood merchant. On the first floor, until last year, was Reardon’s Snooker centre. This is the part that is now being re-invented as Joytown, one of its old names. At the moment, however, it is a very austere space, to say the least.

“We started to believe in it when we saw the space. We had been taken aback by the change but also when we saw the pictures, we didn’t have a good feeling about that space, because it didn’t look like a space where you would have an exhibition. There was a lot of work to do to change it into something more welcoming to an audience […] It felt like a very big and empty space, so we had the challenge to visually fill it with our messages and the screen.”

The night before the screening there had been a clubnight at the venue so the curators had their work cut out. “We carried a lot of tables”… “we cleaned a lot on our hands and knees”… “Oh, the broken hoover!” The tables were set up cabaret-style. The decorations committee “used their own craft skills to make paintings, to make table decorations”: On each table there was a little battery-operated tealight and a bottle with the flag of an European country painted on it. There was also a programme with the film information and a postcard – a random, vintage postcard, on which the audience was invited to write their thoughts. The amount of collective effort put into the encounter with the audience was visible, and each element seemed to carry a different nuance of the overall sense of the event.

“I did some of my own research because I thought it would be a nice marketing tool. It used to be this massive entertainment complex and had the first zoo in Glasgow… there’s some weird history in that building. Films had been screened there since 1898, so we wanted to use that lineage. It underwent the history of many British cinemas, it was turned into a bingo hall and fell into disrepair, so we felt like ‘cinema is coming back, to where it once was’. I really enjoyed looking at that history.”

Having been used in various combinations of variety theatre, menagerie/zoo, fairground, cinema, skating rink and ballroom, that distant past of pictures and dancing is most appealing for a new life with, well, pictures and dancing. I knew about this history before coming to the event, and my experience was tinted by a yearning to find a connection to that past, to see a spark from their carbon arc projector shining through the century. For the less informed visitor, however, only the more recent history of the building is visible – emblazoned in its snooker livery and football score boards. It was up to the curators to tell a story about the space, as one of the various stories being told.

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When the students first visited the venue, owner Paul introduced them to the history of the building. While he knows about the older entertainment venue part of the story, he has been more keen to emphasise the Chinatown location. This was however seen to be somewhat incongruous with the film programme’s European focus. “He had this idea of putting up Chinese decorations. There were a few elements here and there but we didn’t want this to be at the heart of the exhibition because it would clash with our programme.” Furthermore, the notion of Chinatown did not seem to be particularly compelling for Glasgow residents, as the area is very small and does not have the same significance as in other parts of the world.

This difference in ideas did not get in the way of other aspects of the collaboration with the venue. The owner was on hand to arrange supply of drinks, staff the bar, sort out electrics and tech set-up, and book a DJ for the after-party. When the planned caterers fell through, he also offered “the local knowledge of where we could get the food”. This collaboration was acknowledged with gratitude, and it was also not one-way only. Apart from all the cleaning and tidying, the curators feel like their event has had a lasting impact on the venue.

“He was refurbishing at the same time, so in a way our event also shaped the place. He kept the paintings, he kept quite a few elements of our event so now it’s part of the identity of that space. We were building our event while he was building the space.”

One of those decisions that may have left an imprint on the configuration of the venue was the decision to curtain off a section at the back of the venue as a separate screening room. Here, a different programme of films was shown, including a mash-up of scenes of movement and travel from various movies. A few beach chairs offered a change of posture.

“We had this idea of two screens quite early on, which was another way to break the space up, to give another point of interest towards the back of the venue, and we felt like it gave our idea a bit more texture, to have this other gallery-type of exhibition and then the more cinema-type at the front […] We tried to play on the theme of discovery, people discovering the space without us telling them what to expect. People had to bump into this. It’s exciting when you find something in a space that not everyone knows about, this Secret Cinema notion. A mystery space, this extra layer that a few people knew about and then word of mouth spread it.”

