Books I’m currently reading John Grisham’s 2001 novel(la?) Skipping Christmas. It’s a modern Dickensian fable about a couple who decide, since their daughter is away for the first time, to save the money they would have spent on the festive season and go on a cruise instead. No tree, no parties, no presents, nothing. Their friends and neighbours are incredulous. Christmas in this community is like an eco-system. Because the Kranks aren’t celebrating, it just isn't the same. They won’t be putting a competition snowman on their roof, they won’t be buying the charity calendars and cards and … I’ve reached page eighty so far so can’t tell you what happens next, though it can’t be good. Thematically it’s similar to an education drama from the 90s about tenants in a Liverpool terrace who refused to paint their house pink and they were run out of town.
The problem is, and if the surname of the protagonists in that paragraph hasn’t tipped you off, Grisham’s novel(la?) has been adapted into a film, the slightly more obviously titled Christmas With The Kranks, which since it’s a Christmas movie featuring Tim Allen I’d avoided like an office party. But as soon as I saw that surname, I realised the connection and suddenly my enjoyment was diminished because despite only having seen the poster and the shots which appeared in the advert which was playing on Channel Five for the past two months, the embryonic version of those characters I had in my head have now been replaced by Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis and there’s an ever present nagging calculation of how each scene appeared in the film (which given the cast and pedigree couldn’t have been subtle).
This was one of the reasons I stopped reading fiction. Most best selling books have been turned into films and from experience unless they're significantly different entities it's almost impossible to psychologically divorce the two. No matter how vivid an author’s characterisation, actor who last portayed the character on-screen becomes the avatar within the imagination. Reading High Fidelity, despite the change in location from book to film, it was almost impossible not to see John Cusack walking about in those pages. Similarly for quite some time, until I watched the film again much later on dvd, there were scenes from the book which I’d somehow decided were also in Stephen Friers’ adaptation. Eventually I decided to simply just wait for the film to come out, over and over again, so that I wouldn’t be shackled with making a comparison between the two.
When you picked up Pride & Prejudice did you find yourself casting Lizzie Bennet? Was she played by Gemma Arterton, Keira Knightly, Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Garvie or Greer Garson or another actress who’s yet to swoon over Mr Darcy? Or were you able to set aside the images and let your imagination and Jane Austen’s words take control? I do think this matters. Unlike films and television, books have a singular authorial voice. True, arguably it becomes a collaboration when the words reach our imagination and there will have been interventions at some point in the process from agents, editors and publishers and in some cases franchise collaborators, but most literature offers a world that should exist outside in and of itself. When it hits another medium it’s changed, especially if we see that first (or in the case of Skipping Christmas, a shard of it), the author's intention irrevocably interfered with.
I’d welcome the advise of people who are much more widely read than I am on how they cope with returning the communication to one that's just between them and the author.
Film From the early to mid part of last century, every main street it seems, in city centres and suburbs, had a cinema, huge, beautiful edifaces, where people loved and lost off screen and on. Then television became the cheaper alternative with life's challenges played out in the living room instead.
By the sixties and seventies most picture houses closed and had either fallen derelict or been converted to clubs, bars or bingo halls, leaving many areas without a local cinema. Crystal Palace is such an area and The Rialto is just such a building.
After many years as a bingo hall could potentially become a cinema again. City Screen, the company that also owns Picturehouse at FACT, are interested but were recently outbid by the Kingsway International Christian Centre who want to transform it into a church.
The Picture Palace Campaign doesn't want that to happen. Crystal Palace is without a cinema, and this site offers the perfect opportunity for that to happen. I was contacted recently to ask if I'd offer my support, which I'm pleased to, and I thought the best way for you to hear about it was through the words of the campaigners.
Me: Tell us about the campaign.
Louise: This campaign has some history. It’s not just about providing a cinema now, or opposing a church.
A few years ago, a property developer attempted get a complex built on the local green space Crystal Palace Park; the proposal included a chain multiplex, and the plan was opposed by the local community, who clearly wanted a cinema, but not some antiseptic warehouse-style venue built on our local green lung. Who wants their lovely local park covered in concrete and car parks?
