Pandora’s Box

I’m writing this blog post in lieu of therapy because something has troubled me over the last year or so and I want to know why. It could be the aftermath of Covid-19, the current cost of living crisis or the desire to stay indoors but lately I haven’t felt drawn to the cinema. The convenience of streaming is part of it, the poor effort-versus-experience ratio is another. So when my husband suggested a matinee performance of a 4K restoration of Casablanca (1941, dir. Michael Curtiz) at the Odeon Luxe, Springfield Quay, it felt like an expedition to terroir inconnu.

Going to the pictures in the afternoon always feels illicit even when billed as a ‘silver screening’, i.e. for pensioners – (fyi – we’re not). It was cheap (£4 plus free tea/coffee and biscuits) and the reclining chairs were a plus. The other plus was that the theatre was blissfully empty and the film itself, which I’ve only ever watched on TV, was thrilling to see on the big screen.

Buoyed by this experience, around St Valentine’s Day, I chanced on an event sold as an ‘anti-Valentine’ evening – a cabaret-style screening of Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1929, dir. G.W. Pabst) in the Pyramid at Anderston, organised by BFI FAN. As cinematic experiences go, it was what the pictures ought to be. Here I felt welcome and the modest admission fee – £8 – included free wine and beer, popcorn and snacks. The highlight of the show was the renowned Neil Brand whose brilliant live score, played on an old upright piano, was totally on the money. Where he gets the stamina from, who knows? Clearly this is a man passionate about his work.

After thanking Mr. Brand for his outstanding performance, we also thanked the projectionist. As we were leaving my husband nudged me, pointing to the projector – a DLP machine, made by Digital Projection Ltd., a Manchester-based company whose International Marketing Director, Mike Hood generously offered to screen my first feature, One Life Stand (2000, dir. yours truly) at festivals since we didn’t have funds for a digital shoot-out, i.e. to transfer images acquired on tape to 35mm film, which at that time was expensive, an obstacle to cinema screenings and – more importantly – to festivals. But for Mike the film would never have been seen.

Rarely do I make claims for Elemental’s work but the cast and crew screening of OLS was a significant date in the story of UK cinema when, on January 15, 2000, OLS became the first film digitally projected at a UK cinema, quietly beating Pixar’s Toy Story 2 (1999, dir. John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich) by a week. Thanks again to Mike, BBC’s Tomorrow’s World covered the story, including voxpops from our invited audience, mostly cast members and their pals. When the TW piece was broadcast, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, being camera-shy.

After well-received screenings at Rotterdam International Film Festival and Silicon Alley Film Festival in New York – among others – OLS was selected for the Edinburgh International Film Festival (though not without a tetchy exchange about its ‘premiere’ status). Again, thanks to Mike Hood the film also became the first to be exhibited digitally at a UK film festival. I recall a weird moment at the Filmhouse when, following a failed attempt by staff to stop my Q&A with a sell-out audience, backstage I chanced on the actress, Liv Ullman, tanned and wearing an immaculate black suit/white shirt. She was about to introduce her directorial debut, Trolösa (2000, dir. Liv Ullman) – a screening I had inadvertently delayed.

Today the Edinburgh Filmhouse is closed, its doors barred and windows shuttered. It was brought down by hubris and mismanagement by the Centre for the Moving Image, whose self-appointed board had subsumed the EIFF, the Filmhouse and the Belmont Cinema in Aberdeen. I say hubris because the CMI’s CEO, Ken Hay, previously the CEO at Scottish Screen, not only presided over a seven-figure debt but also spent an untold sum on a Quixotic proposal for a £60m HQ, described as a ‘temple for film culture’ in the Architect’s Journal (see link).

The article is notable for three reasons – 1) the budget had already risen by £10m by the time the plans were finally released in March 2020, 2) The proposed building was – speculatively – plonked in front of the Sheraton Hotel prior to submitting a planning application, and 3) The use of a giant digital billboard featuring the movie Parasite on illustrations of the building did not escape my notice – again, see link.)

I used to believe Scotland deserved its own film institute, similar to that of, say, Sweden or The Netherlands, but this country’s neglect of its indigenous filmmakers has eroded my faith in the idea. In a non-filmmaking nation it’s hard to justify the effort and expense involved in yet another scheme that would benefit only administrators, not makers. Moreover, the concept of an ‘institute’ is at least two hundred years out of date. The CMI’s failed ‘temple,’ built on the sands of conceit, deserved its fate.