A smoke machine was used in this space, drawing inspiration from the steam that billows around the first film of the programme, the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of A Train to La Ciotat (1896). That ‘train steam’ had the double effect of making the projector beam visible, and evoking the smoke-filled atmosphere of an old cinema. If it wasn’t for the beach chairs this would be like a little nickelodeon, even if it was intended more like a black-box gallery projection room. I saw the same kind of partition used a few weeks later, when Glasgow Short Film Festival used Joytown as a ‘VR Palace’. This shows how MOVE!’s resourceful solution to make the vast open-plan space more interesting was noted and adopted, potentially informing future uses of the venue.

The programme

“It was more than just the films being screened, it was an event happening around us. The way we relayed this on social media was as ‘a cabaret event with film as its main act’, which I think is a nice way to frame it.”

The film component of the evening included ten short films in two sections. The order of the films was carefully planned for variety and balance, with each section featuring some animation, some dance, and some archive material. The programme was shaped equally by concept and necessity. Budget and time set boundaries as to what films could be included. “We were sourcing quite close to the event […] Especially the short films, it was about what we could get and then making it fit into the whole programme”. The challenge produced an inventive, surprising programme, enriched by live music, dance, and words. Two abstract films by Margaret Tait, chosen with advice from Tait expert Dr Sarah Neely, filled the room with colour and joyful music. This found a contemporary echo in the playful Latvian short Choir Tour (Edmunds Jansons, 2012), a crowd favourite. Two very different traditions of experimental film shifted the tone: First was Lithuania’s Ecce Homo (Vidmantas Baciulis, 1972), a once-supressed record of a theatre avant-garde with earnest liberatory politics; then, Enrico Cocozza’s Masquerade (1953) represented that bizarre mid-century moment when Scottish amateur cinema was equal parts bourgeois parlour game and Freudian adventure. Orgesticulanismus (Mathieu Labaye, 2008) was an incredible animation that re-imagined the joy of movement from the perspective of someone who has lost their physical mobility. Another animation and a dance video completed the two sets.

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At the heart of each half, however, was a 15 minute compilation of archive footage from the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. The students had edited this, showcasing the new kinds of skills that the role of a moving image curator may entail in the era of Audiovisualcy. The band Sink accompanied the archive films with their delicate extemporising on accordion, violin and soprano saxophone. Their involvement came about through their previous work with producer Shona Thomson, who is a guest tutor on the MSc and mentored the students through the project. Shona has extensive experience producing live cinema events, especially working with archive film and live music. Last year she produced a Scotland-wide tour of the 1926 animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, with live accompaniment by Sink.

 

For the last film, two dancers performed in front of their screen, only their silhouettes visible against the bright colours. This spatial arrangement was unrehearsed, and the curators recognised that “the dancers were difficult to see [but] because where the projector was, the dancers went over the screen a bit, it was a nice relationship between the dancers and the films being screened.” While I could indeed barely see them from where I was sitting, their presence somehow grounded the evening’s theme with the corporeality of their movement: Liveness made tangible as a shadow on the screen. I was moved by the emergence of something new in that unrehearsed intersection between film, music, and bodies in movement.

“This constellation, with the music part, the dance part, the archive mixes we created for the event, is never going to happen again, so that makes it live and – we hate this word – a unique kind of thing. But I think it worked really well. Looking at the feedback, most people loved it; a few sceptics were looking at the dancers as being maybe too much distraction from the basic idea of accompanying archive film with live music. But I think everyone agreed that the music worked really well and it gave it this variety aesthetic and was also very spontaneous.”

Another aspect of cinema liveness that is easily taken for granted is the spoken word that precedes the films. Here the research and argument that underpin the programme are offered to the audience. The two presenters were confident and professional (though they say it is their first time), neither pompous nor patronising. Taking the introductions as a serious part of the programme, rather than a throwaway couple of lines, sets a good example for all film exhibitors. The Lithuanian film, which was perhaps the most challenging for the audience, was contextualised with an informative, poetic and passionate introduction, and the voice-over was translated live. This not only added to the sense of discovering a gem that we would have not found otherwise (brought back from the vaults of a national film archive), but also shows that the lack of subtitles is not a good enough reason not to screen something.