City Screen – which owns the PictureHouse cinemas – had in the meantime been trying to acquire the old Rialto cinema on the Crystal Palace Triangle for some five years, but each time the licence came up for renewal with the council, Gala Bingo said they were going to continue with their operation. And so things continued until summer 2009, when Gala suddenly decided to call it a day, owing to financial problems at the company, and put this and other cinemas up for sale. There were sealed bids, not all bidders had access to the building to assess its value, and suddenly the building belonged to a prosperity gospel church planning on bringing its televangelist-style ministry to our neighbourhood.
The former cinema – which opened in 1928 with Dolores Del Rio in Ramona and operated as a cinema until 1968, with Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye and Patrick O’Neill in Assignment to Kill - maybe doesn’t have the architectural merit of some of those early picture palaces, but it is in reasonable condition, while cinema and the moving image do have a considerable history here in Crystal Palace. I was astonished to find out that there had been at various times been four cinemas in different parts of the Palace Triangle.
There’s a history of film-making here too: John Logie Baird had a long connection with the area, living nearby at Sydenham Hill while he set up and operated the world's first major broadcasting complex at Crystal Palace; and there was a local movie studio run by J Arthur Rank. And in the not so distant past, film director Ken Russell lived just a few doors down from the Rialto building on Church Road… and the Palace transmitter features in films such as The Italian Job. So you could say there has been a close and productive relationship between film and Crystal Palace for decades.
The campaign is really about restoring some of what we had. The Cinema Theatres Association agrees with us that there’s a lack of cinemas in this part of London: South London as a whole has a very low ratio of screens to people, and cinema provision in London Borough of Bromley is particularly low.
At the same time we want to see the area regenerated. The Triangle is awash with bars and restaurants, as well as many independently-owned shops and creative enterprises. A cinema would provide an economic and social anchor for the neighbourhood, encouraging people to visit and to hang around and absorb some of what’s happening around here.
What prompted you to take action?
Quite a few people in the area were flabbergasted to discover that the cinema had changed hands so quickly. It was sold from under the feet of the bingo hall employees in June, who had no idea what was going on as they ran bingo sessions. And we were then faced with the likely consequence that we would lose our only leisure building in the area, for good. The way that the chance of a decent venue was whisked away just as it was presented was a little too much to stomach. We had seen a very similar thing happen in nearby Catford, where the last cinema in the borough – the ABC – was turned into a ‘prosperity gospel’ church against the wishes of Lewisham Council and its mayor.
We already knew there were many churches in the immediate vicinity, but we didn’t realise just how many. We discovered there were 18. So there’s definitely no shortage of churches around here.
And yet despite years of discussion, and interest by independent cinema operators, we still had no cinema while the last remaining cinema building was destined to become yet another church. You could say there were a lot of upset people around.
We organised a meeting, launched a public campaign, put together a website
and a Facebook group, signed up with twitter and generally started getting people mobilised. We put together a technical committee to deal with the detailed work of opposing the planning application, tee-shirts were printed and sold to raise funds for printing, and we delivered tens of thousands of postcards door-to-door. A fair few celebrities supported the campaign, including Spike Jonze, Ken Russell, Mark Thomas and local residents Speech Debelle, Kathy Lette and Pixie Lott, which certainly helped with press coverage and volunteer morale. In October, we organised a public meeting at a local hotel that attracted around 1,000 people – there was standing-room only – and petition signatories soon rose over 10,000.
Bear in mind that local residents had mobilised in recent years over the future of Crystal Palace Park, another key community resource, so you could says that the community was already in third gear, ready and able to quickly launch another campaign.
By the time we needed to send in objections to the Council, there were thousands of people ready and willing to make their views known, and hundreds prepared to do research and leg-work and attend council meetings. Bromley said this was the biggest response they’d ever had to a planning case, ever.
We got the result that we wanted - the church’s plan was rejected just before Christmas – but the vote was close and we’re expecting the church to appeal. We are fully prepared to do everything it takes, such as carrying on to a public inquiry, finding a pro bono barrister or even QC...
We do think that a cinema in Crystal Palace is a viable proposition. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this. Cinemas did go through a difficult time in the 80s and 90s, but attendances are on the rise again, and many people are looking for a different kind of cinema experience, exemplified by the Ritzy in Brixton or the Rio in Dalston: a neighbourhood place to meet, with good food and a bar, and showing a wide range of films appealing to many different audiences.
Have there been any similar campaigns?
As soon as we started our own campaign, we found others. Perhaps the longest-running one is the EMD cinema campaign in Walthamstow. The EMD is a lovely Grade II* listed building, with an incredible history and fabulous interiors.