While there’s talk of the Filmhouse’s revival as a cinema, its chances are slim-to-nil given the CMI’s demise, it’s debts and the unlikelihood of any future proposal attracting investment when cuts to public arts funding are biting and private finance won’t bite at all. At time of writing, Creative Scotland are in talks with the new owners of the site, Caledonian Heritage to discuss whether their plans might include a cinema in some form. Me, I’d like a better cinema to emerge out of this fiasco, run by people with real expertise and not administrators wedded to the public purse.

Cinema had a tough Covid-19. The pandemic from 2020-21 closed down screens worldwide, with staff layoffs and major film releases delayed. Film festivals went virtual but it wasn’t the same. After a business-killing hiatus, on reopening, cinemas struggled to draw an audience leery of contagion when sitting in enclosed, dark spaces. Such reluctance is part of a pattern started long ago; the challenge of getting bums on seats when ‘entertainment’ has never been so plural.

Games, YouTube, streamers, binge-TV, live music gigs, theatre, stand-up comedy, even karaoke nights compete with the pictures. The multiplexes are efficient, if sterile sheds designed for the display of – mainly – franchised comic-book, superhero and games-derived content. The independent chains and arthouse venues show a mixed bag, from what the multis already show to low-budget indies to subtitled films, with only the occasional (and mainly) BFI-funded Q&A as an added attraction.

When a trip to the movies costs so much, e.g. recently my man was quoted £35 for two tickets for a DCP projection on a small-ish screen – it’s going to take a greater incentive to lure me from my own screen, homemade popcorn and exceptionally-curated programme. That there’s no indie screen in southside Glasgow, an area with the population of a small city, may be lamentable but it speaks to a lack of demand and political will. The Southside Film Festival hasn’t posted on socials since 2022 – their website stated in 2019 they were ‘taking a break in 2020’ for reasons apparently unrelated to Covid-19.

I’m sure cinema-going will endure in some form or other but there’s days when I mourn the passing of an era. I wish I knew the answer to the question – what should cinema look like in the future? Oddly the three films I’ve watched recently on the big screen were all black-and-white and date from the first half(ish) of the twentieth century: Casablanca, Pandora’s Box and a screening of The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, dir. Vincente Minnelli) hosted at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

I like the idea of small cinemas within walking distance, with a decent café/bar, live events, imaginative programming, tie-ins with other community groups and local filmmakers, writers and musicians. I know it’s not simple to run a cinema – there’s local council laws to abide by, property to maintain, marketing strategies to develop, dealings with distributors and funding bodies, staff to manage, talent to wrangle and the public to deal with.

To those brave souls who take on the task, I wish you all the luck in the world. What you mustn’t do is emulate the Glasgow Film Theatre whose notes for Little Richard: I Am Everything (2023, dir. Lisa Cortés) is either a cut and paste from a press release or, as seems the case, written by a Dogwoof or GFT staffer, is a masterclass in how to lose your audience, that in the case of the GFT is an audience I know well and whose demographic is mainly white, middle-aged and middle-class.

This isn’t the film’s fault. Having watched the trailer for this entertaining, if conventional archive-based, talking heads documentary, I’m perplexed by the précis. It’s not to trash its thesis but if I wanted a lecture I’d sign on for a degree course rather than be admonished by someone who believes a film about rock-n’-roll is an exercise in cultural revisionism. In doing so, the author commits the cardinal sin of making the film sound boring. Like the sign found next to an artwork in the gallery that dictates what the art is and how one should respond to it, it’s an insult to the audience to decide what they should think. As with so much in the current culture wars, it marks the closing down of free expression – and it’s totalitarian.

Perhaps that’s the answer to my question of why I won’t attend overpriced and unwelcoming venues. When choosing films I can no longer rely on others’ opinions when the motive behind those opinions is nakedly self-serving, i.e. the unsolicited pet ideologies and identity issues touted by film theory graduates luxuriating in publicly-funded, middle-class job creation schemes.

In the current climate, when individual artists are cancelled for the perceived ‘wrong’ take, one needs to question by whose authority those in our state-subsidised bodies, agencies, organisations, charities and publications are permitted to deprive freelancers of their incomes. As with much in this country, there’s something rotten at the heart of government. To those doing the cancelling, take heed from the myth of Pandora’s box when, after she released the ills the Gods had reposited and closed the lid, Hope was left trapped inside.

As for my therapy, had I drilled deep enough probably I could have found those three black-and-white films on streaming platforms or even DVD, but to see them on a big screen is an experience worth leaving the house for. All those other films will need to work harder for my attention.

The above image is of me shooting a scene for Tilo in Real Life in a derelict factory. Virtually every location I’ve shot in so far has been demolished. I could say it’s a metaphor for the malaise of Scottish culture but that would be a cheap shot. And I’m classier than that.