The audience

 “We didn’t expect people to stay sitting for the whole time, and most of them didn’t move from their seats.”

The change of venue from Waverley Station to Joytown entailed a complete rethink of the audience and of the behaviour expected of them. “When it was going to be in Waverley, it was the intention that it would be on a big screen and people would be walking through, there wasn’t going to be any seating. We imagined an audience that would be there for fifteen minutes, watch it and then move on. So when it became Joytown suddenly we had an evening when people were going to come in and sit down, and watch something.”

This image of the transient audience metamorphosed into an idea of a somewhat mobile audience. Rather than being set up in rows, seating was around tables, and the offer of a free drink and availability of a couple of food options were intended to encourage people to move around the space. The fragmented nature of the programme also provided more ‘exit points’ for anyone wanting a change of scene, and this was reassuring for the programmers, as it took some pressure off the main selection: “Because we were not so confident that our main screen would attract so much attention, that people might get distracted, we wanted to have other things on the side”. However, people had other ideas: “The main programme was really successful, people were captivated by the main exhibition.” Hence, that mobile audience didn’t really materialise on the night. The lights were kept on during the archive films, while the band played. When the lights went down, however, it was interesting to observe how people interpreted this a command to be quiet and watch the film.

 

P1050757 This was interpreted by some of the curators as a result of conventional expectations: “I think it’s the habit…  You buy a ticket to see something and people don’t think of getting up, because you have the screen, something’s on, and even live music, what else do you want? I think people were happy to sit down and enjoy the show in a relatively passive way.” At the same time, there are also things that could have been done differently: “For people to move around more, we could’ve spaced the tables more […] it could have been longer, there could’ve been more time, longer breaks, longer pauses. We could also have offered more of an incentive for people to get up, like more food […] the realities of having to organise the event meant some of those extra things fell through.”

In other aspects, however, audience response was closer to that envisioned. People ‘got’ the theme and enjoyed making connections between the films. The breadth of the topic created space for thinking, and there was an invitation to share those thoughts on assorted vintage postcards which allowed for a more personal, less tick-box approach to feedback.

“The postcards gave us so many things to reflect on. I was struck by how many different interpretations they had about what we were trying to say with the programme, but how they were all floating around the same kind of idea of unity and connection across borders and barriers. I think we did somehow create some clear message that people picked up on, but that was almost accidental. We felt like it was a bit random what we were doing and it was all driven by necessity and circumstance”

The gap between the raucous, mercenary Joytown of a hundred years ago and the thought-provoking experience offered that night is unbridgeable. This is not a zoo nor a carnival. However, this is still a space for thrills. An interesting observation is that the novelty of the space contributed to the audience’s willingness to engage with an unexpected, experimental programme:

“Because this venue is not a traditional theatrical screening venue, I feel like the people are happy to sit there to receive something that is new […] If we had screened the whole programme in a traditional theatre, it wouldn’t have worked, the effect wouldn’t have been as good. The mix of live music, the bar – it is a new experience. People were taking pictures of the space, as well […] as somewhere they hadn’t been before, that was really exciting, and then running these different films to them in this completely new space”.

Towards the end of our conversation, the group tell me that their tutor, Susan Kemp, described the event as ‘a happening’, and they have come to identify with that label. In its situated activation of a curated programme, its one-night-only alchemy, MOVE was perhaps more purposeful than a traditional ‘happening’. However, it embraced the openness of the moment, it allowed meaning to emerge in the gaps between things. MOVE was full of experimentation and discovery, it challenged its creators as much as it rewarded its audiences, and it’s difficult to imagine a more successful learning experience for these emerging curators.