The EMD was the victim of the film distribution business itself, with the previous purchaser prevented from showing mainstream films as a condition of purchase. It’s amazing – or perhaps shocking – how often this kind of condition is attached to such property sales. But when the EMD was purchased in 2003 by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) it was still a functioning cinema, showing Asian films. The local pro-cinema campaign, run by the McGuffin Film Society, has fought hard for several years to re-open this gem of a picture palace, and is currently battling yet another planning application from the church for change of use. A hearing is due in February 2010.
In Hailsham in Sussex, we came across the heart-warming story of the former mayor June Bourne, who launched a cinema rescue fund with just £1,400. The Hailsham Pavilion cinema reopened fully restored some 15 years after it had shut its doors as a bingo hall.
In Hackney, there’s a campaign to keep the old Clapton Cinematograph as a cinema.
And just a few weeks ago I came across a new small campaign very nearby, in Hither Green (South East London), where local residents are hoping to preserve an old cinema as a cultural centre.
What has the success rate been like?
The Hailsham campaign can definitely be classed a success, with a grade II listed building rescued and reopened, and a community benefiting from this fantastic resource. A different kind of success I think was achieved in Henley, where the old cinema came down, but a new one was constructed, which is now operated by Picture Houses.
The Coliseum Cinema in Porthmadog is another success story.
But elsewhere there are plans to tear down old cinemas, such as the Odeon in Portsmouth.
Unless a building is listed it is very vulnerable, and the dice seem to be loaded in favour of larger developers and organisations and against local communities and their needs and wishes.
Is this simply about the fact that the cinema could be changing use or because it's changing use to become a church?
The West End is choc-a-bloc with excellent cinemas providing a wide choice of films to local residents, but in outer London the distribution of cinemas is patchy. There are now two London boroughs without any cinemas at all, Lewisham and Waltham Forest. In both cases, a church has removed the last remaining cinema from the borough – and in the case of Lewisham, this was against the express wishes of both the Council and the Mayor of Lewisham.
In several other boroughs there is only one cinema. A huge swath of London falls well below the national average for cinema provision. Even the Greater London Authority proposed addressing this cinema and screen shortage by bringing old cinema buildings back into use as cinemas. So the Crystal Palace campaign to reinstate the cinema is not exactly revolutionary on this score.
In Crystal Palace itself, local residents and City Screen (Picture Houses) have been trying to find a solution to the lack of a local cinema for at least five years, so long before this church came along. At the same time, there has been ongoing local concern about the viability of some shops in the same street as the cinema, owing to the lack of footfall, with some of them either shutting or moving on. So when Gala Bingo put this building up for sale, the local community was suddenly presented with an opportunity to return the cinema building to its original purpose, and to reinvigorate, regenerate this rather run-down part of the Triangle.
The church has landed, perhaps unwittingly, in a pre-existing battle for the cultural and economic future of the area. Had it or its advisors done their homework before buying this building, they would have quickly discovered they were about to enter a snake pit and might well have backed off.
But we are concerned that the church has failed to engage with the local community – it did send two representatives to the recent public meeting but they refused to speak – despite making repeated claims of being a ‘community organisation’. If the church were to emerge victorious, we’d have serious concerns about the church’s relationship with this area. Crystal Palace is a bohemian part of town with a large lesbian and gay community and a bit of an artsy-fartsy vibe, while the church’s leader Pastor Ashimolowo has gone on record as being against equal treatment of gays, even signing a petition to the Government against gay rights. It takes a fairly fundamentalist position.
The behaviour of Gala Bingo in this affair could be described as irresponsible, both towards its own staff and towards the local community. This really was not a good way to conduct a sale of an important community resource.
I’m also surprised that the Charity Commission can permit a registered charity to enter what is in effect a rather expensive lottery, subsidised by all of us through substantial Gift Aid cheques from the taxman. The church has taken a considerable punt on being able to gain planning permission after it has acquired property, and without this planning permission the church cannot use the building.
KICC, and other similar churches such as UCKG, have some ‘previous’ on such local planning issues. It was UCKG that removed the ABC cinema in Catford, and that ended the concert life of Rainbow Theatre, which I attended as a teenager. Some of us are becoming peeved at the number of such venues being taken away from communities by religious charities that claim to be ‘community organisations’ but which display clearly community-hostile behaviours. And it is pretty outrageous that the UCKG, a registered charity, can let a grade II* listed cinema decay drastically over a period of six years as it battles against the wishes of the local community. The building is now on the English Heritage at risk “A” list owing to the church’s failure to maintain it. KICC itself has engaged in a number of costly planning battles in the London area in recent years.
