Film Back in 2009, I was a Plinthian, the collective noun for the people who stood on the fourth plinth as part of artist Antony Gormley's One and Other project (which I wrote about here). Since this was the rare occasion of being in London for an extended period, around that I wanted to visit some of the "always wanted to go to too" places which were mainly Shakespeare sites: the Globe, Southwark Cathedral and the various other churches which feature in his biography either because he worshiped there or were originally the site of one of his theatres. You can still read all about the trip here.
After failed attempts to get some people I only know through the internet to meet on what would have been work nights, on both evenings I visited the BFI. I had really always wanted to visit the BFI. The idea of the UK having a national film theatre and one which still persisted in having a repertory approach to cinema rather than simply rolling out that week's releases is deeply appealing, as is the notion that it takes the process as serious as museums do in curating and presenting artifacts or academic libraries with their book stock.
Not that I really knew what to expect, what the auditorium would be like, how the audience would behave, how the film would be projected. I did know that I'd be watching films I hadn't seen before, Cleopatra one night on purpose and Once Upon A Time In The West the next because even more plans fell through. On both nights I made an event of it too, eating a meal on the premises or nearby and spending as much time as possible in and around the place, visiting the shop, whatnot. My reaction was mostly, "posh Cornerhouse" which is ironic because Manchester has one itself now.
The ticket price was nine pounds, which at the time seemed very expensive which it was in 2009 or at least seemed so for someone living outside the M25. Now, it's the standard ticket charge at FACT and exactly what I paid to see Star Wars's The FA just before Christmas on a Thursday afternoon. But I didn't complain. As often happens when you're on holiday everything just seems like the right price even though you know, as was the case in this instance, that you'd be able to buy the film to keep for an even cheaper price.
How was the experience of watching Cleopatra at the BFI? A dream. As I sat a few rows in from the front, the film just seemed to shimmer across the screen in its fully restored technicolor glory, in the correct aspect ratio, in a crisp print, every frame a painting. At over four hours I was concerned that the piece might drag but at this size, it's an enthralling work, more than justifying its languorous shots of Elizabeth Taylor simply existing in these grandiose spaces. For that single evening I felt like I'd stepped backwards into history.
Before the show, the staff handed out an introductory sheet written by a BFI curator which essentially slated the film across its two pages, denigrating the performances, the pacing, the script and everything about it. This seemed like an odd way of drawing us towards something which we'd already paid for, but on reflection perhaps it was a case of lowering our expectations so that we'd be pleasantly surprised. Which I was. The film has a low reputation but even as I write, six years on, elements of it are seared on my mind.
The audience was small, but spectacularly quiet. With refreshments banned, I think, there was silence even in the quiet scenes. Indeed, I became the trouble maker. Having the bladder of a child, I needed to go to the toilet at about an hour in and had to ask the person at the end of the isle to shift so I could pass through. Not only did he shush me when I excused myself, he tutted at the interruption. For once, I felt like the "got any killins?" kids from The League of Gentlemen disrupting the enjoyment of Gatiss's Philip French lookalike.
The intermission was observed and I spent it sat outside on a bench with a tub of ice cream watching in the Thames (the BFI is on the South Bank near the Globe and Tate Modern) (ish). Few other cinemas have such picturesque and historic surroundings and due to modes of production there's rarely the time to take a moment in the middle of a film like this to cogitate on what's been seen and what's to come. Not generally being someone who finds peace, this was one of those moments when I achieved it.