—–

Post-script: The first published version of this post implied that only a mash-up loop was shown in the partitioned space, and therefore missed the connection to the Lumière film. I am grateful to Noemi who contacted me with additional information and corrected this imprecision.

 

Thank you to the students who shared their time and reflections with me: Noemi Lemoine Blanchard, Camilla Baier, Rachel Pronger, Lennard Kroeger-Petersen, Guangyun Liu, Katy Wale, James McLaren, Paulina Drėgvaitė, Federico D’Accinni, Richard Tanner, Amy Lea.

Thank you to Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars, directors of the MSc.

M&Ds amusement park

Other people’s fandoms

One of the peculiar things about conducting research on certain forms of film exhibition is that I end up watching lots of films that I would not have chosen to watch otherwise. I choose my viewing according to place, rather than title. This makes for an eclectic viewing experience, especially when applied to the intensified frame of a film festival.

Glasgow Film Festival was on last month, and I did not go to any theatrical screenings or watch any of the main programme strands. Instead I went to several of the ‘special events’. This strand has been gaining strength year on year, and it has developed a certain character, with recurring features. Like last year’s Where You’re Meant to Be (Paul Fegan, 2016), this year one of the most popular events was Lost in France (Niall McCann, 2017), screened in a music venue and accompanied with a live gig. There was again an excellent event, MOVE!, organised by the MSc students in Film Exhibition and Curation in Edinburgh (I hope to write more about this in another post). But six of the ten ‘special events’ were not new releases at all, nor part of a retrospective strand. Instead, over the last few years Glasgow has developed a successful stream of ‘eventified’ repertory films. Part of this strategy is what Lesley-Ann Dickson has called ‘spatio-textual programming’, so that a match is sought between film and screening location; live performances or audience activities add further value (Dickson 2014: 150). So, for instance:

  • Dirty Dancing was shown in the Oran Mor’s ballroom, preceded by a tribute dance act and a slice of watermelon;
  • The Thing was screened at -5C in an indoor ski slope, after a themed pub quiz;
  • The Princess Bride was a family event featuring a treasure hunt and a fencing demonstration;
  • and perhaps most successfully, the offbeat vampire thriller The Lost Boys was screened at an amusement park

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All these are fairly mainstream 1980s productions that have acquired varying levels of cult afterlife. What counts as ‘cult’ depends on who you ask, but two common denominators of cult film watching are repeat viewing and ritualistic practices (Mathjis and Sexton 2011: 3). These ways of engagement serve to create a sense of community stretching over time for a relatively small but committed audience. For those outside that sphere, the appeal may not be obvious: had I not been doing this for work, I would not have parted with £14 to watch any of them. I was only vaguely aware of most of these films before booking the tickets, so it was rather surprising to see how much they meant to other people. Festival programmers know what they’re doing by putting on event screenings that encourage the ‘active celebration’ element of cult cinema. Many of the events were sold out long in advance. But what was most interesting was the distinctive character of each of these crowds, and how they differed from my own assumptions about cult audiences.

I must be clear that my project is not an audience research one, but I continued to think about these topics while sitting in a lecture last week by my colleague Dr Becky Bartlett, who was covering the ‘Fandom’ week in our Understanding Audiences course. In her lecture, Becky showed a clip from Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009), in which the makers of Troll 2 (the aforementioned ‘worst’ movie) try to promote a revival of the film through different spaces associated with genre and exploitation films. They are first overwhelmed by the hundreds of adoring fans that turn out for a DIY screening in a New York basement, but find only blank stares at sci-fi and horror festivals.

While there are people who see themselves as cult cinema fans, most cult fandom is more specific. At Glasgow, there were quite distinct audiences, behaving in particular ways, for the films I saw. Almost only women for Dirty Dancing, more mixed and younger audiences in friendship groups for The Thing and The Lost Boys, mainly straight-presenting couples for Secretary, and parents with children for The Princess Bride. The more mainstream acceptability of the festival context makes these good sites for the ‘cult’ to grow, as people attend with their friends and partners. At the Princes Bride screening, for instance, the process of deliberate cultural reproduction was quite evident. Adults were using the opportunity to socialise with one another, but also to introduce their children to a favourite film – or to re-introduce it as a collective experience rather than a DVD at home.