[Some of the concerns raised by local councils and residents have been about traffic and transport. This building – which is to be the KICC regional church for the SE of England – will be the largest capacity building the church has. A similar but smaller KICC operation in Walthamstow attracts 6,000 every Sunday, mostly arriving by car, and the people of Crystal Palace are concerned about their small bohemian centre of independent shops and eateries being swamped by a stadium-like influx of all-comers in their cars from across South of England; there’s no Tube in Crystal Palace, and fairly poor public transport on a Sunday.]
What do you like from a cinema?
I’ve always been a fan of the independents and small chains: The Duke of York’s in Brighton and the Ritzy in Brixton have both been my local cinemas at different times, and for a brief time I was a client of the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. I like to see a wide array of films on show, and for there to be activities going on around film itself. These cinemas also support new film-makers, showing shorts and so on.
Cinema needs to come back into our town centres and high streets, and cinemas need to be buildings that contribute to the local community. It’s a dispiriting thing when a visit to a cinema entails a drive to some out-of-town shopping development, where the cinema is a soulless shoebox showing nothing but Hollywood blockbusters.
Recently, I went to the opening night of Amenábar’s new film Agora in Spain at just such a venue. The town of Las Arenas has lost its old and charming red-plush cinema in the town centre – which in my mum’s day changed programme three times a week – to a housing development, so now all they have is a warehouse box in the middle of nowhere, far even from a metro stop. The place is dominated by cars and car parks. It’s a cinema underpinned by the idea of a factory, a building that processes visitors in a single direction, with no interaction. These people really know how to destroy the magic of cinema. It’s just not a place I’d want to go.
What's the next step?
We’ve won round one, a refusal of the church’s application for planning permission. This is a great first step.
But KICC is highly likely to appeal. The church has a history of pursuing unlikely planning cases in the face of local opposition and the recommendations of planners. For instance, it recently spent £2.75m on planning consultants in an attempt to get permission to build an 8,000-seater mega-church in Havering, on the east side of London. KICC seems to be awash with money – some of it from us – to fritter away on such ventures.
Letters released to us – under the Freedom of Information Act – from the church’s agent to the Council make not-so-veiled threats about KICC leaving the building to rot if the church does not get its way. We’re going to be following up this not-very-charitable stance with the Charity Commission. After all, charity trustees do have legal - and charitable – obligations.
In the meantime there is a tremendous amount of energy in the area. Thousands are wearing their Crystal Palace campaign t-shirts with pride, and we are already informally planning the most appropriate first screenings – Passport to Pimlico perhaps, or movies featuring the Crystal Palace Transmitter. An international film festival is being planned for 2010.
Thank you Louise. Good luck!
TV Off The Telly is closing, which is tragic. It was the first place that let me write online outside of this blog including the article about Clerks Animated which was the evidence I sent to Manchester University that helped me get into my MA course:
"As of today – and fast on the back of Ian’s excellent and final chart of the decade - there will be no more updates on offthetelly.co.uk. However, it will remain online, as is, until its HTML rusts into pixel dust… or someone pulls the plug. I will, though, be switching off the comments in due course.As a wise old man said recently, to slightly paraphrase, "I don't want you to go." Thanks to Graham, Jack, Ian, Steve, TJ and everyone else. The web won't be the same without you. Thank god sister site TV Cream is still going to be there.
Books Even before film school, my impression of the history of film-style, most specifically cinematography was built on a very solid progression of ‘classic’ films and directors, which Bordwell outlines as “running from A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery through The Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane to Breathless and beyond”. Even during introduction to theory classes these were, more or less, the baseline "texts", the pinnacles that every other film had to be compared to. It’s in these films, the history of the subject tells us, we learn how the classical forms were created and broken, continuity editing and montage, close-ups, deep focus, the symbolic mise-en-scene.
Except that over time, as the availability of other "texts" has increased and from across the world, and so called lost films have become rediscovered, it’s become apparent that all of these creations fit within a far richer corpus of work and rather than pioneering these techniques, reconstitute them in a more innovative form. But, as David Bordwell explains in On The History of Film Style, the critical approach has had difficult keeping in step with these changes and spends an awful lot of time disregarding other work because it doesn’t fit their expectations or else unable to see the development of film as a multistranded affair rather than the single evolutionary path they’re used to.
A typical example Bordwell identifies is in early silent film which was generally considered by critics as flat and lacking in nuance until Griffiths came along, when in fact in some feature films, very complex staging is taking place so that the viewers eye is drawn towards props, character and action. The entrance of a character might be signalled by an unrelated character moving to reveal a doorway, or action may be still other than a hand movement which signals the most important element of the scene a kind of editing of the eye rather than in frame, taking advantage of the audience’s still current experience of theatre.
Like all of Bordwell's work, it's a fascinating read despite its academic density and the second half which offers a rough history of this kind of deep-focus staging is the most accessible as it demonstrates what’s been lost in the move from black and white to colour, from a square frame to widescreen, the decrease in the length of a typical shot. A foreshortening of focal length from feet to mere inches led films to shift from being able to show in detail the background and foreground of a scene with the visual richness that allows to one or the other, and as a result there are more cuts so that the director can show all of the important elements of a scene.
Much has changes since the 1998 publication of the book, the increased use of digital-video camera that have a filmic quality, polarised 3D and the sheer availability of the last century in film for study purposes. Though as Bordwell notes in the latter stages, and this continues to be true, the new directors perceived to be innovators are actually just resurrecting old techniques for new audience. As he demonstrates in this later blog post, the reason Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood seems so fresh is because it was resurrecting staging techniques which haven’t seen the inside of a movie theatre in decades, the history of film style presently narratively within a few hours.
Sam Rockwell appeal. Sam needs your help. The children needed your help. http://bit.ly/732OwX (YouTube)
"focusing on these celebrity crowds expert voices out of the discourse, replacing them with infinitely less informed voices of entertainers; it can shut many people off the message completely as celebrities often lead lifestyles which undermine the moral seriousness of their mission; it excludes radical arguments from the debate as celebrities tend to be drawn to overseas causes that will not alienate their paying public back"Apologies in retrospect for another Guardian link. Other newspapers are available, even if most of them aren't worth reading.
Perhaps if he'd been gifted the three films from the start, Lord of the Rings-style, the first film would have been what is being proposed this time around -- all about Peter getting his powers and dealing with high school (which was all mushed into the first hour of the first film). Flash Thompson and Gwen Stacy with elements like Mary Jane Watson and the Daily Bugle foreshadowed, perhaps with one of the subplots being Pete's attempts to get his photos in the paper, to get JJJ to take him seriously (paid off with the first Spiderman photos). Uncle dies half way through, Gwen at the close at the hands of the Green Goblin to cement his need to become a superhero.
The second film should have been about him moving to the city, working for The Bugle, Mary Jane Watson, Jean De Wolff, Black Cat and if Daredevil hadn't stolen him away The Kingpin at the head of a crime syndicate. Loads of different villains in cameos, Mysterio, Sandman, the Sinister Six essentially, the key being that we don't mess about with seeing their origins (which is what led to SM3 becoming overlong). At the close, he proposes to Mary Jane, who by then has discovered his secret identity and she accepts.
The third film. Married life. But it's not going too well. Pete's never home, between his superheroing and job. Plus the Black Cat is still around. Pete loves being a superhero but knows it's changing him -- the mundanity of MJ's life isn't satisfying. The Cat's exciting and brave and they connect. Eventually Pete's put in a position where he has to choose -- normal life or Spider-life? Threat from the sky -- something alien. Galactus is too big, Venom is too small. The Skrulls? Something goofy and overblown enough that we understand why Pete's attracted to the life.
We'll talk some more about this in the future. Beyond that, I have a feeling that I'll (as a sequel to the Hitchcock thing) be watching all of Woody Allen's films in order. I think I've promised this to myself before, but for some reason lately I've been bumping into plenty of articles about his work online and looked across to the dvd cases (arranged carefully in chronological order on a bookshelf) with some nostalgia. A typical article is this retrospective from Emily Gould which magnifies the charms of Manhattan:
Regardless, the depth of identification you (fine okay I) feel watching jerks fall in love can be so intense it’s jarring. And when those love affairs fail to end happily — and no matter how many times you’ve seen the movies, those failures somehow have the power to surprise again and again — it is possible to become super bummed out."What's new pussycat?" "Don't drink the water..."