The most rewarding forms of audience activity at these events, then, depend on familiarity with the film, and recognise people’s existing investment in it. The audiences for Dirty Dancing and Lost Boys cheered, whooped, and shouted out key snippets of memorised dialogue. (An obvious observation that is still worth making is that the availability of alcohol before and after some of the screenings had an observable effect on audience participation.) Decor and activities before the screening also set the tone to be more playful and participatory. But that effort is mostly lost on uninitiated viewers, like me. I felt out of my depth most of the time. At The Lost Boys, I missed out on the stage-setting details scattered around the amusement part or on the significance of the location itself. My attempt to dress up as a cool 1980s vampire was half-hearted. In comparison, there were a few hundred people who had absolutely made an effort. The line between cosplay and an 80s-inspired Friday night outfit was blurred, much more than with the rather coy interpretations of S&M to be found at the screening of Secretary. On the one hand, there is not a huge style gap between 1980s vampire bad-boy and modern ‘ironic mullet’ hipster. On the other, these lighthearted cosplayers were comfortable in a fannish persona but hardly defined by their fan identities. Again, Lesley-Ann Dickson has written about Glasgow Film Festival audiences in much more detail and has outlined GFF’s approach to event programming (Dickson forthcoming). What I want to note is how successful the Festival has been in attracting both cult and novelty/nostalgia audiences who may not be interested in the contemporary arthouse core programme.

From the perspective of my own research on pop-up cinema, the fact that restricted and ritualised exhibition is so strongly associated with cult spectatorship is important. It places the pop-up as both a unique experience and a repeat viewing. The intensity of cult viewing is different from the immersion of the cinephile festivalgoer, so the time-limited nature of the event works differently in both cases. I’m aware I’m only scratching the surface here, so your comments are very welcome.

More images from these events can be found on the Festival’s Flicker page.

References

Dickson, Lesley-Ann. Forthcoming. ‘Screening Spaces: Spatio-Textual Programming & Alternative Modes of Spectatorship at Film Festivals’, in Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy (eds) Live Cinema: Cultures, Economies, Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury.
Dickson, Lesley-Ann. 2014. ‘Film Festival and Cinema Audiences: A Study of Exhibition Practice and Audience Reception at Glasgow Film Festival’. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
Mathjis, Ernest and Jamie Sexton. 2011. Cult Cinema. Malden, Mass: John Wiley.

Screens (1)

Here’s a video I put together with images of a hundred screens on which I’ve watched films since I started this project. It is a lo-fi, three-minute clip made up of still images, live and found sound.

(There are, in fact, just over a hundred screens in this cut – but there are also a couple of screens on which I didn’t actually watch a film, so it cancels out). I am in the process of putting all these screenings into the map, so in due course you will be able to see basic information about all of these. For now, the video intends to be playful rather than informative. I made it using only open-source software (GIMP, Blender and Audacity), in a couple of days, on my parents’ computer. Hopefully later I will be able to make a longer, more argument-driven video-essay.

When I started this project I thought about how I would document my scattered, relatively informal fieldwork. Apart from reading a lot about field notes, and accumulating guilt for never writing them up on time, I also pondered audio-visual documentation. I read Tricia Wang’s article on ‘live ethnography‘, where she discussed her multiple forms of data collection on the field. I am not connected enough to do this ‘live’ (that is, I don’t use a smartphone, yet), but I recognise her desire to “ease myself into a fieldsite through the very act of documenting and sharing my documentation”. I also found that, at the very least, a picture would have a date stamp and jog my memory when my notes scribbled in the dark were too confusing.

I attend and document public events, where photography is allowed. But even when this is the assumption, I decided I would avoid taking pictures where individuals are recognisable. In most cases, it would not be practicable to request permission from everybody present, and obtaining permission from an event gatekeeper would not discount the fact that some people might prefer not to be on display. Taking pictures of the space, perhaps with the back of people’s heads, was sufficient for my purpose. Most events have their own photographers or Facebook albums, which usually do a better job of capturing audience reactions than I could. I focused instead on the less photogenic things, such as the projector, the blackout curtains, and – as above – the screens. I have also experimented with sound recordings, as heard in the first half of the video. While I find the stereo ambient recordings very evocative and useful to recreate a situation, I am not that sure about sharing them. The stereo recorder is a stealthy piece of kit, and it is more likely to capture conversations without the subjects – or myself – noticing. It may be that I restrict its use to situations in which I am able to obtain informed consent directly, although it would be a shame to give up the vivid atmosphere of ‘crowd effects’.

In the video I mix live sound with archive sound from three sources. Movieman is a documentary about James Nairn, a pioneer film exhibitor and filmmaker, in which he talks about some of the first venues at which he worked in the 1920s, including the Savoy Cinema in Edinburgh. From British Pathé News I got some notes on the tripling of the ABC cinema (also in Edinburgh) in 1969. And I used a 1936 Hitchcock film, Sabotage, which opens with a scene of a power cut at a movie theatre (and the complaint: “If I wanted to sit in the dark, I could do it at home – free of charge”).

These archive sounds are meant to work in counterpoint to the images, by evoking the heyday of theatrical exhibition. James Nairn’s recollection of a cinema which was a converted shooting gallery is a reminder that the permanent, purpose-build cinema didn’t appear out of nothing, but through adaptations and appropriations. The hype about the ‘three screens under one roof’ at Edinburgh’s ABC points to another moment of change in commercial exhibition. My first cut of this video had used the soundtracks from various cinema demolition videos, playing with the idea of this explosion of screens rising from the ashes of the old. But the sounds were not only unpleasant and incomprehensible; their intended meaning perhaps played too much into a narrative of decline that ignores the constant reinvention of public film exhibition since it began.

I was editing this video at the same time as I put together an abstract for the Alphaville conference, which uses #CinemaIsDead as its provocation. As the call for papers makes clear, for every critic that laments cinema’s abandonment of their particular definition of the word, there is someone creating a new definition that makes sense to them, now – or retracing a historical path-less-travelled.

In their introduction to The State of Post-Cinema, Malte Hagener, Vinzenz Hediger and Alena Strohmaier tackle this discourse of crisis, situating it in relation to “cinema” as an art form distinguished by its indexical relationship to reality, and “cinema” as a dispositive. In the current situation, they argue, we need to find ways to understand and talk about cinema without remaining bound by that “specific, contingent configuration known as “cinema”” (2016: 4). If that sounds ambiguous, the chapters in the book demonstrate the concreteness of the discussion: from pirate networks to livecast opera to Jafar Panahi’s This is not a Film (2011), moving images keep being created, circulated, and viewed with little concern for ontological definitions and theoretical boundaries. But if the idea of “cinema” seems infinitely malleable, “a cinema” seems much easier to describe.

I’ve also been reading Gabriele Pedullà’s 2012 book In Broad Daylight, which argues that the movie theatre in the twentieth century was “a steely modernist device”, a technology that enforced forms of audience behaviour to encourage concentration on the film. Taking a leaf out of art historians’ examination of the gallery as aesthetic device (the ‘white cube’), Pedullà describes the assumed classical auditorium as a ‘dark cube’ which imposes a certain ‘viewing style’ (p. 25-27). It is this viewing style that seems to have lost its primacy. But if it was, as Pedullà argues with unwarranted certainty, an imposition from above, a disciplining of the public to submit to the wishes of filmmakers, then the dethroning of this viewing style is a moment of possibility, like that of early cinema before its theatricalisation became dominant. And by dethroning I don’t mean disappearance, but rather a recognition of the movie theatre’s contingent relationship to film experience.

Of the hundred screenings in my video, only a few took place in fully darkened, soundproofed spaces. But that doesn’t mean that the expectations associated with the ‘dark cube’ automatically fall away outwith the purpose-built cinema. The screen is in front (even if it’s just a wall). The audience is watching. Around those basic facts, these images show all sorts of negotiations, using and subverting the ever-shifting definitions of cinema.

Ruth Mills performing in Jennifer West's installation at Tramway, September 2016

Wish you were here

I spent the summer chasing cinema. By ferry, train, bus, car, or bike I’ve travelled to places I had never been before, to catch brief spells of light on temporary screens. I started typing this on a boat heading for Zeebrugge, shortly before entering the on-board cinema to watch a Hollywood blockbuster I had missed. I come back to the text almost two months later, after fifteen minutes of wonder in an installation by American artist Jennifer West. In the vast warehouse space of the old tram depot, in complete darkness, Ruth Mills performed the serpentine dance, illuminated by handheld torches shining through strips of celluloid. The familiar rows of sprocket holes and the soft colours of tinted film moved and merged on the walls, as the audience wandered around, shining their torches closer or further away, playing with a magically simple form of projection. A beam of light and shadow, a wall, darkness, and someone watching: I’ve seen this alchemy over and over, and it is never the same twice.

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

At the beginning of the summer, I followed the Screen Machine to Skye and Raasay, where the familiar space of a cinema on wheels offered the comforts that the Scottish weather denies to campers. After a couple of days away from the city, the Icelandic moors with their hardy sheep in Rams fused in my memory with their Highland equals. In rural Northumberland I watched Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, its affectionate humanism made vastly more resonant by the communal meals we shared between its three parts, the togetherness of collective spectatorship nurtured by the warmth of hospitality from our hosts at the Burnlaw Centre. In the last part of Gomes’s extraordinary trilogy, there is a long documentary segment about rugged Lisbon men who breed and train chaffinches for singing tournaments. As the film taught us how to identify the parts of a bird’s song, we realised the chaffinches we heard were also outside the window. Thanks to that random juxtaposition, I now know what a chaffinch sounds like; I apprehend a little bit more of the world. A similar modest discovery took place in an old United Presbyterian Church off the Gallowgate, where a short film about doo fleein’ finally explained to me what those structures I had always seen by the canal were, and illuminated a new corner of my life in the city.

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Cinema this summer engaged my body as well as my attention. In a small, pitch-black room in an electrical warehouse in Edinburgh, I made the palms of my hands tender through drumming, using my skin on skin to learn, to listen to the stories of Afro-Colombian struggles for freedom, told through beat and song in Diana Kuellar’s video installation Benkos. I cycled the two beautiful miles from Gorebridge to Temple Village Hall, where the pleasure of uncomplicated, friendly cinemagoing was augmented by homemade lemon drizzle cake. I also cycled to the temporarily reclaimed space of the Pollokshields Playhouse, in the Southside of Glasgow, and then cycled some more to resistance and solidarity, and a glimmer of hope that we will still have cinema after the coming catastrophe. Hope was also there in the relaxed intimacy of a yurt full of children and child-like adults, talking back to the films and to each other’s explanations of them, during CineMor77’s appearance at Doune the Rabbit Hole.

Temple, Midlothian

Temple, Midlothian

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77's yurt, August 2016

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77’s yurt, August 2016

This summer I had the amazing privilege to go chasing a will o’ the wisp as it flickered here and there, with little more justification than my curiosity. I was able and allowed to do this, and I hope this will only make me more awake to all the barriers that I didn’t even see, that I glibly skipped over, or that others held open for me – not to trick me into misplaced guilt, but to spur me to share this luck. Read this, if you will, as my excuse for telling you about the nice things I’ve seen, the kindness that survives, the simple joys that could be ours.